PROLOGUE: Music Mimics Spirit
In so many ways, music mimics spirit. In the realm of the arts, the manner in which music works is surely the nearest that one can get to spirit within this 3-D fallen world. With what we call music, in common with all sound, invisible vibrations are generated in the air which imperceptibly glide from the source to the human ear. But when what we call “notes” are struck harmonically, what we call music ensues. But where is that music in the air? Just grooving around in the ether waiting to connect with you! Within the confines of artistic expression, that is as near to spiritual communication that one can get; and it enters you at a level beneath your ordinary consciousness, which is why it can have a damning or enlightening effect, depending on what kind of music it is and how open (or vulnerable) you are to receiving it.
Pursuing such spiritual analogies in music, the use of counterpoint — the rich texture of simultaneously-played notes and chords to create harmony or even dissonance — is in mimicry not only of the pattern of life across the cosmos — in which so many simultaneous events and occurrences dovetail perfectly together to create a united whole — but even that of the various planes of existence (to which the apostle Paul alluded when he spoke of “all the heavens”). Counterpoint in music is like the intra-cosmic and even extra-cosmic dance of everything. Wherever matter is, I see the equivalents of counterpoint everywhere within it. The whole cosmos is like one vast project in counterpoint dancing its way to its inevitable denouement! (This is why I could never get bored, as there is always something like this to contemplate 🙂).
Because music is just taken for granted as a part of natural life experience, people underestimate its supernatural power. This is why the desecration, violation and even prostitution of so much modern music is a very clear corruption of that supernatural power. Just as great (pure) music inspired by the angelic Muses (about which more later in this article) can cleanse a soul and awaken deep and glorious elements within it, thus lifting it up out of the pit of corruption in this world and revealing hidden beauties, so corrupted music from a demonic source can tarnish a soul and have a deleterious effect on the inner state of a person, dragging it down to the depths of degradation (usually without them even realising what has happened). Everything that we take in to ourselves — whatever we do, read, watch, say, breathe, eat, drink, or listen to, has an effect on us which either contaminates or cleanses us, even affecting us, changing us, at the genetic level, as the fascinating study of Epigenetics shows. Listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony or Bruckner’s Te Deum will transport you to a very different place from that to which you will be snatched by listening to Death/Black Metal, Gangsta Rap, or “Bitch, I’m Madonna”. Many would say in reply: “Well, it’s only a matter of differing taste, that’s all”. I would say that there is considerably more to it than that. The way that various kinds of music have an influence on, and act upon, the human soul, mind and heart — cleansing or corrupting them; angelizing or demonising them — is a neglected and highly moot subject deserving of its own exposition. But that is not what I want to get into in this little paper. For here I want to examine an equally relevant and related contemporary issue and spiritual analogy: Namely, the potential for a prophetic element in music.
But first let me demonstrate what I mean by “prophecy”…
I. THE NATURE OF PROPHECY
Prophecy is a vital aspect of true spirituality and has been from the beginning of human creation. It is also a vital element in false religious enterprise (which poses as true spirituality), in which false prophets abound — wolves in sheep’s clothing. But in this paper, I am primarily concerned with genuine spirituality and the way that the propagation of Truth finds its expression in music through prophecy.
Prophecy can take two different forms which can occur simultaneously or on a standalone basis: First, Foretelling, in which a clear or veiled prognostication is made about the future; and, second, forthtelling, in which a powerful “calling-out” is given publicly in order to expose some wrongdoing, villainy or injustice. Many people are familiar with the former as being representative of prophecy, but not so much the latter. Yet, if one examines the Old Testament prophets, for example, a great deal of their prophesying involved “telling it like it is” — calling out the unfaithfulness and apostasy of Israel and denouncing the corrupt, superstitious, idolatrous and often exploitative and cruel religiosity of the surrounding nations. One can also say that since a great many of those who merely profess to be followers of God or disciples of Christ willingly cosy-up to the corrupt culture of the world-system, God will often use very unexpected sources to make His pronouncements in the midst of an unfaithful world — even using people who those many “Christians” would regard as “heathen”, “worldly” or out-and-out heretics! The use of surprise, to great effect, is a prominent “weapon” in God’s “armoury”.
Many would accept that there are works of literature which are plainly in the realm of the prophetic, whether of the foretelling/foreshadowing or forthtelling/calling-out kind. One could cite, for example, such oeuvres as “We” by Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin, “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, “The Devils” and “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, or “1984” by George Orwell. They prefigure a world in which key figures are “possessed” by ideals which purport to be for the good of society but are ultimately destructive, or in which a dystopian future is riddled with cold-hearted, bureaucratic totalitarianism which sets out to destroy the individual, reduce him to a paranoid wreck and subordinate her to the state. This has increasingly happened throughout the last 120 years, and we now have a faux-democracy which creates pseudo-governments to fool the pointlessly-voting masses in order that inane current affairs programmes and newspapers will have something to talk about and report, while those who hold the real power behind the scenes — and which couldn’t give a fig about elections and their duped voters — make their plans in secret to subordinate the world with stealth and great success.
However, the equivalent insight of such prophetic literature as mentioned above also appears unmistakably in certain pieces of classical music. As the political and social realms developed around the turn of the twentieth century in the run-up to the First World War and with the advent of the communist state in Russia — as old norms disintegrated and new global patterns were established — music composers who were not merely trying to create pretty pieces to amuse the masses or to gain celebrity status began to express this zeitgeist in their compositions. This resulted in works in which one can now detect distinctly prophetic elements. In order for a composer to give his soul over to such elements, he must be utterly devoted to allowing himself to be a conduit for suprarational inspiration. This can happen even in those who may outwardly profess to be atheists or agnostic, for even many of these have insights into the workings of this world and it is a fact that anyone can be used by God as a mouthpiece — even a donkey! 😉
What I would call a prophetic musical composition has five distinct hallmarks:
- First, it plainly has something epic and momentous to say which goes far beyond what one would normally expect from a musical composition;
- second, it vexes or perplexes even its own composer, who realises post-compositionally that he has created no ordinary work (though he may not be able to express the reason why);
- third, it satirizes and parodies human stupidity;
- fourth, that work makes a deep, even life-changing, impression upon those who are open enough to hear the prophetic elements within;
- fifth, it foreshadows imminent and future developments in human history.
We are talking here about watershed milestones in compositional history which have far-reaching implications for humanity. It is these elements which I count as “prophetic”. I want to take three twentieth century composers — Dmitri Shostakovich, Gustav Mahler, and Ralph Vaughan Williams as examples of those through whom the prophetic element would come bursting forth into music (though, as you will see, Vaughan Williams’ prophetic element — in true early twentieth century English fashion — is more suppressed and subliminal, enmeshed in the subconscious).
II. THREE TWENTIETH CENTURY PROPHETIC COMPOSERS
Shostakovich and Mahler are the two particular twentieth century composers of classical music who I would most regard as consistently producing music which I can label “prophetic”: However, the English composer, Vaughan Williams, who — although mostly writing music of great serenity — plainly became a prophetic instrument in the writing of one particular symphony. Let’s look at these composers one-by-one.
1. Dmitri Shostakovich
The Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), wrote fifteen symphonies, fifteen string quartets and six concertos, not to mention many other smaller works and scores for films. During his lifetime, he was well regarded in the West as a competent composer but was then also popularly believed to have merely been a lackey for the communist regime. Since his death in 1975, a “revisionist” view of his work began to take hold when it was proposed that far from being a tool of the regime, he was truly a secret dissident who encoded his dissidence in his music (some of which was insolently rebellious), if people cared enough to see. As part of this view, Shostakovich came to be seen as having continued in the old Russian tradition of the Yurodivy (юродивый), which literally means “holy fool” or, as some have translated it, “God’s fool”. A Yurodivy — the Russian equivalent of the Court Jester or “prophet to the kings” — was someone (often a monk) in Russian society, during the time of the Tsarist empire, who could savagely criticise rulers or their antisocial actions, yet in such a way that it could be taken as humorous and often coded, so it was only obvious to those willing to listen intently to the Yurodivy’s pronouncements. The Yurodivy held a special status in the Tsar’s court which rendered him immune to being punished or even executed for his observations. After the revolution and the fall of the empire, this phenomenon continued even under the Russian leader and dictator, Stalin, (who was basically the new Tsar). The Yurodivy during Stalin’s “reign” was Dmitri Shostakovich.
