In Search of the Sublime: Elton John

Music can communicate a feeling of the sublime. I call the “sublime” that precious, subtle feeling of myself as if on the cusp of touching the mystery of eternity. It is the life of true feeling (the higher emotional centre). It is, as it were, music delivered through the flesh, but heard by the ears of the soul. For me, the clearest examples of it are in traditional sacred chant, such as Gregorian and Syriac. But not only there. Traces, sometimes very substantial traces, are found elsewhere, and not only in classical composers like Bach and Mozart. For example, when I listen, with quiet attention, to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” or “Funeral for a Friend”, I feel that there is something majestic swelling in and above the music, which calls me on and upwards. And I think many others have had something of a similar response, even if they have never tried to name it.

 I am speaking of moments where we feel the reality of the sublime, even while we are capable of acknowledging the claims of the mundane world. In the Medieval tradition, the “higher reason” is what contemplates eternity, while the lower reason deals with all our necessary business in ephemeral time. Yet, as it has always been known, the two levels are related. They are lived together, for it is by knowledge of this world that we come to know the eternal, while our sense of the eternal informs our perception of the mundane, and is, ideally, our criterion for judging and valuing temporal objects. The sublime, then, is the feeling side of higher reason.

We are not strong enough to experience the sublime in its unalloyed state, except perhaps in certain states where we are, to an extent, apart from the world (in meditation or contemplation, for example). The sublime comes and only can come to us filtered through culture. No one, not even Bach, could express the sublime in all its purity for any sustained period, but one can experience moments of it with intensity. Even Gregorian chant, probably the purest accessible form of this music, is of a very varying quality: I, at least, find that side by side with the masterpiece, such as “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, some Gregorian chant is little more than pleasant.

 One cannot demand half an hour of sublime music: one will cease to respond to it with the same intensity. The sublime is a candle which burns for a moment before it eludes us. One may glimpse it at any moment, or in-between moments; and ne can receive it through any medium, or through none. This is partly why architecture, painting and music are so valuable: at their best they crystallize an illumination, and patiently hold our faces upwards. Spiritual art is a trellis for the distractible attention.

 But art can approach the spiritual without being spiritual art. It can be occupied with something else, something not overtly spiritual, but still contain a spark of the sublime. I believe that this sometimes happens with Elton John’s music, although I have not yet heard anyone else say this. Yet, that is how I hear some of his work. Take a song like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. It starts out with a measured piano line. The verses are slow, almost suspended outside of time, corresponding to the words “I’m growing tired, and time stands still before me, frozen here …” The choruses are more emotional, but still measured and grave. Only at the end, with the last chorus and the orchestral line, does it rise to a torpor. It may take several hearings before it starts to come together: certainly, I had to listen to it many times before the grandeur of the song became evident to me. But now, having a feeling for the whole of the song, it invites me, as it were, to enter into it from the start. My ear having been trained, I can sense the crescendo to come from the very first notes. The slow start is the necessary prelude which prepares us for the climax. What happens when that build-up is lost is shown by the butchering of Bowie’s “Heroes” to produce a short radio-friendly single. To make the three minute version they hacked off the first verses of the piece as it appears on the album, cut to the climax without allowing it time to gather momentum, and added gimmicky sounds to compensate. It was, for me, a travesty.

 Elton John did not need to do this in 1974 with “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on me”. Despite its length, it was accepted on release as a classic. Now I no longer put it on as background music: that would seem to me to savour of a betrayal, and yet, if I hear part of it by chance, say in a shop, I am pleased to be reminded that these heights exist. I think, too, that the effect is so clear on that song because the lyrics are enigmatic, but in a reflective direction. Beneath the love-song angle, it cuts deep: “Although I search myself, it’s always someone else I see”.

 Although most of the lyrics are not at that level, the music most certainly is. Maybe this unevenness was even fortunate: if someone tries to make a point with too heavy a hand, too philosophically, it often fails: I think that was the problem with acts like Yes and the Moody Blues. Words can speak to the feelings, but they must speak to the intellect. Music and pictures can be interpreted by the intellect, but they must be received by the emotions. If the words are too easily captured by the intellect, and there is nothing left over for feeling, the effect soon pales. I think that is why some of Dylan’s work, initially striking, later fades: for example, the first time I heard “With God On Our Side” it sounded like a prophetic revelation. Now, however, I can’t listen to it: it is too heavy handed.

 So the tangential or oblique approach of “Don’t Let the Sun” is the secret of its lasting power. A suggestive picture is more alluring than a sermon.

 Of course my response to music is subjective and culturally conditioned. Not everyone hears “Don’t Let the Sun” as a summons to another world. But this doesn’t mean that the sublimity is all in my head: it just means that the chemistry cannot take place unless there is something corresponding in me. Culture, here represented by Elton John’s music, is only part of the platform upon which this miracle takes place. What is evoked, however, is beyond it. Like the eternal, the sublime can only be known through the mundane; but the mundane finds its highest purpose as the means of this revelation.

 As for the subjectivity, the subjective has its place. Subjectivity is only a problem when we need objectivity. Otherwise, it is a manifestation of our individuality, the psychic element wherein we are different from every other person. The subjective cannot be escaped: what is real is known not in its naked self, but in the only way we can know it, in culture and as a personal impression. Subjectivity is not necessarily fantasy.

