Posted by Malu Swayne, creator of No Sad Songs
ED’s NOTE: We have spent quite a lot of time talking to Malu and we think she is a thoroughly good thing. Classically trained herself, she has a wide range of really good musicians to call on. Like our friends at Threnody, we feel there’s nothing like the immediacy of live music at a funeral.
Death is the one certainty in life. As a musician myself, I have always believed in the power of music to bring solace and help release feelings that otherwise remain locked inside us.
It is a sad fact that as we grow older we attend more funerals; and as this began to happen to me, I noticed that live music – other than occasionally an organ – only seemed to be used when there were friends or relatives of the deceased or bereaved who were themselves musicians.
Unlike a wedding, when there are usually months between an engagement and the ceremony, a funeral usually happens very soon after a death, and many people are too shocked and upset to find and organise musicians in time.
The two things people remember most about a funeral are the weather and the music. We cannot control the weather; but we can make sure that the music is well chosen and of the highest quality.
During a funeral, a beautiful piece of music acts as a catalyst to release emotions, and provides an essential moment for every individual to say a private goodbye.
Music also lends dignity and structure to the occasion, and makes it unique and personal. Whether at a funeral or memorial service, the eloquence of great music can transform a painful ordeal into an event which will be remembered for ever.
Another important element of a funeral is often the singing of hymns. It is depressing when hardly anyone sings them; but it is hard to do when fighting back tears.
All too often, the priest ends up singing the hymns on his own.
This is where musicians can transform the atmosphere; but in churches which possess a regular choir, the members are usually at work during the week, and cannot be called upon.
In fact there is seldom the need for a large choir: a funeral is usually an intimate ritual, and four professional voices (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) are quite sufficient to lead and carry along the singing of hymns.
Recorded music is certainly better than no music, and for many popular songs or large-scale classical works CDs are the only practical solution.
But the benefits of live music cannot be exaggerated: it gives us a fleeting glimpse of timelessness, existing outside a world governed by the inexorable passing of minutes and ticking seconds.
It takes us into a dimension defined only by melody, pulse, rhythm and breath, in which a personal experience and response is engendered for each wife, husband, lover, parent, relative and friend.
Live music is therefore distinctive and profound – an experience in which the ordinary can be elevated into the extraordinary.
Sometimes a death causes such utter grief that no words are adequate. I recall being asked to provide music for a two-year-old boy’s funeral.
What can one do in such an appalling situation? What can one say about such a pitifully short life?
There was not even an organ in this church, and I remember thinking that if the parents hadn’t asked us to provide a harpist, the service would have been sadly arid and comfortless. This proved to me that live music can help where words could only fail.
A live performance is by its very nature a unique event, and is therefore something specifically human, precious and vital in a world which is becoming more and more fast-driven, anonymous and mechanical.
Taking the time and trouble to arrange a private performance of a beautiful piece of music is perhaps the most special thing one can ever do for someone.
Some people may be nervous of hiring musicians for a funeral, thinking it would be too expensive; but when set against the overall funeral expenses, the cost of booking professional musicians is not prohibitive – and as a funeral expense it may be offset against inheritance tax.
Good musicians are highly skilled, and will always perform their best. All mankind is touched by death; and musicians find it hugely rewarding to play or sing at funerals, where the consolation of music is so urgently needed.
This intimation of mortality reminds them of the value of their musical skills, and why they do what they do.
Naturally I am somewhat biased; but I would rather have a sublime or witty piece of music performed at my funeral by hand-picked musicians than an expensive coffin or any quantity of floral tributes.
Flowers wither and are thrown away; live music remains in the mind for ever.
Quite simply: when a funeral is graced by well-chosen music beautifully performed by live musicians, the mourners leave feeling better than when they arrived.