The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Civilizations grow to empires, and empires spread. Musical traditions blend with one another, sharing modes, instruments and inspirations. Notation, style, instruction and instrumentation attain a dazzling complexity, striving to capture – in rigid forms of wood, metal and ink – an art too fluid to hold on to. Although some cultures keep “common” forms of music that anyone could share, most develop elite refinements that only specially-trained people can perform.
Three distinct modes evolve: courtly music, which entertains, informs and glorifies royalty; folk music, which expresses the lot of the common people; and sacred music, which evokes and celebrates the gods. Since one man’s religion is another man’s magic, this last tradition holds deep metaphysical intent. Employing sacred mathematics and discipline, such music makes things happen. Ideally, magical harmonies allow musicians to influence their world toward greater things; in practical terms, it channels Otherworldly power through song. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how you feel about the singer’s intentions. And so, some rulers ban certain kinds of music or – in the case of Arabian clerics and hard-line Protestants – forbid music altogether.
Existing in between those realms, a specialized type of musician appears. Called bards, griots, ashiks, and many other names, these wisdom-keepers master complex songs of legend, gossip and devotion. Some, like the Hindu udgatr, reflect a formalized priesthood; others, like Nordic skalds, become gifted courtiers. Medieval French troubadourscarry ballads across Western Europe, while Mandink jel ipreserve the musical djali (“blood”) of their communities and lords. Deeply skilled, these men (and, rarely but occasionally, women) live and die by their poetic and musical skill. In some cultures, they’re honored; among others, despised. Many of these artists wander around, surviving off of tributes, lovers, patrons and the occasional bribe. Others maintain vital roles within their communities, trained by their elders and supported by their neighbors. Such folk deal closely with the Otherworlds… sometimes romancing the faeries, like Thomas the Rhymer, or singing down forgiveness, like the medicine virgin Fawn, from the Great Spirit Behind the Sun. They might venture out into the night with only courage and music as their company, like the girl in Edward Robert Hughes’ painting Midsummer Eve; or attach themselves to powerful patrons, like Sir Robin’s minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Neither path assures a long and healthy life… but then, music rarely does.
As refinements of civilization bring refinements of musicology, scholastic and esoteric systems develop around the notation and composition of songs. The Chinese, Indian and Persian empires have developed such systems long before the Common Era; from there, they then refine their traditions as the years go by. Far later, in Europe, a blend of liturgical music, Pythagorian mathematics and a growing class of professional composers gives rise – by the early 1700s – to the European Classical style. As Europe’s grasp expands worldwide, this mode becomes the default musical approach for all “properly civilized” folk, influencing even the older traditions of the East. Complex arrangements, large orchestras and master-quality instruments soon give European Classical a vast tonal and thematic range. To composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig von Beethoven, Classical music literally becomes a divine instrument. As Franz Liszt writes in “On the Church Music of the Future,” Come, hour of deliverance, when poets and artists will forget the public and will know one slogan only: man and God.
Deliberately esoteric, Classical music incorporates mysticism, religion, and outright magic. Carrying forward the sacred arts of Pythagoras, many composers strive to bring the Music of the Spheres to a troubled earth.Monteverdi employs Hermetic elements and Neoplatonic themes in his operas, especially La Favola d’Orfeo – “The Legend of Orpeus.” Mozart, a Freemason, works arcane themes and calculations throughout his music, particularly in his faerie tale opera, The Magic Flute. About the composition of his famous Messiah, Handel declares, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself.”Beethoven’s majestic Fifth Symphony will eventually be described by musicologist David Tame as, “the confrontation between mortal and immortal, man and the Supreme.” According to Beethoven himself: Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life… to which he adds, For life is short, art eternal.
Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Devil’s Trill
Yet even this sacred music bears whiffs of brimstone. The demonic passions of the violinist Paganini inspire rumors of sinister pacts. Faeries dance in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; pagans revel in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Composers bring hell to earth through Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Saint-Saëns’ “Dance Macabre,” and Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Stravinsky’sFirebird weaves an “Infernal Dance,” while Liszt has Faust bear a young woman away to the strains of his “Mephisto Waltz.” The dissonant tritone combination earns the namediabolus in musica – “the Devil in music”; folklore will eventually claim that musicians who played the tritone are excommunicated or killed, although historical evidence does not support that claim. (A fact for which Black Sabbath, who’ll use the tritone as the foundation for the band’s self-titled debut, should be grateful!) Despite a very real risk of disgrace or death to certain artists, the Adversary and his minions remain too artistically compelling to ignore. Even the divinely musical Spheres have their metaphysical counterparts in the dissonant “shells” of the KabbalisticQlipoth – the shattered remains of God’s forsaken shadow.
For obvious reasons, Otherworldly entities find such music fascinating. Spectral fiddlers and demonic pipers caper through the night. Ghosts howl their plaintive songs, swirling across haunted ballrooms as they had done before in life. Faeries and devils challenge mortal musicians to contests of skill. Satan himself displays a keen interest in the fiddle, an instrument whose infernal connections will be rivaled, in time, only by the electric guitar.
Meanwhile, the earthly sins of European domination lay the groundwork for the next – and largest – movement in music…
It begins when the call-and-response vocal artistry of West African music, the percussive elements of African and Native American beats, and the complex strings and pipes of European and Middle Eastern orchestration collide in North and South America. Slaves, immigrants and natives bring their musical cultures to the raw frontiers of the so-called “New World.” There, Kokopelli, Eleggua, Jesus and Old Scratch meet at the crossroads and begin to jam.
While Richard Wagner crafts hymns to the Old Gods of his Old World, a new fusion of music – both sacred and profane – sprouts like weeds in the fertile hills of Appalachia and the muddy soil of the Mississippi Delta. By the mid-1800s, the young United States starts fusing diverse and often mystical musical traditions. From the Italian opera tradition comes a sentimental form of “parlour music,” to while away the hours in well-to-do homes. Celtic, French and Germanic settlers craft plain and simple folk tunes. Settlers and cowboys carry them off into the west, adding elements of Spanish and Native American music, plus the Mexican song tradition that mingles elements of both. Black Americans (free and otherwise) blend plantation work songs, African beats, and call-and-response singing into dynamic styles that defy most European traditions. Instruments used by Civil War army bands wind up, after the war ends, among civilian musicians of all ethnicities. Anxious to relieve the vast silence of the plains, many of these musicians teach themselves to play, inventing new forms of music that both appall and fascinate Classical composers.
As the piano finds a ragged place in Old West saloons and post-slavery juke joints, the plaintive cry of Native American chants echoes with Spanish guitars and British balladry. The churches of black Baptists and white Pentecostals ring with passionate gospel songs. Louisiana’s swamps stew up a heady gumbo of French, German, African and Native American songcraft, and the soaring flutes of Andean mountains drifts down to the flat plains beyond. The apocalyptic Ghost Dance of the late 1800s signals the end of Native American sovereignty, but Vodou drums bridge the gulf between a life of slavery and a powerful faith. Black workers and musicians move from rural fields to industrial cities in the late 1800s; from their migration, jazz and the blues are born. The roots of 20thcentury music grow wild and fast; between 1800 and 1900, those diverse seeds sprout, bloom and flower.
For a time, this earthy American music seems as ephemeral as prairie ghosts. European-style orchestras and genteel parlour music may dominate the cities, but the vast countryside, urban undergrounds, and endless frontiers belong to early blues, jazz, gospel and folk. Lit by candles, oil lamps and torches, a musician’s world exists largely in the shadows of polite society… often desired, sometimes forbidden, frequently magical, and always precarious.
And then humanity harnesses lightning… and the fun really begins…
(To be continued…)
[This article is the second part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2012 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written permission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!]