Musical Alchemy: the Work of Composer and Listener

Musical Alchemy: the Work of Composer and Listener

This article for Temenos partly replicates the chapter of the same title in Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, but it has some extra passages aimed at a more select audience. Anthony Damiani, the NY State Thruway ticket-collector who was my philosophical initiator, first opened my ears and set me thinking about what actually happens during the musical experience, and what one can do about it.

In previous articles I have collected many accounts of those who have heard the music of the spheres and other secret harmonies, even the song of the Angels and the lyre-playing of Gods. But those of us who are still chained by the ears to Earth need the help not only of mystics and theorists but also of composers and performers, purveyors of the lowly musica instrumentalis. Composing, performing and listening are the exoteric liturgy of music, necessary for the spiritual sustenance of those who cannot achieve direct contact with its higher realities.

The composer and performer are the alchemists who help to transmute the Earth by making its substance and souls resonate with echoes of the heavenly music. In so doing, these earthly echoes also become audible in Heaven, and the gulf between the two thereby closes by another hairsbreadth. This is the accomplishment of the Great Work of musical alchemy which, like alchemy proper, aims toward the redemption of all Nature as well as to the reunion of Man with his higher self.

In order to undertake this work, the true composer, like the alchemist, does not choose his profession: he is summoned to it by a call that cannot be ignored. One of the signs of such a call is that he will possess the double endowment of skill and memory. Not without reason was Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory, called the mother of the Nine Muses. To illustrate this I turn to Rudolf Steiner, in whom no one can fail to recognize yet another witness to the origin of music in the Imaginal World, no matter what credibility they may lend to his Anthroposophy as a whole. Steiner explains, in one of the fullest descriptions ever given of this subject,1 that in deep dreamless sleep everyone revisits the true home of the soul. But whereas most people do not even know that they have been there, retaining only a feeling of peace as a memory of the dreamless state, the initiate remains fully conscious and perceives a world of extraordinary colours and tones. Steiner says that there is another stage, intermediate between oblivion and full awareness, which is the experience of the inspired creative artist: he may not remember consciously where he has been, but still he is able to reproduce something of what he saw or heard there. Steiner speaks of the capacity of certain painters to create colour-tones and harmonies that go beyond those of the physical world (he mentions Leonardo da Vinci in particular) and asks: ‘…where could he have experienced them? They are the after-effects of night-time experience in the Astral world. Only this flowing ocean of light and colours, of beauty, of radiant, glimmering depths, where he has lived in his sleep, enables him to enrich his painting with unearthly values…’2 Then Steiner turns to music:

The musician, on the other hand, conjures up a still higher The world. In the physical world he conjures up the Devachanic world. Indeed, the melodies and harmonies that speak to us from the works of our great masters are faithful copies of the Devachanic world. If we can obtain a shadow, a foretaste of the Devachanic world in anything, it is in the effects of the melodies and harmonies of music, in their effects on the human soul…

Man’s original home is in Devachan, and he hears echoes from this homeland, this spiritual world, in the harmonies and melodies of the physical world. These echoes interlace our world with the presentiments of a glorious and wonderful existence. They throng through his innermost being and thrill it with the vibrations of purest joy, of sublimest spirituality, which this lower world cannot provide.3 (My italics)

The Memory of which Mnemosyne is patroness is not the everyday memory that recalls things from the past, but the power of recapturing our other modes of being: of remembering whence we came, who we really are, and where we are going. But memory alone is not sufficient to make an artist. Mnemosyne is the Muses’ mother, but their leader is Apollo, god of order and beauty, supreme wielder of the bow and lyre. It is sad to think of the well-meaning artists in every genre who have tried to reproduce their memories without his blessing. Their experience may have been intense, even genuinely mystical, but how tedious is their ecstatic verse, their cosmic art, their musical improvisation. For them it is the very embodiment of unforgettable raptures, yet to others it seems inflated, pretentious or inept. Such people seldom gain any reputation, and they can never understand why the world will not listen to them.

On the other hand, there are those endowed by Apollo but wanting in Memory. Everything comes easily to them: they can paint anything, make words or notes do their will. But their deep sleep is spent in vain: they return from it with their vision still bounded by Earth’s horizons, They can enchant the mind, captivate the feelings, and arouse the chthonic daemons, but never stir the immortal Spirit. Fame comes readily to such artists, for she is a fickle goddess (if not positively a whore) and loves to give the public what they want. Yet one can say this for these worldly professionals: that unlike the cosmic amateurs they enjoy a harmony of ends and means, and within their chosen limits achieve a kind of perfection akin to that of the master-craftsman who works with earthly substances.

