Speech and Song
This is the 9th of 12 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at various cities from 1906 to 1923. The series of lectures is entitled: The Essence of Music and the Experience of Tone. Another name of this lecture is: Human Expression through Tone and Word.
2 December 1922, Dornach
I have already pointed out in recent lectures how certain functions or activities of the human being, which emerge in early childhood, are in reality a metamorphosis of activities which belong to man between death and a new birth, i.e. in his pre-earthly life. At birth the child is not yet fully adapted to the earthly gravitation, the earthly conditions of equilibrium. We see the child slowly and gradually adapt himself to these earthly conditions as he learns to stand and walk. Thus the adaptation of the body to the position of equilibrium for earthly life is a faculty which man does not bring with him. He must acquire it during his earthly life.
Now we know that the physical body of man in all its form is the result of a mighty spiritual activity — an activity which man performs in unison with Beings of the Higher Worlds between death and a new birth. Yet that which man forms and creates in this activity — we may call it in a sense the spiritual germ of his future physical earthly body — is not so formed as already to contain the faculty of upright gait and posture. This faculty is only incorporated in man's nature when, after his birth, he gradually finds his way into the conditions of equilibrium, into the forces of earthly existence. For in the pre-earthly life, balance or equilibrium is not the same as it is on earth, where it signifies the power to walk and stand. In the pre-earthly life, balance and equilibrium signify the relation man has to the Angeloi, Archangeloi and so forth — to the Beings of the Hierarchies — a relation manifold and differentiated according as one feels oneself drawn more towards one Being or more towards another. This constitutes the state of equilibrium in the spiritual worlds. And this, man loses in a certain sense when he descends on to the earth. In the mother's womb he is neither in the conditions of equilibrium of his spiritual existence, nor is he yet in the conditions of equilibrium of his earthly life. He has left the former and has not yet entered into the latter.
It is similar in the case of speech. The language which we speak here on earth is, of course, essentially adapted to earthly conditions. In the first place it is an expression of our earthly thoughts. These earthly thoughts contain earthly information and earthly knowledge; and to all this our speech or language is adapted during our life on earth. But in the pre-earthly life as I have already explained, man has a very different language — one which does not go from within outwards, which does not mainly follow the out-breathing process, but the spiritual in-breathing or inspiration (which we observe to correspond to breathing in the pre-earthly life). Thus in pre-earthly existence, man's language is a living with the cosmic Logos; it is a living within the cosmic Word — the cosmic language from out of which all things of the world are made.
This too we lose when we descend on to the earth. We lose the life within the cosmic language, and acquire here on earth the language which serves us in the first place to express our thoughts — our earthly thoughts. This earthly language serves our mutual understanding — understanding as between human beings, all of whom are living on the earth.
And so it is with our thoughts themselves — our earthly thinking. Here on earth, our thinking is gradually adapted to the earthly conditions. In pre-earthly existence on the other hand, our thought is a living within the creative thoughts of the Cosmos.
Walking, Speaking and Thinking: — let us now consider, of these three, the middle member — human speech. We may indeed say that in speech there lies a most essential element of all earthly culture and civilisation. By speech, human beings come together here on earth, and one man finds the way to another. Bridging the gulf that lies between, soul meets with soul through speech. We feel that we have in speech something essential to our nature here on earth. And indeed our speech is the earthly reflection of our life in the Logos, in the cosmic Word. Thus it is particularly interesting to understand the connection of what man attains by great efforts here on earth, as speech and language, with the metamorphosis of speech and language yonder in the pre-earthly life. Indeed, when we study this relationship, we are led to perceive how the human being is inwardly constructed and organised out of the very element of spoken sound and music. And it is a happy coincidence at the present moment that in the cosmological studies we have pursued for some weeks, I can to-day insert the chapter on the expression of the human being through the words of speech and the sounds of song. It is our great pleasure in these days to be having so excellent a performance of song, here in our Goetheanum building.1Song-Recital by Frau Werbeck-Svärdstrom and her sisters. Allow me therefore to-day, if I may say so, to express my personal gratitude for this happy artistic event in our midst, by telling you a little of the connection between the speech and song of man here on earth, and his life in that element which corresponds to the Sound in speech and song, in the spiritual world.
