Classical Krsna


From Rasalila, Rajasthan, c. 1800

May 30, CANADA (SUN) — Classical musicians over the ages have composed and performed great musical works inspired by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. While we seldom make the connection between Sri Krsna and opera or western Classical music, that connection lives through the hearts of musicians around the world, who are naturally attracted to the transcendental vibration of the Absolute.

In previous Sun articles we featured a beautiful rendition of Jaya Radha Madhava sung to English lyrics with Classical accompaniment. The piece, entitled Vrindabanís Woods and Groves, was composed by Hrishikesh dasa.

A November 2005 Sun article also explored the music of the late George Rochberg, who composed "Songs in Praise of Krishna", a beautiful libretto for opera comprised of a collection of poems about Sri Sri Radha Krsna's loving affairs.

Today, we explore another exceptionally talented Classical composer who was also fixed on the Supreme Lord, and who produced a body of works translating his impressions of the Divine Personality into beautiful music.

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988)

Giacinto Scelsi was born in 1905 to an aristocratic family in the Naples countryside of southern Italy. While he had little formal musical training, he is now recognized as one of the most creative composers of our century. Giacinto Scelsi has been described as a profound mystic, who saw the future of music as residing in a return to an atavistic state of a distant Indo-European pan-culture, and devised exact music to fulfill his ideals.

One of Scelsi's most masterful works for piano is undoubtedly the Quattro Illustrazioni, which is for all practical purposes a classical sonata. It is comprised of only four movements, totaling under fifteen minutes in length. The four movements, or illustrations, depict four of the Lord's transcendental manifestations.

Quattro Illustrazioni (1953) - Suite No.8 - Cinque Incantesimi, or Four Illustrations on the Metamorphosis of Vishnu:

    [01] Shesha - Shayi Vishnu
    [02] Varaha - Avatara
    [03] Rama - Avatara
    [04] Krishna - Avatara

Quattro Illustrazioni was described by critic Todd McComb as follows:

"This is Scelsi's first direct reference to Indian mythology in his music - something which was to continue throughout his output. Scelsi never used Indian musical forms or instruments, but there is definitely an eastern current underlying the remainder of his music; here it asserts itself in a subtle and powerful use of rhythm built from ostinato notes and into chords.

The opening movement 'Shesha' shows Vishnu asleep as the body of the universe, and the opening chords are to form the basis for the whole work. (Hear an excerpt of "Shesha - Shayi Vishnu") The second movement 'Varaha' is a powerful and destructive scherzo-style movement depicting Vishnu as a wild boar ravaging the world. This leads to the majestic 'Rama' movement and then to the concluding meditative 'Krishna.'

This "sonata" shows much of Scelsi's mature style: an eastern mystic awareness (and it should be noted that in Indian tradition, sound or Nada-Brahma is the underlying basis of the universe) brought into western language on western instruments (though later incorporating less traditional instruments and combinations) and written in classical sequences. Later this is to combine with a profound feeling for the interior of sound and with it the use of microtones and glissandi (which again play an important role in Indian vocal music) providing even more violent and energetic outbursts surrounded by sublime harmony."

Scelsi's musical roots are further described by critic Frank Perry in this way:

"The music of Giacinto Scelsi is perhaps best described as being that of a spiritual Edgar Varese. It has the elemental quality of both Varese as well as that of Tibetan Buddhist orchestral music, and likewise the attention upon Sound in-and-of-itself, yet, through Scelsiís innate spirituality and deep commitment to Far Eastern philosophy and spirituality, it transcends the realm of mere sound, touching an area of our being left largely untouched by all other music. His music is not for those of a nervous disposition nor for the faint-hearted. It is utterly naked, raw music and totally uncompromising. He considered that all composition since Pythagoras had been in error - that composing (putting together) was a mistake. Devising new music should consist in the analysis of one note and its overtones.

Scelsi began to create massive works based on one note. Earlier in the century the Austrian mystic, occultist, and founder of the Anthroposophical movement, Rudolph Steiner, had described how the content of one note and its overtone series (and its "undertone" series) could be enough in the future music to provide the raw material for a composition, but Scelsi went further, exploring the microtonal deviations from the chosen note.

Increasingly his works centered around the narrower examinations of the very nature of sound itself, bearing mystical titles, quite often coming from the Vedic tradition of India, and making increasing demands on the performer, in a manner normally only met with in much of extreme Romanticism or Expressionism. Yet with the mystic's rejection of self, this music is as far from expressionism as can be."

In tomorrow's Sun, we will explore the music of Alan Hovhaness, a prolific 20th century American composer who wrote many works inspired by the Vedic literatures.


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