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A Celebration of Heaven in the Heart Chakra of the World

An Article by Humera Afridi on the Bach B Minor Mass Project inspired by Pir Vilayat, and an interview with Ophiel Maarten Van Leer

 

There’s something that happens in samaa which in Persian is described as hizzat. Hizzat means vibration. And you feel it in the body. There’s a kind of resonance, a kind of movement within, a fluttering. And it spreads. When the heart is alive and attentive, that sensation gains momentum. Perhaps all of us, on one occasion or another, have felt such a thing when you’re listening to rapturous music and you feel the kind of electricity in your shoulders and up your spine. That is a sign of that hizzat. There is a vibration of that kind in the body, there is also one in the heart, and there’s also one in the soul. This vibration exists on these multiple levels. And when it awakens in the body, it stirs that same vibration in the heart which stirs the vibration in the soul. And so music becomes an ascension.  Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, February 2016

The monumental opening bars of Bach’s B-Minor Mass strike at the very core of our being. And the dramatic three-fold Ky-ri-e launches us on an epic musical journey, one that elicits an unfoldment of emotional, imaginative and spiritual states which continue to bloom well after the final chord invoking pacem—peace—has sounded. This extraordinary feat of music has gained profound resonance within our Inayati Order. In a time of staggering grief, after learning of the death of his beloved sister Pirzadi Noor-un-nisa at Dachau, Pir Vilayat listened to the B-Minor mass every evening before going to bed. Day after day, the music penetrated his being, transmuting vast sorrow to a state of renewed hope.

During the summer camps he led in France and, later, in the Ticino Valley in Switzerland, Pir Vilayat dedicated a few days each time to conducting a choir made up of retreatants. They played various pieces of music, but Bach’s B Minor mass was for Pir Vilayat the crowning piece of all and he aspired that they learn it. Over the course of two decades Pir Vilayat’s dream would come to fruition, aided in large part by a dedicated mureed, Maarten Ophiel van Leer, who attended his first summer camp “out of curiosity” in 1976 at the age of sixteen.

Today, conductor, choirmaster and soloist Ophiel, and his wife Sangita, a singer and healing practitioner, are in the Holy Land where he is conducting performances of Bach’s B-Minor mass in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth, in the spirit of peace, understanding and tolerance. This past summer, Ophiel conducted the Mass at the beautiful twelfth century church in Olivone, Switzerland, with over a hundred choir members and a group of orchestra players, all retreatants of the annual summer camp. The stunning and powerful performance served as a rehearsal for the series of concerts planned for December.

The day after the concert in Olivone, I had the chance to speak with Ophiel and Sangita in Campra about Pir Vilayat’s vision for Bach’s B-Minor Mass. Joining us that afternoon—a day of intermittent rain and a sky streaked with sunlight sieved through clouds— was conductor Tarana Sara Jobin who played the piano and assisted Ophiel in preparations for the concert. She would go on to lead a performance of Bach’s B-Minor Mass in Dachau in September to commemorate Pirzadi Noor-un-nisa’s Urs. Below is an excerpt of our conversation:

Misbah Noor (MN): Ophiel, I was riveted by the concert. I didn’t meet Pir Vilayat during his lifetime but last night I felt I came close to him through the music. It was so powerful. How did you experience the concert while conducting? 

Maarten Ophiel van Leer (MOvL): I’m very happy that you felt Pir Vilayat near to you because during the concert I was looking for him inwardly and I could not find him. I found him this morning (at the performance in the meditation tent). There are those moments when one conducts that one relaxes inwardly and lets the music happen. And that was very much so this morning, mostly in the Dona Nobis Pacem. But there was not one single second yesterday that I could allow that because it was dangerous, it would go apart rhythmically and I had to work overtime. I was only hoping that people in the church could have an experience I could not, so I am happy that you did.

