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Music and the Spoken Word: What we learn from Yo-Yo Ma and Bach about 'eternal' art

Editor's note: “The Spoken Word” is shared by Lloyd Newell each Sunday during the weekly Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square broadcast. This will be given April 28, 2019.

The first time famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma ever performed as a young boy, he played a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. In the 60 years since then, he has performed works by scores of other composers, but he finds himself constantly returning to Bach.

When asked why that is, Yo-Yo Ma explained: “At each stage of your life, you go back and discover new things. The way I understand Bach now is with the analogy of a river. It’s like you’re touching a living stream of water that keeps flowing, and by touching it or listening to it or playing it, you are in touch with something much bigger than yourself. It changes from day to day, from season to season and from year to year.”

Of course, Bach’s music hasn’t actually changed since he composed it 300 years ago. We’re the ones who change! We see, hear, understand, and appreciate differently as we grow and mature. What makes his music timeless is that we find something meaningful in it no matter how many times we listen. The Tabernacle Choir still performs many of the same musical selections they sang when the choir was formed more than 170 years ago. Some music simply never seems to grow old.

So what is it about such music — or any kind of art — that keeps us engaged over the decades, even centuries? Some of its timeless appeal comes from its ability to lift us above the mundane, temporary things of daily life. It stretches us and challenges us to see things from an ever higher perspective. Such art feels eternal because it opens our minds to eternity. Some say that beauty is in the eye or ear of the beholder, and yet beauty also seems to speak to people of every age, culture and class. That’s why it’s considered classic.

The apostle Paul, writing 2,000 years ago, gives us a way to identify that which is timeless — and worth coming back to throughout our lives: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

Tuning in …

The “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast is available on KSL-TV, KSL Radio 1160 AM/102.7 FM, ksl.com, KSL X-stream, BYU-TV, BYU Radio, BYU-TV International, CBS Radio Network, Dish Network, DirecTV, SiriusXM Radio (Channel 143) and on the Tabernacle Choir's website and YouTube channel. The program is aired live on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. on many of these outlets. Look up broadcast information by state and city at musicandthespokenword.org.

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