The Symphony of Prayer

Again, I tell you that, if but two of you on earth agree as to what they shall pray for, whatever it be, it will be granted them by my Father who is in Heaven. For where two or three have come together in my Name, I am present with them. (Matt 18:19-20)

When we think of this verse, we don’t usually think of music but of belief and prayer.  So it’s something of a head scratcher to find Origen, when discussing these verses in his Commentary in Matthew (written around 250), launches into an extended discussion about the “symphony.”  We are not terribly well informed about ancient music in general, so it’s an eye opener to read him talking about the “harmonies of sounds in music…among musical sounds some accordant and some discordant.”  What gives here?

In commenting on the New Testament, Origen had the distinct advantage of having Greek as his native tongue.  The Greek word for “agree” used here is in fact sumfonesosin, “sound together,” from when we get our word “symphony.”  Many Greek words have taken on connotations unknown in Classical or Koine Greek, but in this case the word for “agree” had musical connotations as well.

“Symphony” in the New Testament

The word sumphonos (soom’-fo-nos) and its variant forms appear nine times in the New Testament; citations for all of these appear below, with the word itself italicized.  Although most uses of the word in the New Testament pertain to “agreement” or “concord,” the one specifically musical occurs in Luke 15, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

  • “He agreed with the labourers to pay them two shillings a day, and sent them into his vineyard.” (Matt 20:2)
  • “My friend,” was his reply to one of them, “I am not treating you unfairly. Did not you agree with me for two shillings?” (Matt 20:13)
  • Then, as an illustration, Jesus said to them: “No man ever tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old one; for, if he does, he will not only tear the new garment, but the piece from the new one will not match the old.” (Luke 5:36)
  • Meanwhile the elder son was out in the fields; but, on coming home, when he got near the house, he heard music and dancing, (Luke 15:25)
  • Then Peter said: “How did you come to agree to provoke the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The foot-steps of those who have buried your husband are at the door; and they will carry you out too.” (Acts 5:9)
  • And that is in harmony with the words of the Prophets, where they say… (Acts 15:15)
  • Do not deprive each other of what is due-unless it is only for a time and by mutual consent, so that your minds may be free for prayer till you again live as man and wife-lest Satan should take advantage of your want of self-control and tempt you. (1 Cor 7:5)
  • What harmony can there be between Christ and Belial? or what can those who accept the Faith have in common with those who reject it? (2 Cor 6:15)

In this parable the Prodigal Son had demanded of his father that he receive his inheritance before death, to which his father consented.  So he left for the “far country,” only to waste his inheritance on hard living.  Broke, he fed pigs for a living until he realized that he would do better as a servant in his father’s house.  So he set out for home; when he got within earshot, he heard what was literally “the symphony and dancing.”  (Luke 15:25) Whether this was the Jerusalem symphony or just another collection of underpaid musicians is hard to say, but it sounded fine after feeding the pigs.

The rest of the uses of this family of words speaks of agreement; we will deal with these momentarily, but first we must look at the symphony itself.

Aspects of the Symphony

Any symphony orchestra, or any group of instruments intended to play together (fr. ensemble) must be in harmony with each other on a number of levels.

  1. The notes they sound must be equivalent to the same notes played by the other instruments. This is not entirely straightforward, because even though notes can be defined by their fundamental frequency, each instrument sounds different because the mixture of the fundamental frequency and its harmonic frequencies is different.  This difference can lead to having to make some judicious allowances in tuning from one instrument to the next; this is especially true with percussion instruments such as bells and marimbas, because their harmonics are not even multiples of their fundamental frequencies.  This all comes together when the conductor has the orchestra “tune up” before the beginning of the performance; it is then time for the symphony to get any out of tune dissonance taken care of before the actual performance starts.
  2. The performance must take place in harmony with the “leadership.” There are two forms of leadership.  The first and most obvious is the conductor.  While conductors are a relatively recent development in group playing, most any group of musicians has someone who is the “lead;” with a conductor there is one individual who is solely dedicated to this job.  The members of the orchestra must follow the lead of the conductor, both in terms of the score itself and how it needs to be interpreted.  This leads to the second form, namely the score itself.  All members of the symphony are facing the portion of the score which pertains to their particular instrument.  Until Clara Schumann solo performers did likewise; it was considered disrespectful to the composer to perform without the sheet music.  Adherence to the score is essential for proper symphonic performance.
  3. The notes must sound good with each other. Ever wonder why musical scales are configured the way they are?  This subject of temperment is rather complicated, but it relates to the interaction of the frequencies of the notes with each other as they vibrate the air.  These heterodyne effects can produce results that are dissonant; this dissonance is minimized both through the spacing of the notes and the use of note relationships such as fourth, fifths, etc..  The whole system of notes, both in their basic form and as they are put together in composition, must properly interact for music that is pleasing to the ear.
  4. The tempo of the playing must be uniform across the symphony. One of the real challenges of music pedagogy is to develop a proper sense of rhythm and timing in performance.  Problems with this are glaring in solo performance, but varying tempos amongst the various instruments create problems with group performance as well.  The flip side to this is that, since there are multiple performers in symphonies and bands, mistakes by one performer tend to be covered up by others.

Application of the Symphony

Now that we have considered the various aspects of the symphony as far as its harmonisation with itself is concerned, we can find some spiritual lessons as well.

  1. We must follow a consistent plan for our lives. Modern people have a habit of compartmentalizing their lives.  They live one way at work, another at home and still another when away from both.  They want their relationship with God to be the same way — something they do at certain times that does not affect their lives in general.  The New Testament consistently challenges such an approach to life: “What harmony can there be between Christ and Belial? or what can those who accept the Faith have in common with those who reject it?” (2 Cor 6:15) and “Then, as an illustration, Jesus said to them: ‘No man ever tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old one; for, if he does, he will not only tear the new garment, but the piece from the new one will not match the old.’” (Luke 5:36)  If our lives are to be a part of the universal symphony of life, they must be both internally consistent with each other and with their Creator, who has set forth a consistent, successful plan for life: “And that is in harmony with the words of the Prophets, where they say…” (Acts 15:15)
  2. We must follow the lead of the Conductor.  We consider our lives to be an autonomous affair.  But unless we submit them to God, the creator and designer of the universe, we can expect dissonance and difficulties.   Moreover our Conductor has a well written score in his Word — both written and his own Son — to follow.  This following of leadership must be when it suits us: “He agreed with the labourers to pay them two shillings a day, and sent them into his vineyard,” (Matt 20:2) and when it does not: “My friend,” was his reply to one of them, “I am not treating you unfairly. Did not you agree with me for two shillings?” (Matt 20:13)
  3. We must be in harmony with each other.  As we have seen, a successful symphony consists of musicians whose performance is successfully integrated with the rest of their colleagues.  God expects this kind of harmony to exist at all levels of the Church.  Starting with husband and wife: “Do not deprive each other of what is due-unless it is only for a time and by mutual consent, so that your minds may be free for prayer till you again live as man and wife-lest Satan should take advantage of your want of self-control and tempt you.” (1 Cor 7:5) this symphony must extend to the entire family and ultimately to the church as a whole.  This last of course is the place where the passage we started with is operative; harmony in prayer produces a symphony that ascends to God.  When we are in symphony with each other we can draw closer to God and have our prayers answered.

The journey from the symphony to the totality of our lives is not as far as we would like to think.  It is our task to become a part of the symphony that God himself has both written and conducts so our universe can be filled with beautiful music.

All New Testament quotations are taken from the Positive Infinity New Testament, which includes an explanation of the shillings as well.

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