In The voice of the silence (1889), Helena Blavatsky (above) designated the pitch F as the keynote of nature. Blavatsky’s authority was Benjamin Silliman, a Professor of chemistry at Harvard; his source was probably The music of nature (1832) by William Gardiner. Beethoven’s sixth symphony had already established F as the favored “pastoral” key.
Blavatsky’s prestige perpetuated the designation among Theosophists, and it remains a popular New Age concept, though some maintain that the correct note is F sharp. Several musicologists have suggested ingenious rationales for the idea that F is a fundamental keynote.
This according to “Is there a keynote of nature?” by Joscelyn Godwin, an essay included in Esotericism, religion, and nature (East Lansing: Association for the Study of Esotericism, 2009, pp. 53–71).
Below, another endorsement of the natural power of F.
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by rāga performances, and he wanted a demonstration.
After a specially prepared vegetarian dinner, Thakur began with hindolam, which depicts valor. “When I was soaring in the high notes of the rāga,” he later recalled, “Mussolini suddenly said ‘Stop!’ I opened my eyes and found that he was sweating heavily. His face was pink and his eyes looked like burning coals. A few minutes later his visage gained normalcy and he said ‘A good experiment.’”
After Thakur brought him to tears with rāga chayanat, which is meant to depict pathos, Mussolini said, after taking some time to recover, “Very valuable and enlightening demonstration about the power of Indian music.”
Il Duce then returned the favor: Producing his violin, he treated Thakur to works by Paganini and Mozart. Again, both agreed on the music’s power to evoke emotion.
“I could not sleep at all the entire night,” the vocalist recalled, “wondering whether the meeting had really taken place; I thought it was a part of a dream.” The next day, two letters from Mussolini arrived—one thanking him and one appointing him as director of a newly formed university department to study the effect of music on the mind (an appointment that he was unable to accept).
This according to “Omkarnath Thakur & Benito Mussolini” by B.K.V. Sastry (Sruti 163 [April 1998] pp. 19–21).
Although the exact date of this meeting is not recorded, we know that it took place in May 1933—80 years ago this month! Below, Thakur performs rāga bhairavi.
Related article: Rāgs and recipes
The son of an Indian Brahman and a French singer, Korla Pandit (born John Roland Redd, 1921–98) performed on Hammond organ and piano on Los Angeles television three times a week from 1949 to 1951. In every program he wore a suit and tie and a bejewelled turban, and he never spoke.
While he fulfilled, perpetrated, and even helped to form stereotypes of the mystical, exotic, Indian Other, Pandit interpreted and manipulated these notions to assert his ideas and beliefs about the essential union of East and West and the universality of spiritual experience.
This according to “Korla Pandit: Music, exoticism, and mysticism” by Timothy D. Taylor, an essay included in Widening the horizon: Exoticism in post-war popular music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999). Above, Pandit with Parmahansa Yogananda, a fellow universalist; below, a 1951 performance of one of his trademark pieces, the traditional Greek song Μισιρλού (Misirlou).
BONUS: A classic surf-rock performance of the same piece by Dick Dale & the Del-Tones: