The Magus

A history of magic in music.

Prospero Commanding Ariel, by John White Abbott. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

John Fowles’s novel The Magus tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young graduate who takes up a post teaching English on a small Greek island. There he falls under the influence of an older man, Maurice Conchis, who seems to be a figure of considerable wealth, learning and charm. This mysterious character slowly draws Urfe into a game of escalating trickery, in which the boundaries of reality and illusion are increasingly tested.

Locked inside Urfe’s first-person narrative, we never fully understand what is happening to him, and the puzzles of Conchis grow more elaborate and sinister. As he digs down to discover the answers, the mysteries only deepen. 

I was left reeling by The Magus – it is a riveting and dazzling piece of storytelling. Its title refers to a Tarot card figure, also known as ‘The Magician’. And like the sibling words of ‘wizard’ or ‘sorcerer’, any figure who is able to bypass the laws of nature always has an appeal. Just look at the the Harry Potter series, which is arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of my lifetime.

In a sense music is inherently ‘magical’ – it is invisible, and its powers over us defy easy explanation. It has magical associations in some of our oldest stories: Orpheus with his lyre could charm even the rocks and trees with his song. The Pied Piper of Hamelin put music to the use of service, then vengeance. 

The Pied Piper Mural by Maxfield Parrish. Picture by Plum Leaves, shared under Creative Commons license. Cropped.

In the same vein, a story from Finnish myth inspired Thea Musgrave’s orchestral work Song Of The Enchanter. It refers to an episode from The Kalevala, where ‘Väinämöinen, the hero-God, has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people’.

Musgrave’s piece was commissioned to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius. And among its bubbling woodwind textures, there emerges unmistakeable fragments of the ‘swan’ theme from his fifth symphony. It is clear that Musgrave’s ‘enchanter’ here is not only the one of myth. 

For a long time, magic has drawn on ancient and esoteric themes. In the Greek-speaking Classical world, the ‘Magi’ were known as priests of Zoroastrianism, a very old religion which originated in Iran with its founding figure Zoroaster. And it is through Greek writings about the Magi that our word ‘magic’ derives. So the concept itself comes not only with a dusty coating of old age, but also the musky scent of Orientalism – the projection of mysterious qualities onto an exotic ‘Other’. 

Etymology aside, the fanciful occult associations of Zoroaster and the Magi had a remarkably long life in the European imagination. And this is particularly apparent in an art form that loves exotic settings and mysterious antiquity as much as any other – Opera.

In Handel’s Orlando, the wizard ‘Zoroastro’ makes predictions from the stars, and uses magic to save the warrior hero from his own madness. Meanwhile, Rameau’s Zoroastre puts him in the title role, and he undergoes a magic initiation ritual to defeat an evil sorcerer. 

During a carnival in Vienna, the young Mozart once dressed up as an Oriental philosopher and handed out riddles titled ‘Excerpts From The Fragments of Zoroaster’. His opera The Magic Flute features a High Priest with the suspiciously familiar name ‘Sarastro’, who puts the Prince Tamino through initiation rites at his temple.

A century later, this tradition continued in Massenet’s Le Mage. His ‘Zarastre’ is a Persian General who goes to a sacred mountain to become a Magus. Laurent Campellone has argued that Le Mage was part of a renewed ‘vogue’ for Zoroaster sparked by Friedrich Nietzsche. His work Thus Spake Zarathustra reimagined the ancient figure not as a magician, but as a ‘new’ prophet who could propound his philosophy, one of mankind moving away from its old religious morality and towards the ‘Superman’. (In doing so, he prompted one of the most famous openings in all of orchestral music).

Zoroaster’s operatic roles may be Orientalist escapism, but even Nietzsche’s reinvention of him shows how ideas of the ancient, obscure and exotic can be a signpost to another realm of possibility. A recurring theme in stories of magic is the sudden discovery of a new depth to reality. And anything that is old, shadowy, or mysterious holds potential for things which have long lain hidden, if only you know where to look, which magic words to utter.

A Harry Potter fan at the Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station, London. Photograph by Nelo Hotsuma, Wikimedia Commons.

Harry Potter fans may be interested to know that before composing The Magic Flute, Mozart worked on a collaborative opera called The Philosopher’s Stone. Fantasy stories often draw on ideas that were once realms for serious study – in this case, Alchemy. And ‘Natural Magic’ was a term once used for demonstrating the marvellous behaviours of nature, of which music could form a part, with its intriguing phenomena such as sympathetic vibration.

