A vintage year for blasphemy and heresy

2010 was a vintage year for blasphemy and heresy. A post on Salvador Dali drew attention to his forgotten audiovisual opera-poem Être Dieu inspired by the Cathar heresy, Jonathan Harvey stirred things up on my Chance Music programme by saying "the future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music", while yet another path took me to new heights of heresy. In fact the path reached 2400 feet, which, as the photo above shows, is a serious challenge for anyone who, like me, who has a vertigo problem. I took the photo from the fortress of Quéribus in Languedoc, France and the view is towards Mont Canigou, the holy mountain beloved of Pablo Casals and Thomas Merton. Quéribus castle was the last Cathar stronghold to surrender in 1255 and Jordi Savall's The Forgotten Kingdom had led me to Languedoc and Catharism and on to Gnosticism.

The Cathar heresy has its roots in the "dualist" religions in the Indus basin which originated with the prophet Zoroaster, seen below, who is believed to have lived in the region between 1400 and 1200BC. Zoroastrism spawned a diverse group of religions based on the belief that there are two opposing forces in the universe, the god of evil or darkness and the god of good or light. This philosophy was incorporated in varying degrees into later religions including Christianity.

Subsequently Gnosticism developed as a synthesis of primarily Christianity and Zoroastrism. From that synthesis, plus a splash of Buddhism, Manicheism evolved based on the duality of good and evil or spirit and matter. From this Catharism emerged as a neo-Manichian Christian heresy in the early 11th century and the rapid spread of the Cathar heresy across Western Europe presented a real threat to the Catholic Church. The result was the Albigensian Crusade which resulted in the eradication of the Cathar culture in the south west of France, as told in Jordi Savall's Forgotten Kingdom, and the destruction of the Cathar fortresses, including Quéribus.

The Cathar heresy may have been extinguished in medieval times but Gnosticism remains an active force today. It replaces the conventional exoteric Christian cornerstones of faith and obedience with a mystical esoteric doctrine that leads to the true spiritual knowledge of gnosis found within rather than without. Although Gnosticism is most closely linked with Christianity it also appears in Islam, most notably in the Ismāʿīlism sect of which the Aga Khan is the leader and also among some Sufi sects.

Gnosticism has many connections with contemporary culture and its influence has been identified in the work of, among others, Jung, William Blake, Goethe, Hermann Melville, Lawrence Durrell, Albert Camus, Hegel, Nietzsche, WB Yeats, Franz Kafka, the Existentialists, Jack Kerouac and even David Bowie, seen above, via his extraterrestial on stage personae. Any discussion of contemporary culture and Gnosticism must also mention the Da Vinci Code. This novel managed both to raise the profile of heretical Christian belief systems and perpetuate the widely held view that such systems are no more than quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo. So after that brief Dan Brown diversion the path leads to the more rewarding topic of Gnosticism and contemporary music.

Jazz saxohonist Charles Lloyd introduced Keith Jarrett to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and the pianist went on to record Gurdjieff's music for ECM; Jarrett had a deep but passing interest in Gurdjieff's unique brand of Gnosticism before moving on to Sufism. Composer and pianist John Zorn, whose music is influenced by the Kabbala and Gnosticism, reminds us that heresies extend to other monotheistic religions.

There seems to be a thing about pianists and gnosticism as Eric Satie, seen above, was from 1891 to 1894 official composer and chapel-master for the esoteric Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique du Temple et du Graal in Paris and this influenced his music of the period. Satie was an influence on John Cage and the minimalists, and Vexations, which Cage gave the first full length performance of in 1963, was written during Satie's Rosicrucian period. The Rosicrucian Order's belief in esoteric truths from the ancient past link it to Gnosticism, Catharism and the controversial Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The latter sect numbered Algernon Blackwood among its members; Blackwood was the author whose novel became the Starlight Express play with music by Elgar.

Rudolf Steiner was also a Rosicrucian, a sect which may have originated as a splinter group of the Golden Dawn, before developing his own flavour of Gnosticism called Anthroposophy. Steiner was an influence on many musical figures including the ubiquitous Jonathan Harvey, who read forty books by and about Steiner in eighteen months after leaving university, and surprisingly Bruno Walter, who was a devotee of Anthroposophy. Hermann Hesse has already appeared on this path as a Gnostic influenced author, his poetry was set by Richard Strauss in the Four Last Songs and Strauss also, of course, composed a tone poem inspired by Zoroaster.

Christian Gnostic texts have been set by contemporary composers, most notably in The Veil of the Temple, John Tavener's multi-faith all night vigil. The Veil of the Temple is an important milestone in early 21st century music both because it pioneers musical syncretism and because it proves that art exists beyond the sound byte. Composed to a commission from the Temple Church in London, which has direct connections to the heretical Knight Templars, The Veil of the Temple was given its first performance lasting seven hours in 2003. This was recorded by RCA/Sony with the Choir of the Temple Church, the Holst Singers and soloists directed by Stephen Layton. A concert length version was created by the composer, who is seen above, in 2004. The RCA recording of the all night premiere was then edited to match the concert version and released as 2 CDs. These are now deleted but copies are still available and are very well worth searching out.

John Tavener is often credited with being the first modern composer to set Gnostic texts. But that accolade should almost certainly go to another composer who set a heretical text eighty-five years before Tavener. Early in the twentieth century the Theosophist G.R.S. Mead had studied the major Gnostic gospel Pistis Sophia (The Books of the Saviour). Included in the surviving fragments of the Apocrypha of John is the section known as the Hymn of Jesus and Mead translated this in 1907 and drew it to the attention of his friend Gustav Holst who had a deep interest in mystical religions.

