Volume X - Sufi Mysticism
ART, YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
The ancient Greek music seems to have been largely the same as the music of the East. The Greeks had certain scales like the ragas in India, which also resembled the Persian scales. In this way, there was a similarity in the music of the human race; but there came a division between the music of the East and of the West when the Western music, especially the German, progressed in another direction. In the traditions and the history of the world, as far as one can trace, one finds that melody was considered the principal thing in the East as well as in the West; and the composers, according to their stage of evolution, enriched this melody as much as they could. At first the melodies were chiefly folk songs, but sometimes also more elaborate compositions; and as such they were the expression of the soul. They were not compositions in the sense of modern, more technical compositions; they were in reality imaginations. An artist made a melody, and that melody became known after he had sung or played it; then others took it up. In this way, one melody was sung by perhaps ten different musicians in various ways, each retaining his liberty in singing that melody. No doubt it was difficult even to recognize the same melody after four or five persons had sung or played it, yet each of these had his freedom of expression, right or wrong.
Music in the East was based on ragas, which means a certain arrangement of notes, a theme that was recognized and distinguished as a certain raga. These ragas were composed by four different classes of people: those who studied and practiced folk songs, and out of these folk-songs arranged certain themes or ragas; mathematicians, who worked out mathematically many hundreds of ragas; poets and dramatists, who composed ragas and their wives, raginis, as well as sons, daughters, and daughters and sons-in-law, creating in this way families of ragas in their imagination; and finally musicians, who out of the three above-mentioned kinds of ragas composed new ones with their musical gift. On these ragas the music of India was based.
The credit for every song a musician sang and for every theme he played went to him, because while the theme might consist of only four or eight bars, he improvised extensively on it and made it more interesting. Therefore a performer in India had to be a composer at the same time, although in these improvisations due consideration was given to the original theme and rhythm of the raga, so that the audience might be able to recognize it. Even today, if a musician sings a raga which is not exactly as it ought to be, there may be someone among the audience who while not knowing precisely what is wrong, will yet feel immediately that it does not sound right. This is just as in Italy, when an opera singer makes one little mistake; someone from the audience will immediately show his disapproval. This is because the music of the opera has become engraved upon the spirit of the lovers of opera. As soon as it seems slightly different from what they are accustomed to hearing, they know there is something wrong.
But what is most remarkable is that the mystics played such an important part in the development of Indian music. They used it for their meditation, as it was invented and taught by Mahadeva. Music is the most wonderful way to spiritual realization; there is no quicker and no surer way of attaining spiritual perfection than through music. The great Indian mystics such as Narada and Tumbara were singers; Krishna played the flute; and thus music in its tradition and practice has always been connected with mysticism. Musicians have always held to the principle that modern scientists have rediscovered: that the ear is incapable of fully enjoying two sounds played or sung together, and that is why they enriched the melody to such an extent for the purpose of their meditation.
When Persian music, with its artistry and beauty, was brought to India, it was wedded to Indian music; and there resulted a most wonderful art. The desire of the people of all classes and ages has always been and still is that music, no matter whether it is technical or non-technical, theoretical or non-theoretical, should touch the soul deeply. If it does not do so, the technical, theoretical, and scientific side of it does not appeal to them. Therefore, it has often been very difficult even for the great masters of music, who had developed the technique and science of music, and who were masters of rhythm and tone, to please the audience. The audience, from the king to the man in the street – everyone – wants only one thing, and that is a great appeal to the soul from the voice, from the word, from melody. Everything expressed in music should appeal to the soul. This is true even to the extent that when a beggar in the street does not sing a song that appeals to the passers-by, he will not get as many pennies as another who is more appealing.
No doubt the music of India has changed much during the last century. That which the Indians call classical music, or music with weight and substance, is not patronized any more, because of the ignorance of most of the princes and potentates of the country. Therefore, the best music is no longer understood. Then people have taken to smoking and talking while listening to music, and music was not made for that. It seems that the spirit of the great musicians is dead. A great vina player, who considered his instrument sacred and who worshipped it before taking it in his hand, practicing and playing it for perhaps ten hours a day, regarded music as his religion. But if he had to play before people who are moving about, smoking, and talking with other people at a social gathering, then all his music would go to the winds. It was the sacredness with which the people of ancient times invested music, that kept it on a higher level.
When Tansen, the great singer, left the court, hurt by a remark of the Emperor Akbar, as was related in the previous chapter, he went to Rewa, a state in central India. When the maharaja of Rewa heard that Tansen was coming, he was perplexed, wondering in what way he should honor him. A chair was sent for Tansen, to bring him to the palace, and when he arrived Tansen expected the maharaja at least to receive him at the door. So as soon as he got out of the chair he said, 'Where is the maharaja?' and the man whom he asked replied, 'here is the maharaja.' pointing to the one who had been carrying the chair all through the city. Tansen was most touched, and he said, 'You could not have given me a greater reward.' From that day, Tansen saluted him with his right hand, saying, 'This hand will never salute anyone else, all my life.' And so it was. Tansen would not even salute the emperor with his right hand. Such was the appreciation, the acknowledgment of talent in ancient India.
