Joy in Music and Nature

Friday 31st of December 2021

A radio programme called Soul Music may sound like an unlikely starting point for writing about the natural world, but inspiration sometimes strikes in unexpected ways. A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of this Radio 4 programme, which was broadcast a good number of years ago. The format is that people are interviewed about one particular piece of music, sometimes popular, sometimes classical. Some of those featured may be musical experts, but there are also members of the general public and better-known figures, but whose expertise is in other areas. They talk about the impact of the music on their lives.
In the episode in question, one of those who spoke was Baroness Susan Greenfield. Her specialist area is in neuroscience, but she was talking about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, whose last movement features four vocal soloists and a choir. The words they sing are a poem by Schiller, whose subject is joy. In it, joy is seen as something “divine”, connecting us with the gods (or God), but it is also down-to-earth. One element of this which Schiller describes is people being brought together. (This is probably why this particular piece was chosen as an anthem for the Council of Europe and later the European Union).
I found it very moving the way Susan Greenfield described hearing this piece of music at a low-point in her life. I was also very interested in the way that she articulated this experience as taking her out of herself and, perhaps as someone who has been very aware of issues around consciousness, she seemed very thoughtful about its ability to enable her to lose her sense of “self”.
I had begun to wonder if we might think about joy as different from happiness in that respect – whereas happiness can be a very personal matter, joy seems able to connect us with others. However, there may be other ways to distinguish joy from happiness. Since Rev. Desmond Tutu’s death in the last few days, I have been reminded that Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama wrote The Book of Joy together; the full title is The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
I received a gift of joy on Christmas Day. Two doves (probably collared rather than turtle, but it was close enough) landed in a tree in our garden. I alerted the rest of the family and we each had at least a short sight of them. A few minutes later, I was summoned to the window even more urgently. A muntjac deer was grazing at the back of our neighbour’s suburban garden, only for a few seconds, but long enough for us to experience the thrill of a special moment. Something of that fleeting glimpse was enough to echo Susan Greenfield’s experience of being taken out of herself. Nature has rhythms, harmony and melody of its own.