Voices

That last commandment

Coveting the greatness of someone else's work

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

"They showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall" (court musician Antonio Salieri, in Amadeus).

I am never jealous of famous politicians, or millionaires, or people with big houses, or nice cars (makes me yawn), or experts at money, or experts at business, or experts at throwing the javelin-which affords me the illusion of being magnanimous.

It is easy for me to praise most people with perfect equanimity. And I might have lived the rest of my life in unsuspecting peace had I not come across what I did today.

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"On the page it looked like nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse-bassoons and basset horns-like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly-high above it-an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was music I'd never heard. . . ."

The Lord was crafty indeed when he capped the nine commandments with this last, as if to spring a trap. One thinks one is sailing through, not knowing he is caught, like the rich man who after acing every question on the test is brought up short by the final exam: Clean on murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and parental honor-but there is this one little matter . . . (Matthew 19:16-22).

"Through my influence, I saw to it that Don Giovanni was played only five times in Vienna. But in secret, I went to every one of those five. Worshipping sounds I alone seemed to hear."

It takes only one. "Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it" (James 2:10). Did not Paul find the same: "If it had not been for the law I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet. . . . I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died" (Romans 7:7-9).

"When my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God, make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen."

It was insufferable. If it were not something I had flattered myself into thinking I was good at, I would have been able to feel simple admiration, like everyone else. I kept coming back to it all day, hoping it wouldn't look so good, so brilliant, the next time. Or that, failing that, I could absorb its genius and make it mine.

"All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing-and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise Him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body!"

"But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him" (Genesis 37:4).

(under a crucifix) "From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able."

And the Lord said to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry?" And I lay prostrate, right here near the computer, and repented in tears.

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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