Bonus Material: – Musical Ecstasy = Mystical Experience?

***(The planned blog posting “The Mystery of Miracles,” will appear in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I thought my readers might enjoy a more personal look at the subjects at hand, as I tell the story of one very intense “metaphysical or mystical” experience from my younger days. Enjoy!)***

Edwin Austin Abbey (1852 – 1911) “The Sisters,” 1882

Ever since I was a young boy growing up in what always seemed to be a musical household, there were moments of live and recorded performances taking place on a regular basis, and some of my earliest memories contain what I now recognize as episodes within which I experienced the ecstasy of rapturous and extraordinarily beautiful music.

Since I was not generally inclined to perform as a musician myself, at least, not while playing any sort of musical instrument, I wasn’t encouraged to do so as were several of my other siblings.  My talents and inclinations were centered on the creation of adolescent artworks and performance art of various kinds, entertaining others at family gatherings, and generally enjoying the havoc which would routinely result from my antics in the process.

Not long after entering high school, my interest in performance art took on a whole new urgency, as I auditioned for the first time to appear in the school’s annual musical presentation. Much to my surprise, I was cast as a butler with a small speaking part, as well as being included in the chorus, in support of the cast of the musical “L’il Abner.”

Once I completed the run of that show, I was encouraged by the musical director to try out for the glee club, which was a fairly competitive endeavor in those days, and was once again surprised to be invited to join.  The practices took place after school, and we were held to a fairly rigorous standard of attendance and learning the material for our performances.  I found that I quite enjoyed the process, and even had the opportunity to participate in a recording of a number of selections for a special project. 

In the flurry of activity in my senior year, I also was selected to perform the role of the old English actor in a production of “The Fantasticks.” The show was a departure from the usual presentation, which would normally be chosen based on the goal of including as many young performers as possible, in order to generate ticket sales among the parents and family members. In this instance, only eight individuals were required by the director’s aims, but the show nonetheless generated a degree of interest that filled the school auditorium each night of the run.

This exposure to the performing arts with live audiences, followed by uproarious applause in recognition of months of effort to prepare the presentation, led me to believe that I might be successful in expanding my educational goals by pursuing the study of Theater Arts.  Subsequently, I began to apply for colleges with Theater programs, and ended up enrolled in the school of Communications and Theater at Temple University.

Along the way, I was recruited by that same director to perform roles in some of his other productions, and at the peak of my run of performances, during my sophomore year, I was invited to sing a bass baritone solo from Leonard Bernstein’s opera, “The Mass,” for a very large audience in Philadelphia at the annual “Spring Musicale,” sponsored by the local community.  Bernstein’s “Mass,” involved a central celebrant who questions the relevance of the established ceremonial ritual within the structure of a traditional Roman Catholic Mass.

The preparations included two weeks of daily training with a voice coach to learn the difficult piece, which included lyrics in Latin, several minutes of a character portrayal of a priest saying “Mass,” and the accompaniment of a full orchestra and fifty-member choral group of young women singers.

While I was willing to attempt this feat, I must acknowledge that I was not especially confident that I could manage it, and struggled greatly to meet the basic criteria the role demanded. After weeks of practice, I was called before the orchestra for a final rehearsal in the afternoon of the day before opening night.  I remember vividly how I trembled offstage just before my number came up, and walked out to the center of the stage with every eye of the gathered musicians fixed directly on this “bundle of nerves.” I had never been required to sing in front of a full orchestra before, and was clearly unprepared for the sensations coursing through my body at that moment. I took a couple of deep breaths, hoping to calm myself, right before the conductor started the orchestra on the introduction to the piece, who then suddenly pointed at me—my cue to begin.

Gustavo Gimeno – Music Director with Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxemborg (photo: Miguel Lorenzo)

Fortunately, I had rehearsed the music so many times that it wasn’t necessary to worry about WHAT to do or how to perform the piece. All I had to do was hold myself upright on both feet and not faint from the terror of possibly making some glaring mistake.  Once the music began, though, my training kicked in, and I was able to hold it all together.  There were several moments, as the song progressed, when I felt as though I might be slipping outside of myself, somehow watching the performance from a slight distance. When the chorus of women suddenly joined in, I could feel the intensity of their combined voices bouncing off my back, and was momentarily pressed back into my bodily awareness.

At the completion of the last section of the main musical number, the orchestra paused at a signal from the conductor, and the string section began at once to tap their bows on the strings of their instruments, as the other musicians stomped their feet.  At first, I thought this meant something was wrong, but quickly realized that the members of the orchestra were applauding my performance.  The conductor smiled at me and signaled his approval as well.

Paulo Szot as the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at Ravinia Festival (Photos by Patrick Gipson)

The night finally arrived to perform in front of the live audience, and I arrived several hours ahead of time, to go over the steps and actions required as the character of the priest. Shortly before the show began, they hustled me offstage to a room where I was dressed by the costume assistant in the priestly garb.  It felt strange at first to be wearing the actual robes and dressings a priest would wear, and to hold an actual golden chalice in my hands, but it gave me something to do while I prepared mentally for my performance.