If we study the human organism as it stands before us here on earth, we know that it is through and through an image of the spiritual. Everything here — not only what man bears in himself, but also what surrounds him in external nature — is an image of the spiritual. Now when man expresses himself in speech or in song, he is really manifesting his whole nature — body, soul and spirit — not only outwardly but inwardly. In all that he brings forth by way of sound — whether the articulate sounds of speech or the musical notes of song — the full human being is in fact contained. How deeply and fully he is contained, we only begin to see when we understand more in detail what the human being is in that he speaks or sings.
Let us take our start from speech. In the historic evolution of mankind, speech, as we know, proceeded from something which originally was song. The farther we go back into pre-historic ages, the more does speech become recitative and eventually song. In distant ages of human evolution upon earth, the expression of the human being through sound was not really differentiated into song and speech, but these two were one. What is so often referred to as the primeval language of man was such that we might as well speak of it as a primeval song.
But we will now study speech in its present condition, where it has become very far removed from the pure element of song, and is steeped in the prosaic and intellectual quality. If we take speech as we have it to-day, we find in it two essential elements — consonant and vowel, All that we bring forth in speech is composed of a consonantal and of a vowel element. Now, the consonantal element is in reality entirely based upon the finer plastic structure of our body. Whether we pronounce a B or a P, an L or an M, in each case it rests upon the fact that something or other in our body has a certain plastic form. Nor is this confined by any means to the organs of speech and song alone. These organs only represent the highest culmination of what is here meant. For when the human being brings forth a musical note in song or an articulate sound in speech, his whole body really takes part in the process. The process that goes on in the organ of speech or song is but the final culmination of something that is taking place through the whole human being. Our human body therefore, as to its plastic form and structure, may really be conceived as follows. We take all the consonants there are in any language. They are always variations of twelve primary consonants, and indeed in the Finnish language you still find these twelve preserved very nearly in their pure, original nature; eleven are quite distinct, only the twelfth has grown a little indistinct, but it, too, is still present. Now, these twelve original consonants when rightly understood (and each of them can at the same time be conceived as a form), these twelve consonants taken together really represent the entire plastic structure of the human body. We may say therefore, without speaking figuratively in the least: — the human being is plastically expressed by the twelve primeval consonants.
What then is this human body? From the point of view — the musical point of view — we are now taking, the human body is nothing else than a great musical instrument. Even the external musical instruments — the violin or any other instrument of music — even these you can best understand by somehow perceiving in their form and shape a consonant or consonants. You must see them, as it were, built up out of the consonants. When we refer to the consonant element in speech, there must always be something in our feeling reminiscent of musical instruments; and the totality, the harmony of all consonants, represents the plastic sculpture of the human body.
And the vowel element — in this we have the soul which plays upon the instrument. The soul provides the vowel nature. Thus when you embody in speech the consonant and vowel elements, you have in every manifestation of speech or of song a self-expression of the human being. The soul of the human being plays in vowels upon the consonants of the musical instrument — the human body.
Now if, as I said, we are considering the speech that forms a part of present-day civilisation, we find that our soul, whenever it brings forth vowel sounds, makes use to a very great extent of the brain, the system of head and nerves. In earlier ages of human evolution, this was not the case to the same degree.
Let us consider for a minute the system of head and nerves. The whole structure of the head is permeated by forces which run along the nerve-strands. Now the activity which the nerve-strands here develop is entered and permeated by another activity, namely that which comes about through our breathing-in the air. The air which we breathe in passes through the spinal canal right up into the head, and the impact of the breathing beats in unison with the movements that are executed along the nerve-strands. Pressing upward to the head through the spinal canal, the current of the breath is perpetually meeting with the activity of the nerves in the head. We have not a separate nervous activity, and a separate breathing activity; we have in the head a harmony and mutual resonance of breathing activity and nervous activity. Now the man of to-day, having grown prosaic in his ordinary life, sets more store by the nerve forces than by the breathing impulses. He makes more use of his nervous system when he speaks; he permeates with nerve, if we might put it so, the instrument which through its consonantal nature shapes and forms the vowel currents.
