Printed in the Spring 2020 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Leland, Kurt, "The Multiple Masters of Cyril Scott " Quest 108:2, pg 21-27
By Kurt Leland
Several years ago, I was contacted by Desmond Scott, son of the British Theosophist, author, and composer Cyril Scott (1879–1970), about contributing to an anthology of essays about his father’s life, books, and music. I was asked for chapters about Scott’s chamber music and writings on the occult, including such classics as Music: Its Secret Influence throughout the Ages (1933) and the so-called Initiate series: The Initiate: Some Impressions of a Great Soul (1920), The Initiate in the New World (1927), and The Initiate in the Dark Cycle (1932). This anthology, The Cyril Scott Companion, was published in 2018. Since then, I have continued to explore the relationship between Scott’s life and work, including the autobiographical background of the Initiate series, which I have come to see as a vast panorama of the spiritual path as described in Theosophical teachings, developed from Scott’s personal encounters with various teachers he perceived as Masters.
The Initiate series is neither a fully truthful memoir nor completely imaginary fiction. It would be a stretch even to call it semiautobiographical. Perhaps it could be labeled as “creative nonfiction,” a relatively new literary genre. But perhaps it is best to think of it—and of Scott’s multiple Masters—as life enhanced into truth.
Cyril Scott was born near Liverpool, showed early aptitude for music, and as a teenager studied piano and composition at a famous conservatory of music in Frankfurt, Germany, from which he graduated at the age of eighteen. He began his musical career in Liverpool, moved to London, traveled extensively in Europe, and toured America for five months in 1920–21. He spent the rest of his long life in London and in villages in the south of England.
As a composer, Scott achieved the height of his fame before the First World War and was largely neglected thereafter. As a writer on the occult, however, he became increasingly well-known. The Initiate series has remained continuously in print to the present day.
Brought up in the Church of England, Scott passed through a period of agnosticism as a young man. He became interested in Theosophy after hearing Annie Besant speak in 1904. He soon discovered Indian yoga philosophy and practices, found an Indian guru, and began calling himself a yogi. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1914, at the age of thirty-five, and remained a member for the rest of his life.
Central to Scott’s personal beliefs, writings, and music were the notions of Masters, initiates, and initiation—and this was true, in a sense, even before he encountered Theosophy. While studying in Germany, he met the German symbolist poet Stefan George, who admitted him to an exclusive circle of personal disciples who thought of him as “the revered Master.”
Mystical yet autocratic, George was fastidious in his taste in literature, art, and music, and basked in the hero worship of the young, exclusively male artists, poets, and philosophers who surrounded and emulated him. Scott composed music to George’s verses, and George sponsored performances of his music. But around 1900, Scott fell from grace, ostensibly for arrogant and immature behavior, and was banned from the circle. Scott was devastated. In 1904, he was readmitted, only to be ejected again about ten years later, in part because of his interest in Theosophy.
Luckily, Scott was able to maintain a close lifelong friendship with the Art Nouveau painter, book designer, and stained-glass worker Melchior Lechter, another member of George’s group. Thirteen years older than Scott, Lechter was also called “revered Master,” though not because he wanted disciples. Although deeply spiritual, he thought of himself as a master craftsman in the tradition of the German medieval guilds—and dressed the part. His enthusiasm for The Secret Doctrine goaded Scott to begin reading the book in 1905. Lechter joined the Theosophical Society in 1910 and traveled to Adyar that year to meet Annie Besant.
In 1901, Scott met the next of his multiple Masters in Liverpool—the now forgotten French poet and socialist Charles Bonnier. Thirty-seven years older than Scott, Bonnier was a professor of French literature at the University of Liverpool. Tired of depressing boarding houses and bothersome landladies, the two became housemates on the basis of their mutual love of art. Bonnier encouraged Scott to compose poetry as well as music. Under Bonnier’s guidance, Scott produced several books of poetry, including translations of Charles Baudelaire and Stefan George. Here, then, was the Master as artistic mentor and taskmaster. Scott called Bonnier “a great soul, and a great artist in spirit” on the basis of his being “pronouncedly unselfish” (Scott, Years, 54, original emphasis). He was a good foil for the vanity of Stefan George.
