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Mendelssohn's 'Overture of the Hebrides'

Mendelssohn's 'Overture of the Hebrides'

An Address given
by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, March 3rd, 1911
GA 127

This is the 8th of 17 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at various cities, in 1911. The title of this series of lectures is: The Mission of the New Spiritual Revelation. They were published in German as: Die Mission der Neuen Geistesoffenbarung. Das Christus-Ereignis als Mittelpunktsgeschehen der Erdenevolution. The lecture was transcribed from a typescript version, and the translator is unknown. It is presented here with the kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland. From GA# 127.

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“Mendelssohn's ‘Overture of the Hebrides’”

Address by Dr. Rudolf Steiner

3 March, 1911


(This Address was given following a Concert at the Berlin Group of the Anthroposophical Society, at which Mendelssohn's “Overture of the Hebrides” had been played)


Through the tones and harmonies of this Overture we have been led in spirit to the shores of Scotland, and in our souls, we have thus followed again a path of travel which, during the course of human evolution, has been deeply influenced by the secrets of karma. For, from entirely different parts of the western hemisphere of our earth, as if through a karmic current of migration, various peoples were once transplanted into that region, and its vicinity, to which these tones now lead us. And many strange destinies are made known to us. We are told, both by what Occultism relates as well as by outer historical documents, of what these peoples experienced in very ancient times on this particular part of the earth.

A memory of the mysterious destinies of these peoples arose again, as if newly awakened, when about 1772 the cave on the Island of Staffa belonging to the Hebrides, known as Fingal's Cave, was rediscovered. Those who beheld it were reminded of mysterious ancient destinies when they saw how Nature herself seemed to have constructed something which may be likened to a wonderful cathedral. It is constructed with great symmetry in long aisles of countless pillars towering aloft: above there arches a ceiling of the same stonework, while below the bases of the pillars are washed by the inrushing foaming waves of the sea which ceaselessly beat and resound with a music which is like thunder within this mighty temple. Dropping water drips steadily from strange stone formations upon the stalactites beneath, making melodious magical music.

A spectacle of this kind actually exists there. And those who, upon discovering it, had a sense for the mysterious things which once took place in this region, must have been reminded of the hero who once upon a time, as one of the most famous individualities of the West, guided destiny here in such a strange way, and whose fame was sung by his son, the blind Ossian, who is like a western Homer — a blind singer.

If we look back and see how deeply people were impressed by what they heard about this place, we shall be able to understand how it was that Macpherson's revival of this ancient song in the 18th Century made such a mighty impression upon Europe. There is nothing which may be compared with the impression made by this poem. Goethe, Herder, Napoleon harkened to it — and all believed to discern in its rhythms and sounds something of the magic of primeval days. Here we must understand that a spiritual world such as still existed at that time, arose within their hearts, and felt itself drawn to what sounded forth out of this song! And what was it that thus sounded forth?

We must now turn our gaze to those times which fall together with the first impulses of Christianity and the few centuries which followed. What happened up there in the vicinity of the Hebrides, in Ireland and Scotland — in ancient Erin, which included all the neighboring islands between Ireland and Scotland, as well as the northern part of Scotland itself. Here we must seek for the kernel of those peoples, of Celtic origin, who had most of all preserved the ancient Atlantian clairvoyance in its full purity. The others who had wandered farther to the East had developed further, and so no longer remained in connection with the ancient gods. The western peoples, however, had preserved for themselves the possibility of experiencing an ancient clairvoyance now entirely immersed in the personality, in the individuality. And they were led to this particular part of the earth, as if for a special mission, where a structure confronted them which mirrored their own music's inner depths and was itself architecturally formed entirely out of the spiritual world, a structure which I have just tried to characterize with a few words — Fingal's Cave. We shall imagine these events rightly if we realize that the cave acted as a focus point, mirroring what lived in the souls of these human beings who, through their karma, were sent hither as to a temple erected by the gods themselves. Here those human beings were prepared who should later receive the Christ Impulse with their full human being and were here to undergo something extremely strange by way of preparation.