 

MN: The B-Minor Mass has become a tradition of sorts now in the Inayati Order. And you have been personally involved for many years with this piece of music. Can you please tell us the story? 

MOvL: The beginning is before I was born when Pir Vilayat lived through a severe crisis and healed himself by listening to the complete B-Minor Mass as a kind of therapy for his soul. I’ve known him my whole life—he ‘baptized’ me as a small baby. My mother is a Sufi in Holland and I was raised with the Universal Worship— the ideal of all these religions on the altar is completely normal for me. Pir Vilayat would visit my parents and walk with my mother through the woods, with an owl here (points to a shoulder) and an eagle here (points to other shoulder). As a little boy I would go with them. My family played Renaissance music and when he was there he played a little cello with the family band.

But then there was a split in the Sufi Movement. It must have been the early 60’s. Pir Vilayat said: My wings are clipped, I can’t fly. I’m not free. They want to regulate what I may say and do and what I may not. So, he stepped apart and the Order separated. I must have been about five. I didn’t see him again until I was 12 when I went to a lecture of his with my mother. Then in 1976, I went out of curiosity to the summer camp which was at the time in France. There, I had suddenly the feeling that that which I had heard talked about all my life during zikr and meditation, under his guidance it became an experience. I immediately had the feeling that this is something very special. I also noticed in that first week that my playing of the flute changed, that some other quality came out—a soul level was speaking, whereas before it was just technical.

At the end of the week I went up to Pir Vilayat wanting only to ask, What is the minimum age— so that I could consider it—for initiation? And he said, Oh, but that’s wonderful! He initiated me without any further questions. I was 16! This was so overwhelming because I didn’t expect it. I was literally whirling in the grass because I did not know what to do with the energy. Of course, I went back the next year. I did not have a spontaneous experience like the first year, but knew I now had to work for it myself. That year, he said, I’m feeling a little tired, so you should conduct the choir. I was 17, or just turned 18. And that was my first time. It was the seed. 

Not long before he died, I asked him: Do you remember that moment? 
And he said, Yes! 
And were you tired in reality?
 
Of course not!

And then he said, We should practice the B-Minor Mass. 
That’s crazy!
I thought. I didn’t say that to him, but that’s what I thought.

MN: You certainly have a long history with Pir Vilayat. Were you studying to be a musician during those years?

MOvL: Music was in my family. My father was the driving force for the music at home. But the impulse to make it a profession came later. This experience was part of it, feeding it. Music was in the camps. I came to conducting through Pir Vilayat.

Pir Vilayat’s connection to this piece of music was a given. And he had a dream of realizing it. So we started little by little during the meditation camps. It was very hard work with very little results. Learning just the first half of Agnus Dei and then the week was finished, like this it went. And then, when I was 21 or 22, we had for the first time a music camp. He entrusted me to lead it. We had different musical workshops and one of them was singing Bach. We worked on the first Kiriye from the B Minor because it was Pir Vilayat’s strongest wish. All the participants found it wonderful.

But, again, I went to Pir Vilayat: This vision of doing it all. I don’t see it.
Aaahh! You see, we’re working towards the year 2000!

That’s what he always used to say! And then the camp moved to this valley (Ticino). Here came two women from Stuttgard, professional singers, who knew the piece, literally, by heart. And they loved Pir Vilayat. Majida would stand behind Soprano 1 and Awliya behind Soprano 2 and just very softly whisper the right notes and the whole group just suddenly came together. With their help we managed to do in a week the first half of the Kiriye choir and the Gloria. That’s a lot. From nothing to this!

MN: And most of the participants were not professional musicians? 

MOvL: No! And then I got fired up and I said, Now, we will go for it all! Next year we will have a week just for this. And I sent out letters to the whole Sufi Order—Germany and Holland and France. I got a letter from a man in a trumpet ensemble who said, Well, what is Bach without trumpets? We were on our way. So, I sent out a second letter—Who in our order plays an instrument and wants to join? And so, in 1995 we had the first complete concert.