In the late 16th century, a chapbook circulated with stories of one extraordinary Renaissance magician. Johann Faustus had allegedly practiced the ‘black’ magic of Necromancy – communication with the dead. It seems this was loosely based on a real figure, but in any case, the legend of ‘Faust’ was born. Two centuries later, Goethe sparked a huge revival of interest in Faust with his epic version of the tale, which went on to be enormously influential across arts and culture. It elicited a horde of musical responses. 

Unlike the reimagined ‘Zoroaster’, Faust is home-grown. His legend warns us of the lust for knowledge and power and its potential to corrupt – the ‘Faustian Pact’ with the demonic Mephistopheles shows us there’s a catch.

A woodcut illustrating Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, a dramatisation of the Faust legend.

Musgrave’s composer-enchanter also has a sinister cousin here, in the Faustian virtuoso. The violinist Paganini was renowned for his seemingly diabolical skills, an idea later echoed in the ‘Crossroads’ legend of blues musician Robert Johnson. And that great nineteenth-century wizard of the piano, Franz Liszt, was certainly taken with the demonic aspects of Faust – he composed four macabre dances, the Mephisto Waltzes, alongside a huge symphonic setting of the story.

As long as music has magical qualities, those who excel at making it will take on the appearance of magicians. Not only is musical talent inherently intangible, but the necessary years of hard work are also hidden from the stage. 

‘The Modern Orpheus’ – an 1831 bulletin advertising a performance by Paganini. Wikimedia Commons.

But there is also that other magic; one immediately spotted, immensely powerful, but very hard to explain. It’s the x-factor of presence, charisma – something that can apply to any field of performance.

The Canadian composer Vincent Ho speaks in such terms of the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. ‘She has the uncanny ability to draw the audience into a magical world and take us on wondrous journeys that are beyond material existence’. Using ideas of those charismatic figures who claim to access the world of spirits, his percussion concerto The Shaman was composed for her.

The Faust legend conjured up a huge amount of music, but another work by Goethe also led to a famous piece on magical themes. In a similar way, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice gives a warning about over-stretching our desire for power. In his master’s absence, the apprentice sorcerer casts spells which quickly spiral out of control. The orchestral scherzo on this tale by Paul Dukas was brought to life for countless children by Mickey Mouse, when it was animated for Disney’s film Fantasia. 

It’s sometimes said that ‘three is a magic number’, and much like the Mephisto Waltzes, Dukas uses a metre grouped in threes. This gives his bassoon theme a playfully bouncing quality, its magic characterised as dancing mischief (in fact, Dukas uses a 9/8 time signature, so three lots of three).

The use of a ‘compound’ metre is shared in the penultimate movement of Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, titled Uranus, The Magician. But the figure that Holst creates here is no apprentice – this music is full of dashing verve and swaggering confidence. At its thrilling climax, an organ glissando rushes upwards like a firework. 

Raymond Head has described how Holst moved in an artistic milieu with esoteric interests. He suggests that The Planets was likely influenced by a 1912 book called The Art Of Synthesis by astrologer Alan Leo. To Leo, the planet Uranus was ‘the awakener […] it shows people that there is more to living than what can just be seen or touched’, just as a magician ‘invokes and manipulates unseen elemental forces’.

Head also notes that the ominous brass notes that open the movement spell out G, S, A, H in German notation, which can help us to form ‘GuStAv Holst’. Whether this was an intentional cipher or not, Holst certainly revels in his powers with this score. And the angular prominence of the motif gives it a character of mysterious significance – a musical ‘Abracadabra’.

You could say there is something of a shared ‘magic formula’ among these works by Dukas and Holst, along with the similarly supernatural music in Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath. It seems to be varying mixtures of a few features: a dancing metre grouped in threes, bright orchestral colours, quite often a minor key, and sinuous and/or angular melodic shapes. 

Much like fantasy literature, these are the sorts of pieces that form an enchanting gateway for young people discovering a larger art form, yet they remain popular with adults too. It seems only appropriate that many of the same features can be found in Hedwig’s Theme from John Williams’s superb score for the Harry Potter films.

The Magus very cleverly explores different means of creating illusion and suspending disbelief. Throughout the book, Conchis takes on various guises which play on this idea – hypnotist, psychiatrist, theatre director, film producer.

At first Urfe is intrigued by this wealthy eccentric, but he soon becomes obsessed with unravelling his mysteries. It is a dilemma familiar even from a simple card trick – do we want to understand the mechanics, or just enjoy the magic? Do we want the fearsome Wizard of Oz, or the small man revealed?

