Music of Ecstatic and Contemplative Qualities


holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

I was talking to a friend recently – a music graduate with eclectic tastes – and he expressed the view that classical music was really quite a niche art form, and that the most exciting music was being made elsewhere.

This comment reminded me of a man I met on a train a few years ago. Seeing he was reading a music score I struck up conversation, and he turned out to be a classical pianist who taught at a music college. We chatted for the rest of the journey, and he told me how doing folk music ensemble playing with his students left everyone with a ‘buzz’ that was simply lacking with, say, Mozart.

Or as an acquaintance once pithily put it: classical music is colourful, but it doesn’t have Adrenalin.

Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Standing in the arena at the BBC Proms and hearing Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony last year was exhilarating. Mars from the Holst’s Planets Suite remains for my money one of the most exciting pieces of music ever written, its dementedness satirising the insanity of war yet at the same time thrilling us with its savagery. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that excitement can be found in dark places.

But in light of these comments, I wanted to write about a little-heard piece of music by one of the least exciting composers of the last fifty years – and I mean that in a good way – the late John Tavener (1944-2013). His 2003 work Mahãshakti for violin, string orchestra and tam-tam is described as follows:

The Sanskrit word ‘Shakti’ signifies a celestial Feminine Energy that allows man to enter into contact with the Divine […] According to Hindu metaphysics, the Mahãshakti is the supreme Shakti, and only through her can man aspire to the infinite. The solo violin represents both Shakti and Mahãshakti, and should express in its playing (as should the strings), both ecstatic and contemplative qualities. The music is both rapturous and hieratical – rapturous in the passionate and gentle lines, and hieratical in the ritual striking of the very large tam-tam.

The first movement, Shakti, is contemplative and beautiful in a calm, rarefied way, with soft string chords and solo violin lines shifting meditatively. It’s very quiet, so I recommend listening on good speakers that are turned up. The second movement, Mahãshakti, is more florid, and builds in waves of intensity.

But the language of the quote above is telling: ‘ecstasy’ and ‘rapture’ in their spiritual senses are of a different quality altogether to everyday excitement. I wrote recently about how Rubbra’s Eleventh Symphony suggests the process of meditation, and the second movement of Mahãshakti similarly creates a sense of an inward spiritual journey. Nearing the end, its rapturous waves dissolve into a kind of magical stasis, an oscillation between strange string chords. It is one of the most bewitching examples of mysticism in music I have heard.

The static, ritualistic qualities of Tavener’s most famous works form a kind of monastic sanctuary within modern classical music, one that he shares with Arvo Pärt. The fact that both have found considerable appeal beyond the core of paid-up classical enthusiasts is a useful reminder of the important role music can play in providing calm in people’s lives. There is more to life than excitement, after all. Stimulation is everywhere in our media-saturated world, and the growing interest in yoga and mindfulness in the West is surely an indication of an increasing awareness: that cultivating quiet space brings huge benefits to personal well-being, even if you feel little affinity for the spiritual traditions of those practices.

Furthermore, while excitement can be a joyous thing, our craving for it dovetails worryingly well with the pervading short-termist consumerism that has produced so many problems – the destruction of ecosystems, climate change, an atomised human society afflicted by continual perceptions of dissatisfaction and inadequacy. In this context, the value of any art that encourages contemplation and stillness – whether spiritual, intellectual or simply relaxation – is surely raised.

Or, to put it more simply: it’s great when music is exciting. But when it isn’t exciting, it can nonetheless still be valuable.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

‘His Poetry Has Always Meant More To Me Than All The Music Of The Centuries’

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.