Religion and Music – part two

Annie Besant

Theosophy AB b

iHarmony is a science, and a difficult science, and a man who is a master of it has to know every note in relation to other notes, and to blend the notes in such a way and in such a sequence that the ear is utterly satisfied and content with the whole complicated mass of sounds. If a discord is introduced, as it often is, to make the chord yet richer, then it must ever be resolved, so that the momentary shock to the ear is followed by a yet more exquisite delight. Two notes that, apart from all others, would cause you to stop your ears if struck together, scientifically dealt with, yield a keener pleasure. The discord must never be left a discord, it must not close the phrase; it must be resolved into a harmonious chord, and add a new joy.

Nature, we find, in the composing of her music, knows well this value of the discord, and ever finally resolves it in a perfect chord. Although human nature is a higher product than animal nature, we see in its beginnings a disorder which among animals is never found. The growing will of man introduces clash and discord into the harmony of Nature, asserting itself aggressively and defiantly against the order of the whole, but out of that stormy whirlpool of conflicting human wills shall emerge the strong current of unified wills in harmony with the divine, and out of the human discords shall come a note richer and fuller than the non-human monochord Nature could produce.

In the West, perhaps because natures there are more combative, more turbulent, more wilful, more aggressive, all these tumultuous qualities impress themselves on western music, and there are Niagara cascades of sounds, whirlpools and rapids of chords, storms of thunderous instrumental clashings, and then finally, when the breath is well-nigh strangled in the rushing waves of sounds, one is flung panting on to a flower-sprinkled meadow of peace, and a melody, exquisite, celestial, sweet, breathes a harmony more tender and serene than Eastern music knows. Another marked thing in Western music is that it stirs the passions, sometimes masters the intellect, but it does not touch the spiritual notes, which often thrill the nerves to a pleasure that touches pain in its keenness, well-known in Indian music. And I have sometimes noticed that where the Indian music is appealing to the passion of love, where the songs are love-songs, even then they tend to pass beyond the passional into the emotional, from the coarser to the subtler forms of the master-desire. The music stirs the more delicate shades of love, the finer chords, the unsatisfied yearning of it, the ever-frustrated longing for utter identity, so that it is not an appeal to passion but rather of lifting passion into emotion, purifying and refining, with an ever-elusive suggestion of the underlying meanings of the physical, of the regions where Spirit is the lover, where God is the beloved.

There is a well-known use of music for the rousing of passion, alike in East and West, the use which is made of it in war. We read in the Bhagavadgitâ of the use of the conch by the leaders in the great battle, sending out the conch-note like a lion’s roar, and how the mighty sounds enheartened the combatants, ringing across the embattled hosts in challenge and reply. How far in later times in the East, music was used by contending armies to rouse the passions and to drive men mad with furious excitement, I do not know, for unfortunately I am not well read in the story of your later part. But in Europe music is continually used in war, to stir men up to deeds of desperate valor when the pulses are throbbing wildly under the piercing notes of the war music. You will have heard of the Highlanders and their bagpipes, even if you do not happen to have seen and heard them over here. The Highland bagpipe has a strange, long, droning, throbbing note which is continuous, like the undernote kept sounding from the vinâ, but of a quite different character. Woven on this continuous muffled growl, embroidered on that, is a tremendous cataract-like medley of shrieks and screams, yells and shouts, ear-piercing but thrilling the passions, and right into the hail of bullets, beside or behind the charging men, goes the Highland piper with his bagpipes, the sounds rising high above the rattle of rifles, the tramp of the cavalry. Where the skirl of the pipes is heard, the men will go to the death, their blood on fire, their hearts leaping in reply. Sometimes the piper may be a lad, scarce strong enough to fight, but able to blow the pipes, and proud indeed is the boy-piper who marches into battle and sends ringing out over his elders’ heads the warclarion cry that every Highlander knows. Some of you may have read the pathetic story, in the war in South Africa, of a lad only sixteen years of age, who was struck down, his legs broken, and who got his comrades to prop him up against a rock, and who, through the agony which ended in death, blew the bagpipes for his regiment and sent it onwards to victory. The pipes lift the Highlander into his stormiest frenzy of courage, so mighty is the power of their music on the passions.

