John Cage attended sometimes the Theosophical Society in Los Angeles …

The Master Koot Hoomi calls music “the most divine and spiritual of arts,” (ML, p. 264) and both he and the Master Morya show some technical knowledge of music in their letters (ML, p. 120). Music was among Helena P. Blavatsky’s many accomplishments. On her first visit to London in 1844 she took piano lessons from Ignaz Moscheles (A. P. SinnettIncidents in the Life of H.P. Blavatsky, p. 37). In the late 1860s she was involved with the operatic bass Agardi Metrovich, and performed concerts in the Balkans (J. O. Fuller, Blavatsky and Her Teachers, p. 19, with comments). Henry S. Olcott praised her piano playing in their New York days (ODL I, 1941 ed., pp. 458-9). Her Esoteric Section Instructions include schemes of correspondence between the musical scale and other septenaries (CW XII:562, 621). The only other early Theosophist seriously involved with music was Emma Hardinge Britten, who had worked in the Paris studio of Erard as a piano demonstrator and who composed music for her spiritualist educational program, the Lyceum.

After the death of Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society continued as a driving force behind a movement of renewed spiritual aspiration and interest in the Orient, in ancient wisdom, and in the occult. This period, up to World War I, saw theosophy’s greatest influence on music, when it was linked specifically with composers (as also with painters) in the forefront of the Modernist movement.

In France, theosophy contributed to the occultist atmosphere of the fin de siècle period, out of which came the “Rosicrucian” music of Erik Satie, and the symbolist opera of Maurice Maeterlinck and Claude Debussy, Pelléas et Mélisande. One of the chief French theosophists was the minor composer and musicologist Edmond Bailly, whose Chant des voyelles, performed at the Theosophical Congress of 1906, sought to recreate the magical invocations of ancient Egypt.

Alexander Scriabin was a great enthusiast for Blavatsky’s writings and for theosophy. His synthesis of color with music resembles the correspondences of Hermeticism. His Prometheus, the Poem of Fire uses an invocation from the Stanzas of Dzyan, and his unfinished synthesis of the arts, Mystery, is an essentially theosophical vision of the coming transformation of humanity. Another Russian theosophist, Nicholas ROERICH, was the designer of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (1913), and probably an influence on the composer’s mystical cantata The King of the Stars.

In Germany, the theosophist and astrologer Oskar Adler (1874-1955) had a great influence on Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. He played string quartets with the young Schoenberg, and convinced him to become a composer. Schoenberg’s early music draws on Strindberg and Swedenborg (Der Jakobsleiter; Séraphîta), while his later works on Jewish themes are indebted to The Kabbalah. Webern’s inclination was more towards a Christian nature-mysticism, as in the Cantatas and other works on texts by Hildegard Jone.

Three English composers were intimately involved with theosophy. Cyril Scott was the author of the anonymous books The Initiate and its sequels. He believed that Koot Hoomi was instrumental in directing his musical career and in inspiring the writing of Music, Its Secret Influence Through the Ages. Scott’s powerful First Piano Sonata, which stands comparison with that of Alban Berg, belies his reputation as a minor Impressionist and folklorist.

John Foulds (1880-1939) was another misunderstood composer, known for his light music rather than for his many deeper works. Foulds came to theosophy through his wife, Maud MacCarthy, who had traveled in India with Annie Besant. She was a child prodigy violinist, an expert on Indian music, and a clairvoyant who wrote, as “Swami Omananda Puri,” the autobiographical The Boy and the Brothers (1959). Foulds’s World Requiem for the dead of World War I was conceived in the non-sectarian spirit of theosophy, and his Mantras for large orchestra and Essays in the Modes for piano were based on Indian and ancient Greek modes.

Gustav Holst, while not a member of the Society, was attracted by every aspect of its program and was a friend of the theosophists Clifford Bax (the brother of the composer Arnold Bax), G. R. S. Mead, and Alan Leo, the astrologer. Holst’s choice of themes is significant: they include a chamber opera Savitri, based on a story from the Mah€bh€rata, (1907-8), Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, scored for girl’s choir (1909-10, for which Holst learned Sanskrit so he could do his own translations of the hymns), The Hymn of Jesus, with words from a Gnostic text that G. R. S. Mead had translated, (1917-19, for which he studied Greek), Ode to Death, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman (1919), and the popular orchestral suite The Planets (1914-1917), a thoroughly astrological work.

