I can’t remember why a few years ago I bought a Penguin paperback called ‘The secret power of beauty’ by John Armstrong. The musings of aesthetics academics is not my standard bedtime reading. I might have made the purchase prompted by despair following a series of visits to contemporary art shows. (I’ll leave the mixed blessing of Charles Saatchi on the British art scene for another day).
What is beauty and why does it exert such influence? asked Armstrong. My short attention span meant the book quickly joined my expanding library of unread tomes.
However it was plucked from the pile recently as I sought the answer to why opera turns me into such a cry-baby.
The sum total of my operatic experiences: Nabucco – open-air in Rome -, Madame Butterfly on DVD, and just a couple of weeks ago La Boheme performed by opera students above a pub in West London all had me reaching for my handkerchief.
Beautiful paintings (Vermeer); architecture (Hawksmoor’s churchs); celebrity cheekbones (Keira Knightley) do not set me blubbing. Nor does natural beauty (this blog allows me to post a personal picture from Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny).
But there is something about the trained human voice, which even to my cloth ears provokes a response that I cannot begin to explain.
In his chapter ‘Why beauty moves us to tears’ Armstrong observes: “The beauty of a physical object embodies purity, perfection, harmony and order. And these are, precisely, the qualities that the soul strives to attain in itself. So in the beautiful we see what we should be.” I sort of see what he’s getting at. I hope you do too.