At the same time as Rudolf Steiner was lecturing on music, Marcel Proust was also considering these matters in his magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu. This book is about Time and Memory, but also about the relation of the most outwardly profane occupations — sex and social climbing in fin-de-siécle Paris — to the deep currents of human destiny and existence. Proust shows his philosophical intention frequently in the first volume, Swann in Love, alerting one to read subsequent volumes in the same spirit, and never more explicitly than in the passages concerning music. I would juxtapose to Steiner’s words on the treasures to be found in deep sleep these thoughts of Swann:4

He knew that his memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still, almost all of it, unknown), on which, here and there only, separated by the gross darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys, keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by certain great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme which they have found, of showing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night, discouraging exploration, of our soul, which we have been content to regard as valueless and waste and void. (My italics)

Swann’s reflections are aroused by his intense response to a little phrase in a sonata for violin and piano by the fictitious composer Vinteuil. He feels as if he has known the phrase, as one knows a friend, all his life: but that ‘it belonged, none the less, to an order of supernatural creatures whom we have never seen, but whom, in spite of that, we recognize and acclaim with rapture when some explorer of the unseen contrives to coax it forth, to bring it down from that divine world to which he has access to shine for a brief moment in the firmament of ours.’5 (My italics) This secret function of musical creation and performance ‘made of that stage on which a soul was thus called into being one of the noblest altars on which a supernatural ceremony could be performed.’6

There are only a few real artists, composers, or poets, meaning those abundantly endowed with both the memory of the realm of Ideas and the skill to embody that memory. Theirs is the privilege to conceive the progeny of the Gods, called by the alchemists the Philosophic Egg. At the appointed time these divine children are brought forth for all to behold, incarnated in bodies of paint, of marble, of vibrating air. For a time these substances undergo a veritable transmutation, becoming transparent to realities of a higher order. Paint may last a few centuries, marble and words a few millenia. But musical entities are more reluctant: no sooner are they born, with the indispensable help of the performer as midwife (or, to continue the alchemical analogy, as soror mystica), than they vanish. Again and again they have to be conjured back to earth on the altar of stage, studio, or living-room. No art so closely parallels those religious rites, such as the Mass, which demand constant re-enactment.

But although to the outward eye the music seems to be over as soon as the last chord has sounded and the celebrants have dispersed, this is not the case. Something has also been created on a subtle plane, and remains like an exquisite flower hovering over the sanctuary. One can sense it in the stillness that ought to follow a musical performance. Clairvoyants assure us that they see it, but that it can be shattered by the sound of applause. Alas, one seldom has the pleasure of inhaling its full fragrance in silence, unless it be at home — where, in turn, one seldom enjoys live performances by the greatest interpreters. The French music critic Camille Mauclair, who was most sensitive to these things, writes of the howls, stampings, and cheers of an intoxicated audience as being like the growling of savage beasts before Orpheus.7 Yet he recognizes it as the sad but necessary means by which they reenter ordinary life after musical ecstasy, and also as their way of compelling the performers to acknowledge their ‘music’ and to become merely human again. In any case, no musical vibrations are ever entirely lost: even though they are dispersed, they will go on vibrating through the cosmos for eternity. Mauclair also writes of this, in an essay on ‘Occultisme Musical’, saying that ‘All our symphonies are recomposed in unknown worlds, as if on prodigious phonographs, and if, as I like to believe, they make music on other planets, it is quite possible that they will send us its echoes one day.’8 This is a modern recasting of the ancient idea of human music being heard by the angels, according to the conventional equation of the planetary spheres with celestial states of being.

There would be material for a whole book if one were to examine all the statements of composers for evidence that they, too, understand their inspiration as having its source on another plane. One would find ample corroboration from the composers of the Romantic era, especially:

When I compose, I feel that I am appropriating that same spirit to which Jesus so often referred. (Brahms9)

When in my most inspired moods, I have definite compelling visions, involving a higher selfhood. I feel at such moments that I am tapping the source of Infinite and Eternal energy from which you and I and all things proceed. Religion calls it God. (Richard Strauss10)

I have very definite impressions while in that trance-like condition, which is the prerequisite of all true creative effort. I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity to do so. (Wagner, reported by Humperdinck11)

There are other ways of communing with God besides attending mass and confession. When I am composing I feel that He is close to me and approves of what I am doing. (Puccini12)

My most beautiful melodies have come to me in dreams. (Max Bruch13)

We composers are projectors of the infinite into the finite. (Grieg14)

These quotations are taken from the interviews of Arthur Abell, an American music critic who during his 28 years’ residence in Europe set out to collect composers’ own accounts of their inspiration. Brahms, whom he interviewed in 1896 in the presence of Joseph Joachim, was so explicit about his religious convictions that he forbade Abell to publish their conversation (recorded by a bilingual stenographer) until 50 years after his death, which occurred the following year. Grieg and Strauss made similar restrictions. When eventually Abell published the interviews in 1955, their style and subject were too ‘earnest’ and old-fashioned to attract serious attention. Inspiration was no longer à la mode in an age of disillusion and objectivity.

Perhaps in the present reaction of neo-romanticism and ‘post-modernism’ it is coming back. When Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928) makes his much-publicized statements about his own origins on the star Sirius, which he says is the source of all great composers, he is after all fully in accord with the Hermetic tradition. It is as if to say that the greatest music does not simply derive from the music of the planets (which is reflected in us at the psychic or astral level) but from the Eighth Sphere and beyond: the realms of pure Intelligence. Who is to say that certain composers are not creatures of some higher type who have voluntarily taken on human incarnation in order to bring gifts to Mankind? No matter that their personal life may not always measure up to the highest moral standards: being moral exemplars is not their task, (There are other souls who have incarnated for that purpose: we call them Saints, and we do not expect them to be great artists.) I am certain that the Arts all have their Avatars, especially in periods of rapid change such as the past thousand years. No merely earthly chain of development can account for such sudden apparitions as the Gothic Cathedrals, the four-part polyphony of Perotin, the oeuvres of Shakespeare and J. S. Bach, try as people will to interpret these as effects of some known cause. It takes a ‘pure fool’ to penetrate the fogs of reductionist scholarship and perceive the miracle which is there for all to see. But whether such miracles can only be brought about by superhuman beings descending to Earth, or whether they can also be the work of men who in the course of long striving have managed to enter the portals of Heaven, I would not like to say. The answer lies hidden in the mysteries of each person’s pre-existence.

There are three main levels of musical and artistic inspiration. The highest is the ‘avataric’ level that has a historical function in addition to, or even surpassing, its intrinsic value. The works of such composers serve, in their own domain, like the visions of meditating saints which become the icons of religion. They become objects of contemplation for every subsequent composer, being constantly re-interpreted and imitated, just as, for instance, the painting of Jesus and his mother originally attributed to St. Luke became the model for every subsequent ‘Virgin and Child.’

In slowly changing civilizations such as those of Antiquity or the East, a single revelation is sufficient to sustain and nourish a whole epoch of creativity. Such avatars are thenceforth celebrated as divine or semi-divine revealers of wisdom. Hermes, inventor of the lyre; Jubal, ‘father of all such as handle the harp and organ’;15 Sarasvati, Hindu goddess of learning and player of the vim; the Chinese emperor Fo-Hi, ‘discoverer of music’ and inventor of the lute. Next to these may be placed the human but still almost mythical founders of historic musical eras, such as the Greek innovator Timotheus, contemporary of Plato; St. Gregory the Great, to whom all of Gregorian chant was at one time attributed; Ziryab (8th-9th centuries) court lutenist in Baghdad and Cordoba, who ‘received his best melodies from spirits’;16 Magister Perotinus of Notre-Dame (circa 1200), creator of the first four-part polyphony. Each left his stamp permanently on the music of his civilization.

