Mysticism and Spiritual Harmonics in Eighteenth-Century England

by Arthur Versluis

For Joscelyn Godwin

Although contemporary scholarship has brought to light many aspects of the traditional science of harmonics in Asian religions, and suggested something of its affilations with sacred words, or mantra, comparatively little has been written about these subjects in the Western religious traditions. A happy exception, of course, are the works of Joscelyn Godwin, whose extensive and wideranging research has revealed much about Western esoteric traditions of musical and linguistic mysticism. What follows is a brief introduction to a very rare text from the late seventeenth century in England, an essay and an illustration whose significance ought not go unnoticed, for they reveal a little-known aspect of Western musical esoterism, and demonstrate that practical harmonic mysticism along the lines of that found in Sufism, in Shaivite Hinduism, and in Tibetan Buddhism can also be found in, of all things, relatively recent Protestant Christianity in England.

This essay, “A New Theory of Musick”—and the accompanying illustration—are found in Theosophical Transactions, the journal of the Philadelphians, a mystical community based mostly in London, England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Philadelphians held that they were not a sect, and in fact, since they followed in the tradition of Jacob Böhme (1575-1624)—the great German mystic—they opposed on principle the formation of sects or denominations, because they thought that sectarianism created a kind of “astral shell” preventing one from authentic spiritual awakening. The Philadelphians (their name connoting a community of love) developed around Jane Leade, a visionary mystic in her own right whose many works document her spiritual experiences and her conviction that divine mercy extends to all beings, so that eventually all must be saved and restored to divine unity.

Theosophical Transactions, which was published during 1697, was largely the product of the brilliant Dr. Francis Lee, a specialist in Hebrew and the Kabbala, a man who willingly resigned his academic career in order to live in the small spiritual community surrounding Jane Leade. Lee and a few friends published the journal in order to give Philadelphian spirituality a public vehicle, and although it won them few adherents—“orthodox” ruffians on more than one occasion violently tried to break up the prayer meetings of the Philadelphians, and the group was rather frequently publicly vilified by sanctimonious clergy—it is very useful as a means for understanding the spirituality of this remarkable English movement, whose closest analogue is probably Sufism.

Like the Sufis in Islam, these adherents of the school of Jacob Böhme tended—whether in Germany, the Netherlands, England, or Pennsylvania—to practice both silent meditation and singing with dancing as rhythmic, harmonic manifestations of (and as a path to) the spiritual truths realized through contemplation. I have documented elsewhere the precise nature of the Böhmeans’ meditative practices, especially in the school of Dr. John Pordage, to which Jane Leade and her group belong. Pordage, who died in 1681, practiced a silent meditation that left his body inert for extremely long periods of time, and also was known, along with his wife and colleagues, to practice a variety of English folk dancing adapted—perhaps along the lines of Sufi adaptations of indigenous dance—to their particular spiritual discipline.

There are several elements of “A New Theory of Musick” and of the accompanying illustration to which I think it important to draw attention. One feels compelled to note that this essay fits precisely into the long Western tradition that runs through Pythagoras, Orphism, Platonism, and Judeo-Christian mysticism or esoterism, and that emphasizes the harmonic nature of the cosmos. We should emphasize the term “Judeo-Christian,” here, for this essay and illustration rather subtly incorporate aspects of Kabbalistic mysticism, revealed in the mysticism of the word in the essay and, of course, in the geometric diagram of the six-pointed “Seal of Solomon” with its numerical, alphabetical, and musical significances.

Of course “A New Theory of Musick” also demonstrates provocative parallels with Islamic, Hindu, Greek, and Buddhist doctrines of harmonics, mantra, and geometrical or mathematical correspondences. It would be particularly interesting to compare the harmonic mysticism evidenced here with that of Shaivite mysticism, and to investigate further the implications of the author’s recognition that a given note is connected by an “Umbilical Ray of Communication” to its center, or “Ground Note,” and that indeed the “Original Note” is “the Central Point or Unity, branching out it self every way, in the form of a Sphear or Globe, wherein each Ray, as it proceeds from the Centre, still opens its self by Division into Multiplicity; as the Rays of Light do according to their distance from the Sun: . . . [so as to] constitute a Sphere of Light.” This is a profound and concise expression of the fundamental relationship between unity and multiplicity—said by some to be the essential problem of philosophy—and it does have spiritual implications, especially as regards the metaphysics of light and sound. Undoubtedly one could find correlate expositions in Buddhism or Islamic mysticism of the relation between unity and multiplicity, but I have space here only to suggest such avenues of possible enquiry.