One by one, the composer’s friends in the artistic scene were assassinated or “disappeared” by Stalin’s secret police. Shostakovich himself lived with the constant fear of the “Three O’ Clock Knock”, when those secret police would come to your door in the early hours of the morning and take you away for questioning, often never to be seen or heard from again. He even epitomised that knock in a terrible percussive three-note motif in his Eighth String Quartet — a piece written about himself and his torment which is relentlessly prophetic in its mission, for like much of Shostakovich’s work it is a warning and an exposé all at once. (The composer had apparently intended to commit suicide after the completion of that quartet but, fortunately, he did not, though he came very close). When the members of the Beethoven Quartet came to Shostakovich’s home to play the music through for him, the composer spent the entire time weeping with his face in his hands, horrified at the agony which he had expressed. For that quartet is a tortured lament in which he was attempting to work through his inner pain, in which he alluded biographically to his 1st, 5th, 8th and 11th symphonies, his Second Piano Trio, his Cello Concerto no. 1, his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Saint-Saën’s “Danse Macabre”, Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen”, his own 1948 film score to “The Young Guard” in a movement entitled “Death of the Heroes”, the first movement second subject of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (the “Pathetique”), and the revolutionary song, “Tormented by Harsh Captivity”. If you want to listen to that poignant twenty-minute quartet (which Shostakovich wrote in three days), you’ll find it here, played in the uniquely intense tones of the Borodin Quartet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tby5aMrMu6Q . The opening theme and much of the subsequent material is based around the four-note motif which Shostakovich used as his musical signature: D, E-flat, C, B, which in German notation is D, Es, C, H (pronounced as “De-Es-Ce-Ha”), the opening letters of his name with the initial D. (J.S. Bach did the same thing with his name in his music). For in the Soviet Union, the pressing dilemma for the artist was this: How can the creative individual exist in the confines of an oppressive state? In the works in which he used his personal notational moniker DSCH (8th Quartet, 1st Violin Concerto, 10th Symphony), Shostakovich was asserting his individuality in the face of the crushing communist collectivism.
Stalin had even decreed how a piece of music must always end in optimistic triumph in order to encourage the workers and to keep them from being disillusioned and thus make them more productive for the state. Anyone who did not conform to what the state decreed should constitute as music would be branded as guilty of “bourgeois formalism”. And when the young Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” was declared to be “chaos not music” in an anonymous editorial in Pravda in 1936, he wondered if his work as a composer was over. People shunned him as if he was a leper. He also began to fear for his life. (I should add that, to an extent, such censorship is true in all nation-states, whether they are communist or not, no matter how “free” they may proclaim themselves to be, although that manifests in different ways according to the culture. For those who may disagree, just try criticising or exposing the corruption and evil of any state government and see what happens to you!).
From that point on, he realised that he would have to compose in such a way that he could preserve his life and those of his family, while still being able to express himself musically. He handled that in the uniquely Russian way of irony, humour and subtlety. Thus, the upbeat endings were duly provided but sounding like circus music, wholly unfitting as a conclusion to the deep material which had gone beforehand, yet managing to satisfy the cultural and musical philistines who were judging him. A classic example of this hideously ironic conclusionary humour occurs in his Sixth Symphony, which has a devastatingly tragic first movement — one of his greatest, deeply serious — followed by a scherzo which begins sounding like a hero’s journey over the high seas but which then evaporates into nothingness, followed by the circus music ending played at ridiculously breakneck speed. That finale is a complete non-sequitur to what has gone beforehand. He was signalling the ludicrousness of the demand of a victorious ending for the workers! That final movement is not a resolution to the tragedy of this B minor work (always a tragic key) but a complete parody. (If you want to listen to a wonderful performance of that 35-minute 6th Symphony by the Estonian Festival Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8euxavGpps . Estonia suffered terribly under the Soviet KGB. One can actually visit the KGB Museum in their former headquarters on the officially-denied 23rd floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru as a tourist attraction in Tallinn today, where many artefacts of the era are preserved, so this orchestra and conductor are well-placed to interpret this work.
It is common to see how composers such as this will often be overcome with emotion when they realise what they have written. You saw above how he wept when his Eighth String Quartet was played through for him. For Shostakovich’s overriding message in his works is a kind of warning to humanity not to repeat the follies of the past; for he saw clearly that every revolution eventually became as corrupt as the regime which it was replacing. In fact, almost everything which Shostakovich wrote was a warning to the world (or a requiem for its suffering). Prophecy in action. While the whole world was celebrating the “glorious victory of the end of World War 2”, Shostakovich was lamenting the fact that nothing would change in Russia. In spite of the alleged “victory over fascism”, fascism would still continue its stranglehold on freedom and artistic creativity there. In the middle of the Second World War, in 1943, Shostakovich’s monumental Symphony no.8 expressed that terrible reality in a harrowingly poignant manner — which was not lost on the Soviet authorities, who denounced it for that and plainly because the “optimism” of the final movement is so muted and has a strange effete chamber-like texture rather than the desired one of climactic optimism to boost the workers’ morale. It therefore remained effectively banned for eight years. (If you want to listen to that austere symphony, an authoritative Russian recording conducted by the one to whom Shostakovich dedicated it, Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic, can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3nfnC_6QNQ ).
When Shostakovich had written his 4th Symphony in 1936, at the age of thirty, he soon realised that it was only going to get him into trouble with the authorities. For it is a tempestuous work, wild and experimental, bringing the listener face to face with herself, with themes coming at him from every angle, and a coda filled with mystery and a kind of mystical portentousness rather than any optimism for the workers — just the kind of thing which would most likely get him arrested! But musical prophets have to sometimes be careful that they do not end their lives too soon. So he shelved its first performance for twenty-five years until after Stalin’s death, when it received its first performance in 1961. It is probably his greatest work, yet he had to sit on it for a quarter of a century! Imagine that. [If you want to watch and listen to this stunning symphony — another true journey to the centre of your soul — you can find a virtuosic performance by the European Youth Orchestra here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXiAcpyXjSE ].
Shostakovich lived with the likelihood of arrest for decades. Apparently, in order to avoid having his family disturbed, there was a period when he would sit by the elevator on the landing at night waiting for the secret police to arrive. One by one, his friends were taken. He never realised that it was his virtual Yurodivy status which preserved his life.
That is a face which means business! Behind that inscrutable mask of stoic reserve and successfully-endured suffering lies a heart of such depth and tenderness. It is the face of a musical prophet. I say this despite the fact that Shostakovich claimed to be an atheist. When asked about whether or not he believed in God, he replied: “No, I am very sorry to say”. One doesn’t meet many atheists who regret being so. That’s what I call a “reluctant atheist”, or even an apologetic atheist, which of course is a contradiction-in-terms. He had many friends who were committed followers of Christ and he was a friend to persecuted Jewish people (even risking his life to rescue them), for in them he could see the irrational persecution which so many of them have endured over the years, with which he identified. And it was bad in Russia. [This is well laid out in a thorough 2006 article in the Jerusalem Post, https://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Features/The-gentile-Jewish-composer ]. I think that Shostakovich wanted to believe but he had witnessed so much evil and human misery up-close, first-hand, that this was a stumbling-block for him, as it is for so many. (And who knows what passed through his mind and heart as he lay on his sickbed and eventually deathbed when he was dying of lung cancer after a lifetime of heavy smoking). This is why it is so important to see what lies behind what can merely be seen with the eyes — to look into the au-delà, the great “beyond”. The rigid atheist would say, “There is nothing beyond”, so s/he never looks. But if one looks with eyes other than those in one’s head, then “the beyond” mystically opens up. As it is said in Saint-Éxupery’s “Le Petit Prince”: “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux”. (“Here is my secret. It is very simple: One can only see clearly with the heart. That which is essential is invisible to the eyes”). The interesting thing about Shostakovich is that in spite of his purported atheism, he never gave up on allowing himself to be a prophetic instrument for good in his composing. His music was the conscience of Russia — a land which historically has known both deep faith in Christ and a politically psychopathic materialism. I see a deep sense of seeking and yearning spirituality in his music which only a few composers have been able to express.
