I need to begin with a confession. I approach music not as a disengaged academic or critical exercise but from an experiential perspective as a keen amateur pianist, music lover and unashamed advocate of the power of music to move, inspire and heal the soul. My first piano lessons at the age of six initiated an immersion in music as a lifelong inspiration. At school, I studied music to an advanced level, and for a while I wanted to become a professional musician or a scholar of musicology.
Brought up as an Anglican Christian, attending chapel at boarding school every day of the school term for five years, I was also steeped in the beautiful choral tradition of the Anglican liturgy, and was privileged as a teenager to stand in for the organist at the parish church in my home town for Sunday services and for weddings during the summer holidays. I revered the canon of sacred choral music in the broader Christian tradition, from Gregorian chant, through the works of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, to the devout masses, passions and cantatas of JS Bach, the dramatic oratorios of Handel, the great requiem masses of Mozart, Brahms and Verdi, and later twentieth century works such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. And that sense of the sacred permeates not only music that is explicitly religious. In discussing with me the music of Anton Bruckner, a friend remarked on how ‘utterly overwhelming and elusive’ and ‘impossible to capture’ was ‘the effect of the sacred on the soul’ so deeply felt and perceived by this composer. Although Bruckner wrote a series of masses, nowhere perhaps is the sense of serenity and awe evoked by the transcendent more movingly expressed in his music than in the ninth symphony, dedicated by him to ‘dem lieben Gott’ (‘beloved God’). The same transcendent spirit can be heard in such works as the Second Symphony (‘The Resurrection’) of Gustav Mahler, and the opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner. I hear it too in the majestic natural landscapes painted by Sibelius in his symphonies.
Later, as a young man extending my cultural and spiritual boundaries, practising yoga and immersed in the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, I discovered Indian music and attended concerts featuring Ravi Shankar, the celebrated Bengali sitar player. Only much later did I become aware of the major influence of Muslim Mughal musical culture on the historical development of Hindustani classical music, including the creation of new ragas and the development of instruments such as the sitar and sarod. Musicians occupied a prominent place in Mughal paintings depicting daily life, ceremonial occasions, and hunting and battle scenes, emphasising that no part of the life of the Mughal court was without the enjoyment of music and dance.