Mead's opinion was that the text, which dates from the 2nd century or earlier, was was not a hymn at all in the conventional sense, but that it was possibly the earliest surviving Christian, or even pre-Christian, mystery ritual. This view appealed to Holst who was also interested in the mystery rituals of the Indian sub-continent. The composer was also drawn to the Hymn of Jesus by its freedom from the dogma of established churches and the result was the composer's setting of the Hymn for two choirs, semi-chorus and orchestra which was first performed in 1920.

Holst's setting of the Hymn of Jesus is divided into a Prelude and the Hymn proper. After an orchestral introduction the Prelude introduces the two Latin plainchants Vexilla Regis Prodeunt and Pange Lingua. The body of the work is a setting of an unattributed English translation of the Gnostic Hymn of Jesus which according to G.R.S. Mead portrays the ritual of initiation of a Master (presumably Jesus) and his disciples. The similarities between this and Freemasonry help explain why Christian Gnostics have been zealously persecuted by the Catholic church. We are fortunate that the Hymn of Jesus has not suffered the record industry's equivalent of persecution known as deletion and details of a recommended recording are given in a footnote.

It is remarkable both that so many influential creative figures have been in some way connected with Gnosticism and that the heretical belief system has survived for two millenia despite repeated persecutions by the established church. It must be accepted that some of Gnosticism's resilience is due to its chameleon like character which means it is as hard to define as it is to extirpate. But there must be other explanations. If you take the bottle half full view the resilience can be explained by Gnosticism's syncretic and non-dogmatic nature. If you take the bottle half empty view, as did a Catholic monk in the discussions that triggered this post, the resilience can be explained by Gnosticism being a "masonic melting-pot of religiosity".

Despite that put down I suspect we have not heard the last of Gnosticism. There is evidence of increasing discomfort with a contemporary culture that imposes collective knowledge on the individual via external media such as the internet, TV and radio. By contrast Gnosticism, with its emphasis on inner knowledge, offers a real alternative to a system where for many knowledge can now only be found online. It is surely no coincidence that the popular culture icon most often connected with Gnosticism is the Wachowski brother's 1999 film The Matrix. This pre-social network movie portrays the world as a giant computer simulation designed to keep humans trapped as the slaves of the sentient machines that created the computerised universe.

Which brings us to the end of a path that has led from a 13th century Gnostic stronghold to the 21st century reality of computers and social media. It is difficult to draw conclusions from this notably overgrown path because there is no clear destination and the real lessons lie in the journey itself. But the role call of Gnostic influenced names that has appeared en route must surely tell us something. So, Gnosticism - masonic melting-pot of religiosity or antidote to contemporary technological dogma? Darkness or light? Quasi-mystical mumbo jumo or synchronicitous soup?

* There is an excellent Decca recording of Holst's Hymn of Jesus by Sir Adrian Boult with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus. Do not be put off by the 1962 session date, the pre-digital sound is of demonstration quality. Currently two versions of the same Decca Hymn are available. One is in a 2 CD Holst compilation which includes two other essential recordings, Imogen Holst conducting her father's totally neglected masterwork, the chamber opera Savitri, and his Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. (Why is Holst still seen as a one work composer?) As an alternative there is another 2 CD set which in a neat piece of synchronicity couples the Hymn with a masterpiece from another dabbler in things mystical and occult, Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. As the Gerontius is the legendary Britten/Pears Snape Maltings recording and the price is currently £5.99 on Amazon both double Deccas should be in any collection.

** Holst composed the Hymn of Jesus long before the 1945 discovery of ancient Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. This discovery, which includes the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas, underpins the centuries old Gnostic myth with sound scholarship. It also highlighted similarities between Gnosticism and other belief systems, notably in the Gospel of Thomas which has resonances with Zen Buddhism.

*** I apologise for simplification and for omitting many other notable figures who fell under the spell of the many flavours of Gnosticism. All I can offer in mitigation is the need, not met, to keep this post to a manageable length. To find out more the accessible and affordable The Gnostics, the First Christian Heretics by Sean Martin is recommended as a starting point.

**** In 1951 Imogen Holst spent two months studying the folk music of India and teaching at Rabindrath Tagore's Santiniketan University in West Bengal. Read more about this remarkable musician here.

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Pliable said…
Philip Glass' syncretic Fifth Symphony, which sets texts from the Qur'an, Rig Veda, Tibetan Book of the Dead and other sacred sources, predates John Tavener's The Veil of the temple by three years and should have been included in this post.


I will rectify my omission by writing about it in a further article.
I had understood that Holst undertook the Acts of St John translation himself, as was typical of the guy, and that it stands comparison with most such translations. A remarkable mind, one of the people in my List of Who I Really Would Like to Meet when I'm Dead. He learned Sanskrit so he could translate the Indian texts he set, and as a holiday maker in Algeria not only incorporated a 4 note flute theme he'd heard (repeated over 2 hours) into the 3rd movement of Beni Mora but managed to outdo the Lawrence of Arabia music for the wide vistas of the desert theme music and quite a few decades ahead. Or to have been in the company of Holst and Vaughan Williams as they walked the Sussex Downs and discussed their work.
Pliable said…
COtP, many thanks for that. The Gustav Holst Journal indicates the source of the translation is unclear -

"Holst’s versions [of the Hymn of Jesus] are so much more succinct and memorable than Mead’s published translations. Who was responsible - Clifford Bax, Jane Joseph or Holst himself? All we can be certain about is that the result is the one that satisfied his musical imagination."


But that is a detail. As you say - what a mind, and what a musician.
Robert McCoy said…
You might enjoy this on the Gnostic Gurdjieff...


Robert McCoy

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