Regardless, it is important to recognize that this essay stands on its own as one among many examples of the hidden Western esoteric tradition. Particularly significant is its implicit embrace of the Neoplatonic Christian tradition rooted in the work of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, which recognizes that “the True outward Harmony of Nature” is “an Image or Manifestation of the Angelical, and Divine Harmony.” This recognition is further extended to a mysticism of the Word, or Logos, seen as a variation of celestial music. The deep interconnectedness of geometry, music, number, language, and symbolism is perhaps best exemplified in the accompanying illustration, which incorporates so many elements of Judeo-Christian sacred symbolism—from the 144 (12 x 12) radiating numbers, to the superimposed triangles of the Seal of Solomon, to the mystical relationship of the six hexagonal points to the seventh, their center—that we cannot begin to explicate it all. Suffice it to say that this is a preëminent example of the Western esoteric tradition, one that should be read as a document of spiritual and cosmological implications. With that I leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusions about the meanings inherent in these works from seventeenth century English Böhmean Christianity.


A New Theory of Musick

As all Arts and Sciences have in these times arrived to a more than ordinary height; so has Musick in Particular by some extraordinary Genius’s in this last Age been brough to such Perfection, that it may be esteemed one of the Wonders of it. Their Compositions have been most judicious and accurate, full of Air, sprightly, and nervous withal: (for there is an emptiness and thinness of Air, answerable to that of Sence in an Oration) but the great Excellency and Beauty has been in their near Approach to, and Imitation of Nature. In which the Performances of Mr. Purcell have been so happy, as may justly give him the Preference of all others, even of those Countries where this Art has been most encouraged. Indeed Nature her self is the best Mistress, though Art has almost in every thing intruded it self, usurping her Seat and keeping her out; and by a set of Rules and Caveats, it fetters and confines the Mind, and baffles the Genius, keeping it down in the common and beaten Track: which if left to its Native Liberty, and free to hearken to the Direction of Nature her self, might be lead by her, to view her in her Simplicity, and learn her Secrets, and bring her forth in her Varieties and Wonders; in which she is endless, as being bottom’d and founded on that Infinity which gave her Being; and has shadow’d out Himself in her. What is here offer’d, will we hope sufficiently approve it self, when throughly examin’d, to be grounded in Nature; and though, as a New thing, it may appear to some strange, or difficult at first; yet they are desired to forbear any hard censure, till what is here but Proposed and a rude Draught of it only offer’d, shall come to be deduced more largely, both in Theory and Practice.

It is then suppos’d, that Musick is an outward Representation of the Harmony of the Divine Powers and Properties in the Nature of God: who exists and manifest himself in infinite variety and multiplicity, all in perfect Concord and Unity. The Unity as Fundamental, comprizing and containing all in it self. And thus the One Ground Note, or Bass contains in it self all the whole Scale above it; not only the Artificial Scale, but all as high as we can imagin; and its Tone is an Aggregate of them all; as the roaring of the Sea is made up of the noise of each particular Wave contain’d in it. Out of the Bass then all the other Notes proceed, as a Birth from it; and together make up its adequate proportion and Image. Let us suppose the Bass or ground to be G. and consider briefly the process of the first Octave from it. First the note A is divided from it; and set up by it self. This being the first recess from the simply Unity is at greatest disproportion to it; and whereas in the Ground Note, A is founded in unity with the rest, therein also contain’d; now it is founded out of it likewise: so that A being twice taken, when the others are but once, causes that disagreement; which is to be made up, as the other Notes come forth and joyn with it, to make up the full proportion of the Ground Note, that they may agree and unite with it perfectly. As yet A (as containing also its own Concords) stands as an opposite party; this being in reality the product or Birth of a new Ground or Key. Then B comes forth in Agreement with the Ground, and Discord to A, but in far less proportion; bearing something more of affinity to it as another single Note come forth. The next, C, is of the family of A; and has a less proportion of Contrariety to the first Note than that. In D there is a fuller Concord t the Ground, being its 5th. still less at variance with A; to which it is but a fourth. Thus way being made by advance of the opposite Parties to each other, they come in the next Note to an Agreement, where E, who is of the Family of A, is received as into that of G, in the imperfect Concord of a 6th. In the next Note, F, the breach is widned again in the Discord of a 7th. (the first breach downwards, or recess from the Unity in G above:) but mightily qualified by its Relation of a 3d. to D, (5th. to the Ground) and of a 5th. to B, (third to it). Lastly comes forth the Great Concord of the 8th.; or G again, i.e. in its Octave: where is truly but half of the first (apparent in that it recurrs in the exact half of the String in any Instrument.) Now should we go on forwards to gain the other half of proportion, yet lacking, to the Ground Note; we should be deceiv’d in our expectation, forasmuch as all possible Octaves about this superior G, are but adequate to it (unless we could determine and take them all in) But there’s a shorter way, and that is by Returning and taking the same Notes over again, the Octave backwards: which compleats the proportion. Sound spreads as from a point every way; and the Proportions are to be reckon’d here as well backwards as forwards; the Reflexion of the Sound being equally necessary to the full Harmony.

