Published On:Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Posted by Sri Lanka Guardian
| by Satyajith Andradi
( January 23, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A musical composition could be judged in various ways in terms of the many attributes of music. These characteristics include ‘socio-cultural significance’, sensuousness, technical complexities, historical importance, novelty, trendiness, and nervous excitement. However, the sole attribute in terms of which the true greatness of a piece of music could be assessed is its ability to elevate the mind to higher states of consciousness.
From the Mundane to the Sublime
To the vast mass of humanity, life is an endless struggle for physical or social survival; a relentless pursuit of the means of physical and social existence. This intense preoccupation with earthly survival keeps mankind in bondage to the World of Appearance – a transient World of Phenomena, hopelessly bound to space and time, which in turn results in low states of awareness. These unwholesome states of consciousness are characterized by ego, illusion, delusion, anger, hatred, craving and the dullness of spirit, and are the source of immense suffering.
Great composers are not entirely free from the need for physical and social survival; they too need to make a living on earth. Hence, they too are caught up in the World of Appearance in their day-to-day lives. However, their creative genius, innermost spiritual inclinations, and courageous spirit enable them, from time to time, see beyond the illusion (Maya) of the World of Appearance and have a glimpse of a profound, timeless reality, thereby elevating themselves and others (the discerning performers and listeners of their music) from lower to higher states of consciousness – from the Mundane to the Sublime. This mystic transcendence is realized through the immensely powerful medium of music.
The higher states of consciousness realized by music are deeply spiritual in nature; they transcend our knowledge of the empirical world of phenomena. They are the result of profound intuitive perception; they do not arise from rational and analytical thought processes. Invariably they provide higher spiritual experiences, which include sublime emotions - tender love, ecstasy, serene joy, ecstatic devotion, exultation, and profound pathos. The greatest music reveals a deep reality – the consummate tragedy of the human condition, fate, destiny, existence, Being, conflict, struggle, will, and finally, suffering and the release from suffering.
The sublime states of consciousness realized by great music invariably constitute the experiencing of sublime emotions. The tender warmth of the slow movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and the first movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major ( K 581 ), the ecstatic devotion and vitality of Tyagaraja’s krithi ‘Jagadanandakaraka’( raga ; Nattai : tala ; Adi ), the profound pathos of the first Contrapuntus of Bach’s Kunst der Fuge and Muttuswamy Dikshitar’s krithi ‘– Akhilandeshwari’( raga ; Dwijavanthi : tala ; Adi ), the ecstatic vitality of the finale of Mozart’s ‘Symphony No 41 in C major (Jupiter Symphony , K 551 ), and the serene joy of the Adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, are few examples of the numerous instances, in which music evokes sublime emotions. On the Adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth, J W N Sullivan notes: "The Adagio alone would, one thinks, be a sufficiently great culmination. That state of what we can only call serenity based, not on any turning away from suffering, but on its acceptance, is sufficient justification, surely, for the experience portrayed in the first movement. So great a degree of understanding , in which nothing is ignored, is worth, it would seem, whatever price has been paid for" ( J W N Sullivan : Beethoven ).
Vision of Reality
The ability to transcend the ‘World of Appearance’ and reveal a higher spiritual reality is undoubtedly the greatest attribute of music. This quality is most evident in the greatest compositions of Bach and Beethoven. For instance, the revelation of the Tragic in the opening chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is stupendous, to say the least. The German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht’s exhortations to his son on the St. Matthew Passion are noteworthy: "You should hear the St. Matthew Passion, in a classical performance! It is the greatest work in the oratorio repertoire. I had the score with me in the field hospital. Study it first, it is not quite easy to understand – counterpoint and fugue; the very first movement is an eight – part chorus with cantus firms – but once one has begun to understand the magical tissue one is intoxicated with rapture. There is nothing so sweet, tender, moving, and in the scenes with the people so grandiose in all music" (Martin Geck: Johann Sebastian Bach; His Life, Work and Influence). On the same Bach masterwork Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "This week I have heard the divine Bach’s St Matthew Passion three times, each time with the same feeling of boundless admiration. A man who has turned entirely away from Christianity truly hears it like a gospel; it is the music of the denial of the will, with no recollection of the ascetic" ( ibid ). Sullivan eloquent description of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth is remarkable: " Fate is no longer personified as some sort of powerful enemy that sufficient courage could defy, even hopelessly. It is now a truly universal destiny, too complete to evoke any thought of resistance. The brooding mystery from which the theme emerges is, like the primeval darkness that preceded the creation, something that conditions the human world but which is not part of it. And this extra-human power, as presented to us here, has nothing benevolent about it, necessary as it may be for the moulding of the human soul. As the answer to this fate theme Beethoven gives us no more than submission and resignation. But even resignation is overborne and crushed by this implacable destiny, and towards the end of this terrible movement, in the passage for strings that begin on the 513th bar, we are left with nothing but utter despair and pain through which the great fate theme sweeps to its final assertion"( J W N Sullivan : Beethoven).
Beethoven’s last five string quartets, which were composed by him during the last few years of his life, are considered by many as the greatest music ever written. This is due to the fact that they reveal a higher spiritual reality than any other music. These masterpieces certainly contain the greatest musical utterances of mankind. The ‘Alla danza tedesca’ ( Allegro assai ) and the ‘Cavatina’ ( Adagio molto espressivo ) of the B flat major quartet ( Op. 130 ), the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart ( Molto Adagio ) – ‘Neue Kraft fuelend’( Andante ) of the A minor quartet ( op 132 ) and the tiny, albeit timeless, ‘Adagio quasi un poco andante’ of the C sharp minor quartet ( op 131 ) stand testimony to this fact. Sullivan remarks: "Although he was now at the very height of his creative power, producing his greatest music, he worked very slowly. What he now had to express was much more difficult to formulate than anything he had previously expressed. The state of consciousness with which he was concerned contained more and more elusive elements, and came from greater depths. The task of creation necessitated an unequalled degree of absorption and withdrawal. The regions within which Beethoven the composer now worked were, to an unprecedented degree, withdrawn and sheltered from his outward life. His deafness and solitariness are almost symbolic of his complete retreat into his inner self. No ‘external storms’ could now influence his work; at most they could interrupt it. The music of the last quartet comes from the profoundest depths of the human soul that any artist has ever sounded" (ibid). He further notes: "In these five quartets we have the greatest of Beethoven’s music, and much of it is different in kind from any other music that he or anybody else ever wrote. In the last quartets, and particular in the great three, those in a minor, B flat major and C sharp minor, Beethoven is exploring new regions of consciousness. All the major, formative experiences of his life had been assimilated; life had nothing new to teach him. And his experience had, as we have seen, taken on a very high degree of organization, and to these organic wholes, formed very deep down in his consciousness, he had given expression again and again. But this inner world, to which Beethoven had now retreated, although it no longer owed anything to fresh contacts with the outer world, was nevertheless a living and developing world. It contained not only elements which he had never before explored, but also elements that had never before existed. The last quartets testify to a veritable growth in consciousness, to a higher degree of consciousness, probably, than is manifested anywhere else in art" (ibid).
Music and the higher states of consciousness
The very nature of worldly existence condemns the vast mass of mankind to misery and dullness of spirit. In fact, the brutal struggle for physical and social survival tends to crush and extinguish, rather than nurture, whatever enlightened spirit left in a human being: Humanity is condemned to low states of consciousness. Great music has the wonderful ability to elevate humanity from lower to higher states consciousness; the mind is made to experience sublime emotions; the World of Appearance is transcended and a profound reality is revealed to the uplifted mind. Such is the magical power of great and noble music.