On Shawshank and Schubert: How Music Frees Us

Jan 6, 2016

There’s an extraordinary scene midway through The Shawshank Redemption that illustrates the power of music to free the soul. It's a good message to remember when times get tough. And in case you haven't noticed yet, times have a tendency to do just that.

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrives at Shawshank State Penitentiary to serve two consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. Another inmate, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) describes Andy in a voiceover narration: “He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.”

Over the course of the film we learn that Andy’s “invisible coat,” of course, is his attitude. Though he was imprisoned, he had the mind of a free man. Other inmates beat his body, he has to dress like a convict, eat prison grub like a convict, toe the line like a convict. But he knows that no one can limit his thoughts, ideas, dreams – his sense of self – unless he lets them.

And he doesn't let them. Andy lives his life in prison dreaming big and making things happen. Early on, while tarring the prison roof with some of his buddies, Andy entices the captain of the prison guards, a criminally ruthless character whose beatings severely injure and even kill several inmates over the course of the film, to bring his “co-workers” a bunch of beers to enjoy when they wrap up the project. The guard goes for it, and Andy’s crew enjoy a rooftop party on a beautiful spring day, far removed from their cells inside. Assigned to assist the prison librarian, a longtime inmate named Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), Andy dreams up a plan to improve the library and writes the state government weekly asking for funds. Six years of persistence brings boxes of used book and recordings, a $200 check from the state senate appropriations committee and a request that he stop bothering them.

Among the recordings that arrive for Shawshank’s library is one of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In a now classic scene, Andy locks a prison guard in the lavatory, locks himself inside the prison’s main office, and broadcasts the beautiful “Sull’aria” duettino over the prison P.A. system. Inmates and guards milling about in the prison yard stop and listen, awestruck. Inmates inside on work duty cease working and marvel at the music. And Andy doesn’t cower in the face of the fury of the prison warden and the captain of the guards. Instead, he turns up the volume. Here’s the scene:

The stunt costs Andy two weeks in solitary. Afterward, Andy tells his buddies it was the easiest time he ever did. Why? Because, he said, “I had Mister Mozart to keep me company.” No, they didn’t let him take the record player with him to ”the hole.” “It’s in here (touches his head), and in here (touches his heart),” Andy explains. “That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you.” In another iconic scene, Andy goes on to explain why music is all the more important to one who is in prison:

It is a sad fact of life that, at some point in time, each of us will be in some kind of prison - not necessarily an actual brick-and-mortar correctional facility, but a prison none the less. Poor health can be a prison, as can addiction and poverty. A bad marriage, a bad boss, neglectful family members – all can be prisons. A prison can be bigotry – other people’s or your own – or isolation.

But whatever our prisons may be, there can always be hope, if we choose to acknowledge it. And music can remind us that hope is ours for the taking. There are many works of classical music I find inspiring and reassuring, and many without which I believe the world would be a much bleaker place. For Andy Dufresne, a Mozart duet was a place of freedom, so strong a message of hope that he risked serious punishment in order to share it with the prison community. For me, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony is at once a stunning musical embodiment of anguish resolving in freedom and a powerful symbol of hope's ability to show us beauty even in the darkest times.

The first movement begins in the depths of darkness, with a lugubrious melody in the cello and basses. Listen to the first 15 seconds:

When the violins and clarinets come in, they create a texture of distress, the violins scrubbing away in agitation, the clarinets singing a mournful tune full of circling repetition, and climaxing in an aching F-natural that rends the harmonic fabric. Throughout the movement subdued sections of internalized turmoil are brought to their knees in emotional outbursts.

But by the end of the first movement, some of the emotional anguish has been released. The second movement begins and ends with otherworldly calm:

Eventually, Andy Dufresne’s mindset of freedom – in short, his hope – pays many dividends. His fearless agitating for funds for the prison library results in an annual appropriation of $500 from the state senate. With these funds, the prison library, once a dark and dingy little room, becomes an airy space with windows, desks, books, recordings and broader horizons. The library, and Andy’s tutelage, enable several inmates to complete their high school graduation equivalency exams. His willingness to share his accounting skills (he had been a banker before his conviction) to help the prison guards and warden with their tax returns wins him, to the extent possible, the respect of the prison authorities.

And eventually, Andy’s free mind even wins him his freedom. For 19 years, he lives on hope as he chips away at the walls of his cell with a six-inch rock hammer, little by little tunneling himself to freedom behind protective pin-ups of Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch.

“I tell you, those voices soared higher and father than anybody in a gray place dares to dream,” Red says in the Mozart scene in The Shawshank Redemption. “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

How different are feeling free and being free? When held trapped by fear, injustice or any other kind of prison, good might not prevail. But then there is music. There is always music.