We proceed then backwards from G in the Octave. F is the first recess or division; but not so much as A from G, being rather the recess of the greater from the lesser, whose Proportion it carries in it, and with it: so that in the descent, what was lost before, is now by degrees all gathered up, (every Note containing all above, as before) so here we find F in a considerable degree Harmoniz’d, by the relations already mention’d. But E much more being a lesser third to G in the Octave; and C becomes a 5th. or perfect Concord. D also being 5th. to G below, is near related, and shews a 4th. capable of being made a Concord. B is made another Concord, or 6th. as it was before a third. And last of all, A the first great Discord, by its relations to G above, through its 3d. and G above; is near allied to its Ground Note, and brought into Concord with it.

And thus we see the first great Discord Harmonized with all the other arising from it. That which went out First, must come in Last: the Great Breach or Division cannot be made up and restored to Unity, till by a Progress forwards and backwards through the whole Circle of alienation it has begun, it has work’d off the contrariety of Disproportion; and by degrees gather up the Proportion it lost, it returns again into its own Original. The Circle is here compleat, and the End has found its Beginning, the Multiplicity received into Identity and Unity. There is a Birth of a new Octave, or Series of Harmony, existing in its outflown and manifested Essence, and also in its Original: not only in its Original, as Archetype, containing the first Seeds and Grounds of it; but in its new Essence admitted into, and made one with it.


Here we see the Natural Motion, and the End of the Seven Notes of Musick: contributing their proper Qualities, Powers, and Proportions in joint operation; tending and driving on towards a state of Rest and Union, in Concentration of all their Powers, as the End and Consummation of their Labour: which is obtained in the full Musical Close. Similitudes of this may be offered in the Seven Planets working in like manner in their variety of Motion and Influence. The six Working Days of the Week ending in the Sabbath, recurring in an Octave. The 6000 Years of the World in Labour and Misery ending, as is supposed, in the 7000th Year, as its Sabbatical Jubilee. And lastly, as the Archetype and Ground of all, the Seven Working Spirits of God manifesting themslves through the whole Creation, operating in their peculiar Powers, and bringing all things through a state of Action and Motion, into Stillness and Rest, Joy and Triumph; their End, Perfection, and Crown.

Hence as there was no Discord any where in Nature arising from the distinction and variation of the Unity, till Lucifer would divide, by extending himself beyond all Proportion: so there is naturally no Discord at all in Musick; properly so call’d. And confrequent of this, it may be affirm’d that all the Seven notes of Musick, duly conducted and wrought out, may be founded together; even the whole Octave, in full Consort, with a new and surprizing Harmony; and if the whole Octave, then of consequence All possible Octaves: which would make it yet more wonderful and delightful.

It is further Observable, that every Note is diversified as to its Property and difference of Sound; by the Relation it bears to its Bass or Key note; according to the Distance it has sprung out out from it.