In every culture except the post-Medieval West, the task of the creative artist has been to work within the traditional forms bequeathed by such masters, filling them more less adequately as his own capacities permit. An icon painter, for example, repeatedly copies the best image he can find of the Virgin and Child, either having it before him or else holding it in his imagination. The monks who composed the ‘Gregorian’ chants listened inwardly to a source of music in their souls: a kind of mental improvisation which anyone can practise who has sung enough chant. At its best, this is inspiration of the second degree. The spiritus that is inhaled is the breath of the archetype: that is the element of Memory. Such an artist refreshes his memory every night in deep sleep — so Rudolf Steiner has told us — but to jar it into action each morning he needs the exemplars of those with still clearer vision who have preceded him and created the style or models within which he works. At this second level — and it is no denigration to say so — the maker of songs is in no wise different from the maker of lutes: each is a recreator after a revealed pattern. The arts and the crafts, in short, are synonymous. Even nowadays, do we not revere the violins of the craftsman Stradivarius after our own fashion (by putting a price on them) as much as we do the works of his artist contemporaries Corelli or Vivaldi? Stradivarius did not invent the violin (we do not know who did: it was surely one of those avataric revelations), but was able to hold fast to its archetypal form and, with a skill that verges on the alchemical, to infuse that form into matter. While Stradivarius was a young man, Jan Vermeer of Delft was performing a similar work. His prima materia was not wood but paint, his memory not that of a shape and a sound but of a certain quality of light. Yet he, too, was a craftsman working in an old and accepted tradition, which he was able to raise to a transcendent level.

The third degree of inspiration is not strictly speaking inspiration at all, because it no longer has a connection with Memory. I have already mentioned it as the creativity that proceeds only from the creator’s own ego, from the models he sees around him in the world, and from his subconscious (not his superconscious) mind. Having used the example of Vermeer, one could now cite that of his contemporary Jan Steen, the painter of amusing tavern-scenes and pictures of domestic disaster. The history of the arts in the West is largely the history of such people — that is why it is so enthralling. But in a traditional culture there is no call for their ‘self-expression’: their skills are put to use by simply copying the canonical works of art or craft, models which supply the Memory they lack. Such gifted but uninspired artists may achieve unusual feats of virtuosity within their medium. But more than that, they will very likely graduate one day to the second degree of true inspiration, the constant contemplation of the models having awakened in them their own souls’ Memory.

This leads us in our descent through the creative hierarchy without a break to the position of the artist’s audience. For the beholder or receiver of the work of art, contemplation of beautiful objects should awaken (to paraphrase Plato17) the memory and finally the awareness of that Intelligible Beauty that is their source. This is the ulterior purpose of art and craft alike. In the traditional crafts it is reached by means of symbols, like the geometrical patterns or animal emblems on textiles or pottery, or the elements of’ masonry, whose meaning is revealed in craft initiations. In traditional ‘arts’ — which means in effect those crafts employed in the service of religion — the symbols are overt, though their range of meaning will not be appreciated by all alike. It is up to the beholder to follow the symbol as far as his capacity allows, but his effort is sanctified by the fact that the object is true to its source. The only such musical art in the West is plainchant.

I have been considering the arts and their inspiration as found in traditional societies, leaving aside the special case of their development in the modern West. But now we come to analyze the experience of the listener, less distinction is necessary. People, after all, are not very different in their needs and desires, wherever and whenever we look at them. There are certain needs which music best fulfils, but it may be music of many types. I make the first division according to the three regions of the human being: belly, chest, and head. Every developed culture has music aimed at each level. There is visceral music, usually marked by strong rhythm, which makes one feel physically powerful (the battle march) or sexually aroused (the harem dance). Next there is the music of the heart and its emotions, with lovesickness always in pride of place since this is the strongest emotion one can feel, with the exception of bereavement. Thirdly there is music which sets thought in motion: the thought of the connoisseur who understands what is going on in the composer’s mind or in the performer’s actions and follows it with dispassionate interest. just as in the diagrams of Renaissance cosmologists these three bodily regions correspond to the three macrocosmic realms of the Elements, the Planets, and the Angels, so in a humble way these ordinary musical experiences exercise Body, Soul, and Intellect.

This is true, at least to a degree, whether or not one is consciously involved in the music. Much of the time the listener is absent, either by accident as when one’s mind wanders in a concert, or by design, as when one hears music as background to some foreground activity such as reading, watching a film, dining, working, etc. The choice of background music, as the specialists in Muzak and film scores know, is a delicate matter even if people never notice it. For a film it must intensify the prevailing affect, hence be aimed at the visceral or emotional level. For the other purposes it must be unobtrusive, familiar in style, constant in mood. It works through the unconscious mind to harmonize the being — and this is meant literally, for the sounding of consonant harmonies and regular rhythm does have a harmonious and regularizing effect on the body and psyche. When used as a background to reading or other work of the mind, it serves to give the emotional and physical bodies something to attune themselves to, so that they do not obtrude on the desired field of consciousness. Where mealtime music is concerned, it contributes to psychic harmony by covering awkward gaps in the conversation, while its rhythms aid the body’s digestion.

