Music and the Human Soul

By I. M. Oderberg

Ideal art is born of a creative impulse welling up from the deeps of the artist and expressed with fidelity, truth and all the inner strength he can muster. It makes its impact on several levels, not alone the emotional, the effect streaming from its "nucleus of spiritual energy." Because it is created to suggest rather than to teach, it does not yield its essence to logical analysis. Similarly, this nucleus is the potent force in the heart of all true myths, and consequently in proportion as we are able to identify with their symbolism will the meaning open out before us. One powerful mythic creation is the theme of the descent of the human soul into material life and its return to its original state enhanced by the awareness of its inherent spiritual quality.

A poet tells us the soul "comes from afar trailing clouds of glory," and many musical composers have endeavored to inspire us with their perception of the refining process of earth life. Whatever the idiom in which they express their music, the story is the same: the soul leaves its first condition of pristine but unaware purity, is intoxicated by egoity or self-life, and rises out of its immersion in materiality. Three composers come to mind who have dealt with this motif in their own very individual ways, Mozart, Wagner and Bach.

Mozart took ideas from some of the more enlightened European court circles of his time, stirred as they were by the ferments introduced by Illuminati groups, semi-secret or underground clusters of dedicated individuals transmitting an age-old tradition about the perfection of the inner man. Mozart wrote his opera The Magic Flute with Freemasonry in mind, the resurgence of this system of teaching being due to many influences in western Europe. This revival was particularly due to Cagliostro who created the "Grand Orient" lodges in which be embodied certain principles that be claimed to have received from his own unnamed teachers. This mysterious figure appears in the opera as the character Sarastro, High Priest of Osiris and Grand Hierophant or chief interpreter of the sacred mysteries of arcane knowledge of the cosmos and man. Critics devoted to music per se acclaim the score, but lament the "childishness" of the story, even labeling it "banal." But they miss the richness of the Freemasonic symbolism with which the libretto abounds. The solemnity of the initiation scene is evident to anyone prepared to penetrate its meaning, and the effect is not due to the beautiful music alone, but also to its philosophic ideas, especially the "wedding" of the higher and lower selves in man.

In his opera Tristan and Isolde with its story based on ancient Celtic legends, Wagner used his Buddhistic ideas gleaned first through the works of Schopenbauer, the German philosopher who had enthusiastically taken up the then new translations of Indian writings from the Sanskrit. The opera centers around two main themes. Firstly, the bliss of achievement of 'nirvana' as represented by the blending of souls in a future earth life rather than achieving earthly union in this one. The long dialogue in Act II that has been criticized as arid, metaphysical and "long-winded," is based on this concept. The second subject, which also colors the dialogue in Act II, is the vast difference between the ideal or spiritual and the material worlds.

But it is in his Lohengrin and Parsifal operas that the theme of the purification of the soul is worked out. Lohengrin has a little of the aura of the Holy Grail story, a pre-Christian mythos that was absorbed into the Christian heritage as far back as the ninth century but especially in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. The Grail bestows spiritual illumination upon its devoted servitors as well as the young applicants seeking to join them. The "blessings" it pours upon all are divine fare rather than material food, although the names of fruit and other such are used, a symbolism also found in ancient cultures.

In the prelude to this opera, the descent of the Grail from its own high place and its reascent is heard in a characteristic motif in shimmering strings and the highest tones of the flute. This music is associated with the motif of the Swan, emblem of the Grail knight, Lohengrin. The bird reminds us of Kala Hansa, the Hindu "Swan of Time," moving on the waters of spirit, or flying above them into the Unknown.

In Parsifal, Wagner has taken up the theme of the candidate engaged upon his course of training in everyday life -- unfolding from the core of his essential Self his true human quality. This is represented by the central character's discovery of his "real name" and all that that implies. As a young, "pure fool," Parsifal comes to the Castle of the Grail, where he sees the presiding knight Amfortas in an agony of pain. Parsifal fails his test because he did not feel a sympathetic response and ask the cause of the suffering. After many vicissitudes, during which Parsifal grows more compassionate and acquires understanding and wisdom, he reaches the Castle once again, and this time he triumphs. Then the Holy Grail pours out its guerdon. of blessed things for all.

Parsifal: "Where shall I find thee, holy Grail, for which my yearning heart searches?"

The rhythmic motion of going out and coming home, of descent and return, is much like the cosmic process of the outbreathing and inbreathing of universal beings without number, all moving and evolving in their cyclic maturing of inner faculty. As superb as are the music and conception of Wagner's translation of the mythos of the human soul and its journey through life, they do not stand unique. His work of weaving together the leitmotif of character and incident into a seamless garment would have been impossible without the prior achievements of Johann Sebastian Bach in the field of continuous flow of musical themes blended together in many voices, the fugue.

