Volume 13 Number 4
A Glimpse of Heaven
01 August 2000

John Burrows is an English-born freelance conductor, based in New York City. He has been Music Director for many shows in London's West End and, in 1983, co-founded the Lyric Opera of Dallas

The performance was over. The cast had taken their final curtain call. The stage was dark, save for a few dimly lit music stands. Outside the theatre, an excited crowd abuzz with all they had seen and heard, was heading for home--by car and taxi, by subway or through the narrow city streets. London's Mermaid Theatre was making preparations to close down for the night.

As the audience departed, a sextet of jazz musicians extemporized riffs on Cole Porter's song, 'What is this thing called love?' And, as every night, a handful of patrons steadfastly refused to yield to the night air until they had drained their last drop of musical pleasure. The Mermaid's current production was the popular revue Cole and these late-night hangers-on were the hard-core fans.

'That's why I ask the Lord, in heaven above, what is this thing called love?'--the big build-up, the final chord, a quiet roar of appreciation.

I closed the musical score. Behind me, a small, elderly lady stood transfixed to the spot, seemingly unaware that tonight's Cole was a thing of the past.

'Did you enjoy the show?' I asked.

'Oh yes,' she said, 'and so did Edie!'

I saw no one with her. Not a little nervously, I enquired, 'Where is Edie?'

'She's there,' she replied, pointing to a shadowy figure in the last row of seats. 'She's asked me to tell you something. She wants you to know that she can leave her house again. Her husband died a year ago. From that day to this, Edie hasn't been out. Not until tonight... Somehow, I persuaded her to come with me to see Cole. And she wants you to know that she can go out again.'

Since this interchange, almost a quarter of a century ago, I've often reminded myself of Edie's changed life. (Those of us who are full-time professional musicians rarely hear stories like Edie's.) And I've wondered how many lives might have been transformed by similar experiences.

We all have our 'Edie' moments. A painting, a movie, a stained-glass window, a building, a voice--sights and sounds that change the direction of our lives. Transcendent experiences, that without a second's forethought seem to bring us face to face with the Great Creator. Edie's miracle--new-found confidence after the loss of her husband--may in the end be distilled down to a bus ride into town. For Edie, it was a glimpse of heaven itself.

I cannot imagine why God chose Cole Porter as his vehicle to help that lady on that night. Had her friend taken Edie to Verdi's Requiem or Beethoven's Choral Symphony, this anecdote might on the face of it seem more profound. The truth is that Cole Porter's songs could be--intentionally--frivolous; and he was no saint. By no stretch of the imagination can he be regarded as a spiritual leader. He did not even lead a conventionally moral life. But allow this possibility for a moment: he believed he had been born to entertain the world, to take us 'out of ourselves'. And put like that, his life might begin to take on another dimension.

Great artists come in awkwardly shaped packages. Their mundane lives stubbornly resist elevation to the quality of their art. Those who are living among us today are often regarded as an out-of-touch, uncompromising, insignificant bunch--much as their predecessors were over the centuries. Although we'd like them to, they don't, or won't, conform to our likes and dislikes. 'Good taste' and 'popular appeal' they may regard as their natural enemies.

We may feel we need art that inspires, not depresses, something we can 'understand'. And if artists can't give us that, we demote them to the level of 'useless people'--an epithet used by his contemporaries to describe Mozart. But, like it or not, great artists cannot be made to compromise their work to suit our tastes, and continue to produce great art.

A composer's music may 'last too long', 'give us a headache', or 'not have a decent tune in it', but if the hand of God has touched it, we are wasting our time requiring him or her to conform to our puny and limited imaginations. The Nazis tried it. So did the Soviets. And we look back on their efforts as among the more futile in history.

Hugh Steadman Williams, playwright and one of a band of artists currently working within the ranks of Moral Re-Armament, tries to resolve this dichotomy in his brilliant Theology of encouragement for the artist. He reminds his readers of the opening of St John's first epistle: 'We have heard it. We have seen it with our own eyes. We looked upon it and felt it with our own hands. Our theme is the Word which gives life.'

He goes on: 'The supreme task of the artist is to be the bridge between earth and heaven, to mediate the spiritual through the material, so that in generations to come people will say, "We have heard it through music, through poetry; we have seen it through painting, sculpture, photography or film; we have felt it through ceramics, textiles or carving." The Word made accessible and available, through paint and bronze and catgut and celluloid, through clay, thread and wood. When we create and communicate with love we are acting in the image of God. Art needs no other justification.'

'What is this thing called love?' Maybe this is! For when man mirrors God's supremely loving act of creation with the same love with which he created us, we might catch that glimpse of heaven that Edie caught on her bus ride into town.

We might be transformed.
by John Burrows