It has also been known for centuries that music helps people work, and the more boring or disagreeable the work, the more it is welcome. Classical writers mention the songs of galley-slaves; nowadays it is the drudgery of factory work that is relieved by specially designed Muzak. If factory-workers are left to do their job in silence, they all too readily begin to dislike and resent it, envy those whose fortunes they are helping to make, and take frequent breaks for gossip. Muzak provides a clever solution to this problem by attacking on two levels simultaneously. Subconsciously, it again presents an example of regularity and harmony to which the worker’s body and psyche naturally attune themselves. Consciously, it provides pictures, usually of a pleasantly romantic nature, to keep the imagination or fantasy occupied. Watered-down versions of popular love-songs therefore make the best factory music, just as the romances of film-stars and other princesses make the most popular reading-matter. They create a mild erotic haze in which the work-day passes quickly and easily.

Even in more elevating surroundings than factories, the commonest use of music is to feed the fantasy. Most concert-goers, though the may not realize it, are ‘lookers’ to a far greater extent than they are listeners. The music creates scenes, events, journeys, pictures in their imagination, working like a kind of low-grade synaesthesia (the function in which tones are transmuted directly into visions). Some kinds of music explicitly invite this level of listening by means of an extra-musical programme or title. The Romantic era from Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique) to Debussy (La Cathédrale Engloutie, etc.) was the heyday of such programme-music: before then, it was a curiosity (Renaissance battle-pieces; Kuhnau’s Biblical Sonatas, etc.); afterwards, rather an embarrassment. But outside Europe it is still the norm. In the traditional music of the Ear East, most compositions are avowedly descriptive or evocative, usually of a natural scene: Ducks Flying over a Moonlit Lake, The First Chrysanthemum, November Steps, etc. The same may be said of Chinese and Japanese poetry and painting, for that matter, in which, similarly, scenes of natural beauty serve both to calm and refresh the soul and to carry a philosophical message to the intellect.

But there does not have to be a title for the listener to interpret the music programmatically. Westerners prefer, on the whole, to choose their tone-pictures for themselves. Besides, there are many other contributing factors, apart from the music. One’s inner imagery may be blended with thoughts of current concerns at home or work: the concert may be spent in deciding how to redecorate the kitchen, or in imaginary conversations with colleagues, and yet afterwards one may say that yes, it was a lovely evening and the music was beautiful. Alternatively — or additionally, for all these modes of ‘listening’ may be exercised at one and the same event — the focus of attention and fantasy may be on the atmosphere of the setting, especially when this is something other than an ordinary concert hall: the splendour of Rococo church or palace; the sanctity and resonance of Gothic cathedral; the natural setting of outdoor events. It may be the other people there: the person one loves, the group of friends, the celebrity in the next row or in the Royal Box.

Coming closer now to the musical event in itself, the listener’s primary attention may be on the performer(s). Certain individuals and even groups carry with them an aura so compelling that their own presence is the most felt reality, quite apart from the music. People would go to hear (or actually to see and feel) Vladimir Horowitz or Mick Jagger no matter what they were playing or singing, knowing that the experience would be an intense one. At a slightly higher level, perhaps, it may be the composer’s personality which one encounters. Several of the great composers have become heroic figures and exemplars for our culture, at the same time being individuals for whom one may have a deep love and respect. People identify especially with those who have suffered in their lives and transcended in their music. One need not look far to find examples of debilitating illness, deafness, blindness, poverty, loneliness, rejection, insanity, or sexual preferences outlawed by society. But in every case their music emerges supreme as the healing Elixir extracted from the soul’s dark night. Another group, not necessarily separate but smaller, is constituted of those whose creative achievements exceed merely human limits, and it is these who have been mentioned before as the ‘avatars’ among composers.

All such extra-musical ‘listening’ is of value only if it achieves useful inner work. Otherwise it remains day-dreaming, the futile play of the ego which is always a waste of time if undirected by the will. The release from outer concerns into the inner world of imagery allows the creatures of the unconscious to come forward. But what sort of creatures are they? If they attach themselves to images of triumph through suffering, of nobility of soul, of divine order, all is well and good. If the images are of violence and depravity, then harm is being done. Examples of this are legion in the popular music of today, now with the further refinement of music-videos, in which the music is accompanied with filmed imagery of a generally disgusting nature. This new industry is aimed at young adolescents, i.e. those of the most sensitive age when discrimination has not yet matured but the social and sexual attitudes of a lifetime are being formed. If anyone deserves mill-stones around their necks, it is those who plant these images of obscenity and irresponsibility, cruelty and destruction in the psyches of the young, to flourish one day into God knows what monstrous fruit.