Let us pass on from war music and pause a moment on the use of music in rousing another elemental passion — the passion of sexual desire, which in its higher form, refined into emotion, is love between man and woman. Like the raging fury of combat, it is simple, broad, massive, this great outrush of animal sexual passion. In many Western operas, music is the expression and inspirer of passion, each containing love songs, grosser or more delicate as the case may be, but stirring desire as a passion rather than love as an emotion. If you watch the effect of such music on the audience you will see that a certain excitement begins to stir the blood; cheeks flush, eyes sparkle, the whole body thrills. Hence many people say, and say rightly, that it is not wise to take the young to operas, because it stirs passion, and ere they are aware of it, the music has roused passionate feeling without their will or consent. Wise fathers and mothers keep young lads and young girls away from the operas that deal with love as a passion, because such music stirs the passional nature, and may rouse an excitement which slips easily into evil act. But there are other operas wherein the theme is not animal passion but human love, love in its higher and nobler forms, love which flowers into self-sacrifice, for self-sacrifice is the natural blossom from the root of love.

In one of the earlier operas of Wagner, The Flying Dutchman, music is used for the expression of such love. Let me outline the story, as it is probably unfamiliar to you. The Flying Dutchman is a man who has done much evil, and he is condemned to live in the body, century after century, as captain of a vessel which brings misfortune in its wake.

Theosophy AB c

The Flying Dutchman's vessel

Never might he be set free from the burden of the body and find rest through its death, until a woman should love him faithfully, even to death. A love that was selfsacrifice might alone redeem him. He meets a girl whom he had seen in a dream, a girl who had been fascinated by the story of the curse upon him, the story of his well-nigh irretrievable sorrow and doom. In the sanctuary of her pure heart, she had vowed herself to his redeeming, praying that she might meet him, and vowing that if they met she would be faithful to him unto death, and thus lift the curse of woeful life that was upon him. There is a youth who loves her passionately, and woos her as bride, but steadfastly and gently she puts aside the love that offers her a happy home and the protection of a husband, and, fixing her heart on the supreme Love, she gives her maiden love to this miserable, despairing soul that only by love may find redemption.

The Flying Dutchman is won by the purity and sweetness of the young girl, and feels his hard heart melting under the gentle sunshine of her pure tenderness; but he hears of the wooing of his younger rival, and fearing that his youth may win the maiden’s love, he is furiously angry, maddened by the fear of losing his newborn hope of freedom. Then, purified by his love, he rises above selfishness into self-sacrifice, determines to set the girl free from her vow to save him, and to yield her to the fairer life opening before her; he renounces the salvation tendered him by her love, and leaps on board his ship, sets sail, and leaves the shore. The girl breaks from the detaining grasp of the man who fain would wed her, rushes towards the departing ship, and flings herself into the sea, that her love, faithful unto death, may save the despairing soul. The music which has expressed the purity of love, its anguish, its renunciation, its despair, rises higher and higher, becomes ever more poignant, more triumphant, until the clouds roll asunder and the love that redeemed and the sorrow which renounced are seen together in heaven, and the final burst of melody tells of the joy that followed pain. Where music illustrates such a theme, and makes all hearts throb responsive to the sentiments portrayed by the singers, it can but purify and refine the emotions of all who listen. Such music ever renders more compelling the inspiration of the legends of the elder time, the themes that have for their central ideas Love, Sacrifice and Death.

Now to what part of man’s nature does such music appeal, for it certainly does not rouse passion, but rather lifts man above it? Beyond your dense physical body — the Sthula Sharira — is your subtle body — the Sukshma Sharira — a body made of matter finer than the physical, matter which vibrates in shorter wavelengths, swifter repetitions, than those of the grosser, coarser, physical material. Into this subtler body enter various grades of the subtle matter — for subtle matter has its grades just as grosser matter has its solids, liquids, gases, ethers. These various grades answer to the waves caused by the vibrations that are musical notes, and the coarser grades answering to the vibrations that express animal desire, and the finer to those that express human love. As vibrations of matter and changes in consciousness correspond, each to each, the vibrations of the subtle matter are answered by changes in the embodied consciousness, and the hearer feels the passions, the emotions, represented by the music. Hence the power of music to stir up passions and emotions in the hearer, and this play of vibrations may be watched by the evolved vision, while the physical ear is responding to the vibrations in the coarser matter of the gases which form the air. Great masses of vibrations are formed by many notes struck together, as by the chords of Western music, and these are reproduced chiefly by the coarser grades of matter in the subtle body, while single, sweet or piercing notes are more readily answered by the finer grades.

To be continued

This article was also published in The Theosophist VOL. 144 NO. 11 AUGUST 2023

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

To read the AUGUST 2023 issue click HERE 

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