Perhaps more than any other composer, Wagner went to unusual lengths in the pursuit of grand illusion. His operas transport us with their huge scale, legendary themes, and intoxicating music. But in overseeing the construction of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, Wagner created a performance space dedicated to his ideal of the deep artistic experience. Particularly ingenious is its pit that completely conceals the orchestra from the audience. In the words of Tom Service, ‘the music seeps like sonorous perfume from the invisible depths’. 

Such innovations notwithstanding, the hidden power lying in Wagner’s scores had enormous influence on later composers. Debussy marvelled at passages in Parsifal which sounded as if they were ‘lit from within’. And in fact, it seems that wherever there is magic, there is also a source of mesmerising light. It is reflected in the tendency to use bright and silvery musical sounds for magical themes – Hedwig’s celesta, Mozart’s flute and bells.

Projection from a Laterna Magica, sourced from Breve Storia del Cinema.

Lighting is an essential craft in theatre, and so too in film. The ‘Magic Lantern’ was an early projection device, some versions of which could produce the illusion of moving images. The master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman gave his autobiography the same title, and his descriptions of different kinds of light in the book were a source of fascination for the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Her Laterna Magica is a spookily atmospheric score, in which Bergman’s names for light are recited in softly sinister tones by members of the orchestra.

The craft of storytelling can certainly be enhanced by technology. But the perennial popularity of the novel shows that words alone can cast their own spell. In The Magus, the greatest power Conchis seems to have is telling stories – stories whose truth is difficult to ascertain, but which he weaves at length seductively, improvising and adapting as he goes.

This extra layer of storytelling within the book takes us deeper into its world. At the same time, it gives us an embedded model of the novel itself, hinting at its artifice. Just as with Holst’s apparent cipher, Fowles knows that he is the real Magus. The tricks Conchis pulls on Urfe are his own tricks on us. 

Perhaps it is no surprise that this idea of embedded storytelling has led to one of the most enchanting scores in the orchestral repertoire. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is based on the Arabian Nights, a legend which tells us of the power of stories to bewitch and sway human hearts. And his much-loved music matches that power triumphantly.

Illustration from ‘Stories From The Arabian Nights’ (1911). Source here.

The use of such narrative games also appealed to Shakespeare, as can be seen in his play-within-a-play device. The Magus makes knowing allusions to Prospero in The Tempest, the marooned wizard who, aside from other magical acts, calls up spirits to perform a masque for the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand.

Sibelius composed incidental music for The Tempest, and according to musicologist Erik Tawaststjerna, Prospero likely held significance for the Finnish enchanter, as ‘a symbol of the creative man’. His musical interlude for the magician features a glowing centre of woodwind and brass timbres, dramatically offset by a grave hymn for monochrome strings.

But it seems probable that it was not only Sibelius who saw himself in Prospero. Once his masque is over, our magician makes a celebrated speech, one which is commonly interpreted as touching on Shakespeare’s own retirement from theatre – his ‘globe’.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

In these immortal lines, Shakespeare extends the metaphor of Prospero’s illusion a step further. Life itself is a dream, the world its stage. In doing so, he alludes to a bigger truth: that stories are how we deal with the biggest, most fundamental questions of existence. Whether it is through the arts, religion, or science, we all weave tales which help secure our understanding of the world, and our tiny place within it. Anyone who can suspend our disbelief is a Magus, of one kind or another.

Detail from The School of Athens by Raphael, showing ‘Zoroaster’.

At the same time, these stories also reflect back on ourselves and our culture. We can note how many wizards and magicians have historically been male embodiments of authority and power. The history of witches, on the other hand, reveals how the prospect of women having hidden knowledge is often treated as far less welcome.

But times change. The fact that the more gender-inclusive halls of Hogwarts have now inspired a generation suggests that our ideas of magic will continue to adapt, as we do. And all the while, the phantom figures of Faustus and Zoroaster can remind us that stories are, in any case, a slippery form of sorcery. Much like the poor apprentice’s spell, they quickly take on a life of their own.

Part of Prospero’s speech was set to music by Vaughan Williams in his Three Shakespeare Songs for choir. Written towards the end of his career, he sets out in notes ‘the baseless fabric’ of Shakespeare’s late vision, and does so with chords of fragile magnificence. This is music that captures all the transient beauty of the magician’s power, in two minutes of pure magic.

At the very last chord, there is an inspired final trick. Halfway through the word ‘sleep’, the harmony unexpectedly slips from major to minor. It’s just a small touch – a parting glance. But it speaks of something that lies beyond our understanding. 

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’. However far down we go, the mystery only deepens. The Magus is always one step ahead.

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John Fowles’s novel The Magus is available from Penguin.