The alchemical work does indeed sound out the depths: that is the putrefactio, the visit to the Inferno, without which the Work cannot proceed with its purgative processes and its paradisal conclusion. In psychological terms it means coming face to face with the depravity and cruelty of one’s own ego-nature, so that one may be quite certain that growth is to be away from, not within, the latter. To accept putrefaction is necessary, but to soak oneself in it, to embrace it and actually to enjoy it that is perversion, from which can grow only the spiritual powers of the Black magician. It is no surprise, then, to see the Satanic imagery, already implicit in the words and music of the Rolling Stones and their successors, brought to life in these videos populated by sacrificed virgins, soul-less hermaphrodites, and memories of the Third Reich.

Only when one’s listening is concentrated unbrokenly on the music no matter whether imagery, good or bad, is present does one enter a phase comparable and complementary to the third degree of creativity mentioned above. This is the kind of creativity that comes from the composer’s ego and skill alone, hence subject to his own psychological makeup. The listener then shares in his personality, for better or worse, by means of responses that again fall into the three main divisions of visceral, emotional, and mental, or those of body-music, heart-music, and head-music.

Body-music is strongly rhythmic and regular, thus resembling the physical constitution itself It is best felt by actual participation in the movement and gesture, whether in the perfect discipline of classical ballet, the weightless swirl of the waltz, or the orgiastic contortions of popular and savage dancing. Even without this there will be some felt response on the part of the passive listener. For instance, the loud obstinate beat of rock ‘n’ roll raises the pulse and breathing rate, and the listener responds by foot- or hand-tapping. Some people, in fact, react to all music in this way, or not at all. But in the more refined forms of body-music, the response takes place not in the physical but in the subtle body; to be precise, in the linga sharira or etheric body through which the movements of the will are transferred to the physical vehicle. This is the locus of those empathetic feelings of lightness and grace which one experiences at the ballet. As a subtle vehicle, it is capable of movements and impulses which, in the untrained person, cannot possibly be realized on the physical level. It dances with the dancer, who differs from ordinary people in having brought the two vehicles into unanimity.

Heart-music grips one by the emotions, which have their seat not in the physical or etheric vehicles (though they may affect these) but in the kama rupa or vehicle of passions and desires. For one’s everyday emotions it substitutes the vicarious longings, the artificial sorrows and joys, for which art has always been cultivated. Since this is the centre of most systems of musical aesthetics, and of most people’s experience, little need be said about it here. But again it is an important consideration whether the emotions generated are ennobling or debasing. Whether they are happy or sad is an incidental matter. Is the sorrow that of the hurt ego (the maudlin self-pity of the Blues) or of the higher Self entombed therein (the St. Matthew Passion)? Is the joy that of sexual conquest or that of the praise-song that fertile Nature sings to her Creator? When it acts positively, heart-music aids in the refinement of our own emotions by displaying those of people better than ourselves. If it displays those of people who are worse, then persistent exposure will cause us to resemble them instead.

Head-music is perceived in the kama manas, the ‘lower mind’. Here the music is transmuted into thoughts, usually visual in nature but far removed from the idle fantasies described earlier. This is the preserve of the trained musician, the connoisseur in the sense of being cognizant of what is going on. The music may be experienced as spread out over inner space, its different pitches and textures separated as in a score. Often the image of a keyboard, or the feel of one’s hands on an instrument, appears as an aid to understanding. Words, too, explain the harmonies and forms in the language of musical analysis. Empathetic emotion is supplanted by the critical intellect (now using the term in its lower, more usual sense): the faculty that watches, weighs, and judges the work or the performer. Here, too, the connective thoughts have their place that comprehend the music in its historical context or in relation to the composer’s other works. Musicologists commonly become addicted to this level of listening, and for some types of music it is the only proper response.

Composers have periodically delighted in their technical capacity to set and solve musical puzzles. Of course a composer is doing this all the time, to a certain degree, but I refer to virtuoso efforts, such as Guillaume de Machaut’s rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement, in which the second part of the music is the first part played backwards, or the canonic tradition that runs from the late 15th century Netherlands composers to J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Art of Fugue, and Musical Offering. When the composer presents us overtly with a work of great ingenuity, the right response is to appreciate it as such, which means to think it through as he has done. The same applies to compositions by modern serial composers which are evidently first and foremost the work of cerebration. In the 1950s and 60s it was quite common for such composers to explain how their compositions were constructed, using charts, diagrams, and tables, so that those few with the patience to follow them (usually other composers with similar intentions) could cerebrate in turn. This attitude was born from the discovery of the intricate structures that govern the works of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern): a discovery that still continues as a veritable analytic industry.