Now a new music has come to India that is called 'theatrical music.' It is neither Eastern nor Western; it is a very peculiar music. The themes of march and gallop and polka, and airs that no one wants to hear any more in the Western world, are imitated, and an Indian twist is given to them. Thus they are spoilt for the ears of the Western listener and also for good Eastern ears. Since the masses have not been educated in the best music, and for them there is only one source of entertainment – the theatre – they are becoming as fond of this music as people are of jazz in America.
Pope Gregory I, after whom the Gregorian scales are named, coordinated those beautiful melodies that had come from ancient Greece via Byzantium, to form the religious music of the Church. This is all that remains as a relic of the music of those times, though one does find traces of this Gregorian music in the compositions of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – for instance, in Handel's Messiah. Later composers, however, created a type of music which was quite different. No doubt they laid the foundation for Western music and helped it to evolve, but evolve in what way? Mechanically. They were able to make use of large bands, either brass bands or string bands, and also of an orchestra in which hundreds of instruments could be played at the same time. This naturally made a great impression, and it gave much opportunity and scope for the development and evolution of music. Nevertheless, there was one thing which was lost and which is being lost more and more every day: the appeal to the soul, which is the main purpose of music.
Debussy was looking all his life for something new to introduce into modern music. Scriabin once told me personally, 'Something is missing in our music, it has become so mechanical. The whole process of composition nowadays is mechanical; how can we introduce a spirit into it?' And I have often thought that if Scriabin, with his fine character and beautiful personality, had lived longer, he could have introduced a new strain of music into the modern world.
Will someone else try to do what Scriabin wanted? When there is a need, if there is a real desire for its fulfillment, it must come. It only seems that we do not need it enough; that is the difficulty. We become so easily contented with what we have. If the world feels a greater need for a better kind of music, then it will come; but if people mostly enjoy jazz, and if that is sufficient for them, then naturally it will only come slowly, because so few want anything better.
The music of the future will be different from the music of the past in this way: the ancient music developed only in one direction, and that was that every instrument was played alone and every song was sung alone; there was no other instrument or voice. And the modern development is that there are a variety of voices and there are many instruments playing together; the development of music in this direction has its origin in what is recognized as classical music. It certainly has its value; but on the other hand, something has also been lost. In order to make music perfect, its ancient aspect should be developed more.
There is music that makes one feel like jumping and dancing, there is music that makes one feel like laughing and smiling, and then there is music that makes one feel like shedding tears. If one were to ask a thoughtful person which he preferred, no doubt he would say, 'The last, the music which brings tears.' Why does the soul want sad music? Because that is the only time when the soul is touched. The other music, the music that reaches no further than the surface of one's being, remains only on the surface. It is the music that reaches to the depths of one's being which touches the soul. The deeper the music reaches, the more contented is the soul. No doubt a person who is very cheerful and has had dinner and a glass of wine could be quite happy with some dance music. But then he need not have serious music, for him, jazz will be quite sufficient.
The modern revival of folk music is an effort in the right direction. But it should be carried out without spoiling the folk music; for the tendency of most composers is to take this music and then put too much of their own touch into it. If, however, they can preserve the folk music without spoiling it, it will be something worthwhile. Composers sometimes take folk music and attach a modern harmony to it; and this spoils it too, for generally folk music is the expression of the soul of that particular time, when there was no harmonization such as there is now. And the modern method of harmonization, when it is applied to folk music, takes away its original atmosphere.
We can observe two principal tendencies in modern music. One is the tendency to make the music of our time more natural, and in that way to improve it. And this can surely be developed more and more, as there will be a greater appreciation of solo music, for instance, of the cello or the violin. Musicians will again go back to the ancient idea of one instrument playing or one voice singing at a time. And when they again come to the full appreciation of this idea, they will reach the spiritual stage of musical perfection. People today like music that has more than one voice, because they do not listen enough to solo music. But the more they hear it and the closer they come to it, the more they will forget the other kind. There are big symphony concerts given in the concert halls of London, New York, Paris, and all the large cities, but if one notices carefully what the audience likes best, it will be a solo on the cello, on the flute, or on the violin.
People are accustomed to hearing music of many sounds, and after the solo concert is over they will enjoy the other kind of music. But in the depths of their being they will surely still prefer the solo music, for the human soul is the same now as in ancient times, and the same in the East as in the West. The ringing of one bell has a greater appeal than the ringing of many bells. One sound always goes deeper than many sounds. The reason why two sounds are in conflict with each other is that however much they are tuned to one another, yet they are two, and that in itself is a conflict.
But then, there is another tendency which is working hand in hand with this one, and which is dragging music downward. And that tendency is that the composers are not contented with the chords that the great masters such as Mozart or Beethoven or Wagner have used in their music. They are inventing new chords, chords which tend to confuse thousands of listeners. And what will be the outcome of this? It will have an unconscious effect upon the nervous system of humanity; it will make people more and more nervous. And as we often see that those who attend good concerts only go there out of vanity, they will accept any kind of music. But as Wagner has said, noise is not necessarily music. It is not the newness of the music that will give satisfaction in the end; it will not do any good to the souls who have gone to the concert-hall only to satisfy their vanity. Music should be healing, music should uplift the soul, music should inspire; then there is no better way of getting closer to God, of rising higher towards the spirit, of attaining spiritual perfection, than music, if only it is rightly understood.