On the surface, according to its purported dedication, his 11th Symphony was a work which was written solely as an epitaph for those who lost their lives in a 1905 demonstration about poverty outside the Tsar’s Winter palace, when government forces killed hundreds of the participants of all ages. However, when one cracks the code, Shostakovich was really saying that the same cruelty and repression from the state against the masses continued to be in force, even after the revolution which claimed to be “for the liberation of the people”. The five-minute central episode when the crowd is massacred by the Tsar’s soldiers is one of the most dramatic passages in all symphonic music; and in the eerie calm which follows, hauntingly accompanied by tremolando strings and celeste, there is only a valley of tears. When I said above that Shostakovich’s overriding message in his works is a kind of warning to humanity not to repeat the follies of the past, this is specifically stated in the title on the score which he gave to the finale of that work: “набат”. Nabat is the Russian for alarm bell, tocsin or public warning. In the spine-tingling coda of the symphony, huge upturned bells sit in the middle of the orchestra and are chimed with hammers like an alarm as the symphony comes to a close. Shostakovich the Yurodivy was warning the world: History merely repeats itself, despite the best intentions of the naïve masses. The composer himself said of this work:
“I think that many things repeat themselves in Russian history. Of course, the same event can’t repeat itself exactly, there must be differences, but many things are repeated nevertheless. People think and act similarly in many things… I wanted to show this recurrence in the Eleventh Symphony. I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called ‘1905’. It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over. That’s how the impressions of my childhood and my adult life come together. And naturally, the events of my mature years are more meaningful.”
When Shostakovich says “I wrote it in 1957 and it deals with contemporary themes even though it’s called ‘1905’”, and “it deals with contemporary themes”, and “the events of my mature years are more meaningful”, he is plainly referring not only to the ongoing oppression in Soviet Russia at the time of the work’s first performance, but also surely to the fact that some months earlier in 1956 there had been a massacre by invading Soviet forces of nearly three-thousand Hungarians who had risen up against the communist regime there. He used the title, “1905”, for the Symphony as a front to shut the Soviet authorities up — a secret peg on which to hang his prophetic musical hat about history repeating itself. This is not to say that Shostakovich was unconcerned about what had happened in 1905. On the contrary. For his father and uncle were actually present when that massacre took place. Shostakovich was born the following year in 1906 and grew up regularly hearing stories about it as well as singing the folk songs in his childhood which are purposely incorporated into the symphony. But it is the repetition of history which is his real concern. So his 11th Symphony is a huge (and in orchestral terms it really IS huge) chastisement and warning about such historical repetitions on the part of cruel nation-state government apparatuses. If you want to listen to that whole symphony (which I can assure you is a life-changing experience), you’ll find a stunning performance from the BBC Proms in 2013 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lu09CWT41NE . What masterful orchestration! Such control over a vast symphonic canvas! It has been described as “film music without a film”; and, indeed, to hear this symphony is rather like watching an epic film for a whole hour! It is impossible to sit through all of that and not realise that a musical prophet has spoken with great compassion and severity about the hypocrisy of state government violence and its repeated occurrences in history. Symphonies 4 and 11 of Shostakovich are epic works and certainly my favourites by the composer in terms of revealing the storms in his heart.
2. Gustav Mahler
The second of our composers of prophetic works, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) — born in a village in what is now the Czech Republic (it was then Bohemia, a part of the Austrian Empire) — took classical music to a place where it had not been before. He believed that music should defy convention and express the whole cosmos. He wrote, regarding his music: “What one makes music from is still the whole — that is the feeling, thinking, breathing, suffering — human being.” Consequently, his music both plumbs the depths and scales the heights. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that there was a true resurgence of interest in his music after decades of comparative obscurity. Leonard Bernstein famously said in one of his Harvard lectures that the real reason for the fifty years of neglect that Mahler’s music suffered after his death “was not the usual excuses we always hear: that the music is too long, too difficult, too bombastic” but rather that “it was simply too true, telling something too dreadful to hear”. To listen to a Mahler symphony is to be confronted with one’s own folly, one’s own absurdity, one’s own demons, and one’s own mortality. Not only the truth about oneself is revealed but also about the nature of society, its madness, its hypocrisy, its barbarity. We are also given a vision of something beyond what can merely be seen with the eyes — the gleaming beauty of love, a child’s view of heaven, even the heart of God. There is something terrifyingly honest about Mahler’s music. Those who are not truthseekers will avoid it like the plague, for it really is “too true, too dreadful to hear”. Mahler himself was a believer in the divine and a truthseeker both spiritually and musically. Born into a Jewish family, he had later converted to Roman Catholicism, partly as a necessary convenience because of the rampant anti-Jewishness in Austrian society which would likely have prevented him from progressing in his work. But he was really a musical philosopher who had a longing for resurrection and paradisiacal fulfilment — though he also saw clearly the folly of the world which stood in the way. To demonstrate the character of the man, here are just a few quotations of his words:
- “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”.
- “What is best in music is not to be found in the notes”.
- “All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish”.
- “The important thing is never to let oneself be guided by the opinion of one’s contemporaries; to continue steadfastly on one’s way without letting oneself be either defeated by failure or diverted by applause”.
As the conductor of the Vienna Court Opera for ten years (1897-1907) and of the Vienna Philharmonic for four years (1897-1901), Mahler was able to spend long Summer recesses composing in his hut in a forest near the family home in the Alps. The forest hut in this photo, still preserved as a shrine for “Mahler pilgrims” is the one where he composed Symphonies 4 – 8.
Although all of his nine completed symphonies can bring one face to face with oneself and with musical, historical and spiritual truth in different ways, I want to single out in this brief paper numbers 6 and 9 as having the most of what I would call deliberate or unconscious prophetic material. One of the prophetic elements in Mahler’s symphonies is the reaching of climaxes of great beauty and power which then are dissolved by a destructive power which has a terrible finality to it. It is rather like a musical representation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems are doomed to break down in this world of fallen matter. Alongside that, and in similar vein, one often finds a major note suddenly “sours” into the minor, often on the trumpet (an example of which you can hear at 2′ 50″ – 2′ 56″ on the recording of his Sixth Symphony which I will recommend below). Mahler’s music has often been described as being able to portray both the angelic and the demonic. In these senses, his music is a representation of the highest possible elements of life in this fallen world, as well as depictions of the pit of hell. One can experience beauty and harmony, love and the purest passion, peace and even ecstasy; but in these symphonies they are always defeated by the hammer of fate in this world as it is currently constituted.
Now, you may say, “What about his 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 8th symphonies? They have uplifting positive endings. Why can’t they too be counted as prophetic?” Firstly, because they do not fit the five hallmarks of prophetic musical composition mentioned already earlier in this paper. There are many prophetic elements in them for that is the nature of Mahler, but not nearly to the extent and intensity of symphonies 6 and 9. Plus, it is the convention to end a symphony in a blaze of glory. Audiences love that. But there is no challenge in that — no lesson or prophetic message; only somewhat of a catharsis. Therefore, you know that if a composer defies conventions by creating a challenging, harrowing work which goes where no conventional symphony would normally dare to go, taking the audience with it, then he means business — prophetic business.