This desire to uncover secret structures goes back at least to Albert Schweitzer’s recognition, early in the century, of the symbolic and numerological meanings incorporated in J. S. Bach’s music. The analytic method of Heinrich Schenker, also the fountainhead of a thriving academic industry, is a cognate phenomenon, conceived at about the same time. What all these approaches do — and it is both their strength and their shortcoming — is to substitute a cerebral construct for the pure untranslated perception of the sound. By representing the music in verbal and visual terms, they allow the eye to assist or supplant the ear. The analytic charts of Schenker and others show relationships between musical events, necessarily separated in time, as if they were simultaneous in space. Only the very highest degree of ‘structural hearing’ can overcome all visual representation and return to the purely audible, and I doubt that this can ever be done with twelve-tone and serial music: I mean hearing all the relationships without any visual or verbal translation. Certainly composers like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern did not intend that to be the ultimate content of their music.

The craze for uncovering secret structures continues in all the arts today. More and more of Bach’s music has been show-n to be based on significant numbers. Schumann’s music contains ciphered messages. Bartók and Debussy apparently made conscious use of the Golden Section or ‘Divine Proportion’, doubtless for philosophical as well as psychological reasons.18 In other disciplines there are the parallel searches for numerological schemes in poetry (Dante, Spenser, etc.) and geometrical ones in painting and architecture. The discovery by John Michell and others of an ancient and universal Canon of measurement, cosmologically based and applicable to every creative activity, shows the original and exemplary form of such ‘Lawfulness’. But there is no suggestion here that the proper use of a Gothic cathedral or of a Debussy prelude is to be measured. Once the work is complete, the scaffolding can be thrown away.

Listening with a combination of bodily, emotional, and thinking responses can be an extremely rich and rewarding experience. It is the summit of ‘third-degree’ listening, in which the composer is paid the compliment of full attention, yet in which the higher faculties of the listener are still not involved. Another model is necessary as we proceed to the types of listening that compare to the second degree of inspiration, as defined above. Just as most composers never know this degree of inspiration, so most listeners never suspect its existence. Before entering on the difficult task of trying to explain it, I will anticipate the reader’s question and say that I do not believe there is any form of listening that corresponds to the first degree of creative inspiration — the rare degree I have called ‘avataric’, for the simple reason that above the second level, ‘listening’ as such ceases, and the activity that supersedes it is of the nature of mystical or philosophic meditation. This no longer requires any musical support, though of course music may be a helpful prelude to it.

The new model is a refinement of the body-emotion-intellect (or visceral-heart-head) scheme. It is based on three of the subtle centres of the individual, known to all esoteric traditions but most commonly referred to via the Hindu system of seven chakras. Three of these are involved here: in ascending order, (1) the anahata chakra, linked to the heart in the physical body and often called the Heart Centre; (2) the vishudda chakra, also known as the Throat Centre; (3) the ajna chakra, situated between the eyebrows and called the Third Eye. There are three lower chakras which do not concern us here: no aspirant on the Right Hand Path concentrates on them except for purposes of purification, though, regrettably, they remain the centres of consciousness for much of humanity. The uppermost chakra, the ‘Thousand-petalled Lotus’ at the crown of the head, is in turn beyond our subject.

When one listens to music — and it must be music of a suitable degree of inspiration with one’s consciousness deliberately focused in the Heart Centre, one may be able to enter a higher octave of emotion than that of ordinary heart-music. What is now felt is no longer the human emotions that heart-music represents, but the feeling-qualities that underlie that representation: the face behind the mask. These are cosmic feeling-qualities beyond joy and sorrow: they are experienced as an ever-changing dilation and contraction, tension and release, to which none of the five external senses offers any parallel but which find an echo in the astrological signs of the Zodiac. In Western music they are carried primarily by the harmony, but naturally this dimension of experience is not absent from unharmonized forms such as plainchant or Oriental music; it is present there as the tonal centre of gravity, to which all the other tones are related as specific feelings. Here as always, the convention of a language must be assumed, and as verbal languages differ, so one cannot normally expect to feel perfect empathy with musical styles which one has never learnt. Therefore the Westerner should attend to the harmony. Although all great composers have been masters of this dimension, some have had a particular genius that lays it bare. They are the composers such as Chopin and Wagner, who, while commanding the widest harmonic palette, can still give to the simplest progressions an aspect of profound meaning. One could take as an example the eight chords with which Wagner describes the waking of Brünnhilde in Siegfried:

Brünnhilde’s Awakening, from Richard Wagner, Siegfried, Act III, Scene 3. (Simplified).