In earlier ages of human evolution, this was not the case. Man lived not so much in his nervous system; he lived in the breathing system. Hence the primeval language was more like song. Now when the man of to-day sings, he takes what he does in speech — where he permeates it with the nervous activity of the nervous system — and restores it to the current of the breath. He consciously calls into activity this second stream — the breathing. It is the continuation of the breathing into the head which is directly called into activity when, as in song, the uttering of the vowel is added to the bringing forth of the note. But here in song man does not leave the element of breath; he takes back his now prosaic language into the poetic and artistic nature of the rhythmic breathing process. The poet of to-day still strives to maintain the rhythm of the breath itself in the way he shapes and moulds the language of his poems. And he who writes for song takes it all back again into the breathing process (including the breathing process of the head). Thus we may say, the very process which man must undergo here on earth, in that he adapts his language to earthly conditions, is reversed in a certain sense when we pass from speech to song. Song is indeed a. real recollection — though by earthly means — of that which we experienced in the pre-earthly life. For in our rhythmic system we are far nearer to the spiritual world than in our thinking system. And it is of course the thinking system which takes hold of speech when speech becomes prosaic.
When we utter the vowel sounds, we press what is living in our soul down into the body; and the body, by adding the consonantal element, does but provide the musical instrument for our soul to use. You will certainly have the feeling that in every vowel there is something of the soul, immediate and living. The vowel can be taken by itself. The consonant on the other hand is perpetually longing for the vowel, tending towards it. The plastic instrument of the body is in fact a dead thing until the vowel nature — the soul — strikes its chords.
You can see this in detailed examples. Take for instance, in certain dialects of Middle Europe, the word mir as in the phrase Es geht mir gut. When I was a little boy, I simply could not conceive that the word should be written as it is. I always wrote it mia; for in the r the longing towards the a is quite inherent. Thus when we perceive the human organism as the harmony of all consonants, we find in it everywhere the longing for the vowel nature, that is to say for the soul. Now we are driven to ask, what is the origin of all these things?
This human body, in the whole arrangement of its plastic structure here on earth, has to adapt itself to the earthly conditions. It is shaped as it is, because the earthly position of equilibrium and the whole system of the earthly forces would not allow it to be otherwise. And yet all the time it is shaped out of the spiritual world. This matter can be understood only by deeper spiritual-scientific research. The soul-nature, manifesting itself through the vowels, strikes upon the consonantal nature, which is plastically shaped and formed in accordance with earthly conditions.
If we lift ourselves into the spiritual world, in the way I have described in my book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment, we first attain Imagination or Imaginative Cognition, as I have often told you. Now when we reach this point, we find that we have lost the consonants. We still possess the vowels, but the consonants — to begin with at any rate — are lost. In the Imaginative condition, we have in effect lost our physical body — i.e. we have lost the consonants. In the Imaginative world, the consonants no longer appeal to us. To describe what we have in that world adequately in spoken words, our words would have to consist, to begin with, of vowels only.
We have lost the instrument, and we enter a pure world of sound, where the vowels are indeed coloured and shaded in manifold variety, but all the consonants of earth are in effect dissolved away in the vowels.
You will therefore find that in those languages which were not yet so far removed from the primeval, the things of the super-sensible world were named in words consisting of vowels only. The word Jahve for example did not contain our present form of J or V. It consisted only of vowels, and was half-scanned, half-sung. We enter here into a vowel-language which it is only natural to sing. And when we reach from Imaginative to Inspired Cognition — when therefore we receive the direct manifestations of the spiritual world — then all the consonants we have on earth are changed into something quite different. The consonants, as such, we lose. But in place of it, a new thing comes forth in the spiritual perception which comes to us in Inspiration. And this new thing we find to be none other than the spiritual counterparts of the consonants.
But the spiritual counterparts of the consonants are not there between the vowels; they live in them. In your speech here on earth you have the consonants and vowels side by side. You lose the consonants as you ascend into the spiritual world. You live your way into a vowel world of song. To put it truly one must say, “It sings,” for you yourself no longer sing. The World itself becomes cosmic song. But all this vowel world is variedly coloured or shaded in a spiritual sense. In effect, there is something living in the vowels — namely the spiritual counterparts of the consonants.
Here on earth we have the vowel sound A for example, and — if you will the note C sharp in a certain octave. But when we reach the spiritual world, we do not have one A, or one C sharp in a given octave, but countless ones differing in inner quality. For it is another thing, whether a Being from the Hierarchy of the Angeloi speaks A to one, or a Being of the Hierarchy of the Archangeloi, or some other Being. Outwardly the manifestation is the same, but it is filled in each case with a different inner soul.
