Holy Musicians

The earliest musicians are lost in time. Their songs tell the tales of heroes and those songs became the first written stories, their religious songs tell of the nature of creation and the many ways to supplicate the Gods, the songs of the Griots tell of the many generations that came before. But, I am sure many songs simply told of the sorrow and beauty of life; a Native songs goes “what a spirit feeling going round my head, makes me feel glad that I’m not dead”


Orpheus was the son of Calliope. He was the greatest musician and poet of Greek myth, whose songs could charm wild beasts and coax even rocks and trees into movement. He was one of the Argonauts, and when the Argo had to pass the island of the Sirens, it was Orpheus' music which prevented the crew from being lured to destruction. 

When Orpheus' wife, Eurydice, was killed by the bite of a serpent, he went down to the underworld to bring her back. His songs were so beautiful that Hades finally agreed to allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living. However, Orpheus had to meet one condition: he must not look back as he was conducting her to the surface. Just before the pair reached the upper world, Orpheus looked back, and Eurydice slipped back into the netherworld once again. 

Orpheus was inconsolable at this second loss of his wife. He spurned the company of women and kept apart from ordinary human activities. A group of Ciconian Maenads, female devotees of Dionysus, came upon him one day as he sat singing beneath a tree. They attacked him, throwing rocks, branches, and anything else that came to hand. However, Orpheus' music was so beautiful that it charmed even inanimate objects, and the missiles refused to strike him. Finally, the Maenads' attacked him with their own hands, and tore him to pieces. Orpheus' head floated down the river, still singing, and came to rest on the isle of Lesbos. 

Krishna and His Flute 

Krishna went to  the forest regularly with his cows. As the cows grazed in the loneliness of forest, Krishna would play most melodious tunes on his flute. Peace, bliss, and love exuded all around. The Gopis (milkmaids of Vrindavan) were captivated by the sweet melody of Krishna's flute, unable to control their feelings towards Him. Forgetting their household duties, their children and husbands, these youthful lovers of Krishna rushed to forest to have the company of their beloved. Krishna’s flirtation of the Gopis is erotic, but it is meant to stand for a powerful devotion to the Brahman-Atman. Many religious songs speak of a love of God in erotic terms and many holy musicians sing and play with a passion that is other-worldly.  

Bards and Bauls 

        In the Celtic cultures, the Bard/Filidh/Ollave was inviolate. He could travel anywhere, say anything, and perform when and where he pleased. The reason for this was, of course, that he was the bearer of news and the carrier of messages, and, if he was harmed, then nobody found out what was happening over the next hill. In addition, he carried the Custom of the country as memorized verses...he could be consulted in cases of Customary (Common) Law. He was, therefore, quite a valuable repository of cultural information, news, and entertainment. The Bards were part of Druidry and they also sang of the love of the natural world and the magic in it. For more knowledge of Druidry please go the wonderful site, druidry.org and find out about the seven gifts of Druidry. 

        On the cover of the Bob Dylan’s album, John Wesley Harding, he stands in the forest with a number of very long-haired fellows. They are the Bauls. The name “Baul” has been given to a small group of wandering poets and musicians from the the villages of Bengal. Their songs are composed for their own enlightenment and many speak of a passionate love of God that is more immediate than orthodox Hindu strictures. Modern interest in them was sparked by Tagore who lectured about them both in India and England. The Bauls that appeared with Dylan put out a number of LPs in the West. If you have a chance to hear them, they are highly recommended. One of the singers was Purna Das who is still singing and teaching.  From a 19th Century singer comes this wonderful line “My songs are my prayers”.  

Three Renaissance Masters 

        Tomás Luis de Victoria was the most gifted composer of the late Spanish Renaissance. Born in Spain, he studied in Rome, possibly with Palestrina. He did not stay in Italy, however; in 1586 he returned to Spain, this time in the service of Empress Maria, who was entering the convent of Descalzas Reales in Madrid. Victoria remained at the convent until the end of his life, performing several roles—priest, composer, director of the choir, and organist. He composed many masses, motets and other religious works. His music has a mystical beauty that is an aural equivalent to the mysticism of St. Therese and St. John of the Cross.

        Tomas Tallis 16th-century English composer and organist who attracted much respect in his own time. Tallis composed predominantly for the church, producing music of great technical mastery and restraint for both Protestant and Catholic monarchs, including such flashes of brilliance as the magnificent Spem in Alium. Though Tallis' music includes a wide range of styles and objectives, the bulk of his output is choral music, both in the older Latin motet style and the newer English anthem style. His settings have a air of serenity about them that arises from the straight-forward musical means used to develop melodic ideas. Tallis' music continues to be extremely popular; his music has a superbly communicative element of human expression which still speaks directly to audiences.   