What do these harmonic progressions mean? As soon as they are analyzed or verbalized, the magic is lost. They do not even mean that Brünnhilde is awakening: that is a translation of music into the inferior language of drama, They mean what they are, and the listener to the Heart has no need for explanation.

The ajna chakra or Throat Centre is traditionally connected with artistic creation and with the use of the voice, the primordial creative organ of both divine and human beings. So it is not surprising to find the key to it in melody. If one listens while one’s consciousness is placed at the throat, the larynx may actually respond soundlessly as if one is singing the melody, just as the dilations of the anahata chakra may be felt physically around the heart. One should try to stop this natural reaction, because it tends to exteriorize the melody in an imaginary space of high and low notes, besides the possibility of one’s response deteriorating into merely ‘singing along’. Spatializing the melody leads readily into the stance of mental observation characteristic of head-music. To avoid this, the listener should not observe the melody, but rather become identified with it as a golden thread that winds throughout the piece and provides a vehicle for its journey through time. Again, the melody should not be represented in any form other than itself. By listening in this way one comes very close to the limpid spring of melodic inspiration to which the composer has listened and from which he has been able to draw. It is an experience of the nature of Time.

Finally, one may place the attention between the eyebrows, closing one’s eyes as one must, unless adept at meditation, for all these exercises. Now one is again ‘looking at’ the music, but at this higher level it has nothing of the visual about it. The vision of the Third Eye is more akin to insight. It is a concentrated attention without selectivity from which one may merge and become identified with the music itself. Then the normal state, that of ego-bound consciousness, is supplanted by the state of music.

Whoever is in love with Music is in love with Death. The deepest experience of music, like the climax of love, is a self-forgetting, a replacement of the ego by the state of ecstasy: a condition of perfect presence and perfect concentration — concentration without effort, presence without a person to be present. One can say nothing about the nature of music in this ideal state of annihilation, except that it has very little to do with anything generally associated with music: there are no instruments, no singers, no keys, scales, no sense of high or low, no emotion (for that requires a person to be moved, and a place to be moved to). The music is; and it is all that is. Whatever it does, is right. It moves without moving in a space without dimensions. All one can be entirely certain of is Time, for there is change in this world. And yet there is something beyond it still: for occasionally a silence peeps through the music, and with that silence a glimpse of yet another order of being. When the music ceases, this Other is revealed. If the music was spaceless, this is timeless, too. When the music stops, time may, just possibly, stop for a moment, and then annihilation is complete: no individual, no music, nothing. The purpose of music is to lead us, time and again, to the threshold of this Void, in the hope that one day we will be strong enough to step across it. We practise through music during life in order that when we die we may catch that ever-open door, that needle’s eye, and willingly leave behind all that we are to vanish through it.


1 Lecture of 12 November, 1906, published in Rudolf Steiner, Dos Wesen des Musikalischen und das Tonerlebnis im Menschen, (Domach, Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1975), pp. 19-29.

2 Ibid., p. 25.

3 Ibid., pp. 26, 28.

4 Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff (N.Y., Heritage Press, 1954), pp. 362-3.

5 Ibid., pp. 363-4.

6 Ibid., pp. 365-6.

7 Camille Mauclair, La Religion de la Musique et les Héros de l’Orchestre (Pans, Fischbacher, 1938), p, 114,

8 Ibid., p. 89.

9 Arthur M. Abell, Talks with Great Composers (N.Y., Philosophical Library, 1955) pp. 13-14.

10 Ibid., p. 86.

11 Ibid., p. 138.

12 Ibid., p. 122,

13 Ibid., p. 144.

14 Ibid., p. 162.

15 Genesis 4.21.

16 H. Hickmann and W. Stauder, Orientalische Musik (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1970), p. 24.

17 Symposium, 210 d—e.

18 See Roy Howat, Debussy in Proportion: a Musical Analysis (Cambridge U.P., 1983).