by Kurt Leland
Originally printed in the Spring 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Leland, Kurt. “Theosophical Music.” Quest 99. 2 (Spring 2011): 61-64.
Music may be the most Theosophical art. Even without knowing the Three Objects of the Theosophical Society, composers and performers often promote them, and listeners experience their effects.
The First Object of universal brotherhood comes forward in the very nature of music itself. Most music requires the involvement of at least two players, who must coordinate their parts with each other and interact as one.
The Second Object comes forward when we perform or listen to the vast repertoire of sacred and ceremonial music produced by all cultures from prehistoric times to the present—from the throat singing of Siberian shamans and Tibetan lamas to the ethereal chants of Hildegard von Bingen, the choral masterworks of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the jazz-inspired meditations on God of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. The study of music also incites people to a deeper understanding of science (through acoustics, music theory, and the harmonic ratios of Pythagoras) and philosophy (through aesthetics and the notion of cosmic harmony—the music of the spheres).
The Third Object comes forward in the intention of many composers and performers to move an audience heart and soul, thus suggesting the spiritual powers latent in humanity by lifting people into higher states of consciousness. Almost everyone has had what I call transcendent musical experiences—peak or mystical experiences produced by listening to music. The symptoms run the gamut from chills along the spine to spontaneous weeping, from near-paralytic fascination to feelings of exaltation in which the boundaries of self dissolve.
Some people venerate the great masterpieces of Western classical music—those capable of producing transcendent musical experiences—as if they were sacred scripture. Often such pieces reflect all three Objects of the Theosophical Society.
Think of the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its “Ode to Joy.” We get a passage of musical chaos to represent the political disorder of
Hundreds of people may be involved in the performance: an orchestra of string, woodwind, brass, and percussion players; soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists; a large chorus; and the conductor, who ensures they all play as one. That process of becoming one for the sake of the music is the essence of brotherhood—giving up the self and its desires to blend into a harmoniously functioning whole.
Meanwhile the audience comes under the spell of beautiful music divinely played. The rapt attention in the hall is palpable. We feel moved and uplifted. During the applause, we often rise as one to salute the musicians. Our consciousness has been transformed. We have momentarily become brothers.
Musical study is another prime incentive for the development of brotherhood. Asian musicians come to Europe or
In the 1960s, a genre called World Music began to evolve through collaborations of musicians from different cultures. One pioneer was American jazz clarinetist Tony Scott, who worked with traditional Japanese koto (table harp) and shakuhachi (bamboo flute) players to create Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys (1964). Another famous early contribution to the genre was the collaboration of classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar in West Meets East (1967).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, World Music groups abound. As celebrations of universal brotherhood, they often employ musicians from several continents in a multicultural synthesis of styles, modes, rhythms, and timbres.
One branch of World Music of especial interest to Theosophists is kirtan: Indian devotional singing of passages in Sanskrit considered to have great spiritual power. A leader chants each phrase and a chorus sings it back. The constant repetition of the phrase drives its spiritual meaning ever deeper into the mind, while the music subtly transports us into higher states of consciousness.
As reinvented by musicians in the West, kirtan retains its devotional element, but the traditional sitar, tablas, and bamboo flute are often combined with acoustic guitar, bass, and electronic keyboards. An especially fine example of the genre is The Love Window by Shantala (husband-and-wife team Heather and Benjy Wertheimer). The album moves from quiet meditation to mysterious invocations, from soaring melodies whose soulful beauty opens the heart to ecstatic dances of praise. It closes with a Sanskrit prayer H.P. Blavatsky would have loved: “When the perfect is taken from the perfect, only the perfect remains.”
Another recent sign of the trend toward celebrating brotherhood in the art of music is La Pasión según Marcos (“St. Mark Passion”), by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960). Commissioned in 2000 in honor of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, Golijov’s Passion is an expression of World Music in the classical concert hall. Golijov is of Eastern European Jewish descent, classically trained, yet comfortable with the sounds of contemporary tango and other Latin American popular music.
Golijov set St. Mark’s story of the crucifixion in the tradition of Easter festivities, often including passion plays, in South American villages. The result is a musical drama by turns raw, ecstatic, and sublime, welding together classical strings, hot jazz brass, Afro-Cuban percussion, flamenco guitar, operatic and salsa-influenced vocal soloists, a semi-choreographed gospel chorus, and even capoeira dancers (a Brazilian martial art imported from Africa).
To further emphasize the notion of brotherhood and the universality of the Gospel story, the roles of Mark, Judas, and Jesus are circulated among the soloists without regard to gender—at times sung by a man, at others a woman. The text is mostly in Spanish, with some Latin. The piece ends with a gorgeous kaddish (Jewish prayer of lamentation for the dead) in Aramaic, the language that Jesus is believed to have spoken.
