Theosophy – March 1897


In tracing back the history of music as an art, one is baffled at every step, finding it most difficult to get any definite ideas regarding the nature of ancient music. This arises from the fact that so few works are extant, which deal with this subject.

The ancient civilizations possessed a knowledge of music, architecture and mathematics far superior to ours. We may conclude, therefore, that when the Libraries at Alexandria were destroyed, many valuable treatises on music may have been numbered amongst the works which were either burned or taken away and concealed by the adepts.

Music was so intimately associated with the old mysteries and magic that it would have been extremely dangerous to have left full knowledge of it open to the world, and when darkness settled over the early Christian centuries it veiled the music of the period as well.

It is interesting to note in connection with this fact, that in later years, the first enlightenment regarding music came to the world through the monks. In the fourth century we read of Pope Sylvester of Rome, instituting a singing school. Later on, Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, and Gregory, gave out more information; they constructed the authentic and plagal modes based upon the old Greek system of tetrachords. Coming down to the tenth century we have Guido Arezzo, a Benedictine monk, concerning whose birth and death little is known, who established the system of solmization, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, etc. It is very probable that he derived this from an old tradition, although some historians of music say, the thought came to him while hearing the choir sing a hymn to St. John, the opening lines of the hymn beginning with the syllables, Do, Re, Mi, etc. He added two more lines to the staves, making these additional lines, color lines, red and yellow.

Since that time music has spread through most of the western races, and improved and enlarged according to the tastes and requirements of the different nationalities.

Although Pythagoras was called the "discoverer of music," records give us very meagre accounts of his teachings; yet, the Egyptians with whom he studied, were said to have possessed a wonderful knowledge of music and harmony, and as music was one of the requirements necessary to enter his school, he, doubtless, gave his pupils deeper instruction in musical philosophy. It is natural to presume that the monks derived their information from the same source that Pythagoras did. They may have given additional facts to the world, purposely from time to time and bit by bit, in order to gradually restore the lost art.

Now at the close of this century, there seems to be a peculiar crisis reached in music, and indeed in all arts, giving rise to a curious waiting, unsatisfied, unrestful feeling. A new cycle is about to dawn, and the old tune and form will soon change and resolve itself into another key, with a different keynote, rhythm and vibration. H. P. B. says in the Secret Doctrine, "new manuscripts will be revealed before the closing of the century," and amongst these, we venture to hope, will be some musical treatises.

In examining the music of the early centuries which is accessible, we find that it was devoid of measure, rhythm, and metre. Rhythm is one of the most important adjuncts in musical form; the re-occurrence of accent at certain time periods producing a most powerful effect. The music of that era would sound very crude to our ears, accustomed as we are to metrical law. Rhythm and vibration are so closely allied that one naturally suggests the other.

It stands to reason that there is a "primary impulse" back of every vibration. Suppose we say that this "primary impulse" is the Sun, wind or air, the mind, or the breath, these furnishing the impulse for all the vibrations of which we are cognizant. The impulse is needed, set in action the will force which causes the friction necessary for the specific rate of vibration. The sun quickening the plant to growth and bloom: the wind sighing over the strings of the Æolian harp producing musical sounds; the breath vibrating over the vocal chords making voice; the mind vivifying the brain into thought and language; all of these natural phenomena come readily within our understanding.

Nature furnishes the poet, artist, or musician with all the materials he needs for the development of his work. In "Caves and Jungles of Hindostan," H. P. B. gives a most beautiful description of a natural acoustic phenomenon which takes place on an island there. She says, "The musician wind, comes here daily to try his art after nightfall especially during the last quarter of the moon." The island is overgrown with tall reeds, and the force of the wind through them brings out musical sounds that resemble now hundreds of Æolian harps and again a full orchestra, producing an indescribably beautiful effect.

The wind or air gives one a very clear idea of an impersonal cosmic force. It would be considered imbecile to seriously blame the wind for the disasters and destruction it causes. If then, we can look upon the law of karma or action, as an abstract law, it simplifies the whole teaching. We get rid of that idea of a personal God chastising or helping his people. The "primary impulse" in the universal mind sets into vibration the whole world plan, even to the tiniest insect or minutest blade of grass. Each form has its distinct rate of vibration which must be conformed to, or failure results, for, "nature has failures as well as man." Nature requires that all minerals, plants, animals, and men as well as universes conform to the rhythmic impulse back of each form.

Even the elementary student of music knows, that there are certain rules of harmony which must be complied with, or discord follows. This is not from any arbitrary rule of man, but because it is a mathematical law, i.e., certain ratios of vibrations are harmonious and unifying, while others are discordant. This same law works in cycles, all periods of time, the law of karma, also in the fine arts, such as architecture, painting, etc.

The composer knows well that if he wishes to embody his musical thought in a symphony, he must first put the composition into an established key. Then he must adhere to certain laws regarding the melodic succession of chords, well defined time, and rhythm. Deviate from the starting key as much as one may, yet the return movement brings the chords into their original key. Let us take this as an analogy to the manifestation of the universal mind. At the beginning of a manvantara the "primary impulse" existing in the universal mind causes a certain keynote or specific rate of vibration to sound. This vibrates along the sounding board of the cosmos. The world responding to that vibration, starts into existence or form. This manifestation may be very similar to musical form, simple or composite. The word cyclical is sometimes used instead of composite, and is a very good substitute. In the simple form, during the whole period of manifestation, it will never deviate much from the original key, but after a smooth, pleasing melody resolve itself into its closing harmonies.

Composite or cyclical form can be likened to a system of evolution, such as our word chain represents. The harmony starts off pure and melodious, gets denser and more discordant at its middle point of evolution, then begins to work back again to its original harmony. The close is all the more beautiful and restful after the intricate succession of chords. But if, on the contrary, when the world is at its densest point of evolution, the most discordant part of its music, it fails to respond and return to the higher closing impulse, then "tonal chaos," or annihilation, results.

That matter attracts matter when in similar phase or vibration, has been well proved by the formation of sand figures by vibration. "Sympathetic vibration" was the basis of Keeley's experiments and system.

An ancient legend reads, "Apollo was the inventor of music. He raised the walls of the city of Troy by the music of his harp alone." It is said "there was one stone alone upon which Apollo laid down his harp, and this stone by his touch became so melodious that whenever it struck with another stone it also sounded like a harp."

Is there not much in that legend over which students might ponder? It may be that Apollo has again laid down his harp upon a stone, and that this vibration of love, and harmony, which is now sounding through the world is the music from his seven-stringed lyre. Any one of us may become a stone feeling the sympathetic vibration from that harp, to sound again in our turn, the wondrous melody. And so, stone after stone becoming attuned, and responding to that vibration, shall raise a wall mightier than that of the ancient city of Troy. This one to last until the manvantaric symphony has become resolved into its closing harmonies.