Again we shall be able to imagine all this if we realize that here particularly those ancient folk customs were preserved whereby the tribe was divided into smaller groups based upon family. Those who were related by blood felt themselves closely connected, while all others were looked upon as strangers, as belong[ing] to another Group Ego. During the migrations from Atlantis toward the East, all that the Druid priests, who remained behind here in the West, were able to give to the people poured itself out over these individual groups as a harmonizing influence. And what they were able to give still lived on in the bards. We shall only rightly understand what worked through these bards, however, if we make clear to ourselves that here the most elemental passions met together with the ancient powers of sight into the spiritual world, and that those who, with powerful life forces, sometimes with rage and passion, fought as representatives of their clan against other clans, perceived at the same time impulses working out of the spiritual world which directed them in battle.

Such an active connection between the physical and the soul realms cannot be conceived of today. When a hero raised his sword he believed that a spirit out of the air guided it, and in the spirit he beheld an ancestor who had fought upon this same battlefield in former times and who had gone up yonder to help now from over there. In their battle ranks they felt their ancestors actively aiding them, their ancestors on both sides — and they did not only feel them ... they heard them clairaudiently! It was a wonderful conception which lived in these peoples, that the heroes had to fight upon the battlefields and to shed their blood, but that after death they ascended into the spiritual world, and that their spirits then vibrated as tone — sounding through the air as a spiritual reality.

Those who had proven themselves in battle, but had trained themselves at the same time so that they could listen to what sounded out of the winds as the voice of the past, who were blind for the physical world, who could no longer see the flashing of the swords but were blind for the physical plane — these were highly honoured! And one of these was Ossian. When the heroes swung their swords, they were conscious that their deeds would resound further into the spiritual world and that bards would appear who would preserve all this in their songs. This was perceived in living reality by these peoples.

But all this creates an altogether different conception of humanity. It creates the conception that the human being is united with spiritual powers which sound forth out of the whole of Nature. For he cannot look upon a storm or a flash of lightning, he cannot hear the thunder or the surging of the sea without sensing that out of all the activities of Nature spirits work who are connected with the souls of the past, with the souls of his own ancestors. Thus the activity of Nature was at that time something altogether different than for us today. And it is for this reason that the rhythms and sounds of this song are so important, which, after being handed down for centuries through tradition only, were revived by the Scotsman Macpherson so that they create for us again a consciousness of the connection of the human being with the souls of his ancestors and with the phenomena of Nature.

We can understand how this Scotsman had in a certain sense a congenial feeling when he described how a line of battle stormed into the field, sweeping darkness before it, even as did the spirits who took part in the battle. This song is in reality something which was able to make a great impression upon spiritual Europe. The whole character of the description, even though given in a rather free poetical form, awakes in us a feeling for the kind of perception which lived in these ancient peoples. There was active in them a living knowledge, a living wisdom, concerning their connection with the spiritual world and the world of Nature in which the spiritual world works.

Out of such wisdom the finest sons from the different tribes — that is, those who had the strongest connection with the spirits of the past, who more than others allowed these spirits of the past to live in their deeds — were chosen as a picked band. And those who had the strongest clairvoyant forces were placed at its head. This band had to defend the kernel of the Celtic peoples against the peoples of the surrounding world. And one of these leaders was the clairvoyant hero, who has come down to us under the name of Fingal. How Fingal was active in the defense of the ancient gods against those who wished to endanger them — all this was handed down in ancient songs, heard out of the spiritual world — the ancient songs of the bard Ossian, Fingal's son, so that it remained alive even into the 16th and 17th Centuries. What Fingal achieved, what his son Ossian heard when Fingal had ascended into the spiritual realm, what their descendants heard in the rhythms and sounds of Ossian's songs with which they ever and again ensouled their deeds, this it was which worked on so mightily even into the 18th Century. And we shall win a conception of this if we realize how Ossian allowed the voice of his father, Fingal, to sound forth in his songs.

We are told how the heroes find themselves in a difficult position. They are almost overthrown ... when new life fills the band: “The king stood by the stone of Lubar. Thrice he reared his terrible voice. The deer started from the fountains of Cromia. The rocks shook on all their hills. Like the noise of a hundred mountain streams, that burst, and roar, and foam! Like the clouds, that gather to a tempest on the blue face of the sky! So met the sons of the desert round the terrible voice of Fingal. Pleasant was the voice of the king of Morven to the warriors of his land. Often had he led them to battle; often returned with the spoils of the foe.”

