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Musicosophia, or the 
art of creative listening
by Andrea Bistrich and Andreas de Bruin

An interview with George Balan, a Romanian musicologist and philosopher who founded a school which teaches students how to unlock the wisdom hidden in the music of the European masters. 

"The way we consider great classical music is usually quite superficial. We treat it as entertainment whereas it is really an appeal for introspection, self-knowledge and the search for the meaning of life."

Based on this firm conviction George Balan, a Romanian musicologist and philosopher, founded a school that teaches "the art of consciously listening to music". Located in the remote village of Sankt Peter, in the High Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany, and founded in 1979, it is the first school of its kind in the world. Before coming to Freiburg, Balan taught for more than 20 years as Professor of Musical Aesthetics at the conservatoire in Bucharest and was famous as a radio-presenter in Romania. Supported by five staff he now devotes himself to this, his life's work – musicosophia, which teaches how consciously to unlock the hidden wisdom of the music of the great European masters.

After years of searching and deep personal experiences Balan came to a surprising and, of its kind, unique conclusion: in order really to understand the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert and other masters, one does not need to be a learned specialist but a conscious listener.

Since 1992 the school has been offering, in Sankt Peter, Rome and Madrid, three-year courses in "conscious listening"; these are open to anyone, even with no previous musical knowledge, who wants to acquire a completely new understanding of music and of themselves, maybe even to arrive at a musical art of living. Some students seek a thorough training in European classical music; others, who already work with music, come for further musical education; and some are thinking of training to teach musical listening themselves – the motives are endless. Whichever goal the friend of music may wish to achieve, as a listener he is being asked to contribute his part to the final stage of musical creation: through his achievement of a spiritualized listening he is rounding off the process of creation of both the composer and the interpreter.

Understanding music

What does consciously to listen to music mean? This skill seems not to come naturally, otherwise the existence of such a school would be unnecessary. Music is a language, and as such has an interpretative role.

The message contained in music needs to be understood. Just as with a text of literature one needs firstly to understand the structure of the text and the meaning of the words before a deeper understanding is possible. It therefore requires an intellectual effort, a methodical approach and an examination through logical thinking. "In order really to understand music," says Balan, "you have to learn to detach from the musical euphoria and emotional surges, because otherwise all you will be aware of is yourself, and you will not understand what objectively the music represents." People want to be able to do more than just be swept along by the emotion of the music; they want to be able to see behind the text and, one could say, meet the spirit of the music through their ears. To understand the deepest levels of the music they would need to listen repeatedly to one piece, to re-experience it within themselves and to reflect upon it – and also to make the musical structures visual through the drawing of graphics.

To think musically

Uwe Fricke, Director of the school, who has long been working with Balan, explained the process of understanding which the listener has to undergo: "The understanding of music does not mean simply to sit down, close your eyes and ponder about the philosophical message of one or other piece. The real understanding which we aim to achieve in the students in our seminars is a comprehensive process that although involving the mind goes beyond it, because that is where the most valuable experiences happen. We try to teach a holistic musical understanding, where you think about music and think music, so that you may reach the threshold where you leave the thinking behind. Reaching that point is a very liberating experience because it enables human dignity to blossom.

The purpose of repeated listening is to comprehend the musical thinking of the composer – the first theme, the second, a reprise, the melody, the finale, and so on until the complete architecture has been uncovered. Says Fricke: "The creative part of listening begins afterwards. Now try to imagine how the theme of the piece you have been listening to could be translated into movement. It is enough to sound the music under your breath, to whistle it, a few times with great concentration and to watch what happens with your arms and hands." The melody you hear can be drawn with your hands. The listener then re-composes the music, and this is where the holistic effect of it begins, because you are approaching its objective dimension. This is where what is important is not "I" – my idea, my fantasy – but what Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert themselves have created within their music.

  "The melody you hear can be drawn with your hands." Visual representation – the melodic rhythm in Vivaldi's Winter from The Four Seasons (opus 8)

Musical meditation

Once the listener has reached a state of intense contemplation with music of the great masters like Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler or Wagner, he will find the opening to an inner well, to deep, spiritual revelation. In his book ABC des schˆpferischen Musikhˆrens (The ABC of listening creatively to Music), Balan explains: "Love of music and knowledge of music form the forecourt to the temple we enter to converse with God. By leading us to our true identity music opens the way to God, because there is no difference between having found true faith and our own, true Self. This is the reason for the mysterious answer to the Moses question: ëI am that I am' ..., and we experience music in just the same way with our aspiration because music is ëI am' made into sound, a ray of the Divine." Therefore, the idea of consciously listening to music comes out of a deep desire of the human soul, out of a longing and out of the urge for contemplation and meditation. Seen in that way Balan once described music as a "melodious human discipline" that contains everything the soul needs to know to achieve liberation and that also bestows the necessary strength.