MN: Where did you hold the concert?

MOvL: If you go over the pass when you reach Dissentes, there is a big monastery with more than a thousand-year old tradition uninterrupted of Benedictine monks. It’s a very special place; one feels the tradition. It’s very deep. And that’s where we had our first concert. And the energy was magnificent!

One of the women in the choir was Lisa (Lisa Malin) from Austria. She was a Buddhist, and neither Pir Vilayat or I knew, but together with lamas from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in Germany, they went to former concentration camp sites to pray and say mantras. They would walk there reciting mantras and praying for souls. They started in Dachau, went to Auschwitz and all the other camps. Then on to India, the Himalayas, Cambodia, Vietnam and ended at Hiroshima. She told Pir Vilayat about it. I was present when she spoke to him.

His eyes went like this (wide!)—Oh! We should take this piece of music to Noor, to Dachau. He wanted to do it right away because the next year he would turn 80. He said, I will do that on my 80th birthday for my sister!

And we had a tent for choir and orchestra, benches in the open air for people. I had the feeling I couldn’t breathe when I visited Dachau the first time. Pir Vilayat was conducting part of the mass, but he had lost feeling in the tips of his fingers so I turned the pages and assisted with some of the quick movements. There was a flautist from America who flew there because she wanted to be there.

MN: Listening to you, Opheil, I’m struck by how people come together from all over the world in the Inayati Order for the summer camp, but also specifically for this piece of music.

Tarana Sara Jobin (TSJ): For me, it’s a privilege to learn this music in this community with these feelings and this reverence for the piece. It’s an amazing piece of music by itself but the fact that this community reveres it has extra musical meaning. It was in Suluk, in meditation, that the idea came that this is something I can do to spread the message of Love, Harmony and Beauty—to conduct the B-Minor Mass in Dachau for Noor-un-nisa. And when I said it out loud, Wahhab (Wahhab Sheets) said, Oh, you have to meet Ophiel. And Ophiel told me about the plans for Jerusalem 2016.

MOvL: Yes, it brings all kinds of people together. It’s a mixture of those in the Order who travel from far and then those who see a poster and are moved to join us. And, remember, at that time we were all practicing for the year 2000! 

If you look at the books on the B-Minor Mass, they say this piece is wonderful, it has all the texts of the mass, but it cannot have been intended for a real Catholic mass because the music in itself is two hours. This is not realistic, so it’s a concert piece. I told Pir Vilayat my dream—my deepest wish was to do this piece liturgically.

And that’s what we found—monks in the south of Germany in a big church in Ottobeuren who said, Why not! At the next camp we had a week of preparation. We then had our third performance on New Year’s Eve—December 31, 1999. It started at 9.30 p.m. and went over 12 o’ clock. Outside, you could see the fireworks going and inside was Agnus Dei sung by one of the ladies from Stuttgart. She was in Pir Vilayat’s aura when she was singing. He was not conducting, he was only moving energy, and she was this energy. It was very special. The temperature was five degrees above zero. We had heaters beneath the chairs and the violinists had special wool warmers with holes for the fingers. It was very difficult circumstances. But it was still wonderful.

MN: Sangita, you, too have been a part of the B-Minor Mass, as a member of the choir for many years, right?

Sangita van Leer (SvL): I joined the B-Minor Mass choir in Dissentes. But I met Pir Vilayat when I was 17 and was singing with him in Chamonix. I love singing and enjoyed it very much. When I got married and had children I took a break of 10 years from Sufi work. Sometimes, Pir Vilayat came in my dreams and it was very strong towards the end of the 10 years. That’s when I went to a Christmas retreat and there they announced they were looking for singers for the B Minor mass. I have sung in all the concerts.

MN: How did you feel yesterday?

