The Universal Language

Driving home from work this evening, I listened to a piece on NPR about the New York Philharmonic’s debut concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. It was the first time that an American cultural organization had appeared in that isolated communist country.

The audience, largely staid during the performance, politely applauded each rendition, from the opening numbers of the Korean and American national anthems to Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and Gershwin’s “American in Paris.” But when the orchestra played its final offering, a beloved Korean folk song entitled “Arirang,” the audience was moved to tears.

Several members of the orchestra commented on the warmth they felt from the audience; the emotion was palpable. The New York Times quotes John Deak, a bass player: “It’s an incredible connection like I’ve never seen. They really opened their hearts to us.”

The Times article continued: “The audience applauded for more than five minutes, and orchestra members, some of them crying, waved. People in the seats cheered and waved back, reluctant to let the visiting Americans leave.”

In his recent article on J. S. Bach, Harold Fromm observes that when we hear a piece by Mozart or Beethoven, we think of the person behind the music; but when we hear a piece by Bach, the father of Western music, we think of the music only.

Many of Bach’s musical compositions were considered secular when he wrote them. In Bach’s day, it was largely the lyric that imparted sacredness to the score.

Many modern critics make the same observation: the lyrics enhance the music and give it definition. But Fromm makes a case for the music itself. More than just a mathematical assembly of sounds in varying pitch and tone, a musical composition possesses a power all its own. Music is meant to be felt as much as to be heard. In Fromm’s words: “Music was bred into bone and brain inestimable years ago.”

If that is indeed the case, music may be our first universal language, one capable of cutting across ideological and cultural boundaries, speaking to all of us. At least that seemed to be what listeners experienced in the East Pyongyang Grand Theater earlier today.

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