The Master Koot Hoomi calls music “the most divine and spiritual of arts,” (ML, p. 264) and both he and the Master Morya show some technical knowledge of music in their letters (ML, p. 120). Music was among Helena P. Blavatsky’s many accomplishments. On her first visit to London in 1844 she took piano lessons from Ignaz Moscheles (A. P. Sinnett, Incidents in the Life of H.P. Blavatsky, p. 37). In the late 1860s she was involved with the operatic bass Agardi Metrovich, and performed concerts in the Balkans (J. O. Fuller, Blavatsky and Her Teachers, p. 19, with comments). Henry S. Olcott praised her piano playing in their New York days (ODL I, 1941 ed., pp. 458-9). Her Esoteric Section Instructions include schemes of correspondence between the musical scale and other septenaries (CW XII:562, 621). The only other early Theosophist seriously involved with music was Emma Hardinge Britten, who had worked in the Paris studio of Erard as a piano demonstrator and who composed music for her spiritualist educational program, the Lyceum.
After the death of Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society continued as a driving force behind a movement of renewed spiritual aspiration and interest in the Orient, in ancient wisdom, and in the occult. This period, up to World War I, saw theosophy’s greatest influence on music, when it was linked specifically with composers (as also with painters) in the forefront of the Modernist movement.
In France, theosophy contributed to the occultist atmosphere of the fin de siècle period, out of which came the “Rosicrucian” music of Erik Satie, and the symbolist opera of Maurice Maeterlinck and Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande. One of the chief French theosophists was the minor composer and musicologist Edmond Bailly, whose Chant des voyelles, performed at the Theosophical Congress of 1906, sought to recreate the magical invocations of ancient Egypt.
Alexander Scriabin was a great enthusiast for Blavatsky’s writings and for theosophy. His synthesis of color with music resembles the correspondences of Hermeticism. His Prometheus, the Poem of Fire uses an invocation from the Stanzas of Dzyan, and his unfinished synthesis of the arts, Mystery, is an essentially theosophical vision of the coming transformation of humanity. Another Russian theosophist, Nicholas ROERICH, was the designer of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (1913), and probably an influence on the composer’s mystical cantata The King of the Stars.
In Germany, the theosophist and astrologer Oskar Adler (1874-1955) had a great influence on Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. He played string quartets with the young Schoenberg, and convinced him to become a composer. Schoenberg’s early music draws on Strindberg and Swedenborg (Der Jakobsleiter; Séraphîta), while his later works on Jewish themes are indebted to The Kabbalah. Webern’s inclination was more towards a Christian nature-mysticism, as in the Cantatas and other works on texts by Hildegard Jone.
Three English composers were intimately involved with theosophy. Cyril Scott was the author of the anonymous books The Initiate and its sequels. He believed that Koot Hoomi was instrumental in directing his musical career and in inspiring the writing of Music, Its Secret Influence Through the Ages. Scott’s powerful First Piano Sonata, which stands comparison with that of Alban Berg, belies his reputation as a minor Impressionist and folklorist.
John Foulds (1880-1939) was another misunderstood composer, known for his light music rather than for his many deeper works. Foulds came to theosophy through his wife, Maud MacCarthy, who had traveled in India with Annie Besant. She was a child prodigy violinist, an expert on Indian music, and a clairvoyant who wrote, as “Swami Omananda Puri,” the autobiographical The Boy and the Brothers (1959). Foulds’s World Requiem for the dead of World War I was conceived in the non-sectarian spirit of theosophy, and his Mantras for large orchestra and Essays in the Modes for piano were based on Indian and ancient Greek modes.
Gustav Holst, while not a member of the Society, was attracted by every aspect of its program and was a friend of the theosophists Clifford Bax (the brother of the composer Arnold Bax), G. R. S. Mead, and Alan Leo, the astrologer. Holst’s choice of themes is significant: they include a chamber opera Savitri, based on a story from the Mah€bh€rata, (1907-8), Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, scored for girl’s choir (1909-10, for which Holst learned Sanskrit so he could do his own translations of the hymns), The Hymn of Jesus, with words from a Gnostic text that G. R. S. Mead had translated, (1917-19, for which he studied Greek), Ode to Death, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman (1919), and the popular orchestral suite The Planets (1914-1917), a thoroughly astrological work.
In the United States, the important modernist composer Henry Cowell spent 1916-17 in the community of the “Temple of the People” in Halcyon, California, and composed music for his patrons there (ballet The Building of Bamba, cantata Atlantis). Cowell developed an interest in mythology, especially Celtic, that would last all his life, emerging in his Symphony no. 11, “The Seven Rituals of Music.” Dane Rudhyar was born in France and came to America in 1916, where he led a dual career as composer and astrologer. His music shows the influence of Scriabin. Other composers touched by theosophy are Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius. Both moved in theosophical circles and held a firm belief in reincarnation (Cranston, H.P.B., 495-497).
While music played an essential role in Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Movement and in George I. Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, its place was never strongly defined in the programs of the various Theosophical Societies. By the 1920s the direct influence of theosophy on musicians had diminished, while its indirect effects were diffusing throughout Western culture. Among the consequences of these was the Peace Movement of the 1960s, with its strong input from Oriental spirituality. Much of the popular music of that period, with its aspirations towards human brotherhood and its connection with altered states of consciousness, can be seen as an extremely exoteric descendant of theosophy.
The same intentions were present, with very different musical results, in the compositions and philosophy of John Cage, who was largely responsible for introducing Zen Buddhist concepts into the postwar avant-garde movement. Among living composers, the German Karlheinz Stockhausen best exemplifies the theosophical program of brotherhood, ecumenism, and research into human potential. His seven opera-cycle Licht is a mythological work of universal ambitions, suffused with esoteric ideas and intended to have a transformative effect on its hearers. The modern Italian composer and author Renato de Grandis is an active member of the Italian Section of The Theosophical Society.
Cranston, Sylvia. H.P.B. (Tarcher, 1994)
Head, Raymond. “Astrology and Modernism in ‘The Planets,’” in Tempo 187 (1993), pp. 15-22
MacDonald, Malcolm. John Foulds and His Music. (White Plains, 1989)
Rudhyar, Dane. The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music. (Boulder, 1982)
Scott, Cyril. The Philosophy of Modernism — Its Connection with Music. (London, n.d.)
Sinnett, A. P. Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky. (London, 1913).
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