Widely considered one of the first musical masterpieces of the twenty-first century, Golijov’s Passion has recently been released in a fine recording by Deutsche Grammophon, which includes a DVD of a recent festival performance so the listener can appreciate the equally stunning visual impact of this amazing work of art.
Like Golijov, some musicians may be unconscious Theosophists, creating brotherhood, setting sacred texts, and producing spiritual uplift. Yet a few have actively studied Theosophy. The Russian composer Alexandr Scriabin (1872-1915), for example, was directly influenced by the writings of Mme. Blavatsky.
Among Scriabin’s mystically inclined works for orchestra are the Poem of Ecstasy, which depicts the union of male and female principles that continually recreates the universe; and Prometheus, or the Poem of Fire, which was inspired by The Secret Doctrine. In Blavatsky’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, divine beings grant to human consciousness the gift of sacred fire—self-awareness, intelligence, and culture. Scriabin attempted to portray these beings not only in music but also in light, through the projection of colors coded to the changes of harmony throughout the performance hall.
Scriabin also composed ten piano sonatas, several of which have Theosophical subtexts. The Fourth Sonata is about flight toward a star, as in the experience of astral projection. The Seventh, subtitled White Mass, is about the mystical forces unleashed in a magical ceremony, and the Ninth (Black Mass) is about purging the corresponding dark forces. The Eighth Sonata uses five musical fragments to represent the constant interplay of the elements earth, water, air, fire, and, as he called it, “the mystical ether.”
Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata portrays solar insects “born from the sun,” “the sun’s kisses.” The radiant halo of trills with which the piece closes is one of the most effective depictions in music of the inner light associated with high meditative states, such as samadhi.
Scriabin wanted to write a piece of music that would end the world and usher in a new age. He spent the last years of his life planning this work, which he called Mysterium. It was to take place in
At the time of his premature death at the age of forty-three, Scriabin was working on a prelude to the Mysterium, which he called “Prefatory Action.” His friends jokingly called it the “safe Mysterium,” since it was not intended to end the world. The work was left unfinished.
Oddly, a Soviet composer by the name of Alexander Nemtin (1936-99) became obsessed with Scriabin’s unfinished work. He spent twenty-six years trying to complete it from the disorganized pile of sketches Scriabin left behind. When a recording of part of this completion was released in the 1970s, the album cover showed a photograph of the clean-shaven Nemtin next to one of the bearded Scriabin. The resemblance in the facial structure was remarkable—implying that Nemtin was perhaps the reincarnation of Scriabin. In 1999, a recording of Nemtin’s three-hour-long completion of Scriabin’s Prefatory Action was released as Preparation for the Final Mystery.
Unlike Scriabin, British composer Cyril Scott (1879-1970) was actively involved in the Theosophical Society. Scott believed not only that many facets of politics and culture are expressed through music, but also that changes in musical style often mysteriously precede and influence changes in politics and culture.
In his book Music: Its Secret Influence throughout the Ages, Scott cited famous passages from Plato’s Republic about the effect of music on people’s moods and the value and dangers to society of certain musical scales. He also introduced the notions of deva-inspired music (written under the influence of devas, Sanskrit for “shining ones”—something like the muses or angels of the West) and buddhic music (which expresses unity and bliss, having originated in what Theosophists call the plane of buddhi, Sanskrit for “faculty of wisdom”).
Scott claimed that buddhic music attempts “to portray that Love which is God, the Divine Love.” One of the best examples of buddhic music is the Prelude to Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, a musical depiction of a vision of the Holy Grail, which acts as a sublimely aching call to higher service.
Scott’s music was long neglected, but has undergone a recent revival by British record labels. All of his solo piano music has been recorded, and several of his major orchestral works, including piano concertos and symphonies. Early One Morning, for piano and orchestra, perfectly embodies the four qualities Scott ascribed to deva music that was inspired by nature spirits (a lower form of deva, equivalent to elves and fairies): (1) it depicts nature; (2) it includes elements of folk song; (3) it seems to be improvised; and (4) it sounds “enchantingly indefinite” and “charmingly monotonous.” The remarkable thing is how much the piece resembles the best New Age music, although it was composed decades before that genre developed.
A lesser known British composer of Theosophical bent is John Herbert Foulds (1880-1939). Long fascinated by Theosophy’s “light from the East,” Foulds met Theosophist and fellow musician Maud MacCarthy in 1915. She had been a traveling companion of Annie Besant in
Together, Foulds and MacCarthy collaborated on the magnificent World Requiem, first performed in 1923. The piece was intended to honor those who died in the First World War. The text was drawn from Latin and English masses for the dead, Psalms, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and even the poetry of Kabir, a Sufi mystic. One section brought together the
For many years, Foulds planned to compose an opera called Avatara, based on the life of Sri Krishna, an incarnation (avatar) of the Indian god Vishnu. He only completed three orchestral preludes, one for each act of the opera. These preludes are now performed under the title Three Mantras.