About 1906, Scott began acquiring spiritual Masters to add to his pantheon of artistic ones. Robert King, a clairvoyant Theosophist, made a deep impression on him. King had joined the Theosophical Society in 1892. He was also a member of the London Spiritualist Alliance and lectured extensively for both organizations. He became a darling of the London social scene, a favorite at the salons and dinner parties of spiritually minded hostesses.
King and Scott were both aware of Besant’s and C.W. Leadbeater’s famous book Thought-Forms (1905), which included images of how music was clairvoyantly perceived in shapes and colors. Born into a family of chimney sweeps and completely uneducated about music, King claimed to have this ability. We do not know how King and Scott met, but Scott once explained in an interview that he would often improvise for King at the piano and King would tell him what he saw clairvoyantly. When Scott joined the Theosophical Society, King was his sponsor. Years later, Scott would refer to King as an initiate.
In 1905, Scott had become enamored of the writings of the late Swami Vivekananda. About 1907, he met Swami Abhedananda, an associate of Vivekananda who had taken over the Vedanta Society, founded by the latter in New York City. Scott thought of Abhedananda as a genuine Mahatma (“great soul”), a person “of irreproachable character and wisdom-fraught saintliness,” an exemplar of “benignity, compassion and tolerance” (Scott, Years, 152).
Abhedananda had come to England to establish a local chapter of the Vedanta Society. Scott became involved in the project, which sadly failed. He was forlorn when his guru, who had taught him various yogic practices, returned to America. However, Scott had also begun to experience mystical states of peace and joy as a result of his exposure to yoga and sought ways to portray these states in music. Scott saw his guru as a spiritual Master and himself as a disciple, a yogic initiate. He recorded some of his guru’s teachings in two anonymously published books, The Real Tolerance (1914) and The Way of the Childish (1916).
Women also played a role in Scott’s occult development. First, there was Henrietta Louisa Stevenson, who had married the brother of the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson. She was recently widowed when Scott met her at a fashionable coastal resort in France in 1902. Scott was briefly in love with her daughter, but was also deeply influenced by philosophical conversations with Mrs. Stevenson about love and marriage. She had learned her unconventional views from her husband. Scott called her “the apostle of non-jealousy” (Scott, Years, 63, original emphasis).
Mrs. Stevenson’s views could easily be dismissed as advocating free love, or open marriage, or even a form of what is now called polyamory, an agreement between committed life partners to consider their relationship as central but to allow for and not to interfere with satellite relationships that might be more transient—and to maintain complete transparency with everyone involved. Scott seems to have received these views as eminently practical and compassionate means of negotiating the waywardness of the human heart and the social, legal, and psychological traps that people constantly fell into. These included socially approved but loveless or sexless marriages, romantic passions that subsided all too soon after marriage, and the jealousy that resulted from perceiving a partner as a possession to be controlled rather than a person to be understood with tolerance and forgiveness. Scott wove some of Henrietta’s teachings into The Real Tolerance.
Another influential figure in Scott’s development was a medium named Nelsa Chaplin. She and her husband, Alex, ran an alternative health resort called The Firs in rural England. Robert King frequented the place, as did Scott’s future wife, the novelist Rose Allatini. Perhaps she and Scott met there.
|Cyril Scott in 1913, a year before he joined the
At The Firs, founded in 1910, Theosophical topics such as auras and thought forms were often under discussion. Nelsa and Alex joined the TS in 1919. Alex was interested in color and sound therapy. Nelsa was a musician and improvised at the piano, often in trance. As a child, she was able to perceive nature spirits (elemental beings such as gnomes and fairies) and devas (“shining ones”—a term borrowed from Sanskrit to refer to angelic beings). Devas were said to communicate to each other in a language of color and sound. Nelsa was supposedly able to “bring through” such beings in her music. She told Scott that he too was a channel for the music of nature spirits and devas. For the rest of his life, Scott experimented along these lines, developing a symbolic means of representing nature spirits, humans, devas, and Masters with specially colored harmony and scales.
