What Music Teaches Us about Presenting Theosophy
- Published: 17 September 2010
Edi Bilimoria – Australia
Music is not mere entertainment or just a pleasurable distraction when we have finished with the more serious side of life. Nor are opera, dance, and ballet just the elitist pursuit of the social dilettante. Music expresses the deepest core meaning of living and learning. For example, Handel, whose tremendous oratorio The Messiah has uplifted the consciousness of humanity for centuries, is supposed to have declared that his purpose was to make people better, not just to entertain them. As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out at the London premier of The Messiah, King George II rose to his feet and remained standing until the end of the chorus. To this day, audiences spontaneously revere this Chorus by standing up.
Of course, music like any of the arts, may hinder the seeker. Sensual or nerve-jarring cacophony, such as that at a disco, is a hindrance and arguably even a physical and moral danger to a sensitive person. But as elevating feeling by music is a yoga path to a perfect connection between the divine and the human, music is not only a form of expression but a means of lifting thought and feeling to the higher realm of illumination.
Music teaches us some wonderful things about life, brotherhood, and learning. It teaches us how to enrich the legacy of our Founders by an attitude of reverence within progression. How can we move Theosophy forward and communicate its message in a contemporary mode? While fully revering our Founders, we do not wish to remain stuck to a strict adherence to their original words, or rather, a literal interpretation of those words. So to understand the way forward, we have to go back to Bach—in a metaphorical sense, of course.
According to one story, an itinerant musician asked Franz Liszt—the great composer, pianist, and philanthropist—to play a Bach Prelude. Liszt inquired, "How do you want me to play it?" to which the musician remarked in surprise, "What do you mean? Just play it!" So Liszt played the piece faithfully to Bach’s score, not a single note added or subtracted and all the dynamic markings followed precisely. Then Liszt said, "This is exactly how Bach wrote it, but now let me play it to you as Bach would have wanted it to sound on a modern instrument." Whereupon the great pianist played the Prelude again, enriching it this time by utilizing the fuller sonorities and wider compass of the modern grand piano.
Was Liszt going "back to Bach"? In his first, faithful rendition, yes, but not at all in his second performance of the same piece. The whole point of the second performance was that Bach’s vision, necessarily constrained by the limitations of the keyboard of his day, was released and realized by Liszt's using the richer harmonies and extended keyboard range of the modern pianoforte. The primal impulse of Bach’s music was taken forwards through a superior form of expression.
Again Liszt remarked, "But the musically uninformed public would not appreciate this Bach Prelude. I’ll play it for you as I would do for the public." A third time Liszt played the Prelude, now embellishing the original score with rolling arpeggios and scales, and with a cigar in his mouth.
As another case, take the universally loved Chopin, whose music is about as unique and original as one can imagine. But he drew his primary inspiration from Bach and Mozart. Without these two Masters, Chopin would be nothing. But was he a carbon-copy parrot of Bach or a clone of Mozart? Hardly! He was enriching the impulse given by the Founding Fathers of the earlier Classical period through the milieu of the later Romantic tradition of the nineteenth century.
We Theosophists may prefer to speak to our audiences without resorting to a cigar, but how are we going to impart the abstruse perennial teachings to our modern public without getting bogged down in a prison of outdated words and inflexible interpretations? To do that, we have first to understand them for ourselves. Besant, Leadbeater, Jinarajadasa, and others drew admirably from science and art and used metaphors and analogies relevant to their times. What resources shall we draw upon to pass on the vision of our Founders to present-day inquirers?