Music, like all art, exists for some kind of a purpose. To entertain, to enlighten, to heal. I, like many others, can’t imagine my life without some kind of a tune or note to liven up my mood or empathize with my struggles.
It’s what we blast through our headphones at 3AM as we desperately try to finish up homework or projects. It’s what we turn to after a break up or a fight with a loved one and it feels like every word is a perfect description of our situation. It’s the simple tune we hum on a good day; the tortured ballad we drown ourselves in after a long day.
And yet, does music define our lives? Or do we give definition — life — to what would otherwise be random chords interlocking in colorless tunes that hold no meaning?
There’s a book I read recently called “Night” by Elie Wiesel that depicted the journey of a young boy who was sent, along with his family and 6 million Jewish people, to concentration camps that very literally made ones’ life a living hell. And inside this book, I found a scene that was extremely saddening and compelling:
“A violin in a dark barrack where the dead were piled on top of the living? Who was this madman who played the violin here, at the edge of his own grave?…
The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.
I shall never forget Juliek. How could I forget this concert given before an audience of the dead and dying?…
I don’t know how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke at daybreak, I saw Juliek facing me, hunched over, dead. Next to him lay his violin, trampled, an eerily poignant little corpse.”
I guess the thing that got to me about this scene was the concept of playing music for comfort inside a concentration camp where death itself seems to have become the most comfort these people could hope for. For a moment inside the book, it almost seemed as if the beautiful melodies of this young Juliek would actually save the souls of the dead and heal those who would be hurt. And then, near the end, it’s proven that this instrument of music was no match against the brutal forces of the raw human instinct to survive at the cost of anything and everything moral. I remember reacting very strongly near the end of the scene when my eyes glanced over the words “his violin, trampled, an eerily poignant little corpse.”
Elie is arguing against the belief that music, like all arts, is useless. Similar to how Juliek’s corpse and his beautiful violin was trampled over by hungry prisoners, the conventions of society today make it extremely hard for music and their artists to get the recognition they deserve. There are always opposing forces that try to crush music and everything good about life simply because they do not “uphold the basic survival needs.”
In his last few moments alive, Juliek was able to grant Elie and possibly anyone else who was listening that night intangible gift of a clear melody piercing through the darkness inside a room full of corpses. He did with his music what nobody else could have done with rations of bread or a few extra sheets of blanket: he made them remember what it meant to be human. And I think this was and still is important because while a piece of bread will turn others on each other like starved animals, a piece of music will ease the soul and numb the pain.