For Scott, the most important aspect of his friendship with Nelsa was that she claimed to speak for Master KH (Koot Hoomi), a member of the Occult Hierarchy described in Theosophical teachings and a sponsoring founder of the Theosophical Society. A light-skinned Kashmiri with a Western education, Master KH was said to reside in Tibet. He too was a musician, and played a custom-made instrument installed in an internal wall of his home. It had a piano keyboard on one side and an organ keyboard on the other. Scott thought of himself as a disciple of KH. Music: Its Secret Influence was largely made up of material channeled by KH through Nelsa.
By 1916, Scott had become aware of the teachings of an American yogi named Pierre Bernard, whose life and contributions to the development of yoga in America were chronicled in a biography by Robert Love, The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America (2010). Bernard taught a form of Tantric (sex polarity) yoga. He had an ashram for the wealthy in the Hudson River Valley, and was frequently in trouble with conventional morality and the law. One of his students had come to England to proclaim the Gospel of Oom, and Scott spent a year or so in training with him. In 1920–21, Scott toured America for several months as pianist and composer and visited Bernard’s ashram.
This brings us to the 1920 publication of the first book in the Initiate series, The Initiate: Some Impressions of a Great Soul. Once again, Scott concealed his identity as author—the byline read “by a Pupil.” In a later volume in the series, published in 1932, he called the narrator “Charles Broadbent” and identified him as a poet. Finally, in 1935, Scott admitted he was the author of the series, though he claimed that by that time this fact was an open secret.
Scott and his wife separated during the Second World War, and she lived the rest of her long life in close companionship with Janet Melanie Ailsa Mills, a Theosophical writer whose pen-name was H.K. Challoner. Scott himself settled down with Marjorie Hartston, a clairvoyant who was said to be able to perceive and communicate with Master KH.
Discouraged by declining interest in his music, Scott decided to cease composing—but a message from his Master told him there was still work to do in this genre on behalf of humanity. He spent his remaining decades producing dozens of musical works, many of them unperformed during his lifetime, as well as a series of books on alternative healing.
Before beginning our tour of the spiritual path outlined in Scott’s Initiate series, I should clarify several things. The initiate that is the first book’s subject is named Justin Moreward Haig. Throughout The Initiate, Scott refers to him as Moreward. In later books, he is called MH (New World) or JMH (Dark Cycle). I will use JMH from this point on.
Scott’s schema of occult initiation is far less specific than that presented in Leadbeater’s The Masters and the Path. Scott refers to pupils, disciples, initiates, great initiates, adepts, and Masters without explaining differences in degree of occult mastery. For Leadbeater, a pupil is not yet an initiate but may be studying under one. A disciple is an initiate studying under a Master. Initiates are of four degrees, and those who have completed the fourth are called Adepts. Masters have passed through the fifth initiation—and there are several initiations beyond that.
As the Initiate series progresses, JMH’s occult responsibilities expand. In The Initiate, he works locally and has a pupil, the narrator. He could therefore be a first-, second-, or third-degree initiate in Leadbeater’s schema. In New World, JMH has an ashram of disciples and is capable of performing miracles. He may now be an adept, a fourth-degree initiate. In Dark Cycle, he begins to work internationally, perhaps in the final stages of training to become a full-fledged Master.
In An Outline of Modern Occultism (1935), Scott listed some characteristics of initiates and Masters. They are free of vanity and selfishness, full of tolerance and understanding, as well as “unconditional love for Humanity.” They see everything “through the eyes of wisdom” and participate in “an unconditional consciousness of joy” and want others to “share in that felicity.” Furthermore, they are “guides and teachers—not dictators” (Scott, Outline, 20).
