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Musical Mystics: Mysticism In Classical Music

Ether Game becomes one with the divine in this mystical episode.

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Photo: Pixabay

We're appealing to a higher power this week, looking at some musical mystics!

This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust attempts to become one with the divine. We’re looking at the cross between classical music and mysticism this show. Here’s our list of some notable “Musical Mystics.”

  • Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) – Hildegard of Bingen is one of history’s earliest-known female composers and a celebrated mystic in her own time. She began having sacred visions at a very young age, leading her parents to pack her off to a convent. She eventually worked her way up the hierarchy, ultimately becoming an abbess and founding several abbeys in medieval Germany. In addition to her multifaceted life as an abbess, herbalist, poet, visionary, and linguist, Hildegard is well-known for her large body of surviving liturgical music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, a medieval morality play, sixty-nine other musical compositions survive, and many more are thought to be lost. Some scholars have since attempted to explain her visions as the result of intense Migranes. However in the Roman Catholic church she was one of the first persons to receive the official process of canonization and is still considered a staple of visionary theology.

  • Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) – Alexander Scriabin was a practitioner of theosophy, a mystical form of philosophy concerned with the divine, and the mysteries of life and the universe. His belief system began to permeate his musical works, especially the orchestral work Prometheus: The Poem Of Fire. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is the figure who brought fire from the gods to humankind, thus creating a link between humans and the divine. Scriabin translated this philosophical concept into music and light (yes, Scriabin saw music and color, and included an early 20th-century light show as part of the original performance). Embedded in this work is what’s often referred to as Scriabin’s “mystic chord.” This six-note chord had other-worldly powers, according to Scriabin, designed to, in his words “reveal what was in essence beyond the mind of man to conceptualize.” Scholars have always been up for a challenge, though, and have spent decades trying to conceptualize the mystic chord!

  • John Tavener (1944–2013) – Composer John Tavener (not to be confused with 16th-century composer John Taverner) was always religious. When he was 15 years old in the early 1960s, he served as the organist at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Kensington, England, and his first big artistic breakthrough came when he was 24, with his cantata The Whale, a work about the biblical story of Jonah. However, when he was about 30 years old, he was introduced to the Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity, and eventually converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Tavener was especially drawn to the mysticism of Eastern Orthodoxy, and this spiritual change also brought about a change in his music. He wanted to compose truly sacred music, not just music about religion, and he began to study traditional Byzantine chant. From the 1970s on, much his music explored the mystic icons of the church. That’s the case for his piece The Protecting Veil, inspired by the veil of Mary, the Virgin mother of Jesus.

  • G. I. Gurdjieff (c. 1866–1949) – While many composers dabbled in mysticism, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was a mystic, who dabbled in composition. Gurdjieff was born in Armenia in the 19th century, and spent his life in pursuit of the truth (with a capital T). He developed a method for self-actualization referred to as the “Fourth Way.” Instead of focusing on improving one aspect of one’s life—like the mind, the body, or the emotions—the fourth way focuses on improving all three simultaneously, in order to access true human potential (at least that’s the best we understand it). Gurdjieff’s music was meant to accompany movements he created to help one achieve this Fourth Way. He himself was not a skilled musician, so many of his works were in fact collaborations with composer Thomas de Hartmann. De Hartmann was one of Gurdjieff’s students and a devotee of his specific brand of mysticism.

  • Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) – Arvo Pärt is typically grouped with a certain band of composers from the late-twentieth century informally referred to as “holy” or “mystic minimalists,” along with Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Alan Hovhaness, and Henryk Górecki. These composers used minimalist composition techniques—lots of repetition, minimal harmonic motion, simple melodic material—but composed with religion or mysticism in mind. Pärt’s work Fratres (“Brothers”) is an example of this style. It’s a minimalist piece, using his unique style known as tintinnabuli, which imitates the slow, repetitive tolling of bells. But its goal is to use music to try to reconcile the internal struggle between, as the composer puts it “the instant and eternity.” Fratres was originally written for violin and piano in 1980, but the work does not require any fixed instrumentation. Pärt himself has rearranged it nearly 20 times for various combinations of strings, wind, and percussion instruments.

  • Richard Wagner (1813–1883) – Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, was written late in the composer’s life, when he began to embrace Christianity, philosophy, and the teachings of Eastern religions like Buddhism. The opera concerns the Knights of the Holy Grail, a mystical order of Arthurian knights who gained spiritual insight after finding the cup that held Christ’s blood. The third act is set on the morning of Good Friday. After defeating Klingsor, the magician, Parsifal returns to the castle of the Knights of the Grail and is hailed as their savior. This “Good Friday Music” features a new type of scoring for Wagner, which he referred to as “layers of cloud, separating and reforming.” Wagner was himself somewhat of a self-identified mystic, especially around the time he wrote Parsifal, believing that his music described a reality beyond our own, in which all emotions and truths exist in absolute purity.

  • “Neptune, The Mystic” from Planets, by Gustav Holst (1874–1934) – Gustav Holst’s Planets suite is in part based on the celestial objects orbiting the sun and in part based on the mythical gods that gave them their name. The “Neptune” movement is named after Neptune, the mystic Roman god of the dark, tranquil sea. When this piece was written in 1916, Neptune was thought to be the last planet in our solar system (for what it’s worth, it’s still considered that today, but only because Pluto, discovered in 1930, was demoted to a “dwarf planet.”) In this haunting movement, Holst wrote one of the first “fade outs” in classical music, meant to represent the stasis and emptiness of space, stretching out forever. The premiere conducted by legendary British conductor Adrian Boult. To achieve this fadeout effect, Holst placed a women’s choir offstage in an adjacent room, and during the final bar of the piece, the door to the room was slowly and silently closed, while the final bar was repeated softer and softer until no sound was heard. A mystical experience, to be sure.

Music Heard On This Episode

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