In the United States, the important modernist composer Henry Cowell spent 1916-17 in the community of the “Temple of the People” in Halcyon, California, and composed music for his patrons there (ballet The Building of Bamba, cantata Atlantis). Cowell developed an interest in mythology, especially Celtic, that would last all his life, emerging in his Symphony no. 11, “The Seven Rituals of Music.” Dane Rudhyar was born in France and came to America in 1916, where he led a dual career as composer and astrologer. His music shows the influence of Scriabin. Other composers touched by theosophy are Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius. Both moved in theosophical circles and held a firm belief in reincarnation (Cranston, H.P.B., 495-497).

While music played an essential role in Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Movement and in George I. Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, its place was never strongly defined in the programs of the various Theosophical Societies. By the 1920s the direct influence of theosophy on musicians had diminished, while its indirect effects were diffusing throughout Western culture. Among the consequences of these was the Peace Movement of the 1960s, with its strong input from Oriental spirituality. Much of the popular music of that period, with its aspirations towards human brotherhood and its connection with altered states of consciousness, can be seen as an extremely exoteric descendant of theosophy.

The same intentions were present, with very different musical results, in the compositions and philosophy of John Cage, who was largely responsible for introducing Zen Buddhist concepts into the postwar avant-garde movement. Among living composers, the German Karlheinz Stockhausen best exemplifies the theosophical program of brotherhood, ecumenism, and research into human potential. His seven opera-cycle Licht is a mythological work of universal ambitions, suffused with esoteric ideas and intended to have a transformative effect on its hearers. The modern Italian composer and author Renato de Grandis is an active member of the Italian Section of The Theosophical Society.


Cranston, Sylvia. H.P.B. (Tarcher, 1994)

Head, Raymond. “Astrology and Modernism in ‘The Planets,’” in Tempo 187 (1993), pp. 15-22

MacDonald, Malcolm. John Foulds and His Music. (White Plains, 1989)

Rudhyar, Dane. The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music. (Boulder, 1982)

Scott, Cyril. The Philosophy of Modernism — Its Connection with Music. (London, n.d.)

Sinnett, A. P. Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky. (London, 1913).




Music of the Spheres


The jazz innovator Sun Ra believed he came from Saturn and imposed a monastic existence on his band

 Read the First Chapter

The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.
By John F. Szwed.
Illustrated. 476 pp. New York:
Pantheon Books. $29.95.

The alchemy that created jazz owes much to the brothels, speak-easies and clubs that thrived in Chicago during the first half of the century. The black population grew from 44,000 in 1910 to more than 800,000 in 1960, making the city’s South Side the center of black nationalism, black political life and the music we know as jazz. In Chicago, the pianist Fats Waller was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to play at a three-day birthday party for Al Capone. Fleeing New Orleans, Louis Armstrong went to Chicago to hone his art and build his fame. Mahalia Jackson scrubbed South Side floors while blending jazz and blues into a spectacular gospel style that echoed Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

The journey from Delta blues to Northern jazz parallels the Illinois Central line, which carried the great migration northward on storied trains called the Panama Limited, the City of New Orleans, the Louisiane and the Black Diamond Express. The subject of John F. Szwed’s ”Space Is the Place” was easily the most fascinating musician ever to step off the train. He was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1914 and named Herman Poole Blount, but in Chicago he changed his name to Sun Ra, after the ancient Egyptian sun god — a grand transformation indeed, but one that suited his aspirations. In explaining what those aspirations were, Szwed has produced a rare jazz biography — one that takes full account of the history that shaped the music and its central personalities. An anthropologist, historian and musicologist who teaches at Yale, Szwed brings an impressive array of skills to this job. He needs them all to track down a subject whose every word seems intended to protect him from scrutiny.

Known to friends as Sonny, Sun Ra played piano and electronic keyboards and led an eccentric but influential ensemble that performed in one form or another for more than 40 years, right up to his death in 1993. He played everywhere from back-room dives to the Pyramids to the hottest venues in Europe, and he was as comfortable with street-corner doo-wop as with esoteric experiments like those of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. He was one of the most interviewed musicians in the world, but remained an enigma to the press. No wonder, since he spoke in parables, insisting that he was not of this earth, had not been born in the traditional sense and had come to this planet from Saturn.

Sun Ra called his band the Arkestra — part ark, part orchestra — and defined its mission as more religious than musical. He lived a monastic life, shunning relationships with women, and encouraged his musicians to do the same. His compositions were all dedicated to the Creator and described collectively as ”the private library of God.” Drugs and drunkenness were expressly forbidden. Discipline was fierce because it had to be. As Szwed writes, the Arkestra contained ”musicians from the very best music schools and amateurs; intellectuals and comedians; those who had given up otherwise lucrative careers and those who had never held a job; and sociopaths whom only their mothers, the Army or prison might be able to restrain.”