In his 9th Symphony, Mahler was specifically composing on the theme of death and the necessity for its acceptance despite the full experience of a life well-lived. In the first movement, we hear the heart’s desire for life and love to the full, though constantly being dashed by huge storms of fate and finality. Mahler was by then, in fact, dying of a heart condition, and he knew it. Thus, this symphony was straight from the heart. The first of the four movements is about the experience of life and love all lived to the full (yet repeatedly cut down by music which “interferes” in the process); and the last movement — one of the most poignant ever written — is about the final acceptance of death after great assertions of love spiritually stated. But the two central movements of the symphony are hideously biting, depicting corrupted aspects of the human condition. First there is a Scherzo, which Mahler marks to be played “Etwas täppisch und sehr derb”, meaning “somewhat clumsy and coarse”. One has to bear in mind that Vienna, the heart of bourgeois life in Europe, was in the throes of breaking down. The decadence at its heart was no longer able to be hidden behind the elaborate lace dresses of concert-hall Straussian waltzes. The mask was coming off; and in the Scherzo of Mahler’s Ninth we hear that parodied in all its coarseness and clumsiness. This is no ordinary typical 3/4 time scherzo movement. It is savage — like drunken peasants at a bacchanalian party in honour of Dionysus or Pan. Mahler was surely depicting the degeneration of the waltz society, while also parodying it — much of which had never stopped gossiping about him and critiquing his compositions.
The third movement is tagged by Mahler as “Rondo Burleske”. Rondo clearly shows the form of the piece, whereas Burleske (the German spelling of Burlesque) refers to the character of it. One could say that it is really a second scherzo, as Burlesque and Scherzo have a similar meaning: Joke; although burlesque also carries also the idea of parody or spoof). A dictionary definition of Burlesque is:
“a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by the ludicrous treatment of their subjects. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery”.
And in this otherwise ecstatic and profound 9th Symphony on the subject of the acceptance of our mortality, we hear in this joke of a movement (which is also deadly serious) the ultimate forthtelling (and even foretelling) in a virtuoso portrayal of the alienated, narcissistic, materialistic, mechanised human being, cut off from the life of spirit and inner joy. It inhabits a similar grotesque world as many of the last movements of Shostakovich symphonies, in which a vain, loveless, clownlike, even demonic humanity — in its eagerness to drown out any last vestiges of love, truth, peace and beauty — rushes headlong over the cliff to its grisly end, like the Gadarene swine in Christ’s parable. Mahler’s marked instruction for this movement, apart from the title “Rondo Burleske”, is “Sehr Trotzig”, which means “very defiant”. And so it is. Like some bitter individual putting his or her middle finger up at someone offering them kindness. Very suddenly, in the middle of this movement, the gorgeous love/life theme from the final movement is presented after the initial musical madness. It rises to a crescendo as a total contrast to that madness, only to be cut short suddenly and savagely parodied in a crazy outburst of the love theme on the clarinet. It is as if a demon (in the form of the clarinet) is poking fun at the integrity of truth and beauty, and after that the music gradually returns to the previous insanity. From thereon, the craziness of the movement rushes at breakneck speed to its inevitable abrupt end. Considering this was written more than a century ago, it is astonishingly modern music. Nothing like it had ever been written before. Mahler wrote at the top of the first page in the original score of this movement: “To my brothers in Apollo”. With that he was “cocking a snoop” at all the (plainly jealous) music critics and “colleagues” who had ridiculed his composing abilities, claiming that he couldn’t write contrapuntally, and so on. This movement is actually a contrapuntal tour de force! So fugally complex and utterly crazy! A prophetic exposé of the robot machine mentality of the vast proportion of the human race, ruled by materialism and narcissistic self-mendacity and self-blindness rushing like lemmings over a cliff to a sudden end — as indeed will this civilisation.
Then the last adagio movement of his 9th takes the little bit of beauty-music which was rejected and parodied in the middle of the Rondo Burleske and makes it into an impassioned plea for the love of life and a life of love, rolling in like vast waves on a lonely seashore until it finally exhausts itself. The extraordinary last pages of the symphony bring us to the acceptance of death and a giving up of the ego to mysterious diminuendo. This symphony represents the prophetic element in music at its best. It is deliberately designed (like all of Mahler’s music) to change people from the inside out — to encourage them to see the heartless and demonic for what it is and reject it, then to embrace love and be hymned all the way to God (which was specifically depicted in the finale to his 3rd Symphony, marked by him as “What God Tells Me” — though he also titled it “What Love Tells Me”). If you also wish to hear the entire 9th Symphony by Mahler (including an astonishing rendition of the Rondo Burleske) — an overwhelming experience of great power and poignancy and extraordinary attention to dynamic detail — then I thoroughly recommend this recent live concert recording from the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (originally founded by Claudio Abbado in 1986), conducted here by one who is currently the Vienna State Opera director appointee, Philippe Jordan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4T6wfVazlU . This is the greatest performance I have ever heard of this symphony — and by a youth orchestra at that! Be amazed!
It is, however, in Mahler’s 6th Symphony (named “The Tragic”) that his prophetic instincts are made even more deeply apparent. From the very first notes, one is aware of entering a relentless journey from which there can be no exit until the end of the symphony (approximately 80 minutes in length). At the conclusion, when the final pizzicato note has died away, I think to myself: “How on earth did any human being ever conceive of that, let alone write it?” This is a symphony which has you sitting on the edge of your seat in rapt wonder. To listen to a Mahler symphony is to go on a journey, and his Sixth is one hell of a journey! To put it in modern terms, it is like watching an epic film which has every emotion one can experience within it. In fact, John Williams, the composer of film scores for movies such as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, E.T., the Indiana Jones series, the first two Home Alone films, the first two Jurassic Park films, Schindler’s List, and many more, has always said that one of his key influences was Mahler. Would there even be any modern film music if there hadn’t been a Mahler 6th Symphony? There are highs and lows, glory and damnation, war and peace, ugliness and beauty, angels and demons, death and life, destruction and renewal. Way ahead of its time in terms of orchestration and instrumentation (although it is quite conventional in overall form), this is an innovative and involving work which still operates within the confines of classical tonality, though one is aware of being in the presence of a symphonic genius who stretches the boundaries.
The nickname this symphony has received is “The Tragic”. Mahler refused to disclose any programme for it. If I was to give a subtitle to this work, it would be “The Catastrophe of Civilisation”, as I will explain later. Maybe it should also be subtitled “The Enigmatic”. Mahler himself recognised its enigmatic quality in a letter to the musicologist and writer, Richard Specht: “My Sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.” So here we see that Mahler was aware his Sixth Symphony contained riddles for which there was a possible solution. What he meant was that there would need to be a certain openness to receive the tough message of the Sixth. Having absorbed the previous five symphonies would certainly help; but if one has already achieved that depth of openness via other means then that would work too. In a letter to the Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg — who was an early champion of Mahler’s symphonies in the Netherlands — Mahler wrote: “My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut; one that our critics’ feeble little teeth cannot crack”. Presumably, then, some strong big teeth can do so.