For example, there is Bach's immense, unfinished composition published posthumously by his son Karl Philipp Emanuel as "The Art of Fugue." It consists of a progressive series of fugues all on the same musical subject, written in open score with each voice given its own stave or clef. Karl Philipp Emanuel himself thought, and most musicians since agreed with him, that the composition had been intended merely as an intellectual exercise, to demonstrate what could be done to blend together fugal voices in various ways, the composer's ingenuity achieving a tour de force of musical science. In other words, that "The Art of Fugue," K. P. E.'s own name for it, was unplayable, being an illustration of abstract ideas of fugal structure, and never intended to be more than theoretical.

The great German musicologist Nottebohm in the nineteenth century disagreed with this assessment, and Sir Donald Tovey and a few others in our times have since demonstrated that the work is really playable music of a highly spiritual content. The third subject of the final fugue introduces four themes, but was left incomplete. K. P. E. wrote over the last bars in the Berlin autograph edition: "The composer died at the point in the fugue where the name BACH is introduced as a counter-subject.' In the musical notation of the day, B-A-C-H spelled into the notes B flat, A, C, and B natural. This is the first and only instance of Bach's use of his name in fugal writing, although it has long since been used by other composers and is now regarded almost as a commonplace. The first theme is 100 bars long and the second follows it. As it closes in G minor, BACH appears as the third subject. The composer inverts his name in this fragment which breaks off as he is beginning the combination of all three themes. He evidently had time for nothing else.

Yet, blind and on his deathbed, Bach dictated to his son-in-law Altnikol a chorale which was appended as a portion of it to the first edition of "The Art of Fugue." This fortunate event saved the chorale from oblivion, and for me it breathes the very atmosphere with which the major composition would have concluded. It emanates a radiance suggesting the ascent of the purified consciousness to the source from which it has come into our world. And it is significant that the unfinished final fugue would have had a working out of the inversion of the BACH theme, suggesting St. Paul's admonition: "Put off the old man and put on the new man." That is, the reversal or absorption of the personal, impermanent entity into the enduring individuality, for 'Johann Sebastian' would have been but the persona or mask of the essence whence came the inspired harmonies.

Bach's music is full of a mystical element that lifts it above run-of-the-mill studies in counterpoint. In his most sublime compositions the structure was meant to be hidden, much as are the steel girders in modern buildings. The music was more than the scaffolding, as Pablo Casals tried to prove many years ago when he performed the whole of the unaccompanied cello suites in albums of recordings. In this way, he said, he hoped to rescue Bach from the pedants.

The composer's inspirations must have come from his devotion to certain religious currents of his day, especially the writings and published sermons of Johannes Tauler. This 14th century German mystic, with Meister Eckhart, was a leading spirit of the Friends of God, a movement of clerics and laymen who stressed the "love of God" and ethical aspects of the Christian life over the merely dogmatic. Practical mystics, they transmitted concepts derived from sources far back, such as those of Origen, the early Church Father, and other figures standing up through the Dark and early Middle Ages of Europe like mountain peaks through the clouds.

The doctrine of the birth of an infant Christos element in the soul of every human being was of great importance to Tauler, as it was to Eckhart and the much later Cambridge Platonists. For them, the soul is a microcosm of the macrocosm in which all live, move and are sustained. They viewed the human being as compounded of an animal or material aspect, a rational nature and an essential, godlike man.

The writings of Richard of St. Victor were the joy of Tauler, and their influence might have affected Bach strongly, for the following utterance of Richard is the very heart of the music and particularly, it can be suggested, of "The Art of Fugue":

Let whoso thirsts to see his God cleanse his mirror, purge his spirit; and when thus he has cleansed his mirror, and long and diligently gazed in it, a certain brightness of divine light begins to shine through upon him, and a certain immense ray of unwonted vision to appear before his eyes.... From the beholding of this light, which it sees within itself with amazement, the mind is mightily set on fire, and lifted up to behold that Light which is above itself.

Music is a subtle, suggestive medium of communication, inevitably open to many interpretations depending upon the interpreters, their thought patterns and cultural heritage. Profoundly devotional natures, whatever their backgrounds, would be bound to "tune in" upon the music of the spheres, and experience deep within themselves the moving contact of the outer self with the inner soul or spirit. Music itself does not know the barriers built into the many languages and dialects we have. It leaps over all cultural patterns, transmitting its own inherent meaning, regardless of the mental prisms that color the impacts. Though no two people may feel the identic reactions, the effects take place, whether it is a rhythmic response in the lesser part of ourselves, or the depths of the soul or spirit that are affected in a way that is beyond words to describe. Perhaps the kind of analysis that is the foundation of some of the published musical criticism is inadequate because it tries to rationalize an experience that is outside the range of the reason.

Musical compositions that are the children of the brain-mind part of us alone, that are not born of the germ of inspiration within the soul, are arid, and will surely fall by the wayside. Those works that were born of man's essential being, endure through all the changes in outlook that mark the succession of the generations. The soul being endowed with unlimited creative qualities, will continue to give voice to its own highest inspirations, whatever the time and milieu will be.

(From Sunrise magazine, March 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)

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