The New Year saw the launch of a four-part BBC Scotland TV series on the history of art and religion. The presenter was a former neighbour of mine, Richard Holloway, one-time Bishop of Edinburgh. Seeing Richard again on television took me back to 1997 and the actual day I moved in next door to where he lived.
“Hello! How are you settling in to your new home?” the imposing figure inquired in a booming voice. “I hear that you are a pianist.”
My immediate reaction was that this was a clear case of mistaken identity. I have never played the piano in my life. Shaking this genial new neighbour by the hand I revealed my true identity and occupation and returned indoors to stare blankly at my CD player and ponder if the Bishop had assumed that the Beethoven piano sonatas blasting out from my speakers were being generated by my own hands. It’s a mistake anyone could make, or could they?
A week later I found myself in conversation with another ‘stranger’, an Austrian gentleman who had been described to me as a “world leader” in the field of Transpersonal Psychology. Our small talk had begun to dry up when suddenly he asked me, “Are you gifted in the art of music? During our conversation, the movement of your hands and fingers mimics the actual playing of a piano.”
This Austrian therapist and my local Bishop must know each other, they’re both having a laugh at my expense, I concluded. If they’re not I will shortly end up ripe for the madhouse. Ironically I knew that Carl Maria von Weber had stated that Beethoven was also “ripe for the madhouse” after he witnessed the first performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. His amanuensis Anton Schindler said that the Seventh Symphony “was one of the most important moments in the life of the composer.” For Richard Wagner, the symphony was the “Apotheosis of the dance”.
In a programme note for a concert performance of Beethoven’s Seventh at Greyfriars Chapel in Edinburgh in June 1997, I discovered that the second movement of the symphony contains “encrypted passages” which, according to musicologist Donald Tovey, “are untranslatable”.
I was perplexed and wanted to understand why a deaf composer would wish to compose music which was not meant to be heard.
During London’s Albert Hall Promenade series of 1997 the BBC Radio Three broadcast concluded with a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. For me, this was an opportunity which was too good to miss, so I sacrificed a warm August evening to stay indoors in an attempt to translate the ‘untranslatable’.
At 8:30 pm the BBC Radio Three presenter announced the arrival of the conductor on to the platform. Fifteen minutes later the first movement had come to an end. Had ‘The Master’ left any clues to help any listener who wanted to decipher his ‘encrypted passages’?
I had read that the first movement was in the key of A Major. The second movement is in A Minor taking the listener into an inner sound world of reflection, nostalgia and contemplation – “to a place of other-worldly pathos,” as Richard Osborne expressed it.
I closed my eyes and waited for the second movement to begin. Within five minutes my attention was being drawn by the rhythmic melody of a solo flute. I also became aware of the sound of the flautist’s own breathing pattern. Detecting these fine adjustments to her respiratory tract was an intimate moment in my musical education. Within a couple of minutes the sweet sounds of the flautist’s passages had begun to fade and I started to return from that “place of other-worldly pathos.”
It is said that travel broadens the mind and my inner journey from A Major to A Minor had opened up a new mental territory. I became convinced that these ‘untranslatable’ sounds were the same untranslatable sounds employed by the Hindu fakirs to enchant serpents.
Life has taught me never to ignore my intuition, but then one’s logical, cognitive mind always tries to do so. Had I really cracked the ‘hidden code’ within Beethoven’s second movement of his Seventh Symphony? Is there anyone else who has travelled on this same journey of enquiry?
Madame Blavatsky describes her own experiences with serpents in Isis Unveiled, Vol. 1, page 382:
Music is a delight to every person. Low whistling, a melodious chant, or the sounds of the flute will invariably attract reptiles in countries where they are found. The snake would not be enticed by the “charming” of the Arabs, but kept slowly moving in the direction of the flute-player.
Also in Isis Unveiled, Vol. 2, p. 489, we read:
Thoth was the first to regard the serpent as the most spirit-like of all the animals… The interpretation of the primitive serpent-worship, as given by the initiates, is the correct one… We quote from the serpent Mantra in the Aytareya-Brahmana, a passage which speaks of the earth as the Sarpa Rajni, The Queen of the Serpents, and The Mother of Everything that moves. These expressions refer to the fact that before our globe had become egg-shaped or round it was a long trail of cosmic dust or fire-mist, moving and writhing like a serpent.
My understanding was that I was able to hear the initiate’s serpent mantra in Beethoven’s
Seventh Symphony. So why, I asked, would Beethoven wish to keep this initiation mantra a secret?
In Isis Unveiled Vol. 2 Ch. 12 p. 623, we read:
Chanting a mantram [the fakir] went straight to the beast… This is the way the fakirs tame the wildest beasts in India. Can the European tamers, with the white-hot iron rods do as much? How they are trained to these requirements will remain an eternal secret to all, except the Brahmans and adepts in occult mysteries. There is not a single European in India who could have, or has ever boasted of having, penetrated into the enclosed sanctuary within the pagodas.
“Remain an eternal secret to all”? Except perhaps to a composer who was unable to hear. A composer who was able to hear sounds which he understood were to “remain an eternal secret from the ears of a single European”. Maybe, just maybe, Beethoven is also having a laugh, just like my next-door neighbour, the Bishop who’d “heard” I was a pianist. Is Beethoven also trying to say that there has been a case of mistaken identity with regards to his own true identity?
Wilfrid Mellors states in David Tame’s Beethoven and The Spiritual Path:
There is a quality in Beethoven strictly comparable with the zaniness of the Zen masters.
In Isis Unveiled Vol. 2 p. 407 it is said that the number seven is the most sacred of all and is of Hindu origin. Everything of importance was calculated by, and fitted into this number by the Aryan philosophers.
Although I think I will leave the last word to Swami Muktananda. In his autobiography, Play of Consciousness, he describes his experiences in belonging to a “secret tradition of perfected masters.”
Every day during meditation I heard the sound of many, many nadas [divine tones]. At this stage when he hears the nada, the yogi discovers an ability to dance. There would often be the sweet tones of the flute. What a divine attraction that music holds. As a devotee of Krishna he pleads: “Oh my Lord, stop playing your flute! For when you play… I am not good for anything. I forget my children, I can’t make myself go home. Have mercy; stop playing your flute.”
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony: The Apotheosis of The Dance? Surely, we can’t all be ripe for the madhouse?
This article is based on an illustrated talk he gave at the Theosophical History Conference in London, 2003.