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina The greatest master of Roman Catholic church music, Palestrina was the name of a small town near Rome where he was born. Palestrina began his musical training when he was seven, starting out as a choirboy in the local cathedral  He traveled to Rome, still a member of the choir, and continued to study music there. In 1544, Palestrina returned to his hometown, showing everything he learned, as organist and choirmaster of the cathedral. When the bishop of the cathedral became Pope Julius III, he took Palestrina with him to Rome as choirmaster of the Cappella Giulia. The works of Palestrina were like those of no other. He inhabited the musical style that had started in fifteenth century Netherlands. He used that smooth, echo of voices to create his own style of characteristic styles of the church, the type of music one ruminates about when visiting the great cathedrals of Rome, or the vast hillsides of Italy. Such a smooth sound to the ears, combined with natural human voices implies an ethereal, majestic mood to Palestrina's works. The long and flowing melodies match with the ingenious harmonies, sending the listener to a deep relaxation of vast unspecified thinking.  

Johann Sebastian Bach 

              In Bach, you find the pinnacle of Western religious music. In fact, if any music will last for all time, it is the music of Bach. Bach's main achievement lies in his synthesis and advanced development of the primary contrapuntal idiom of the late Baroque, and in the basic tunefullness of his thematic material. He was able to successfully integrate and expand upon the harmonic and formal frameworks of the national schools of the time: German, French, Italian & English, while retaining a personal identity and spirit in his large output. Bach is also known for the numerical symbolism and mathematical exactitude which many people have found in his music – for this, he is often regarded as one of the pinnacle geniuses of western civilization, even by those who are not normally involved with music. Bach spent the height of his working life in a Lutheran church position in Leipzig, as both organist and music director. Much of his music is overtly religious, while many of his secular works admit religious interpretations on some levels. 

Hazrat Inayat Khan  

Hazrat Inayat Khan was a Sufi teacher from India who started "The Sufi Order in the West" (now called the Sufi Order International) in the early part of the 20th century. Hazrat Inayat Khan was born in Baroda, India in 1887, into a family of musicians. "Music and mysticism," he says, "were my heritage from both my paternal and maternal grandparents." Moula Bakhsh, the founder of Gayanshala, which is now the music faculty of the University of Baroda, was his grandfather, and it was in his house that Inayat Khan was brought up. The prominent position of Moula Baksh Khan brought its members in close contact with Muslims, but also with leading Brahmin and Parsi families, so that Inayat Khan grew up in an interreligious atmosphere. Even as a child he had a great love for music and poetry. "My taste for music, poetry and philosophy," he says, "increased daily, and I loved my grandfather's company more than a game with boys of my age." Before he was 20 years old, he became a full professor at the Gayanshala. He played the vina and had a beautiful singing voice, and soon his fame spread everywhere in the country

       Once in a dream he saw a large number of saints and sages, all clad in Sufi raiment, rejoicing in the Sama, the musical gathering of the dervishes. He began having visions of a luminous, spiritual face, radiant with light. A friend told him that this symbolized initiation into the Chishti Sufi Order. He visited several murshids, but they always told him "I am not the one you seek."

    His dream came true. In 1904, while visiting at a friend's house in Hyderabad, he met Mohammed Abu Hashim Madani, a great Sufi murshid, immediately recognizing him as the saint in his dream; the Murshid likewise recognized Inayat, and initiated him into the Chishti Order, the Sufi school which finds its greatest inspiration in music. Before passing away, Abu Hashim Madani placed his hands upon Inayat's head in blessing and said, "Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and West with the harmony of thy music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by God."

Other voices

        In the voices of Sufi musicians you find a musical expression of the love of God. The music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen are wonderful examples. Abida Parveen is a popular singer of Ghazals, Sufiana kalaam and Punjabi folk. The intensity she brings to singing makes her a compelling artist. Abida primarily sings Qawalees, Sindhi & and Punjabi Kafees of great Sufi poets of the past. After the death of Nusrt Fateh Ali Khan, many consider her the next great mystic singer on the world stage. She is also adept at singing ghazals. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was an incredible musician and singer whose popularity around the world was considerable.  Also, the many fine singers from Turkey and Syria such as Shahram Nazeri and Noureddine Khourshid.


        The spiritual element in jazz is very strong. Here are some examples: the hymns performed by George Lewis on clarinet particularly on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”; the sacred works of Duke Ellington, who is the greatest American composer of any music, particular the Sacred Concerts and the wonderful song “Come Sunday”; the work of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, particularly Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” and all the work of Albert Ayler (Ayler is quoted as saying “music is one long prayer”); the version of “God Bless the Child” by Eric Dolphy on Live in Europe, Vol. 1; the work of Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas, particularly Leon Thomas’ song “The Creator has a Master Plan”; an experiment of a few years back by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble entitled “Officium” which explores putting a improvisatory instrumental voice (saxophone) into the world of early vocal music; and lastly the solo concerts of Keith Jarrett.