I’ve been looking at various types of mystical music lately and thinking about the role of music in Spiritualism. Spiritualist music emphasized the notion of angelic choirs, but more usual séance manifestations might be a twanging guitar, or a tune wheezed out from an accordion by spirit hands. (I’ve read that some mediums used a tube to blow air into accordion bellows and Dunglas Home was said to use a small harmonica to imitate the caged accordion at the center of the circle. His tune of choice was “Home, Sweet Home.”) While Spiritualists spoke earnestly about vibrations and aethereal harmonics, the fact is that their music was coarse and evangelical in character, like the often-ridiculed hymns sung or gramophoned to “raise the vibrations” to the correct spiritual pitch for séance manifestations. Yet even the much-maligned accordion could inspire:
I have an accordion. I have mentally asked that a certain air should be played, and my mental wish has been granted. I have heard music so sweet, so ethereal, so supernatural, breathing out of the instruments, that I have wept…I have heard sounds as of the moaning of the wind, the seething of the sea. The Spiritual Magazine of Phenomena, Spiritual—Ethereal—Physical, edited by J. Enmore Jones, Third Series, Vol. III, 1877, p. 170
It is this immense chasm between what mystic music ought to be and what it was that rather mystifies me. The following story exemplifies this contradiction.
The author, Ella Wilson Marchant, was active in Spiritualist circles and various socially progressive organizations. She was called a “noble-minded woman” by Benjamin Flower, editor of The Arena in a preface to her letter about marital purity, which perhaps tells us everything we need to know about the lady.
By Ella Wilson Marchant
I would add my mite to the subject of “Mysterious Music,” concerning which I find two intensely interesting articles in the back numbers of The Psychical Review. In the summer of ’86, a medium in Oakland, Cal., in speaking of my friends “on the other side,” made this remark, “They say they are going to come and serenade you when you die.”
Whether this promise had any connection whatever with the little experience I am going to relate, I do not pretend to say, but only that the experience reminded me of the promise, which otherwise I should probably have forgotten ere this. . Now I am not clairaudient, as a rule, although clairaudience has been repeatedly prophesied for me; but I am inclined to think that, for the time being, in the little incident I am going to speak of, clairaudience must have been superinduced.
The experience referred to came to me some time in February, 1888. My health was very poor; I had taken a severe cold, and had had occasional attacks of suffering which sometimes threatened to cut the thread — feeble at the best and severely overstrained — which held me to the mortal. It was just after one of these attacks, if I remember rightly, that one night, at about 3 a.m., I was awakened by a strain of music in the air that seemed to float away into the upper spaces with a sweet, dying cadence. The music was indescribably sweet, and seemed to partake of the nature of both an orchestra and human voices, but all so perfectly blended that no particular instrument or voice was distinguishable. The air was that which is sung to the two closing lines of the chorus of one of the Moody and Sankey hymns [actually written by P.P. Bliss], viz.: —
Leave the poor old stranded wreck, And pull for the shore.
I heard only the music; I did not distinguish any words. Whether I sank back into slumber and dreamed, whether the state that followed was a trance, or whether I was awake, I cannot say; only that my spirit seemed to be steeped in a tranquil enjoyment, while the music came back; and this time I perceived a choir of voices, and not voices only, but a company of bright beings, who owned the voices, and they sang the whole chorus, of which at first I had heard only the closing strain. This is the chorus:—
Pull for the shore, sailor, ,
Pull for the shore; Heed not the rolling waves,
But bend to the oar. Safe in the life-boat, sailor,
Cling to self no more; Leave the poor old stranded wreck,
And pull for the shore.
The next night, at about the same time, I was again awakened by the first notes of a similar strain, although I do not recall the air; but there was something lacking in the power and sweetness of the musical expression, and the impression made upon me was not nearly so strong; but I accounted for that by the fact that just then some one got up and commenced moving around the’ house, on account of illness, and that seemed to break the conditions for the mysterious music which was just beginning to be heard by me, and it ceased, and, much to my regret, I have never heard it since.
I tried to account for my hearing this music in every way; but from the nature of the circumstances and surroundings, and from the fact that no one in the house heard it but myself, although upon the second night others were awake at that very moment, I found myself totally unable to reach any hypothesis but that of clairaudience, on the one hand, and spiritual intelligences as factors, on the other. I have a dear cousin in spirit life who was a music teacher and very fond of music; but aside from her, I know of no one “on the other side” connected with me who was devoted to music; and in my own immediate family the musical faculty is rather lacking than otherwise. For myself, although I have always been keenly susceptible to sweet sounds, yet my powers of expression in that direction are decidedly mediocre. So that this experience could not have arisen from any decided bent or preoccupation of my own mind. Whether my spirit friends saw that my hold upon the mortal was precarious (supposing they originated the music), and were preparing to make good their promise; or whether, in my weakened state, they found me unusually susceptible to spirit influences, and improved the opportunity to give me an assurance of their presence and care, and also to further the development of my spiritual perceptions, I shall probably never know while I remain upon earth. The closing words of the chorus would not be inappropriate in the case of a spirit leaving the poor old body a “stranded wreck,” and pushing out toward the shores of immortality.