We may say therefore: — Here on earth we have our body. The vowel sound strikes into it. Yonder in the spiritual world we have the vowel sound; and the soul strikes into it, and lives in it, so that the sound becomes the body for the soul. You are immersed in cosmic music, cosmic song; you are within the creative sound — within the creative Word.
Let us now consider sound as it is on earth, including spoken sound. Sound has its earthly life in the element of air. It is, however, but a childish conception of Physics to believe that the peculiar forms in the air are the reality of sound. It is really childish. Imagine, for a moment, you have a piece of ground, and on it stands a man. The ground is most certainly not the man, yet the ground must be there for the man to stand on. Without it, the man himself could not be there. It will not therefore occur to you to seek to understand the man by examining the soil beneath his feet.
In the same way the air must be there for the sound to have a basis of support. Just as man stands on the soil — only in a rather more complicated way the sound has its “soil,” its necessary basis or resistance in the air. For the sound itself, the air signifies no more than does the soil for the man who stands on it. The sound presses forward to the air, and the air gives it the possibility to stand. But the sound itself is spiritual. Just as the man is different from the earthly soil on which he stands, so, is the sound different from the air upon which it stands — in which it finds its support though of course in a more complicated way, in a manifold and varied way.
Through the fact that we on earth can only speak and sing by means of the air, we have in the airy forming of the sound the earthly image of a thing of soul and spirit. The soul-and-spirit of sound belongs to the super-sensible world, and that which dwells here in the air is fundamentally the body of the sound. We need not therefore be surprised if we find the sound again in the spiritual world, though shorn of that which comes from the earthly — the earthly consonant-articulation. The vowel only is carried over there. The sound as such in its spiritual content goes with us when we rise into the spiritual world, only there it becomes filled with soul. Instead of being shaped and moulded outwardly by the nature of the consonants, the sound is inwardly ensouled.
Now all this runs parallel with man's entry into the spiritual world in the widest sense. Think for a moment, my dear friends, man passes through the gate of death. The consonants he soon leaves behind, but the vowels — and especially the manifold intonations of the vowels — these he experiences all the more strongly, only with this difference. He no longer feels the sound proceeding from his own larynx, but he feels that there is singing all around him, and that in every sound of the song, he himself is living. It is so in the very first days after man passes through the gate of death. He is dwelling in a musical element, which is at the same time an element of speech; and this musical element reveals ever more and more as it becomes filled with living soul from the spiritual world.
Now, as I have told you, man's going forth into the Universe after he has passed through the gate of death is at the same time a passing from the earthly world into the world of the stars.
When we describe such a thing as this, we seem to be speaking in images, but our images none the less are reality. Imagine here the Earth. Around it are the planets, then the heavens of the fixed stars, conceived from time immemorial — and rightly so — as the Animal Circle or Zodiac. Man standing on the Earth sees the planets and the fixed stars in their shadowed radiance. He sees them from the Earth — or, shall we say, with due respect to earthly man, he sees them “from in front?” (The Old Testament, as you know, expressed it differently.) After death, when man goes farther and farther from the earth, he gradually comes to see the planets as well as the fixed stars “from behind.” But there he does not see these points of light or surfaces of light which are seen from the earth. Rather does he see the spiritual — the corresponding spiritual Beings. On all sides it is a world of spiritual Beings. Wherever he looks back, whether it be towards Saturn, Sun or Moon, or towards Aries, Taurus and the other constellations, he sees from yonder side the spiritual Beings.
But this seeing is at the same time a hearing; and when he says: — Man sees from the other side — or from behind — Moon, Venus, Aries, Taurus and so forth, we might equally well express it thus: — Man hears the Beings, who have their dwelling in these heavenly bodies, resounding forth into the cosmic spaces.
Try to imagine it in its totality. (It really looks as though we were speaking figuratively, but we are not, it is absolutely real.) Imagine yourself out there in the Cosmos — the planetary world farther from you now, the Zodiac with its twelve constellations nearer. From all the heavenly bodies it is singing, speaking as it sings to you, singing as it speaks; and all your perception is a listening to the speaking song, the singing speech of the World. You look out in the direction of Aries, and as you do so, receive the impression of a consonant soul-nature. Behind Aries maybe, is Saturn, a vowel element of soul. And in this vowel element as it radiates out into the cosmic space from Saturn — in it there dwells the soul-and-spirit Consonant: — Aries, or in another instance, Taurus. Thus you have the planetary sphere singing to you in vowels — singing forth into the cosmic spaces; and the fixed stars permeate the song of the planetary sphere with soul from the consonants. Picture it to yourselves as vividly as you can: — the sphere of the fixed stars at rest, and behind it the wandering planets. Whenever a planet in its course passes a constellation of the fixed stars, there bursts forth not a single note, but a whole world of sound. Then as the planet passes on from Aries to Taurus, a different world of sound rings forth. But behind it there follows, let us say, another planet: — Mars. Mars passing through the constellation of Taurus, causes a different world of sounds to ring forth once more. Thus you have in the heavens of the fixed stars, or the Zodiac, a wondrous cosmic instrument of music, while from behind it our planetary Gods are playing upon this instrument.