So here’s where I lay my own interpretive cards on the table. After studying and listening to this symphony for more than thirty years, I believe that Mahler’s Sixth is a stream of consciousness social commentary which is both contextual and prophetic. By “stream of consciousness”, I mean that the work was being streamed (some might even go so far as to say “channelled”) from somewhere beyond the composer’s own mind. He was the instrument through which the music came. For any artist who is tuned into the deep things of life and pledges to be used by a higher force for his or her output will inevitably be surprised and even overwhelmed by the outcome. After the dress rehearsal for the first performance of this symphony in Essen, Germany (with Mahler himself conducting), Mahler was found to be in quite a state backstage. His wife recalled: “After the rehearsal, Mahler paced up and down in the dressing room sobbing and wringing his hands, completely beside himself. Fried, Gabrilowwitsch, Buths and I stood there petrified, not even daring to look at one another”. In similar vein, she said that Mahler conducted the performance “almost badly, ashamed of his own agitation and afraid that he might break down while conducting. He did not want to betray in advance the truth behind this most dreadful antizipando last movement”. He knew that he had created a work of art which asked some terrible questions and then concluded in catastrophe. Yet, his artistic integrity meant that he could never substantially change it. You write something like that then you have to stand by it afterwards and say, “What I have written, I have written”, resisting the pressure to alter it, prettify it, gloss it over or compromise it. Art from the heart is untouchable — above reproach. The irony was that, at the time he wrote it, his own life at home and at work was at its most stable and he had been at his most content; yet this profoundly tragic work had come out of his heart like white-hot molten lava. How was he to reconcile that with what he had composed — an eighty-minute journey of gothic proportions which ends in seeming catastrophe and does not progress in its key from beginning to end, in contrast to symphonic convention? It begins in A minor and it ends in A minor.
So I ask again, would a better title for this symphony be “The Prophetic”? The era in which Mahler was writing his Sixth was the harbinger of great change. A few years into the twentieth century, Vienna — where Mahler had been conducting the Vienna Court Opera and the Philharmonic — was a hotbed of extraordinary artistic activity which was like a magnet for talented artists of all kinds. Mahler mixed with them all. For example, the artist, Gustav Klimt, was a friend of his who was commissioned by him to paint the famous mural on the wall at the Vienna Opera House. Vienna itself, like many of Europe’s capitals, was falling into an increasing decadence, which we so often hear savagely lampooned in Mahler’s scherzo movements, where the tunes in 3/4 time sound like dances macabres of some Viennese ghosts in the ballroom waltzing their way down to hell — including here in the scherzo of the Sixth, where the music fades away arrhythmically into nothingness. But this was also the pre-era to an event which would change the face of Europe forever: The First World War, which began just eight years after the Sixth was published and only three years after Mahler’s death in 1911. It is well-known that great art can record or eulogise tragic events. But can it foreshadow them? Is Mahler’s 6th Symphony a warning of the mayhem that was to come — an event which, in the war poet Wilfrid Owen’s words, killed “half the seed of Europe one by one”? I believe that is partially the case. But there is more to it than that. For the First World War, and then the Second World War just two decades later, were smaller-scale architypes of the events which will surround the end of this present civilisation — a necessary catastrophe which we can already feel approaching in our own time now. Listening to this symphony, one can only come to the conclusion that it is ultimately a depiction of catastrophe — the catastrophe of civilisation. Despite the huge surges of life and love-affirming spirit, together with great beauty and powerful joy, the work finally ends in disaster more than any other musical work ever written. (In the concert link that I have inserted below, the audience sits in stunned silence for almost a minute after the shocking musical outburst at the conclusion of the work). This was not Mahler’s last word musically by any means, as he went on to complete a further three symphonies, none of which end in anything like this vein. But this is a message which must be stated and heard, for it serves as a warning which should spur us on to higher living, realising that there is a new civilisation which will be created out of the dust of the old (more on this in the Epilogue below).
Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is conventionally in four parts (movements). The first movement throws the listener in at the deep end from the first note. A pounding march rhythm instantly thrusts its way into your consciousness like an army goose-stepping its way to a ferocious destiny. This alternates with a passionate outburst theme in the second subject which seems to grasp the whole wondrous beauty of life and love. It is like a heart rising on the wings of passion and an unquenchable zest for living. This sums up the ambivalent nature of the symphony (and, indeed, the whole of Mahler’s musical output): One minute we are pounding out a rhythm like a choreographed metallic army on the way to a battlefront — the next minute we are either being ravished by soaring strings or flying on the heights of the mountains to the accompaniment of shimmering tremolando strings and the sound of jingling cowbells up in the Alps (yes, Mahler really does call for multiple cowbells in the score of this symphony!). The movement ends on a positive affirmation of the life and love theme. But it is a false ending. It is the way that everyone would like the whole symphony to end, so they can rise to their feet cheering and bravoing standing ovationing and all the other nonsense that one sees in the concert hall. How happy the world would be if Mahler’s 6th Symphony had ended as it does in the twenty-five minute first movement! But there is a whole journey yet to come that will take us to both heaven and hell.
The second movement here is marked “andante”. It is a slow movement but andante is faster than adagio so there is nothing slushy or sentimental here. I believe it is one of Mahler’s greatest slow movements, which are always powerfully moving, taking the listener to the extremes of rhapsodic ecstasy. (Just for information, the slow movement adagietto for harp and strings from Mahler’s 5th Symphony was played at JFK’s funeral). Mahler also wrote at the top of the first page of this movement the word “altväterlich”, which means “old-fashioned”. If the other movements are prophetic, then this movement looks back nostalgically at an unidentifiable time when all was well and steeped in harmonious melody. Nostalgia for beauty and harmony in the middle of a symphony depicting catastrophe makes both the harmony and the catastrophe all the more contrasted and poignant. But this movement, gorgeous though it is (a real tearjerker), is really an intermezzo (interlude) from the martial fray to which we were introduced in the first movement. For the third movement scherzo returns in the same pounding marchlike rhythm as that first movement. Only because it is now in 3/4 time (boom-bom-bom, boom-bom-bom instead of bom-bom-bom-bom), it feels bizarre and even macabre. As the movement develops, one cannot help envisaging hysterical dancers at a Viennese ball. Once more we are in the territory in which Mahler is lampooning the decadent waltzy ballroom life of Vienna, which was breaking down. One can imagine the elite of Vienna desperately (and with increasing momentum) waltzing themselves into a state of mindlessness while the society around them is collapsing in decadence — like the Roman Emperor Nero allegedly playing the violin while Rome is burning (although the violin had not been invented then so it is likely a metaphor).
The fourth and last movement is, in my view, unequivocally the greatest symphonic movement ever written. Thus, we have the greatest symphonic movement in the greatest symphony ever written, IMHO. Its scope is staggering — its momentum relentless. At thirty minutes long, it is longer than a whole typical Mozart or Haydn symphony! The first few minutes present a series of tableaux to set the scene with the various themes which will follow. It seems like a theatre is being played out on a vast canvas. One is taken through huge climaxes which, on two occasions, culminate literally in actual hammerblows, serving to cut the music as if with an axe. There is no more awesome sight than a percussionist stepping forward in the orchestra to slam a two-metre wooden mallet down onto a big wooden soundbox! Mahler ordered that the sound of the hammer should be “brief and mighty but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)”. There are people who surf to performances of Mahler’s 6th Symphony on YouTube just to witness the hammerblows! One of them wrote: “I came here just for the hammer, but I stayed for 80 minutes!” That is how mesmerising this whole symphony is. People often discover Mahler “by accident” which then opens up for them a whole adventure of musical discovery. I remember seeing a comment on one Mahler symphony which said: “I’m a sixteen-year-old death metal freak but I’ve just discovered Mahler by chance and it’s blown me away!” That brings tears to my eyes and it demonstrates the power of this music. All ages, all types, all nationalities. Mahler’s music transcends boundaries and limitations.
