Musicology and Meditation: A View from the Abyss
Updated: May 3
“During the twentieth century, music served to inspire millions of people to stand against injustice, brutality and inhumanity…The cultivation of arts that befit the dignity of the human race and that promote the best interests of humankind must be the goal of the century that is just beginning.”
—Art, Culture & Pediatric Mental and Behavioral Health, M.Penn & P. Clarke (Oxford Handbook on Medical Ethnomusicology)
Music—in all its forms—is something that I deeply love. Music has the power to inspire, transform & heal. Various forms of music can move me to deep states of emotion but nothing captivates me to the point of tears like good strings music. Paganini, Vivaldi, Corelli & other such masters of strings compositions have the power to transport me to whole other realms… mmm... so delicious!
Richard Strauss isn’t on that level but he has some interesting work. In a few minutes I will listen to his Metamorphosen played by a 7-member socially distanced Houston Symphony strings ensemble. Strauss wrote this piece in 1944 after many of the places he frequented in Dresden, Germany were bombed and destroyed. The horrors of World War II were raging across the world. His Jewish daughter-in-law was put on a Nazi hitlist. Luckily, Strauss was able to convince a friend of his not to serve the warrant for her arrest. Can you imagine the dynamics surrounding this piece of music?
That is exactly what I am about to do. I am about to close my eyes & do deep pranayama (yogic breathing) & let this music speak to me. This is a meditative technique that I have been working with more & more lately. Various traditions utilize sacred music as part of meditations, rituals & holy rites that teach and expand the mind. Why not experience other forms of music—Jazz, Blues, rock, hip-hop, heavy metal— in this manner & just see what can be learned? It’s coming on now—just listen & breathe…
…Ah nice. Now sit in silence for a while & reflect… Strauss wrote this Metamorphosen after reading Goethe’s writings on the life cycles of plants. Birth & death. Death that brings new life. An endless cycle of metamorphosis. It has been said that this piece of music is a profound lament for a lost Europe. What would Strauss think of the Europe of today & specifically the art-filled & thriving city of Dresden? Quite an evolution from 1944.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, the Leonardo DaVinci of German history. Fifteen or more years ago I jotted down these lines from Goethe while reading his Sorrows of Young Werther:
Oftentimes I say to myself, “Thou alone art wretched: all other mortals are happy—none are distressed like thee” Then I read a passage from an ancient poet & I seem to understand my own heart. I have so much to endure! Have men before me ever been so wretched?
Why did I make a note of this passage? Perhaps to remind myself… to turn to the great works of literature from the past when in wretched states of overwhelming stress and sadness. To read & study and learn in search of understanding my own heart. To never-ever-ever allow the abyss of this soul-destroying environment to do as Young Werther did at the end of the book: he commits suicide & ends his own life…
Around five years later—now ten years in the past— when I was really learning the process of Negation of the Ego & starting the hard, hard work, I went back to those lines. Ha! I laughed at the self-absorbed & egomaniacal nature of such brooding, as my whole being started to reach beyond the individual I & into the realm of The All That Is…
Strauss was heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. One of his most famous compositions is Thus Spake Zarathustra, based on Nietzsche’s book of that name (which incidentally has a chapter entitled Metamorphosis). In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks speaks of Nietzsche’s intense interest in the relationship of music & physiology, of music’s “power of arousing the nervous system in a general way, especially during the stages of physiological & psychological depression”.
Sacks also notes that Nietzsche spoke of “the dynamic or propulsive powers of music—its ability to elicit, to drive & and to regulate movement (& the stream of emotion & thought, which he saw as no less dynamic or motoric that purely muscular.)”
When going to Bizet concerts, Nietzsche would often carry his notebook. He once wrote that “Bizet makes me a better philosopher.” Music transformed into philosophy. Approaching music as an experience— an experience that can bring about metamorphosis & awakening. Being open to allowing music to speak to you & reveal its secrets. Even one song, one piece, can take one’s mind to thought-provoking places—as Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss has just done with me…
A reminder to stay committed to the ever-evolving life long process of exploring the secrets of the art of music. Remember this. Remember to take time to honor music as an artform that promotes the best interests of humankind— & live in harmony with these interests. Remember to do more of these meditative musical explorations. Even if all that is achieved is reading—as I just did—these potentially sanity saving lines from the fourth part of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra:
Brave is he who knows fear but conquers fear, who sees the abyss, but with pride. Who sees the abyss but with the eyes of an eagle; who grasps the abyss with the talons of an eagle—that man has courage.
In this abysmal environment of injustice, brutality & inhumanity, such meditations can be particularly powerful—they can even be a matter of life and death.