Scott dedicates The Initiate to “the Great Soul [i.e., Mahatma] whose name is concealed under the name Justin Moreward Haig.” Probably Scott means Swami Abhedananda. But JMH is almost certainly a composite character: the social setting of the book suggests the milieu of Robert King, and some of JMH’s teachings are traceable to Henrietta Stevenson.
The first half of The Initiate is a hilarious spoof of Georgian social conventions. There is no plot, just a series of vignettes in which JMH appears in various social situations and dissects people’s physical, familial, emotional, mental, and spiritual dilemmas with disarming directness and delicious irony.
The second half of the book, “The Circuitous Journey,” is a somewhat plodding parable of the spiritual evolution of two souls, Antonius and Cynara, who alternately help and hinder each other’s spiritual awakening as they struggle to understand why they are together and where they are traveling to. They spend many days (representing lifetimes) passing through various scenes in which they either succeed or fail to learn some lesson, and periodically encounter spiritual teachers who do or do not help. When they have finally learned the difference between selfish and unselfish love, they are ready to be taken under the tutelage of their Master, Pallomides, who has been guiding them from behind the scenes during the entire journey. They are given the task of getting married and having a son who will become a great spiritual teacher. Throughout “The Circuitous Journey,” Scott has presumably been describing the trials of the probationary path, the set of trials through which aspirants must pass to prove themselves ready for the teachings of a Master.
The Initiate in the New World (1927) begins with an introduction in which Scott discusses the aftermath of publication of The Initiate—reams of mail speculating on the identity of JMH or demanding personal interviews with him. Scott reminded his readers that he had told them at the end of The Initiate that his Master “had gone to another part of the world and left him no forwarding address” and was now “thousands of miles away from my home” (Scott, New World, viii).This was true—Swami Abhedananda had returned to India in 1921. Thus it is not surprising that personal characteristics and yogic teachings of Scott’s new guru, Pierre Bernard, have been added to those of Abhedananda. JMH’s teachings now center on yoga, relationships, and sexuality, as we might expect of a Tantric guru such as Bernard. But there is a graveyard scene involving JMH’s work with the lost soul of a child—likely a tribute to Robert King.
Unlike its predecessor, New World has a plot. The poet Charles Broadbent is confronted with a dilemma. He has fallen in love with Clare Delafield, a vivacious blonde resident of the ashram (which Scott has relocated to Boston). However, JMH tells Broadbent that he should enter into an “occult marriage” with the serious, dark-haired writer Viola Brind. The Masters wish that such a marriage should take place to bring a special child into the world. After much inward and outward struggle between the three, Charles and Viola decide to acquiesce in the Masters’ wishes.
From other sources, we know that Master KH, as channeled by Nelsa Chaplin, had encouraged Scott to marry the dark-haired writer Rose Allatini, a frequent guest at The Firs. The ostensible purpose was to facilitate reincarnation of Scott’s beloved Swami Vivekananda. In the end, the Scotts’ first child was a girl who manifested few characteristics of spiritual adeptship. Though their second child, Desmond, became well-known as a theater director and sculptor in Canada, he also was probably not the reincarnation of the swami.
It should now be clear that “The Circuitous Journey” was written to sort out Scott’s feelings about this occult marriage before the actual civil marriage took place in 1921. If Viola Brind was Rose Allatini, then who was Clare Delafield? I have identified her as an earlier love of Scott’s, a vivacious blond opera singer from America named Maud Le Vinson Roosevelt (a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt), whom Scott had met in Paris around 1905. Maud’s chaperone was a female cousin who, like Rose Allatini, was a writer. For several months, the three went about together, much as Charles, Clare, and Viola do in New World.