An example of the hammer used in Mahler’s 6th Symphony
It should be noted that Mahler reduced his scored three hammerblows to two out of superstition that he felt that the last one foretold something terrible happening to him! (Although, in the very beginning, there were five!). In fact, the psychological effect of the gap in the music made by the obviously missing hammerblow creates an even more convincing air of failure and cutdownness. When Mahler played the whole symphony through to his wife, Alma, on the piano for her first hearing, she wrote: “Of all his works this was the most personal… We were both in tears… so deeply did we feel this music and the sinister premonitions it disclosed”. Sinister premonitions, indeed. Alma had to deal with those premonitions on other occasions. When Mahler wrote his “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Deaths of Children”) in 1904, she was horrified that her husband could write such songs (and they are deeply moving) and then calmly come home and read a bedtime story to his little daughter! This becomes all the more poignant when one knows that his daughter, Maria, really did die an awful suffocating death from Diphtheria at the age of four, just three years after the publication of those songs and one year after the 6th Symphony. But the prophetic material of Mahler’s 6th goes way beyond his personal life (even if he did not realise that it did). The relentless march of military madness. The complete smashing of all emerging beauty and peace with cataclysmic climaxes and anti-climaxes. The impossibility of forging peace, beauty and harmony through ordinary human means. The continual attempts to do so, only to be confounded in the final bar. For I believe, as I wrote above, that ultimately this vast work concerns itself mystically with the catastrophe of this civilisation, which is doomed to repeat its hubristic follies until the end of it. As David Schiff wrote in the New York Times on 3rd November 2001, “Though he died in 1911, Mahler had foreseen the century to come and composed music that conveyed all of its hopes and horrors”. Not only that century but also whatever time is left for this predominantly materialistic, militarised, morally-compromised, exploitative, heartless civilisation. Schiff reckoned that Bernstein’s views of Mahler revealed the composer to be “half Franz Kafka, half biblical prophet”. Taking into account the relentlessly marching crushing hand of fate in his 6th Symphony, I think we can add “half George Orwell” to that list too!
The version I’m providing here for you to listen to is a live recording played by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Switzerland, conducted by Claudio Abbado. I believe this is the greatest live version you can find on the internet. When Abbado built this orchestra, he based it around his Mahler Chamber Orchestra, plus some of the greatest musicians in Europe — many of whom are famous soloists in their own right who would not normally play in an orchestra but their love of Abbado and Mahler brought them in. It’s extraordinary to see the likes of Russian concert cellist, Natalia Gutman, or German world-class clarinet soloist, Sabine Meyer, sitting in the ordinary ranks of an orchestra (along with her entire wind quintet). The professionalism and commitment of these players more than does justice to this thrilling, overwhelming symphony. This is spiritual music with a philosophy of life and love in every note, and which doesn’t turn away from any aspect of reality, no matter how beautiful, glorious, uncomfortable, challenging or horrific, with the ultimate impact of a Wilfrid Owen war poem. To listen to it is a life-changing experience, because Mahler’s music unlocks previously hidden doors in the hearts of those who are open to it. A new musical universe opens up which is both terrible and awesome, formative and inspiring. At the same time, it’s as if this music already dwells within you, waiting to be released. When I listened to it for the first time (circa 1982), I said to myself, “I know this music. Why have I never heard it before?” If you aren’t familiar with it, I hope this happens to you too. To listen and experience, please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsEo1PsSmbg . But be prepared!
3. Ralph Vaughan Williams
In a major contrast to Gustav Mahler, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was the archetypal English composer — ill-fitting suits, bumbling and somewhat eccentric. Even though, as the son of an Anglican vicar, he purported to be agnostic, he had the kind of appearance which would look completely “at home” on the pew of an Anglican church. In fact, he wrote a lot of church music and respected the church as an institution (which is also very English). However, how does a man who usually writes music like this, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XN3QPVcExZ8 (an extract from his 5th Symphony), suddenly out of nowhere, write something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83StWY0So4Y ! That latter link is the composer himself conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in his 4th Symphony at Abbey Road studios, London, in October 1937 (less than two years before the outbreak of World War 2). That is the most dynamic and authentic performance one could ever hear, despite the ancient recording (which is still pretty good). Devastating, in fact, right through to the final hellishly abrupt note. Whenever I listen to this work, I am left dumbfounded — gobsmacked, to use the vernacular. But where had it come from? How had it erupted from the unconscious of a composer who would usually recreate paradise in his compositions?
I know he never revealed the programme behind the work which was totally different (like 360 degrees different!) to anything else he ever wrote. When I have let the music wash over me, I feel an increasing impression of something truly terrible. Listening to it transfixes me with awe and I am left afterwards with a mild case of PTSD! I think to truly understand the 4th Symphony of Vaughan Williams, one has to be able to grasp the English mindset — one in which all horrors are normally repressed so that (to use Vaughan Williams’ actual words to describe what he wanted to achieve in music) “sincerity, simplicity and serenity” is all that one is left with, that pastoral wash of bucolic beauty reflected so amiably in the beauties of the English countryside. One has to recall that Vaughan Williams had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as an ambulanceman for four years in the First World War, including one year on the front in France continually gathering bodies from the mud all night. That must have been the most awful of experiences and not easy for a man who was already forty-five years of age. I believe that his 4th Symphony represents a spike originating in his unconscious repressed memories from his time as an ambulanceman in World War 1. It is my belief that Vaughan Williams never really recovered from that experience and devoted the rest of his life to writing music depicting peace, beauty and harmony as a way of dealing with it, suppressing it. He lost many friends and musical colleagues in that war, including his protégé, the promising composer George Butterworth (1885-1916), who was shot in the head by a German sniper at the Battle of the Somme. But can you imagine being traumatised from one world war and feeling that another one was brewing? I believe that Vaughan Williams’ inner anemometer was picking up the zeitgeist of the 1930s and compounding it into one almighty explosion. It was another warning to the world about the futility of war. Vaughan Williams himself always denied that there was a programme to it. He said that he just felt like writing something rather dissonant for a change. I do not buy that at all. Well, that might be what he thought was happening but greater forces than that were at work. It was also said that he composed the symphony because of his anger at proposals for a bypass highway being built through countryside around Dorking; but I never really bought that either. I could not take seriously a composer who writes something as powerful as that merely because of a traffic bypass! That is bathos in the extreme and turns the symphony into pastiche. And the more I listen to it, the less I believe that the bypass story has anything whatsoever to do with it!
Ralph Vaughan Williams
One has to understand the psychology of the quintessential Englishman of the 1930s — stoic, somewhat repressed, with an indomitable spirit and an upper lip so stiff that it would flap rigidly in the wind. Everything takes place at the level of the unconscious, with all unpleasantness suppressed so that the surface remains calm and unchanged. It’s all outward manners and inner turmoil. Well, just as a boiling kettle has to have an outlet or it will explode, so does an old-fashioned English gentleman. And in this instance, the outlet was his 4th Symphony. The symphony is full of images of rage, of something relentlessly marching to a tragic destiny — especially near the end when the snare drum emphasises a key motif. The repeated 4-note fate motif cuts through the listener like a hot knife through butter bringing me starkly before what must surely be the composer’s abhorrence of war and his own dreadful experience of it. In a way, it must have been worse to be an ambulanceman than an infantryman. The latter didn’t usually last for long, whereas the former just had continuous hideous images before his eyes which one cannot imagine. (If you’ve seen real unedited frontline images from the First World War then you will know what I mean). I don’t think that Vaughan Williams ever recovered from that and he suppressed it through the sincerity, simplicity & (especially) serenity of all his other music — the style with which he is most closely associated.
