Religion and Music – part one

Annie Besant

Theosophy AB 2 Saraswati goddess of music

To be a master in music, both in its theory and its execution, demands the whole devotion of a life, and my life has been given to other aims, dedicated to other objects. Music is verily an expression of the Divine Beauty, and is a worthy object for the study of a lifetime; but by me, who am only a worshipper of the Beautiful, and not one of its consecrated Priesthood, no exposition of it as an art or as a science can be made. I must consider it from the standpoint of the Occultist, not from that of the Artist. . .

Why does music exercise so great an influence over our passions and emotions? Why is it that religion has ever found in music one of its strongest helpers, one of its most inspiring agencies? Why is it that in some of its most intellectual functions, such as meditation, music — addressed especially to the emotions as it is — is found to be most useful, at least as a preliminary exercise, and seems to enable the mind to rise from the physical plane, and to soar upwards into the higher regions of consciousness more easily than would be possible without its aid? In every religion this use of music is to be found.

It matters not whether you travel in the East or in the West, the same thing is found: everywhere music forms an essential part of religious ceremonies and services. Music in the West has gone along lines very different from those that it has followed in the East; it has appealed to the passions and the emotions more than to the really spiritual part of man’s nature; nonetheless it plays a predominant part in the highest religious functions in the West. It is noticeable that in the Mass, the central act of Christian worship, some of the cadences that are used have come down from a far-off antiquity. I am not now speaking of the magnificent modern music with which the great musicians have embroidered this sacred rite, but of the cadences of the old “plain song”, the strong full notes that have come down from an immemorial past.

In some of the Russian sacred music, I am told, as found in the Greek Church, there are cadences which have been borrowed from the Hebrews, and if we ask the Hebrews whence came these cadences, they will tell you that they have come down from the early days of their race, and that the knowledge of them was ever restricted within a certain family of the tribe of Levi, who had received them from the early prophets of their tribe, great seers and knowers of divine things; and they say that there are some cadences, most precious of all, which are never allowed to go outside that family, and which are only rarely chanted in religious ceremonies of special importance by the members of that family, who have been trained in the peculiar intonations which are used.

These are truly mantras in the ancient Hebrew tongue, and they have come down from a vast antiquity, the Hebrew people being one of the most ancient of civilized races. They might trace their antiquity back to a past in comparison with which the dates of their scriptures are but as yesterday. Long before the time given in those scriptures, the Hebrews were a family of that ancient scientific race which so strongly influenced Persia in the days when Persia followed the religion of Iran. In those days the Hebrews existed, and long before that again, tracing ever backwards to the time when a vast continent stretched where now the Atlantic rolls.

In that far-off Atlantean time the Hebrew race had its birth, and its home was in the Atlantean world, and there you find the birthplace also of these strange sequences of musical notes, that produce the most extraordinary results on the physical bodies of the hearers. They shake the whole frame, rousing a strong and almost uncontrollable emotion. I have heard that the only other people who have a knowledge of these peculiar cadences are the ancient Chinese, again a people who have behind them a practically illimitable past. . . .

Both in Chinese and Hebrew music as in Hindu, the intervals between the notes are much less than in western. A chromatic scale in the West gives the limits on a western piano; in the East, many notes are interposed, and the gradations are so fine as to be indistinguishable to a western ear until it is trained to hear them; hence Indian musicians are often accused of being “flat”, “out of tune”, by the western stranger, while they are producing thrills of joy among their compatriots, sheer gasps of pleasure over the exquisitely fine gradations produced by the skilled voice or fingers.

The Indian ear by long heredity has been evolved to appreciate these minute gradations of sound, as the eye of the Kashmiri and Persian weaver has been evolved to perceive nuances of color to which other eyes are blind. I presume that the Indian ear has thus become a more finely organised sound-receiver than the European, and it may be that clairvoyant investigation would find it more minutely specialised.

There is another fundamental difference between Eastern and Western music; eastern music is a succession of notes, a melody, while western music consists of notes played simultaneously, and yielding harmony. The one, as it rises, becomes more subtly divided, more ethereal and elusive; the other, as it rises, becomes more massive, more splendid in complexity of blended sounds. Harmony, to the Western ear, is the great inspirer of emotion, many notes sounding out together, in a chord, the relation of each chord to its fellows being regulated by the strictest rules.

To be continued

This article was also published in The Theosophist VOL. 144 NO. 10 JULY 2023

The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.

To read the JULY 2023 issue click HERE 

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