The auditorium was packed with attendees sitting in the nearly two thousand seats available, and when the curtain rose, I could feel the anticipation rising in the auditorium as well.  The lighting on the stage was mercifully bright and I could only see the first few rows of people.

Orchestra painting by Ursula Gullow.

The orchestra began as before, but this time, a strange feeling of calm overtook me as I started my performance.  The pomp and circumstance of Bernstein’s music; portraying the familiar actions of a priest conducting the sacred rituals of the Catholic mass; combined with the accompaniment of nearly a hundred others, either on stage or in the orchestra; brought to a crescendo the momentary suspension of what one might reasonably describe as my personal reality, and raised my experience of those moments to a level well beyond anything I had ever known prior to that night… (—Mystical or Metaphysical?)

When the performance came to a close, the response from the audience was immediate and astonishingly forceful.  Thunderous applause and cheering ensued, and I could feel a rising wave of energetic vibrations from the reactions of so many individuals, repeatedly striking my chest. Once again, I briefly felt untethered to my body, and it seemed to me as though time had momentarily slowed dramatically, as the entire ensemble basked in the appreciation of a grateful audience.  Once I left the stage, and returned to the dressing area, I felt completely giddy with gratitude that it went so well. 

Never before in my life had I experienced anything even resembling that intensity, and unbeknownst to me, my father, who generally did not attend my performances after I graduated from high school, had changed his mind at the last minute and decided to come along with my mother and younger siblings. Imagine my astonishment as he had apparently pressed his way to the front of the stage door entrance to greet me. It was one of only a handful of times that I saw him smile so broadly at me, for something I had done. I knew at that moment that what I had done must have been extraordinary in his eyes, and it had altered my awareness of my apparent capacity to affect others significantly.

Once it was realized by my parents that I had the ability to sing at this level of performance, it became something of a requirement that I sing for them by request at family gatherings, for years afterwards. I learned the songs I would sing by ear and by repetition, and sadly never learned to properly read music.  Whenever it came up, I had to rely on my instinctive leanings for my delivery and execution of the musical assignment, but the music that caught me, and compelled me to learn it, always seemed to inspire me effortlessly.

In my early years growing up, I gradually acquired a fondness for classical music, mainly as a result of listening to my older sister practicing the piano, while playing every variety of composers, for most of my young life.  As I progressed beyond those early years, where I was weaned on these classical compositions, I began to seek out recordings of some of my favorites, and accumulated a formidable collection, which I continue to enjoy to this very day.

Not only did I become more and more enamored of the classics, but I actively pursued any musical piece that captured my heart and soul as time progressed. Without consciously selecting any particular composer or musical recording, once I realized that I had become emotionally or spiritually moved by the performance of some selection of music, as it entered my awareness, I deliberately made note of the experience of the vibrations that took place within me, and was, henceforth, unable to encounter it without searching my heart and soul for the memory of what led to my enchantment.

These experiences exponentially increased my appreciation for beautiful music over time, and in some ways, influenced my subsequent interest in my own “inner evolution.” If you’ve been following along here at “John’s Consciousness,” you have likely encountered my postings which either talk about my love of music or about how it has become an essential part of my whole being.

My recent attempts at video blogging are replete with musical selections of some of the most important music in my collection, and they are representative of my wide range of interests musically. I could probably write dozens of blog posts about particular experiences I’ve had with particular musical offerings, and the circumstances which surrounded my encounters with each one. 

Edwin Austin Abbey (1852 – 1911) “An Old Song – 1885

There is a clear connection, in my view, between the perceived beauty and powerful resonance of particular musical compositions with the sympathetic vibrations within us. If we are awake enough to pay attention to these vibrations when they come, we can become engaged in that moment of living to a degree unrivaled by ordinary experience. I have frequently encountered music which moved me to tears, lifted my spirits, or evoked any number of other emotions, simply by the presence of those vibrations in the air that I breathed. This was clearly NOT a coincidence!

In view of these revelations, I decided to add “Musical” to the list of words included in the original group of Metaphysical, Mystical, Mythological, Metaphorical, Miraculous, and Mysterious.

6 thoughts on “Bonus Material: – Musical Ecstasy = Mystical Experience?

    1. It certainly has been true in my experience, that particular types and selections of music have reliably evoked a spiritual component within those experiences, and a masterful composition performed in accordance with the composer’s intent can almost feel like a brief conversation with them.

      “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

      1. It is my view that the spiritual component is always present in such experiences, whereas my ability to perceive it may not rise to the required level in EVERY instance, but frequently enough to rely on it.

        I am a flawed and imperfect human creature, but the music is nothing short of perfection in providing me access to the spiritual component, at least as much as my imperfect, but reliable talents permit.

  1. John – an outstanding post! Your words made me feel as if I was with you back stage waiting for your cue from the conductor. It brings happiness to me to read about your real love for the arts and, in particular, your participation in them. Thank you for a really enjoyable read. Kathleen Anne Fritz

    1. Kathleen,

      I’m delighted to know that my posting inspired such a positive response for you, and it seems likely that the reason I was able to describe it in such detail, was because the event itself was so momentous for me personally, and the memory of the experience understandably vivid. I was tasked to the limit!

      I appreciate your thoughtful remarks very much…John H.

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