When I play that 4th Symphony for people who have only ever heard, say, his “The Lark Ascending”, “Dives and Lazarus” or “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”, they are absolutely stunned! There is a tremendous anger in it, which is not at all English (well, not on the surface 😉). But I think he just couldn’t suppress it anymore. Something about the zeitgeist of the time just snapped and clicked into action at a profound musical level. The 4th, I believe, was his (almost entirely unconscious) catharsis of the hell contained in his heart and also a warning of what was to come later in the 1930s and who-knows-when-else. A helpless outburst of anger at the stupidity of war. He denied this type of programmatic assertion. However, I don’t think it was a conscious programme but almost like a curtain being pulled back to reveal what lay behind a normally hidden window. So his 3rd Symphony is his usual programme of quintessentially English bucolic beauty; but in the 1930s, his musical mind became a barometer of the collective unconscious of impending horror mingled with his own repressed personal horror from the previous war — exactly the kind of prophetic function of any composer who makes *real* music; and the result was his 4th Symphony (which compares to the unrelenting 6th Symphony of Gustav Mahler, who wrote that tragic work when he was at his happiest!). On the other hand, Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony achieved the astonishing beauty that it did precisely because of the catharsis which had been achieved in the 4th. The horror had been dealt with; and all that remained in his composing thereafter was a kind of heaven. But the 4th is still there to visit — a smorgasbord of alienation dressed in jackboots. Even the slower parts of the symphony are eerie and detached. There is no resolution; only annihilation. As one commentator puts it: “Fate kicks the door in, kills everyone and everything in the area, smashes the place up and stomps off, as the ceiling falls in”. Exactly. Another epitome of the catastrophe of civilisation.
III. THE MUSES BEHIND THE MUSIC
Prophetic composers (and authors) never publicly cast themselves as prophets, though they may have inklings in private. They don’t even set out to be prophets. It just happens. There is always a kind of modesty present about that aspect of their work. But when asked about the terrible uncompromising darkness of his 4th Symphony (because people always want you to cover Truth up in a pretty bow), Vaughan Williams replied: “I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant”. In other words, for the real artist, what is important is not the creation of something neat and attractive which will titillate the public but, rather, being authentic. They write what they mean. People wanted more “heaven” from Vaughan Williams, but instead, on this occasion, he gave them hell. If you make yourself into an entertainer rather than an artist, you will have compromised yourself. Once you have a relationship with the public whereby they expect you to be entertaining, amusing, diverting or pleasing, you will kowtow to those expectations and cease to be a true artist flowering in the crucible of independent creativity under the guidance of the Muse. The public will own you and you will merely be a tool to titillate their senses. If you take one step out of line, the mindless “Twittersphere” will erupt with massed digital pitchforks and torches! The true artist does not shy away even from the possibility of displeasing people if he or she believes that to be faithful to their Muse and beneficial to the fulfilment of the art. A true artist does not seek what is best for the artist but what is best for the souls of those with whom the art is connecting. Sometimes people have to be made uncomfortable or challenged in order to grow; and growth is the real business of the artist — both for the artist and for those who are touched by the art. The artist has to be prepared to step outside of every possible box — whether self-imposed or imposed by others. Dissident Russian writer, Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin, when applying to Stalin to be approved for exile from Russia because of the constraints on his art, wrote: “True literature can exist only when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics”. I couldn’t agree with that more!
Surely, today we need in the arts such visionaries and Yurodivys as I have described above across the globe — people willing to call out the demonic powers in this world, to stand up for truth against lies, to expose the works of darkness and point towards the Light. Any true artist, because of their acute sensibilities, will naturally have deep prophetic instincts. Such an artist, even though they may wish or hope otherwise, will therefore be gifted with an inner apprehension — whether unconscious or otherwise — that the world is heading for dystopia, that this can even be seen now in embryonic form, and that this civilization will inevitably end in catastrophe. No artist who is in tune with the throb of reality will propagate the notion of a coming utopia, except as some kind of fantasy or metaphor for the new aeon to come (about which more below). Truth will always bubble up. For such people are not only the conscience of humanity but also the anemometers of history. They only have to lick their literary or musical fingers and put them in the air to have an inkling of where the nightmare zeitgeist is heading.
In Vaughan Williams’ case, those prophetic instincts were more suppressed. He probably got up from composing his 4th and casually made a cup of tea, unaware that he had been a channel for vitally truthful music in which an anger raged about the folly and horror of war and posed a warning to the world. And here I have to reveal something which has a profound hidden effect on any musical or literary creation. Some of you will be aware of this and thankful that I am mentioning it. But others of you may think that I have a screw loose! If you are unaware of this phenomenon, it can be quite challenging to hear it for the first time. For there are unseen forces, discarnate entities, working behind the scenes in this world, for both good and evil. Some are pure angels. Some are fallen angels (aka demons). They have a huge influence on human activity, including the arts. It has often been said (and I have alluded to it above) that there are unseen “Muses” behind genuine works of artistic creation. I have very often discerned that “Muse” at work when I am feeling inspired. I cannot put my finger on it and identify a specific entity or being. But I have had the strong feeling of angelic (i.e. discarnate) support. Make no mistake about it, behind the “Muse” lies none other than our Creator! If we do not connect with our Muses, we will produce dead art, devoid of the divinely creative or prophetic element. To be a true artist is to have faith in (and be faithful to) the “Muse”, insofar as the Muse is an angelic entity sent by God to inspire creation in this fallen world. As I wrote some years ago in a song entitled, “The End of the Song”:
“So let that be a warning to all aspiring bards:
Unfaithfulness, the “Muse” will not endure.
The moment that we sell ourselves for flattery or greed
our song will end in shadows, that’s for sure.”
When I refer to “the Muses”, I am speaking about pure angels under divine direction. There are other kinds of angels which are messengers of darkness — fallen angels, unclean spirits, demons. The Christ was constantly attacked by them (both directly and also through humans who were controlled by them) throughout His three years of public ministering, and they are routinely behind the dark acts on this planet, for we are in the midst of a vast cosmic spiritual battle. But those do not figure as “dark muses” in the music of Shostakovich, Mahler or Vaughan Williams. I think that there are certain kinds of music which are most likely to be influenced by them — music that one could put into a definite satanic groove which only leads to depravity and corruption, such as one sees very obviously in much Rap music or extreme Metal and, more subtly, in the money music market of pop, which is based only on “hooks”, looks, mindless lyrics, greedy agents and loadsamoney. The realm of darkness is certainly often portrayed in the classical works to which I’m referring in the sections above, as a kind of pictorialization for the purposes of warning. An honest prophet does not shy away from, or cover up, the darkness to try and be “positive” in his appeal to the masses. But the works themselves as a whole have not been inspired by the inhabitants of the realm of darkness. For these works embody Truth; and Truth involves the exposing of darkness solely to warn, strengthen and protect, not the propagation of it.
Any artist — writer, composer, painter, etc. — who makes themselves open to the promptings and influence of the Muse, the creative force for good which cannot be seen but which is a reality of the spiritual battle in this world which is so dominated by deception and illusion, will in some way become an instrument of that Muse, like an angelic prompter who lives in the wings of the theatre of the mind, ready to spur us on to create things which are beyond our ordinary imagination and which will be of use to the world.
EPILOGUE: History Repeats Itself (and will until the end)
The prophetic elements in the works of such artists as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Shostakovich, Mahler or Vaughan Williams are playing themselves out before our eyes. This is why it is so important for a genuine writer or composer to be an “outsider”, to have no vested interest in the zeitgeist of the day, to be unbuyable, to be immune to blackmail, to live in isolation of worldly influences — even to be a total recluse, if necessary — and to let the angels of God lead him or her into what needs to be written. For wave after wave of all that they “prophesied” now keeps repeating itself through history. The rampant militarism, the paranoia-inducing bureaucracy, mindless materialism, bizarre craziness, stupefying superficiality, the rejection of profundity, nauseous narcissism, psychopathic authoritarianism, icy heartlessness and human alienation, or endemic corruption so superbly envisioned prophetically by these insightful writers and composers is with us in great measure today. Anyone who would deny this is living in cloud-cuckoo-land! An honest examination of society today by those who have not been brainwashed by the prevailing fashions will see all this clearly.
