Better Instruments

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart might well have been the greatest composer who ever lived (I realize that is, to a great extent, a subjective judgment, but for the sake of the argument let’s assume it may be true). His musical accomplishments are unrivaled. He began writing music at the age of five. He wrote his first symphony when he was eight years old, and his first opera at the age of 14 – that’s over two hours of music for all the parts of the symphony and the vocals. During his lifetime he produced over 600 separate pieces of music – and undoubtedly would have written hundreds more if he had not died at the young age of 35, while he was arguably in his prime. Music flowed into him and out of him like it did with no one else. Will Durant, in his well-known History of Civilization, tells the story of Mozart’s final exam in music school. He was placed in a room with a chamber ensemble. The ensemble played a piece of music – just once. Then Mozart was taken to a room, given a blank sheet of paper, and told to write down the music he had heard. He correctly wrote every note, not only of the melody, but of all the harmonies. If you have ever listened to classical music (in general), it is not hard to pick Mozart’s music out from the work of others. His music has a spirit and a beauty unlike anyone else’s.

As amazing as it may seem, Mozart’s music sounds even better today than it did when it was performed – even by Mozart himself. Sure, we will never be able to recapture the musical phrasing, the emotion that Mozart himself communicated in his personal playing. But the quality of the sounds and the tones of his music are tremendously superior to what they were in Mozart’s day. His symphonies and concerts and operas actually sound better today.

How can that be? It is simple: musical instruments are better today than they were in Mozart’s time. There are actually orchestras that play the works of classical composers using only instruments that were known to exist in the composer’s time. They are called “Period Instrument Orchestras.” Now I am no expert on the quality of musical instruments, but those who are tell me that the music of the great masters sounds ten times better when played on modern instruments than when they are played on period instruments (with perhaps a few exceptions, like the famous instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius). With better technology and tools, we simply make better instruments today. They play better, and they sound better. It is my understanding that Period Instrument Orchestras are not very popular, for the simple reason that they do not sound as good.

Ask a professional musician, or even an amateur who is serious about playing, and they will all tell you a similar story: the better they get at playing, the better quality instruments they want to play. Why? Because the better quality instruments sound so much better, they communicate the music so much better.

Why all of this talk about music and musical instruments? Because it illustrates an important spiritual lesson. The work of a great composer sounds best when it is played on the best instruments. Similarly, God’s gospel shines the brightest in this world when we allow God to make us into the best instruments of His will that we can be. We are like the instruments on which God is communicating his word to the world. Of course, I realize that there is no substitute for the word of God, and I’m not suggesting there is one. But the fact is that the gospel was always meant not just to be taught, but to be lived – just like music is meant to be heard. People learn about Christianity not only from hearing the word of God, but also by observing the behavior of Christians. In this sense, then, we are God’s instruments through which the gospel is being presented to the world.

As it is with music, so it is with the gospel: the better the instruments, the better the presentation, the better the communication. Mozart’s piano concertos sound much, much better when played on a finely-crafted Steinway piano than when they are played on a piano purchased from Toys-R-Us. Poor instruments block and hide the beauty of music. Only a great instrument can begin to communicate great music adequately. Likewise, God’s gospel is most effectively communicated by people who have allowed God to make them into the image of Jesus as much as possible. Every piece of us that is not Christ-like makes us poorer instruments of God’s gospel, which makes it harder for others to see the beauty of Christianity.

There can be little doubt that if Mozart could hear his music as it is played today, he would be pleased. It sounds better now than it did when he heard it played because the instruments are better. How much more is God pleased when we become the very best instruments of his gospel that we can be.

David McClister



A video in which you might be able to hear the difference is here.