 That is, there seems to me to be something objective in these songs, even if the receipt of it is subjectively conditioned, depending on my state when listening, and my personal history. For example, I was about 15 years old when I first heard Elton’s “High Flying Bird”, and I didn’t like it too much: I received it chiefly as a rather mournful song. But already, only a year or two later, I could hear in it something poignant, a sort of elegy for Everyman, transcending the love song which it also undoubtedly is. Now, many years later, I hear in it even more, a sort of meditation on the preciousness of life under the sun, and how the precious moments can be acknowledged only as they fly by. Now, many years on, I can apply it to various past relationships and configurations in my life. Indeed, it practically applies itself to them.

 A really good song will find feeling associations my head had missed.

 The fact is that many people, perhaps even the great majority, do perceive a special quality in certain melodies, arrangements of sounds, chords and rhythms. But why does not everyone hear the same transcendent values in music? Can we not prove what we perceive? For example, a review I once read in a magazine referred to “The One”, from the album of the same name, but the critic only heard what they referred to as “overproduction”. Personally, I may have preferred a lighter touch, but, for me, there is something so exalted in that song, that to criticise the production strikes me as carping.

 Does the music really speak as I hear it? Yes, I say that it does, because I feel it. My feeling is of myself in whatever state I happen to be in. My feeling is how my individuality is known to me. It is therefore impossible to prove to another that the sublime exists where I feel its existence. At a different period of my life, when I am in a different place, I may not be able to hear anything there.

 To repeat what I have said earlier: that does not mean that the sublime has disappeared from the music. It’s always available, it’s just that it can only be brought down to earth by an alchemical process which takes place between the music and myself.

I know that some people are accustomed to associate Elton John’s music with outsize, neon-illuminated glasses and platform shoes. They can hardly believe that I could find sublimity in his music. Rightly or wrongly, and I think it’s a bit of both, a lot of people see him as a showman, a sort of Liberace with a gift for melody, but still a dinosaur who had his moment in the 1970s, and now seeks to distinguish himself by wearing expensive suits. To many people, Elton John is not much more than tantrums and tiaras made famous by a keyboard.

 However, I think that to dismiss EJ like that is to be even more superficial than his image supposedly is. I don’t see much point in trying to prove his qualifications to be an artist of the sublime by retailing stories of his intelligence, or of his work for charity. One cannot weigh the sensible side against the silliness in some balance. I think the real point lies elsewhere.

 Elton John is tremendously gifted pianist and songwriter. There have been many such, but few have had his impact, and I predict that his reputation will rise, practically to Lennon or McCartney status, when memories of his image have dimmed, or he has been forgiven for his very public excesses.

 But I do not think that the real point lies even there. To put it in a nutshell, I think the truth of Elton John’s music is that often, very often, and without knowing himself how he does it, he receives inspiration, he brings down to earth the music of the higher emotional centre, he touches eternity.

 Elton is an interesting study partly because he does not, I think, aim to capture a transcendental quality is his work. And yet, I doubt that he aims not to do this. The fact that he brings a very high quality down into his music gives him an anthropological significance: if one human can do so without the explicit intention, why not others? Perhaps, in fact, we do. I would not be the first person who has thought that in very many small ways, the small emotions of wonder, peace and compassion that we feel in everyday situations manifest the sublime. I would think, in fact, that every person does so at innumerable moments in their life, although those moments may grow fewer after childhood, and have less and less influence in our presences.

 It may even be that the sublime is more apparent in Elton John’s music, and more powerful when it is apparent, precisely because he does not set out to capture it. Perhaps he does not interfere with it, or try and augment it. The one example of where I am quite sure he knew he had touched something eternal, and had sought to do so, is an instance where it was marred. This was “Song for Guy”, dedicated to a young chap who worked for him or the recording studio, and died tragically young. If I am not wrong, Elton said that he had musically depicted the soul looking down on the body. And he knew he had succeeded, but unfortunately, knowing this, he turned it into a six minute epic, where the melody is endlessly repeated with little variation. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that had it lasted just three minutes, introduced by the eldritch, evocative “Reverie” which precedes it on the album A Single Man, it would probably have been a masterpiece.

 I am not saying that Elton John is anything but a highly sensitive songwriter, or tunesmith, of the first order. I am saying that somehow, when he writes his music, there are occasions when a higher faculty (I would say a spiritual faculty) operates in him, and infuses his song writing with something magical. The word I have used is “sublime”.

 I am suggesting that with Elton John, the process of music making provides opportunities to open that channel between the ordinary person and the higher spiritual realities which we are everlastingly linked to and made to seek, and to nourish our lives.

 The conduit between the lower centres and the higher emotional centre is rarely open. If one tries to open it, one may fail altogether, or alternatively may force it too far open by violence, to one’s own damage. But perhaps because Elton John does not understand what he is doing, and so he does it naturally, he has done himself no harm. On the contrary, the process has been to the immeasurable benefit of his music and to ourselves.

Joseph Azize, revised 23 January 2017 

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