Maud apparently rejected Scott as a romantic partner, though the two became close friends and confidantes. She died in 1912, and Scott memorialized her in a book of poems. Perhaps the competition between Clare and Viola in New World was Scott’s attempt to exorcize his unrequited love for Maud in preparation for his marriage to Rose Allatini. Be that as it may, New World seeks to portray the inner and outer lives of pupils of an initiate as they learn to live and work together and set aside personal desire in favor of altruistic service to humanity.
The Initiate in the Dark Cycle (1932) begins with an introduction in which Scott once again complains about the often unintelligent, even ridiculous demands of letters from his readers. He also quashes a rumor that JMH is James Ingall Wedgwood, a bishop and founder of the Liberal Catholic Church.
The first chapter is a touching and amusing posthumous portrait of Nelsa Chaplin, who died in 1927, and life at The Firs, here called “The Pines.” In the book, Scott dubs her Christabel Portman, “the deva Initiate.” We learn something of her early life, clairvoyant powers, and selfless service to humanity as healer and counselor. We are also given a chance to eavesdrop on the conversations of eccentric residents of The Firs and messages from Master KH as channeled by Nelsa. Charles Broadbent has a new sidekick, Lyall Herbert, a spiritually inclined composer—another alter ego of Scott. And of course JMH reappears to provide teachings on various subjects.
We also meet the droll astrologer “David Anrias” (Brian Anrias Ross), through whom Scott continued to receive messages from Master KH after the death of Nelsa Chaplin. The “dark cycle” of the title reflects astrological predictions made by David.
The book includes discussions by various initiates and Masters on how the Theosophical Society should rebuild itself after a major crisis. Promoted by Annie Besant as an embodiment of the next World Teacher (something like the second coming of Christ), Jiddu Krishnamurti unexpectedly renounced this role in 1929, causing a collapse in membership of the organization. Discussion of the aftermath is one aspect of a larger theme—the national and international political work of the Masters.
The highlight of Dark Cycle is a trip to a mysterious Tudor mansion where Broadbent and Herbert meet one of the two “English Masters” mentioned in Blavatsky’s writings. “Sir Thomas” is probably intended to represent the sixteenth-century philosopher and Catholic saint Sir Thomas More, often put forward by Theosophical speculators as one of the English Masters. Curiously, Sir Thomas wears a skullcap—as did Scott’s literary master Charles Bonnier. Sir Thomas’s fictional home is modeled on a castle in Harlech, Wales, built by Charles Davison, a wealthy former executive of the Eastman-Kodak Corporation, ousted for his socialist/anarchist views. Charles Bonnier was also a socialist (hence the skullcap).
During the First World War, Scott spent summers at Harlech Castle, along with a number of artistic, musical, and literary colleagues. The castle included a piano/organ combination like Master KH’s. Scott was known to play the instrument at Harlech—and Herbert plays its fictional equivalent.
At the end of the book, Broadbent is commissioned by the Masters to write Dark Cycle. Herbert is commissioned to compose a new type of music, guided by the Masters. Master KH appears in a vision, improvising celestial music on the Tibet instrument, and Broadbent and Herbert are passed from JMH to KH as accepted disciples, thereby becoming initiates themselves. JMH prepares to go into seclusion for an extended period—ostensibly to finalize his progression from initiate to Master but also to put him more or less permanently out of reach of the letter writers plaguing Scott for JMH’s whereabouts.
What are we to make of all this? First, the Initiate series is great fun to read—all the more so when we know something of the parallels with Scott’s life and the ingenuity and humor that went into creating the trilogy’s semifictional world. Second, Scott had an unusual capacity to admire anyone who could teach him something about the spiritual path. He may have been overly credulous at times, as in the case of the reincarnation of Vivekananda. Yet his books contain many insightful pages, derived from multiple “Masters,” about such things as love, marriage, art, and humor that are worth considering as useful spiritual teachings—especially the chapter entitled “The Permanent Love-Consciousness” in New World.
