Mysteries of Music and Magic  

Marsilio Ficino had a lot on his mind in the summer of 1489. Imagine him pacing the hallways and gardens of the Villa Careggi, his residential estate near Florence. Marsilio was worried, and rightly so. He was soon—that very December—to publish a radical work. Word of its contents had reached the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome. Someone there was unhappy. Ficino was in trouble, and knew it.  

The work in question was titled Three Books on Life. The first two books offered uncontroversial advice on health. The third book was different—How to Attune Your Life to the Heavens described Ficino’s system of natural magic, in which substances, images, and sounds were used to draw wholesome effects down from the stars and planets. Ficino’s medical advice was already renowned—he’d written a best-seller on how to beat the black plague—and for his ideas about psychological healing he’d been dubbed “the doctor of souls.”  

What was it about the third Book on Life that put it on the Iinquisitorial radar? It might have been a passage in which Ficino states that music performed according to his magical principles could birth a living being, a temporary creature made of vibrating air mixed with spirit. Here the author hints at a loftier goal than mundane health. Elsewhere Ficino had advocated music and poetry for raising the soul to God. A tenet of natural magic is that imitation forges an occult link between the related objects. Maybe Ficino figured the most potent way for the soul to enter divine union would be to mimic Genesis by creating life, and music was the way to do it. But orthodoxy held that God has a monopoly on biogenesis, and any human effort to do so could breed demons instead. If the Church’s guardians thought Ficino was promoting any such thing, they would take a dim view indeed. 

What would Ficino have felt if he could have looked 511 years into the future, and spied on a conference held in Florence in September, 2000? The theme was “The Italian Renaissance and the Esoteric Traditions.” (In this context, “esoteric traditions” meant beliefs and practices inspired by the sense that there’s “more to it” than is given by ordinary perceptions and thoughts—for instance alchemy, astrology, magic, and currents like Hermetism and Neoplatonism, popular in the Renaissance.) The greatest exponent of Renaissance esotericism was Ficino, so his work was a central focus—and  (with no inquisitors in sight!)  

The gathering was a rich feast of knowledge and experience, and featured the first sharing of musical recordings keyed to Ficino’s planetary lore (created by musicologist Angela Voss), as well as a visit to the Villa Careggi. As it happens, three strangers first met at this event: Joscelyn Godwin, musicologist, pioneer in the scholarly study of music and esotericism; Marjorie Roth, who was finishing a doctoral dissertation on esotericism and music that would earn her a Ph.D. in musicology; and Leonard George, psychologist and educator with an interest in pre-modern approaches to healing and transformation.  

These three strangers didn’t suspect what the future held for them. If Ficino had looked in at Nazareth College (now Nazareth University) in upstate New York 20 years later (February, 2020), he would have found them together again. Marjorie had organized a symposium which brought together leading scholars from North America and Europe to share their insights about music and esotericism, featuring a keynote address by Joscelyn and including a presentation by Leonard. The gathering was such a triumph that every participant agreed to share their work together in a book format, to showcase topics and methods in this new field of study.  

And so it was that Explorations in Music and Esotericism (edited by Marjorie and Leonard, with a foreword by Joscelyn, including chapters by Joscelyn and Leonard) came to be. Ficino would have loved this book. He would have learned how the composition, performance,  and appreciation of music intertwined with the esoteric quest for “more to it” through the centuries from the Middle Ages to now. He would have learned about the relevance of esotericism to Wagner and Webern, jazz pioneer Sun Ra and film composer Nino Rota, Freemasons and Spiritualists, and much more. Especially he would have loved the chapter on himself, as it contains good news: in autumn 1489 Pope Innocent VIII praised his work, the Iinquisition’s hounds were leashed, and How to Attune Your Life to the Heavens has been prized by scholars, students and magicians ever since. 

~ Leonard George 

LEONARD GEORGE is Faculty Emeritus, Department of Psychology, Capilano University, North Vancouver, British Columbia.

In Explorations in Music and Esotericism, scholars explore from many fresh angles the interweavings of two of the richest strands of human culture-music and esotericism – with examples from the medieval period to the modern age.

Proofed readers save 35% on all featured titles with code BB897.

Subscribe to the Boydell & Brewer blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

* indicates required

Recent Posts