Now this different Relation (as suppose a 4th or 8th) directs or determines the Mind to regard this Distance or Proportion it bears to its Bass or Center; to which, though it goes forth, it still keeps fast tied (as an Infant to its Mother) by an Umbilical Ray of Communication; which consists of most minute Division, often beyond what can be exprest to the outward Ear, but perceptible by the Intellect, judging of the different appulses of Sound. Where upo this Ray of Division the Mind is naturally carried back, and runs to the Centre; and makes as it were an Instantaneous Comparison of the distance of the Sound from it, and the Proportion to it. So that still the Respect is to be observ’d to the Original or Ground Note: which in the Plan of Natures Harmony stands as the Central Point or Unity, branching out it self every way, in the form of a Sphear or Globe, wherein each Ray, as it proceeds from the Centre, still opens it self by Division into Multiplicity: as the Rays of Light do according to their distance from the Sun: and as These constitute a Sphere of Light, so do the other proceed on till they come to be so minute and close rang’d, as to form a Circumference of continued Harmony. Wherein the Modus or way of Procession by Skipping from Note to Note, is chang’d into a new sort of Musick, that takes in every Interval of Sound, and moves after the same manner, as when on a Lute or Viol, we dont Skip upon the String from Fret to Fret; but sliding down with the Finger take in all between the Frets in a continued movement. Which is easily Imitated by the Voice, as for Instance, sliding thus continuously and quick from the 5th. above to the Key Note. Which way if follow’d as Nature it self will direct us, in proper Passages or expressions of Passion, would add many Elegant Graces in mixture without common Musick, and give it a peculiar sweetness, Solemnity, and Majesty. Thus is the True outward Harmony of Nature, an Image or Manifestation of the Angelical, and Divine Harmony. The Bass or Centre stands continually sounding; and sounding All Harmony in Unity; also working and shooting forth it self into Variety, and Multiplicity; and in the Circumference uniting again, in a Sphere of continued Unities. And every one of these, as also all intermediate Ones, is as a Centre it self; opening, and proceeding in a Sphere of its own. So that as proceeding forwards they increase their Circle, so each one, at whatever distance, has also its motion back again, and return to its Originals: and Ecchoes to it that Proportion which it bears of it. So that the Reflex Act of the whole Circumference, and of all contain’d within it, is but the Returning of the Outflown Image into its own Centre and Original; or the True Eccho of the first Unity: which as it gave out, so it must receive again, and contain all in it self.

Thus will the Theory of Musick, duly applied and Spiritualiz’d lead us on to glorious Contemplations, and give us a Key of the great Mysteries of Nature. It will furnish us with sublime Idea’s of the Beauty and Harmony of God, and of his Works in the Creation: in the Contemplation and Joy whereof all the Angelick Hosts, as they first began, so still continue their Songs of Triumph and Praise: the Morning Stars singing together, and all the Sons of God shouting for Joy. And it will be a great excitement of Emulation in us to joyn with them, both in Heart and Voice: and raise especially in the Sons of this Art, a generous Indignation to see it debased and prostituted to the vanity of common Amours; to the Luxury, and too often, even the Obscenity of the Age : Rising now for her Vindication, both in themselves and others; and for the Employ and devotement of that Divine Talent to the Praise and Glory of him that gave it; and takes himself delight in it. In which we are most Emulous to concur. . .

The Ground on which we proceed, is a New Discovery arising from this Theory; Which is This:
That the Natural Pronuncation, or the Tone, Accent, and Emphasis, which we use in speaking our Words; and that variety of it that appears in the Expression of our Passions; is nothing else but Musick; it is True and Natural Harmony; and may be prick’d down and perform’d in Comfort; running in minute and swift Division. Which Division coming near to the Modus or continued flux of Sound in Speaking, it will be discerned and demonstrated to the Ear, that it agrees exactly with it; and that this Division is only taking the Stamina, or more Substantial and Fundamental Notes, of the Harmony in Continuity; which upon these, as their Ground, runs out into yet more minute Division; even till they exceed the reach of the Ear, and become united (as to all perception:) after the same manner as it happens to the Eye in the Continuity of the Circle, when a lighted Match or Coal of Fire is swung swiftly about; or after that which a very Ingenious and Sublime Author has hinted to us, of the Termination and Passageof Quick Motion into Rest. And here the Transition from the manner of expressing the Notes in Division, into that of expressing them in Continuity will be plain and obvious: And ’tis observable, that Mr. Purcell’s great Excellency lay in this, that in his Compositions, by listning to Nature, he falls frequently upon those Radical Notes, which support, and may be branched out into this Natural Harmony. Some instances whereof may hereafter be produces; with the Natural Divisions annexed to them. In the mean time the whole is submitted to the Ingenious, in hopes of favourable Acceptance, and of their free Concurrence, either for Discovery of any Mistake, which shall be freely acknowledged, or for the further Improvement of this Art.