Seen as a path of spiritual discipline by the earnest listener, in certain moments of focused listening combined with contemplation, music opens the ear to something fundamental that goes beyond the personality.

Music has always accompanied Balan throughout the difficulties and challenges of his life. It gradually became his spiritual teacher, revealing what stayed hidden in the sciences based on words. Balan's desire to explore the interaction between music and spirituality stems from his particular set of life circumstances whose roots lie in his childhood. "By the age of 13 or 14 I had become a complete autodidact. More and more I realized that my attitude to music was different from that of others. By the time I was 20 and studying music at the conservatoire I had a reputation of being a difficult case because I had expectations of music that were there left unfulfilled."

This process came to a head when on completion of his musical studies in his late 20s he suddenly realized that music is revelation – a particular kind of philosophy. "That was in Moscow, and that is also where the foundations of musicosophia were laid with my dissertation ‹ber den philosophischen Gehalt der Musik (The Philosophical Aspects of Music). Many a colleague did not take me seriously then because they thought I was looking for something in music that simply did not exist."

On his return to his native country Balan had to encounter much criticism and oppression because of his unusual attitude to music and his progressive ways of thinking. He was persecuted to the point where living and working in Romania was becoming impossible, and in 1977 he fled to Germany where he could finally begin to establish his ideas.

On a visit to Sankt Peter Share International interviewed him.

Share International: Does the intensity that springs from the experience of conscious listening depend on the level of awareness of the listener? On his mentality, his development and last but not least on his ability to be receptive?

George Balan: You could say that. Sound depends on a completely different culture, a culture that most of us have not learnt to handle. A particular kind of awareness is necessary in relation to music. How one handles sound, one's ability to be open to sound and its spiritual gifts – all of this cannot be taken for granted. Many philosophers are more or less deaf to music. They are able to solve all the problems in the world but they cannot pick out the lead theme of a piece of music. They are sensitive to intellectual ideas but not to musical ideas. All of us are almost like children when it comes to understanding music.

SI: How far is it possible to deepen this state of awareness through repeated listening?

GB: There is practically no end to this process.

SI: So you could say that there exists a definite movement, a living and continuing development?

GB: Yes. With every effort you make, each time you earnestly try, you don't just get a sense but become convinced that you have gone deeper. Music is unlimited. You stop trying to get deeper into a piece and after months or even years you discover this music anew.

SI: Novalis, German Romantic poet and novelist, is reputed to have said that illness is a musical problem and that through certain sounds man can be brought back into harmony with himself, with the cosmos.

GB: Music can give us an enormous amount, spiritually speaking. But what we do with its contents depends entirely on ourselves. Otherwise, all composers and interpreters would be the healthiest people in the world, but that is of course not so.

SI: But it would be possible to cure a person's wounded soul?

GB: Everything is possible but not with the current methods used in music therapy. Something happens to that person's spirit, and nobody can diagnose what really is happening. From this centre where the music penetrates something can arise that has the potential to heal. In my opinion it is wrong to say, however, that a certain illness requires a certain music for healing. Sound can create and structure; sound can repair our spirit. And it is our spirit that continues to have an effect and that sees to things. But if I suffer from an illness like rheumatism, or a skin disease, or cancer, what could Mozart possibly compose for my rheumatism? He can fill me spiritually with a certain power and then it will be up to me to do something with that power. It is not the music itself that heals an illness. Jesus himself said: "It is not I who has healed you, it is your faith." That person had such strong faith that it healed him.

SI: So in a sense the music is the source of inspiration, communicating to us something higher, connecting us with our spiritual self which can then itself take effect?

GB: First and foremost, a true love of music is needed. Because in reality it is the love that heals. Love is the highest power. The golden principle is that music will help us when we do not expect or demand or force her help – just as in a relationship between two people. Music cannot cope with being used. The nature of music, "Frau Musica", cannot cope and does not reply. True love knows no purpose. And so we listen to music not in order to get something from it, but because of the music itself, because of the joy that being with music brings. Self-knowledge comes like an additional gift. Self-knowledge takes a lifetime. You become more and more aware, and music helps in this process.

SI: ... and has an essential human dimension.

GB: Yes. We need music, but not to fulfil our practical needs. In a certain sense, music is a luxury. Love is also a luxury. Love and music belong to that part of life that is without purpose. We could live without them: but what kind of life would that be?

Musicosophia seminars are held in 11 European countries, as well as in the US, Mexico and Venezuela. Books and publications by George Balan are available in German, French, Spanish and Italian.

A selection of books by George Balan (all published by Musicosophia Verlag, Sankt Peter, Germany): 1992, Roman einer Idee; 1993, ABC des schˆpferischen Musikhˆrens; 1994, Musikalischer Sieg ¸ber die Krankheit

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005