We may truly say, my dear friends, when man down here on earth takes back his speech (which is now formed for his earthly needs, just as his walking is transformed, for earthly needs, from his spiritual power of orientation in the Cosmos) — when therefore man takes speech back again into the element of song, he really inclines himself to that cosmic pre-earthly existence from out of which he is born for earthly life. And indeed, all Art comes before man in this sense. It is as though, whenever he expresses himself in Art, he were to say, “’Tis human destiny — and rightly so that man as he begins his earthly course of life is placed into the midst of earthly conditions and must adapt himself to these. But in Art he goes back again a little step, leaves the earthly life to take its course around him, and retreating for a moment approaches once more the world of Soul and Spirit — the pre-earthly life from which he has come forth.”
We do not understand Art, my dear friends, unless we feel in it the longing to experience the Spiritual — though it be but manifested, to begin with, in a world of beautiful semblance. Our creative fancy, whereby we develop all artistic things, is at bottom nothing else than the power of clairvoyance in an earthly form. We are tempted to say: — As sound dwells on earth in the element of air, so it is with the nature of the soul itself. That which is truly spiritual in the pre-earthly life has its earthly dwelling in the image of the spiritual. For when man speaks, he makes use of his whole body. The consonant nature becomes in him the plastic sculpture of the human frame, and the Soul makes use of the current of the breath which does not enter into solid form, to play upon this plastic instrument of music and now, in a twofold way we can turn once more to the Divine, what we thus are as human beings speaking upon earth.
Take the consonantal human frame. Suppose we loosen it as it were from the solid form wherein the earthly forces — gravity and the like — or the chemical forces in the foodstuffs have enchained it. Suppose we liberate the consonant nature that permeates the human being for so we may now describe it. When we place a lung on the dissection table we find chemical substances in it, which we can investigate by chemical methods. But this is not the lung. What is the lung? It is a consonant, spoken forth out of the Cosmos, which has taken plastic form. The heart, if we lay it on the dissection table, consists of cells which we can investigate chemically and find the substances composing it. But this is not the heart. The heart again is a consonant — another consonant, spoken forth out of the Cosmos. And if we conceive the whole twelve consonants, cosmically spoken and resounding forth, we have in all essentials the human bodily frame.
Thus as we look to the consonants, if we have the necessary clairvoyant power of imagination to see them in their real connection, there arises before us the human body in its plastic shape. If then we take the consonants out of the human being, we have the Art of Sculpture. If on the other hand we take the breath, which the soul uses to play upon the bodily instrument in song — if we take the vowel nature out of the human being, there arises the musical art, the Art of Song.
Once more: — Take the Consonant-nature out of the human being, and there arises Form, which you must mould in plastic art. Take the Vowel-nature out of the human being, and there arises Song — Music, which you must sing. Man as he stands before us here on earth proceeds out of the two Cosmic Arts — a Cosmic Art of Sculpture from the one side, and a cosmic Art of Song or Music from the other. Two kinds of spiritual Beings join their activity together. The one provides the instrument, the other plays upon it; the one forms and moulds the instrument, the other plays upon it.
Can we wonder that in olden time, when things like these were felt, it was said of the greatest of all artists, Orpheus, that his command over the soul was such that he was able, not only to use the ready-moulded human body as an instrument, but to cast even amorphous matter into plastic forms — forms which correspond to the notes of his music.
My dear friends! You will understand that when we describe such things as these we must depart a little in our use of words from what is usual in this prosaic age. Nevertheless what I have said is not intended in a figurative or symbolic but in a most real sense. These things are indeed such as I have described them, albeit to describe them we must sometimes bring our language into greater flow and movement than is customary in its use to-day.