My Songs - The Glories of My Life

The songs of Sri Chinmoy are a treat for both western and eastern listeners

The story goes that Franz Schubert, as a struggling, 19-year-old composer, was visited by two of his friends one day in 1815. They found him in a state of excitement, reading Johann von Goethe's ballad "Erlkönig". He went straight to his desk - he didn't own a piano - to turn this poem into a song. Within two hours, he had written a four-minute score, intricate and powerful enough to match the poem itself. He and his friends then went out to perform the song for the first time.

    Sceptics believe that, however inspired he was, this story doesn't ring true. He would need more than two hours simply to transcribe the score. On the other hand, Schubert was a fast worker; in that same year, he composed over 150 songs, four operas, two symphonies, two masses and a string quartet. Moreover, some of these works (including "Erlkönig") were masterpieces. For the young prodigy, inspiration struck with great efficiency.

    Schubert didn't run dry after 1815, but went on to write some 600 songs. Even among German lieder (romantic song) composers, this volume is dwarfed by one J.F. Reichardt, who has 1,500 songs to his name. In the East, India's great Nobel Prize-winning author, scholar and mystic poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote 2,000 songs, many of which are still popular.

    Where do the most prolific songwriters get their inspiration? Sri Chinmoy, an admirer of Tagore, might provide the answer. Like Tagore, Sri Chinmoy has been described as a "renaissance man", with multifarious talents. Also like Tagore, he credits his creative output to a higher source. Others might describe it as his "muse"; he calls it his "inner pilot". "Soulful music," he says, "makes us feel that God Himself is the Supreme Musician."

    Sri Chinmoy's inner pilot works non-stop. He has composed over 17,000 songs - works of devotion or spiritual inspiration, ranging from one-line mantras to 44-verse ballads. Most are written in his native Bengali, but many are in English.

    "Music has tremendous power," he has said. "With fire we can burn ourselves, or we can cook and do many other good things. It is the same with music. Divine music immediately elevates our consciousness, whereas undivine music immediately lowers our consciousness and tries to destroy our inner cry for a better spiritual life."

    It is often said that music is the universal language. Perhaps so, but Western ears - raised on complex symphonies and three-minute pop melodies - might find it a challenge to appreciate the traditional style of Indian song. Here is a nation known for its lengthy raags, its worshipful chants. Even now, over 30 years after Ravi Shankar met the Beatles, the two musical worlds seem far apart.

    In this respect, Sri Chinmoy's songs can surprise. Many of them have bright, catchy melodies. Others, while deceptively simple, have a strong, almost operatic quality. Sri Chinmoy was not trained in western music - but when Leonard Bernstein heard one of his songs in 1979, he recognised some Western techniques. "What music I hear!" said the maestro. "Beautiful. He has no idea he is writing counterpoint... But he has written a counterpoint like Bach. Every phrase goes with every other phrase, so that no matter what you do, you can't miss."

    Works of devotion? As Sri Chinmoy notes in his books and poetry, spirituality takes many forms, from the enthusiasm of "Namiche Aj Ananda" ("Today, the flood of delight inundates my all") to the sweet soulfulness of "Chitta Dolai" ("Come and enjoy Your Ecstasy's Dream, on my heart-swing"), which has been recorded, as a soothing ballad, by some major musicians.

    His most recorded song, "Usha Bala Elo" (1974), is a favourite amongst his students: the less musical enjoy its simplicity, while the expert musicians admire the perfect shape of its melody. The slow, lilting melody is accompanied by Bengali lyrics, which could almost be a meditation in themselves. The translation: "Slowly, very slowly, the virgin dawn appears, in the very depths of my aspiration-heart."

    It could almost be Sri Chinmoy's archetypal song, were it not so absurd to select one song from of list of 17,000. Nonetheless, there are other candidates. "Sangite mor" (2000) celebrates the very art of song. Like many of his songs, it is a simple phrase, sung first in Bengali, and then in English. ("My music embodies the fragrance of my heart. My songs embody the glories of my life.")

    How does he write so many songs? Like Schubert, he is blessed with the speed that comes with inspiration. One is reminded of the comment of American songwriter Richard Rodgers, when asked "How long does it take you to write a tune?"

    "How long does it take you to sing it?" was Rodgers' reply. He worked very fast, but had no explanation for his talent.

    Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg warned of the dangers of musical analysis, suggesting that it shows how something is made rather than what it actually is. In Sri Chinmoy's case, analysing his music is like analysing meditation. As with the songs of the great composers, or the power of a great yogi, his songs are best experienced with the heart.