In the 1950’s Sun Ra could be seen striding along the South Side streets in exotic robes and a glittering skullcap, clutching scrolls that contained his music. Recordings like ”Super-Sonic Jazz” and ”We Travel the Spaceways” established his reputation and announced his twin obsessions, space travel and spiritualism. The Arkestra was legendary in the city when I saw my first concert, in the 1970’s. The pyrotechnics and musicianship were stunning. The band played basic blues. It played traditional big-band pieces impeccably, note for note — but three times as fast as the original score. It improvised wildly. The saxophone section rose and moonwalked backward to center stage. There the players fell on their backs and played while writhing, St. Vitus style. Lights flashed; a midget dancer vaulted across the stage. When I thought I’d seen it all, a fire-breather appeared, spewing a vast column of flame.

A critic friend told me that Sun Ra kept his most important music locked in a safe for fear that if wrongly played it would destroy the world. Szwed explains that Sun Ra held this belief in common with the composer Scriabin, who envisioned a performance that he hoped would raze the planet and usher in a higher state of being. Both men were influenced by theosophy, the 19th-century movement popularized by the mystic Helena Blavatsky and carried on by Rudolph Steiner and G. I. Gurdjieff. The theosophists began with the premise that science and religion could be bridged and intersected. As Szwed writes, theosophy taught ”that the universe was organized hierarchically, with forces or spirits which moved between the levels and affected life on earth; and that there were charismatic leaders who had the means to come to know these secrets.” Listened to in snippets, Sun Ra has always seemed either crazed or congenitally odd. In Szwed’s hands, he becomes a jazzier version of Gurdjieff, who wielded enormous influence by playing guru to artists and writers who lived with him communally.

Theosophy reinforced ideas that Sun Ra had come to by intuition and by association with secret societies in both Birmingham and Chicago. He had been named Herman after the magician Black Herman, an ethnic nationalist and contemporary of Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington. Garvey, Washington and Black Herman all offered talismans to ward off racism. Garvey suggested that blacks return to Africa on the Black Star Line. Washington glorified carpentry and ironwork, telling Negroes that vocational skills would change the way white people perceived them. Black Herman claimed that he was immortal and descended from Moses. He seemed to suggest that Negroes could elude Klansmen and their descendants by slipping the bonds of mortality and simply outliving them. Sun Ra was in Herman’s camp. When challenged on his cosmology, he said: ”I really prefer mythocracy to democracy. . . . Reality equals death, because everything which is real has a beginning and an end. Myth speaks of the impossible, of immortality. And since everything that’s possible has been tried, we need to try the impossible.”

Birmingham in 1940 had the largest chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Black retailers were isolated in a downtown Soweto that black shoppers could venture out of only on prescribed days. Sonny’s dreams naturally focused on Terminal Station, a domed Beaux-Arts building that was the grandest station in the South. His mother and aunt worked in the terminal restaurant and often fed him there. The contrast between Jim Crow Birmingham and the free North was writ large in the station. Big bands poured in from the North. Transplanted Alabamians came back to visit, showing off new suits and Northern self-assurance. When Sonny boarded the train for Chicago in 1946, he fulfilled both a personal and a collective destiny.

In the North, he began to tell a tale of alien abduction in which spacemen had taken him to Saturn and instructed him in how to live. They had told him to quit teachers college, he said, ”because there was going to be great trouble in schools,” and had called him to preach on the cosmic stage, telling him that ”when it looked like the world was going into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, then . . . I would speak, and the world would listen.”

Sun Ra told this story hundreds if not thousands of times, recounting it just as earnestly to tiny fan magazines as to the viewers of MTV. Szwed compares the story to others in ”the Afro-Baptist tradition,” in which ”God calls the chosen by means of lightning bolts, shafts of sunlight, moving stars and celestial music, where the elect are dressed in robes and lifted to heaven by railroads, ladders and chariots.” He likens Sun Ra’s conversion to those of Nat Turner, Father Divine and Elijah Muhammad — all former Baptists for whom revelation provided a dramatic change in world view and circumstance.

Sun Ra believed in art for art’s sake and would have played even if no one had come to hear him. The warmest parts of this book are the stories Arkestra members tell about his teaching methods, which included lectures on cosmology and prodding toward discipline and self-possession. The Arkestra helped redefine how reed instruments are played, broadening the range of acceptable sound. Saxophonists who absorbed the lessons showed astonishing stamina, distinctive voices and an enormous musical reach. Even out on their own and in business suits, you could hear Sun Ra playing right through them.

Brent Staples, who writes about politics and culture for the editorial page of The New York Times, is the author of a memoir, ”Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White.”


Return to the Books Home Page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s