Think about it… We are now being forced to use language in such a way that it must have the total approval of emotionally-disturbed or debauched minorities who, if they are offended by something anyone writes or says, can make a complaint and land anyone in court or even prison. What would George Orwell make of that? Not only are we being forced by law to give preferential treatment to such sadly screwed-up folks but we are also coerced into putting them on some kind of pedestal, as if they are the avant garde of a new and higher civilization, rather than just another sign of the fall of humanity and rebellion against the divine. Everywhere, degeneracy is being celebrated as a matter of pride and principle. Natural and divine law is being replaced by licensed debauchery. Words such as “phobic” and “phobia” are being misused as suffixes to stifle all intelligent conversation on a variety of issues. Phobia means acute fear. But it’s now being misused purely as a propaganda term by fringe groups to stigmatise those who they find threatening because they do not think the same way as they do about their lifestyle. People with fringe lifestyles have realised that all they have to do is be “offended” if someone doesn’t go along with those lifestyles and they can extort the conditions they want from the authorities and society in general. Truthtellers are being stigmatized by propagandists who are using the law to stifle freedoms and put a gag on Truth. Anyone of insight, intelligence and independent thought can see this. The reality is that the only real phobia in this fallen world is Christophobia — the fear of the fact that God intervened in the degeneracy of humanity and burst into history through the birth of the Christ, who is the Light of the world. The coming of the Christ is the ultimate effrontery and offence to a world which is under the control of demonic powers (as it temporarily is). Hatred for God in Christ is today masquerading as a love for the “diversity” of a fallen humanity.
The widespread “tolerance” being proposed by social commentators today is a cover for the enforced acceptance of societally-destructive minorities, which is itself a cover for intolerance of Christ while the middle finger is being given to all vestiges of divine law. Blatant sexual divisiveness and discrimination against males masquerades as the pursuance of “gender equality”, for as part of the spiritual battle there is a war being waged by the forces of darkness against the sacred masculine and sacred feminine. Governments hide behind a faux-democracy in order to maintain power and control. Corrupt powers wage brutal and genocidal colonial wars against Far-East or Middle-Eastern countries (bombing them back to the Stone Age) which masquerade as “bringing them peace and freedom”. The political correctness of allegedly liberal activists is nothing more than a mask for the suppression of Truth. The “love” touted everywhere in the media today is nothing less than lust and schmaltz. This has become a global form of “gaslighting”, by which members of society are being coerced into accepting passively what is effectively a war against God. To merely be a simple member of society today is to be “gaslighted” from all sides in a world where the lunatics are taking over the asylum. This is a form of satanism in action, of which no one is allowed to disapprove, or they will be deemed to be antisocial and even breaking the law. This is how The Lie is made to displace The Truth.
Orwell’s idea in his prophetic book about betrayal, “1984”, in which governmental ministries are given names which are the diametric opposite of what they really represent, is a classic satanic inversion. The Ministry of Peace is really about the promotion of war, the Ministry of Truth is really a propagator of lies, the Ministry of Love administers torture and the Ministry of Plenty is the harbinger of starvation. The very Stalinism which everyone in the West claims to despise, complete with its assault on freedom and free speech (and free thinking) is becoming the very heart of that West, under the guise of “love”, “acceptance”, “diversity” and “progress”. This neo-Stalinism is all part of the downfall of a doomed civilization in the making — one which has long been portended in honest literature and music, as well as in the mouths of the prophets of old. When the state aligns itself with divine law — even with natural law (which is a reflection of that) — then that society will function far more productively than if it opposes it.
If we were to look down on this world from a long way up in space, we would see that the life of each artist is just one small part of a vast creative force in the universe, connected to the Source of it all. That alone should tear down any hubris or illusions we may have about ourselves. Make no mistake about it — we are all here for a purpose; and artists are here for a particular purpose. Thus, the real work of the artist is not to titillate or entertain but to expose and to be a weathervane — to be the hammerblows against The Lie from within this fallen world, using compassion as the fuse, love as the detonator, and truth as the explosive. The real role of an artist is in some way to be a prophet (at the very least, the forthtelling kind) — to see through and expose corruption, degeneration, debauchery and darkness in operation; to show how divine law is being substituted by human fashions, perversions, yardsticks and follies; to call out public servants who only serve themselves (or, worse, who actively serve the realm of darkness); to point the way to the Light; to show what has been revealed about the future of this cosmos; and to overturn the vain but widespread notion that the coming of the Christ is merely a myth. (There. I just wrote my own job description. 🙂)
Let it be said that no genuine prophet — no matter how loosely that term may be used — ever prophesies a utopia. Those who can see clearly always sense that the cosmos as it is currently constituted — a fallen realm rooted in 3-D matter with lawlessness and death at its heart — is doomed. This isn’t pessimism or negativity. It is the logical conclusion for a world which has largely rejected its Creator — the “Source-Energy” behind the creation — and placed itself hubristically, Babel-like, on a pedestal as the sole protagonist for the development of human history, which it foolishly imagines to be “evolving” under its own steam towards some kind of perfection. But there can be no resolution for this cosmos or civilisation save that which will be accomplished at the end of this age when
“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man [the Christ] will appear in the heaven… and He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet blast. And they will gather together His chosen ones from the four winds, from the ends of the heavens to the other ends”.
Those are the prophetic words of the Christ about the cataclysmic event which will bring this civilisation to a close. How near could that event be to our own time? Before he said those words, He had been asked the question by His disciples, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”, to which He gave a lengthy reply about those signs, namely: an abundance of false messiahs and false prophets, famines and earthquakes (for they are really “birthpains” of the new aeon to come), mass betrayal (even within families) and a widespread hatred across the earth, the love of the majority of the human race growing cold, a huge global increase in lawlessness and apostasy — all culminating in the words in the above quotation. (You can read all this in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 24). This is why no true prophet or instrument of God can possibly speak of a coming utopia on this earth in the form in which it is currently constituted. For that would be a lie; and the central element in prophetic literature and music is an adherence to the Truth, even if the writer or composer shrinks at the thought of it and finds it terrible in its portentousness.
Increasingly, the gloves are coming off in the spiritual battle on this earth, while darkness masquerades as light, lies masquerade as truth, and evil masquerades as good. All restraints on the demonic realm are gradually being released so that amorality can come to its head and show itself for what it really is to those who are willing to see it. This will not be an easy combat by any means. On the contrary. For these evil discarnate entities fight dirty and they are masters in the art of deception. After all, they’ve had many millennia to perfect it. But they lack true wisdom and light, which their pure angelic counterparts have in abundance. Thus, each time I embark on any creative endeavour, I petition my Creator to send His angels as Muses to inspire me and as warriors to protect me. Never underestimate the venom of the realm of darkness against those who love the Light. Mark my words… this is war.
If you find my writings about prophecy here to be pessimistic and negative, I should add that although this civilisation and, indeed, entire universe, is living on borrowed time and will come to an end, the dissolution of this cosmos which is inevitable at the end of this aeon is merely the preface to a new aeon “in which death will not exist anymore—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things will have ceased to exist”. There will be a new heaven and a new earth! The current ascendancy of darkness (for now is their hour and the power of darkness) does not imply the eclipsing of the Light. On the contrary. For what is happening is that darkness is being permitted to come to its logical climax of evil, false authority, sorcery and moral debauchery and thus be ripe to be dealt with by the Source of all things. Darkness could never exist in perpetuity and is only allowed to continue temporarily while lessons can be learned from its existence. The time is coming when no more will it be able to hide behind a false respectability and a skein of lies. Then the realm of darkness will be eradicated, and the cosmos will be renewed. However, until we can admit to ourselves that the present fallen state of things will come to an end — and wholly understand the nature of being alienated from the divine and the rebellion against natural law which results from that — we will not be able to accept the emergence of the new considerably higher-dimensional universe to come. Neither will we be able to enter it. Everywhere the stench of death and decay reveals the truth to us and beckons us to align ourselves with, and follow, the Light revealed by the Christ. We ignore that, and all prophecies pertaining to it, at our peril.
© Alan Morrison, 2019