Foulds was fascinated with the concept in Indian music that certain musical scales called ragas could create heightened states of consciousness. Sanskrit phrases recited outwardly or inwardly as mantras (“words of power”) during meditation have a similar effect—as in kirtan singing.
In Three Mantras, Foulds combined these ideas, using Indian scales and short repeated melodic fragments to create potent musical pictures of three states of consciousness. The first movement, “Mantra of Activity,” depicts the state of consciousness Theosophists call manas (mind). The second movement, “Mantra of Bliss,” depicts the state called buddhi, and the third, “Mantra of the Will,” the state called atma (spirit).
The second movement, with its wordless chorus, is especially effective as a musical depiction of buddhi. It resembles the mysterious “
Though Maud MacCarthy had been a child prodigy violinist and had dabbled in composition, there seem to be few other women composers who were students of Theosophy. One notable example is Ruth Crawford-Seeger (1901-53). Like her husband, Charles Seeger, she collected and arranged American folk music. Her stepson, Pete Seeger, became famous as a singer, songwriter, and musical folklorist.
As a student (and before marriage), Ruth Crawford came to Theosophy through a composition teacher in
Though considered one of the most important women composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Crawford-Seeger composed only a few dozen works. The best-known is her progressive String Quartet.
Scriabin once said, “Music is the path of revelation. You can’t imagine what a potent method of knowledge it is!” When music embodies the Three Objects of the Theosophical Society—even unconsciously—it often becomes a path of revelation.
One of the great masterpieces of twentieth-century classical music is the Quartet for the End of Time, by Olivier Messiaen (1908-92). Many listeners have found it to be such a path.
Though not a Theosophist, Messiaen was a devout Catholic with mystical tendencies, an avid bird watcher who sought to transcribe the songs of birds and weave them into his music. He considered birds to be the choristers of God. Like Scriabin, he also experienced synesthesia, the ability to see sound as color. Messiaen tried to capture these sonic colors in his music.
The Quartet for the End of Time had a dramatic birth. It was composed and first performed at a Nazi concentration camp in 1941, a time when some people believed the end of the world had come, with Hitler as the Antichrist whose arrival was predicted in the Revelation of St. John. Messiaen wrote the piece for the players and instruments available, including a clarinet, a violin, a cello with only three strings (instead of the usual four), and an upright piano whose keys stuck. The premiere occurred on a cold winter night in the insufficiently heated barracks with an audience of hundreds.
Messiaen dedicated his Quartet to the rainbow-crowned angel in Revelation who stands with one foot on the sea and the other on land and calls for the end of time, which is to occur when the seventh angel blows his trumpet. Messiaen experimented with several ways of “ending” musical time in this piece. In some sections, he eliminated the bar lines normally used to organize and regulate the rhythmic flow. He often required notes to be held for unusually long periods, and used extremely slow tempos with little harmonic change. He was attempting to represent eternity in music.
The composer tells us in a program note that the piece begins on earth with the dawn chorus of birdsong. The angel announces its presence. Then we have an “Abyss of the Birds” for solo clarinet, representing the human soul plunged down into the abyss of time, but yearning for light.
The first response to this yearning is a movement entitled “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” for cello and piano, a remarkably beautiful and uplifting meditation on timelessness and divine love.
Next comes an apocalyptic “Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets.” There is only one melodic line, played simultaneously by all four instruments, and no harmony. A single wrong note is immediately obvious. In live performance, the concentration required to play this difficult music is so great that the performers must approach the yogic meditative state called “one-pointed mind.” Their efforts to achieve oneness carry us with them, as if they could transmit that state to us through the music. We become brothers by virtue of passing through a hair-raising experience—a musical interpretation of the end of the world.
We then hear “A Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time.” Here the music is at its most colorful, even if we cannot literally see the rainbows of sonic colors Messiaen was attempting to reproduce from his synesthetic vision.
The fifty-minute piece closes with another evocation of eternity in response to our yearning for light, this time for violin and piano: “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.” If ever a piece of music could teach us how the high state of consciousness called grace might feel, this is it.
In Quartet for the End of Time, Messiaen may have produced the ideal piece of Theosophical music. It promotes brotherhood and oneness, arises from the study of sacred scripture, explores philosophical notions such as timelessness, and transforms the consciousness of listeners. It demonstrates how music may become a path of revelation.
Kurt Leland is an award-winning composer, clarinetist, and author. He has published several books, including Music and the Soul: A Listener's Guide to Transcendent Musical Experiences (Hampton Roads). His Web site is www.kurtleland.com.
Foulds, John. Music To-day: Its Heritage from the Past, and Its Legacy to the Future.
Rishin, Rebecca. For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet.
Schloezer, Boris de. Scriabin: Artist and Mystic. Translated by Nicolas Slonimsky.
Scott, Cyril. Music: Its Secret Influence throughout the Ages.
Tick, Judith. Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music.