“‘Come to battle,’ said the king, ‘ye children of echoing Selma! Come to the death of thousands. Comhal's son will see the fight. My sword shall wave on the hill, the defense of my people in war. But never may you need it, warriors; while the son of Morni fights, the chief of mighty men! He shall lead my battle, that his fame may rise in song! O ye ghosts of heroes dead! Ye riders of the storm of Cromia! Receive my falling people with joy, and bear them to your hills. And may the blast of Lena carry them over my seas, that they may come to my silent dreams, and delight my soul in rest’ ...”

“Now like a dark and stormy cloud, edges round with the red lightning of heaven, flying westward from the morning's beam, the king of Selma removed. Terrible is the light of his armor; two spears are in his hand. His gray hair falls on the wind. He often looks back on the war. Three bards attend the son of fame, to bear his words to the chiefs. High on Cromia's side he sat, waving the lightning of his sword, and as he waved we moved ...”

“Fingal at once arose in arms. Thrice he reared his dreadful voice. Cromia answered around. The sons of the desert stood still. They bent their blushing faces to earth, ashamed at the presence of the king. He came like a cloud of rain in the day of the sun, when slow it rolls on the hill, and fields expect the shower. Silence attends its slow progress aloft: but the tempest is soon to arise. Swaran beheld the terrible kings of Morven. He stopped in the midst of his course. Dark he leaned on his spear, rolling his red eyes around. Silent and tall he seemed, as an oak on the banks of Lubar, which had its branches blasted of old by the lightning of heaven. It bends over the stream: the grey moss whistles in the wind: so stood the king. Then slowly he retired to the rising heath of Lena. His thousands pour around the hero. Darkness gathers on the hill!”

“Fingal, like a beam from heaven, shone in the midst of his people. His heroes gather around him. He sends forth the voice of his power: ‘Raise my standards on high, spread them on Lena's wind, like the flames of an hundred hills! Let them sound on the winds of Erin, and remind us of the fight. Ye sons of the roaring streams, that pour from a thousand hills, be near the king of Morven! Attend to the words of his power! Gaul, strongest arm of death! O! Oscar of the future fights! Connal, son of the blue shields of Sora! Dermid, of the dark brown hair! Ossian, king of many songs! — Be near your father's arm!’ We reared the sunbeam of battle; the standard of the king! Each hero exulted with joy, as, waving, it flew in the wind. It was studded with gold above, as the blue wide shell of the nightly sky. Each hero had his standard, too, and each his gloomy mien!”

Thus Fingal stormed into battle, thus he is described by his son Ossian.

No wonder that this life, this consciousness of a connection with the spiritual world which sank deep into these peoples, into the souls of the ancient Celts, is the best preparation whereby they could spread the personal divine element throughout the West in their own way and from their own soil. For what they had experienced in the form of passion and desire, what they had heard sounding forth in the melodies of the spiritual world, prepared them for a later time when they brought into the world sons who revealed these passions in their souls in a purified and milder form. And thus we may say — it seems to us as if Erin's finest sons were to hear again the voices of their ancient bards singing of what they once heard out of the spiritual world as the deeds of their forefathers, but as if in Erin's finest sons the ancient battle cries had now been formed and clarified, and had become words which could express the greatest impulse of mankind.

All this sounded forth out of olden times in the songs about the deeds of the ancient Celts who fought out many things in mighty battles in order to prepare themselves for further deeds of spiritual life in later times, as we recognize them again today in that which the finest sons of the West have achieved. These were the impulses which flowed into the souls of human beings in the 18th Century, when these ancient songs were revived. And it is this which was remembered by those who saw again the wonderful cathedral, built as if by Nature herself, and which caused them to say to themselves — “Here is a site, a gathering place, given to man by karma, in order that what the bards were able to sing about the deeds of their ancestors, about all that the heroes did to steel their forces, might sound back to them as in an echo out of this temple which they themselves did not have to build — out of their holy temple which was built for them by the spirits of Nature and which could be an instrument of enthusiasm for all who beheld it.”

So the tones and harmonies of this Overture which we have just heard offer an opportunity which allows us to sense, in our own way at least, something of the deep and mysterious events which do indeed reign in the history of mankind, events which occurred long before our present era on almost the same soil upon which they now continue to live. As we must deepen ourselves in all that lives within us, and as all that lives within us is only a further resounding of what was there in the past, so this feeling, this sense, for what once was and now works further in mankind is of great significance for occult life.




Last Modified: 06-Jun-2017
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