But the true value of the series is its panorama of the “circuitous journey” of human spiritual development—the Path of Initiation, as it is called in Theosophical teachings. As “life enhanced into truth,” this panorama transcends the genres of semiautobiographical novel or semifictional memoir to become a quasi-archetypal portrayal of this path.
The stage of “average humanity” is represented by the unenlightened and convention-bound inhabitants of English drawing rooms (Initiate). Then we have the clueless but aspiring Antonius and Cynara, slowly awakening to the lessons about selfishness and selflessness that comprise the Probationary Path (Initiate).
The narrator of the first half of the Initiate is at the stage described in the phrase, “When the pupil is ready, the Master will be forthcoming” (Scott, Initiate, ix). In New World, the narrator is fully committed to the spiritual path, studying under an initiate and learning to negotiate relationships, marriage, sexuality, and “love-consciousness.” Clare, Viola, and Charles represent three development levels within the pupil stage: beginner, experienced, and advanced.
In Dark Cycle, Broadbent and Herbert, as advanced pupils, progress to learn how to serve to humanity through the arts. Christabel Portman, the deva initiate, demonstrates a more advanced stage of such service, using music for healing. Christabel also illustrates one means by which the Masters communicate to their students across a great distance, such as that between the Himalayas and England. She consciously steps aside from her physical body so a Master can temporarily use it to provide direction. David Anrias demonstrates a less advanced means of such communication by tuning in to the Masters via meditation or sensing their presence and hearing them inwardly, even without such tuning in. We could perhaps position Anrias as a first- and Christabel as a second-degree initiate.
Higher yet, we have JMH. We see him serving humanity in all its forms, from average souls in London drawing rooms, perhaps as a third-degree initiate (Initiate), to lost souls wandering after death and living pupils in an ashram, now at the fourth degree (New World), and finally advanced pupils, about to be accepted as disciples of a Master (Dark Cycle). In New World and Dark Cycle, we witness the range of spiritual teachings and powers available to him as an adept preparing for the fifth initiation that will make him a Master.
The Masters themselves finally appear in Dark Cycle—one in the flesh (Sir Thomas) and the other in a waking vision (KH). We see them working as members of the Occult Hierarchy that guides the evolution of the world. Not only do they provide perspective and dole out missions to their human agents on earth, but they are responsible for advancing pupils to the disciple stage and initiates to the Master stage.
To complete this portrait gallery of the Occult Hierarchy, a “Dyan Chohan” (“Lord of Meditation”; Scott’s spelling) briefly appears in New World. This exalted being, representing a level higher even than that of the Masters, is clairvoyantly perceived by Viola. He gives his blessing to Broadbent’s intention to write this very book.
Valuable as this portrait gallery may be as a contribution to understanding the path of initiation, the greatest teaching of the Initiate series is not to be found within any of the books. It lies in the process of artistic combination and spiritual transformation that took people Scott knew in real life and reimagined them as examples of each stage. Whether it was their ability to love (Mrs. Stevenson) or their knowledge of art making (George and Lechter), their exuberant life (Maud Roosevelt) or their joyful service to suffering humanity (Nelsa Chaplin), Scott was able to see the Master in them and be taught.
The initiates and Masters of the trilogy may have been literary inventions, but they were constructed of whatever is best in us. We may be surrounded by our own multiple Masters waiting to teach us how to become initiates—our best and highest selves.
Scott, Cyril. The Initiate in the New World. York Beach, Maine: Weiser, 1991.
———. My Years of Indiscretion. London: Mills & Boon, 1924.
———. An Outline of Modern Occultism. London: Routledge, 1935.
Kurt Leland lectures nationally and internationally for the Theosophical Society. He recently released an expanded edition of Otherwhere: A Field Guide for Astral Travelers and is currently working on a little book on clairvoyance for Martin Firrell’s series Modern Theosophy. He has been invited to submit an essay on Annie Besant for a special issue of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy on nineteenth-century women philosophers writing in English, to be published in 2021.