BRITISH MUSIC: THE PERSONALITY OF LANDSCAPE
My fundamental approach to Glastonbury is clearly outlined in this post. It is the entire introductory chapter to my first book Mysterium Artorius, embellished by photos, images, and music videos.
Although a more detailed historical and esoteric exposition of the town might not be of interest to everyone, I believe that the effect of landscape on human consciousness and how that impacts on culture is a theme that has a wider resonance, impacting as it does on the creative processes of a wide spectrum of artists and mystics.
I have developed methods to enhance my receptivity and pleasure in the moods evoked by the landscape that involve artfully cultivating an ongoing mood, an ambiance, a constant background evocation. A relentless combination of history, art, literature, poetry, music, magic, and mysticism, fills me with the spirit of what the great literary seer Peter Ackroyd has called “English music” which I would adjust to “British music”. It’s like connecting with an indigenous landscape songline. There is nothing parochial and exclusive about the results.
“Something eternal – universal – the very breath of freedom lives in this land. It stretches out, embracing the whole of humanity. It still speaks to us through the hills and the valleys, the rocks and caves mentioned in the Arthurian legends. The winds and the waves sing of it, the atmosphere is full of it. It is necessary to find contact with this invisible Power which, in only one of its forms, appears as the Arthur of the legend. This Power in reality is the Eternal Spirit of this country —. Could we but realize this, a cultural element would be born again, English in its innermost depths. It speaks to all human beings wherever they live and to whatever nation they belong”
Walter Johannes Stein. Is King Arthur a Historical Character?
“Legend and history and the vision of the heart blend in the building of the Mystical Avalon”.
Dion Fortune. Avalon of the Heart.
It begins with a sense of place. Arthur’s name has been attached to so many. Glastonbury and Tintagel best embody the feeling. Regardless of the strong historical arguments against the validity of their Arthurian associations, something seems to connect the legendary locations that frame his life from conception to burial. The fundamental factors are landscapes that profoundly impact on the human psyche, places that will inevitably attract a numinous mythology.
Neither place is just a repository of history and legend in the past tense, some kind of museum. That which has given them their unique identity remains alive and functioning, potent with power for transformation. I would affirm that there exist certain special places, somehow able to inspire the tribal tales that any culture needs to understand its identity and needs, its potential destiny. I believe that Glastonbury and Tintagel seem to be such places, where history and mythology, two hemispheres of one greater brain, are almost impossible to separate.
It was surely a mysterious quality of the landscape that attracted people to Glastonbury in the past. Geoffrey Ashe has noted this in King Arthur’s Avalon and Avalonian Quest. For example, the Tor can be seen from a considerable distance away. It totally dominates the visual field. As one approaches and circles around it, a continual shape-shifting is occurring. It presents a different aspect from every vantage point. And yet, there are places in the town where the Tor cannot be seen. The view from its summit is extensive but does not include the Abbey, which is hidden by Chalice Hill, apart from the late addition of the abbot’s kitchen. The tower, which is clearly visible from miles away, doesn’t really seem that tall when you’re inside it. The early inhabitants of Britain led lives far more intimately connected to the land than most people do today. The distinctive qualities of the Glastonbury environs would suggest it was a place of the Otherworld. In those far-off times much of the area was underwater as well. The Tor and its adjoining hills would have been virtually islands. Despite subsequent draining much of the spell remains intact. The whole locale seems to participate in an endlessly shifting perspective.
John Cowper Powys in his astounding novel A Glastonbury Romance attempted to express, “the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character”. The “special myth” is the book’s heroine, the Grail, “much older than Christianity itself”, for, “ages before any saint or Saviour of our present Faith appeared in Glastonbury — the earth-goddess had her cauldron of the food of life safely guarded in our Island of the West.” “Its hero is the Life poured into the Grail. Its message is that no one Receptacle of Life and no one Fountain of Life poured into that Receptacle can contain or explain what the world offers us”.