Says Mrs. [Felicia] Hemans:—
Bring music! stir the brooding air
With an ethereal breath! Bring sounds my struggling soul to bear
Up from the couch of death!
Psychical Review, Volume 1, 1893
As a classical organist I have a particular horror of hymns of the P.P. Bliss and Moody and Sankey class. The remark, “They say they are going to come and serenade you when you die” sounds to me like a threat. But Mrs. Marchant obviously was uplifted by her experience. I would call it a fever dream or aural hallucination brought on by her illness, yet I have a hard time reconciling the snappy tune (and lines repeated in a comic basso) with her celestial description. Here’s a YouTube version. Or this version, in German! It is a mystery how such a song can be “indescribably sweet” or figure in a “sweet, dying cadence,” unless sung half-tempo in the style of a Schubert lied. The author admits that her musical talents are “decidedly mediocre.” So was her spirit friends’ taste in music, apparently.
This is a striking and lyric phrase, which I have heard echoed over and over in accounts of anomalous music: “I was awakened by a strain of music in the air that seemed to float away into the upper spaces with a sweet, dying cadence. The music was indescribably sweet, and seemed to partake of the nature of both an orchestra and human voices.” If Mrs. Marchant had not specifically cited “Pull for the Shore,” this description would exactly match many of the reports in D. Scott Rogo’s ground-breaking books, NAD: A Study of Some Unusual “Other-world” Experiences (University Books, New York, 1970) and A Psychic Study of “The Music of the Spheres” (NAD, Volume II) (University Books, Secaucus, NJ, 1972).
This next tale introduces a musical mystery, which forms a core of the Rogo books: music at a death-bed heard, not just by the dying, but by others.
MUSIC AT DEATH.
Some years ago there was a discussion in the London newspapers about Spiritualism. Among my patients at the same period there was one who, when I made a call one day during his convalescence, told me what he had been reading in his newspaper. He said he knew nothing about Spiritualism, beyond what he read, but from a circumstance which happened in his own house was inclined to take sides with the Spiritualists. He had a small retail business, and, his family consisting only of his wife and himself, he let the upper part of the house. The first floor was occupied by a married couple, also without family. The husband was out all day, the wife was laid by with an incurable disease, a neighbouring woman coming in from time to time to attend to her wants. One day, said my patient, while in the little parlour behind the shop, he heard music, and so loud that he thought an organ was being played at the open street door. Preparing to go and shut it, he heard his wife calling from the kitchen stairs, asking him to send the organ man away, for the sake of the sick lodger, with whom she had much sympathy. The street door was not open, and now the music sounded from above. “My wife hastened up stairs,” said he, ” and I, as mystified as she was, followed, for we knew there was neither musician nor musical instrument in the house except my own violin, hanging up in the parlour. The door of the sick woman’s bedroom was ajar, and my wife, who frequently visited her, pushed it open and with a gesture of wonder beckoned to me. There was the sick woman lying in bed, gazing upwards, her hands raised as if in rapt astonishment, the music sounding within the room. Presently the hands fell, the music died away as if in the distance, and then we saw that she had ceased to breathe.”
My patient’s wife was present, and confirmed the narrative as it went on. They said they were unable to account for the music, and felt driven to the conclusion that it was unearthly.
Light Vol. 1, Issue 1 1881 p. 342
Phonographs were not widely available in 1881. Was it a barrel organ in the street? The doctor’s patient thought so, until he heard it upstairs and in the sick woman’s room. As is so common in musical death-bed visitations, the music is described as being heard from above and dying away in the distance. Or was it really a just a street musician and some trick of acoustics?
To me the question of anomalous music heard by multiple witnesses presents as much of a mystery as why so much mediocre music was hailed by Spiritualists as mystic revelations from the spirit world. The obvious answer to the latter question is that people who believed that spirit friends would come and serenade them on their deathbeds, were capable of any manner of delusion, even unto mistaking a Bliss* hymn for the music of Heaven. But then we have stories of the dying apparently serenaded by angel choirs that seem to have some sort of objective reality.
Thoughts? Bend to the oar to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
*Did M&S set Bliss’s words to a different, more ethereal tune? Given their tub-thumping repertoire, it seems unlikely.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.