Music In Theory and Practice – Part 2

S L Macgregor Mathers

Mathers’ corollary to “The Chromatic Method”

Following on from yesterday’s post, I would like to review a similar method which Macgregor Mathers gave to the Alpha et Omega – it is set out in full detail in Pat Zalewski’s book Inner Order Teachings of the Golden Dawn.

Like Case and Bennett, Mathers made an association with colours and musical notes – however he differs in several important aspects. Firstly, Mathers starts with the assumption that Red = F, not C as in the Case / Bennett system. Secondly: there are no sharps or flats in Mathers’ system. Thirdly, the Seven planets follow a scale starting with the F above middle C, and ascending in the same order as the walls of the Vault of the Adepti. Hence:

Hebrew Letter Colour Note
Heh Pe Shin Red F
Vau Red-Orange F or G
Zayin Resh Orange G
Cheth Amber G or A
Teth Beth Aleph Yellow A
Yod Yellow-Green A or B
Lamed Daleth Green B
Nun Green-Blue B or C
Samekh Gimel Mem Blue C
Aayin Tau Indigo D
Tzaddi Kaph Violet E
Qoph Vermilion E or F

This system has its advantages – and disadvantages. From a musicological (read: “snobbish”) point of view, some of the reasons that Mathers gives for adopting the particular peculiarities of this system are suspect and inconsistent, and smack of “dumbing down.” The only reason I can see for starting with Red = F and treating the planets as he does is to make use of the spaces and lines of the Treble Clef. Perhaps if he was confident with leger lines we might have had a whole different secret teaching! It could, of course have been to allow Adepti to play the piano one-handed, the left-hand being left free to hold a ritual implement or something.

However, Mathers’ aversion to sharps and flats is something else. The reason Mathers gives for avoiding it touches upon a problem that musicians have had to deal with for thousands of years, namely Temperament. It is impossible to tune the twelve-note chromatic scale so that all intervals are “perfect” – therefore, historically, several different methods have been proposed including the Pythagorean, “Just Intonation” (like Pythagorean but with easier arithmetic), “Well Tempered” (made famous by Bach’s Das Wohltempierte Klavier), and “Equal Temperament,” amongst others. The upshot of this is that depending on which system of Temperament you are using, the actual tuning of some chromatic intervals might vary by as much as 10Hz – enough to create an out-of-tune “beating” sound, assuming two different instruments had been tempered differently.

How did the Secret Chiefs, from whom Mathers claimed to derive this teaching, resolve the problem of Temperament? Um, well, the unfortunate fact is that although they were willing to lay down minutiae on a whole host of other topics, they conveniently passed on this one: the simplest way for Mathers to resolve the situation was to avoid using sharps and flats.

Of course, on the other hand, Mathers might have interpreted “Quite the night and seek the day,” as meaning “avoid the black keys and play only the white keys.”

What we thus have from Mathers is therefore a reduction of the chromatic scale to the F-Lydian mode – ironic, as Mathers complained about using modes as well.

HOWEVER: the very fact that Mathers’ system is completely unsophisticated compared to the Case/Bennett system is in fact its greatest advantage – because it allows Hebrew words to be chanted in simple melodies. This in turn makes it highly conducive to teaching a temple full of initiates whose musical talent may well range from hardened rock-musicians reared on Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin to, well, drummers. By way of example, I shall now attempt to re-score the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram according to the note-values suggested by Mathers.

The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, composed by Alex Sumner © 2011.

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