Powys decided to make the landscape, history, and mythology of Glastonbury a character in his novel. The different elements cannot be separated. They constitute an elusive something that can interact with a person as strongly as a human character, stirring passion, idealism, madness, asceticism, horror, mysticism and eroticism in all possible combinations. This approach would later be developed in the psychogeographical London work of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.
During the nineteen-twenties HV Morton had visited Glastonbury as part of a nationwide car journey that resulted in the hugely successful book, In Search of England. He had noted that, “It is, perhaps, not strange that all places which have meant much to Man are filled with an uncanny atmosphere, as if something were still happening there secretly: as if filled with a hidden life. Glastonbury is like that.”
The occultist Dion Fortune may well have been familiar with the work. In her mystical, poetic book about Glastonbury, Avalon of the Heart, she wrote that, “Where strong spiritual emotions have been felt for long periods of time by successive generations of dedicated men or women – especially if they have had among them those who may be reckoned as saints because of their genius for devotion – the mental atmosphere of the place becomes imbued with spiritual forces, and sensitive souls capable of response are deeply stirred thereby when they come to it”.
Fortune wondered if we “miss much when we abandon the ancient custom of pilgrimage?” “Every race has its holy centres, places where the veil is thin”, that contain, “power to quicken the spiritual life and vitalise the soul with fresh enthusiasm and inspiration.” “Glastonbury is a spiritual volcano wherein the fire that is at the heart of the British race breaks through and flames to heaven”.
Tintagel is another such place. Many would agree that the area around the cliff-top castle ruins by the sea carries an archaic feeling of tangible magic. Imagine the end of a perfect summer day. The all but cloudless sky has become a symphony of gradations of portentous pink focused on the sun setting into the sea. As its reflection touches the water, a rippling ray spreads out from the horizon back across the foaming Mediterranean turquoise waves to the beach, like a sword of shimmering light. From a vantage point up on the cliffs, amongst a riot of small wild flowers, looking across at the ruined castle and down to the entrance of the famous Merlin’s Cave, one can forget all the intellectual arguments of history, feel the Arthurian mythos alive in the very air, and believe. Wordsworth’s famous lines on the landscape around Tintern Abbey come readily to mind.
“And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things.”
Place stirs feeling. Inspires poetic mystical sensibilities. Fills the heart with the intuition of music that is constantly present if not always audible. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a great British musical revival that produced a huge corpus of work inspired by love of the landscape. Perhaps the most famous examples are The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Both pieces were composed just before the First World War. In retrospect, they do seem to carry an incredible nostalgia for a vanished world and lost generation, but they also speak of some more archaic mystical quality of supreme sublime beauty that remains an ever-present force emanating from the very earth of our sacred “sceptred isle”. Williams’ third symphony and the haunting first movement of the fifth can produce a similar response.
The obvious superstar of the scene was Elgar. He is primarily known for his Last Night of the Proms anthem, Pomp and Circumstance, which includes the great soundtrack of Edwardian imperialism, Land of Hope and Glory. I feel that’s rather unfortunate as it gives a very one-dimensional sense of the man and has possibly kept some people from wanting to investigate him further. Elgar composed many works inspired by nature and the nostalgia of childhood that are in turn, passionate, wistful, melancholic, mellow, and mystical.
Elgar. Chanson de Matin.
As a small child he would sit by the banks of the River Severn, “trying to write down what the reeds were saying”. This continued into his adult life as he walked and bicycled around the Malvern Hills. In a letter to a friend he said, “the trees are singing my music or have I sung theirs?” There’s a visionary sequence in Ken Russell’s inspired 1962 black and white BBC drama documentary on Elgar which depicts him as a young man riding on a white horse across the Malverns to the stirring accompaniment of the Introduction and Allegro for Stringsand shafts of sunlight.
A number of the more prominent composers of the great revival were mystically inclined with interests in Celtic and Arthurian mythology, faery lore, and so on. They were not of the status of Beethoven and Wagner but are unfairly neglected. Bax, Bantock, Butterworth, Delius, Finzi, and Ireland, all help to back up Vaughan Williams and Elgar very nicely in creating an evocational soundscape.
Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Cowper Powys were both born in 1872 and lived to truly ripe old age, producing stunning work well into their seventies. As people they were considerably different. In his Autobiography, Powys gives little space to music. To me though, both men expressed something poignant and powerful that was quintessentially of the land and its history.
A Glastonbury Romance and the music of Vaughan Williams have become inseparable in my consciousness. Powys had said that, “the symbolism of the Grail represents a lapping up of one perfect drop of noon-day happiness as Nietzsche in his poignant words would say, or as Nature herself, according to the hint given us by Goethe, whispers to us in more voices than at present we are able to hear, or to understand when we do hear.” A particular Avalon of the Heart reverie of mine became my personal expression of that idea: a May morning on the Tor, the unique Somerset mystical misty blueness of the sky around the horizon’s rim providing a perfect backdrop for ascending larksong. Blossom and blooming abound as the landscape rolls away like surging strings, a hymn of ancestral voices, ever young and hopeful.
In John Michell’s City of Revelation I first read of the idea of Glastonbury’s Perpetual Choir. Apparently, a Dark Age work known as the Welsh Triads mentioned three “perpetual choirs of Britain”. These were ecclesiastical establishments where relay teams of monks kept up a constant liturgical chant. They were located at Amesbury, just down the road from Stonehenge, Llantwit Major in South Wales, and Glastonbury. Michell noted some kind of alignment relationship between the sites and extrapolated geometrical data that led him to talk of a “Circle of Perpetual Choirs”. Elgars’ Malverns were in the centre of it. The material seemed a bit vague but something about this idea inspired me in a way I couldn’t yet make fully conscious.
Rudyard Kipling’s classic children’s tale, Puck of Pook’s Hill provides another potential doorway into the zone. The story begins with two children in a fairy ring in woods near their home. They give a little performance of selected extracts from Midsummer Night’s Dream on the eve of the very night itself. This conjures up Puck, the ancient spirit of the hills. “I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.” He has watched all of history pass by with a benevolent and mischievous eye, occasionally intervening in human affairs.
Puck becomes the children’s guide for a history lesson of their immediate locale. From this particular saga, involving landmarks familiar to them, the greater vista of the life of the whole British nation unfolds. They meet a Roman soldier who goes off to serve on Hadrian’s Wall, a Saxon from the time of the Norman conquest, a Jew from the Magna Carta epoch, and so on. With Puck we encounter not only humans but old gods as well. The cult of Mithras is sympathetically portrayed. The narrative continuity comes through a rune covered singing sword made by Saxon deity turned smith, Weland. The sword has a subtle auspicious effect on the lives of the subsequent generations, leading through to Magna Carta. Through all this Kipling affirms the diverse elements in the layers of history that make the mixture that is Britain.
The idea of Puck watching from ancient hills enhanced my sense of “British music”. The feeling of a primordial past somehow still living through the very land itself and the ongoing mythos it generates became ever stronger for me. The land has a consciousness of some kind. A voice that can be heard. A feeling that can be communicated. At certain places and times, on hills at dawn and sunset, by wells, streams and rivers, in moonlit woods, amongst poignant ruins and remains, it lingers on, surprisingly potent, waiting to inspire in diverse circumstances; poets, soldiers, musicians, mystics, militants, all ages and genders across the whole social spectrum.
Such is the preparatory ambiance. A number of powerful ideas are coming together. At least in some poetic sense, Glastonbury, the Avalon of the Heart, is a perpetual choir that is helping to compose and to play “British music”, an expression of some vast mystical landscape mystery. All of our great artists, from the designers of Stonehenge and Glastonbury Abbey through to Powys and Vaughan Williams are part of Albion’s greater perpetual choir. Its supreme symphony, in which untold multitudes have participated in innumerable ways in every epoch from the megalithic to the present is the mythos of Arthur and the Grail.
Mysterium Artorius is a mighty fine book. You could buy it now from anywhere in the world right here!
Listen to another version of this material in a 30 minute presentation entitled Midsummer British Music Dream on my Blog Talk Radio Avalonian Aeon show. Go straight to it from the sidebar on the right of this page.