SvL: For me there was a lot of tension. Sometimes it was beautiful and sometimes really hard work. It was a good experience for the choir as a rehearsal for the concerts for Israel and Palestine. And I liked very much that all the wonderful teachers were there (Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Shaykha Nur Artiran, Pir Zia). It’s very beautiful that Pir Zia gave us his blessing for the project. It’s very important for us.

MOvL: It’s really important for us to see this performance continue liturgically. That’s my deepest wish. At the New Year’s Eve concert, the monks sang the special text for the 31st in Gregorian and that was very beautiful as a unity, you see. 

But I had then the feeling that this was the year 2000 and the project which had run through the biggest part of my life was now finished. It had been wonderful. Two years passed, and then without discussing anything with me, Pir Vilayat announced through a microphone in 2002: I would like to have the Bach B Minor mass in Paris when I turn 90, which will be in 2006. That’s where I lived and it will be wonderful. I thought, Oh God, here we start again with all the organizing! (laughs)

As you know, he passed away in 2004. We had the silent hint that we should go ahead with the plan. We found the group in Paris that does activities with the Universel. But this time because we had the idea that we would have representatives from different religions saying prayers in between, we could not find a church that would have us. We wanted to have the ideal of Murshid visible with this music. 

And then we found a church at the border of the Seine River of the Order of Jerusalem. We were driving through Paris and my car broke down and steam came out. We were in front of this church! In the chapel of this church there is someone praying day and night from the Order. It’s very special. The priest welcomed us and we had a beautiful concert there in 2006.

And then, again, I thought, this was the end. This was Pir Vilayat’s wish and we’re now done. But then, there came the concert of 2010.

MN: How did the idea for a Jerusalem concert in 2016 come about?

MOvL: In his lifetime Pir Vilayat often spoke of Jerusalem as the spiritual heart of the world. If a miracle would happen and there was understanding between the peoples living there, because it’s the heart chakra of the world, it would have a positive influence. There came the idea that as a musician I can hope to create more peaceful thoughts with music. And so we put hands up to say, Who would be so crazy as to come with us? We had 40 hands which have now augmented to a hundred!

It might be naïve to think music can create peace, I don’t know. The other thing we’re struggling with is the piece and the text itself—it’s one hundred percent Christian. It represents the center of Christianity with the crucifixion and resurrection. How would you present an interreligious idea, or coming together of creeds, through such a Christian text? Of course, we will have representatives of the different religions. So for now we emphasize that it’s a wonderful piece of music that lifts the heart.

There’s a peace group called Abrahamic Reunion that does wonderful work and we’re in touch with them. They will help us and accompany us. We had a German organization that collects money that agreed to act as a carrier for the project. But then, the woman in charge said, No, I can’t. I collect money for initiatives that originate there. This seemed to be to her—to use my own word—too ‘missionary,’ so she drew back. At the moment, we are the main organizers and have partnered with an organization of amateur orchestras in Northern Germany. This way when people donate money, it’s tax deductible for them. By April we had just 3000 euros in gifts. And the rest is in the future.

MN: This is very much a volunteer effort in every way, and quite an ambitious one!

MOvL: We have a choir of nearly a hundred people! Almost all the participants from the Swiss camp are going to Jerusalem. Most of them are experienced singers and love this music and know what a deep satisfaction singing this music brings. Some women said to me, This week, it’s like very deep spiritual work. It works through my whole system, just doing this music. They have all shared the conviction that listening to it does something to people.

MN: What was the context in which Bach wrote this piece?

TSJ: Almost everything that he wrote he was being paid to write. Of course, he also wrote it for God when he was being paid, but he almost always wrote for an occasion. This might be the only piece he wrote for which there was no occasion to perform. It’s very, very unusual. It was his highest music.

SvL: I’m a healing practitioner and in Dachau when we performed the mass it was really amazing. It was summer, but on this day it was cold, dark and really very uncomfortable. And at the (former) concentration camp it was really awful. When we started singing it felt very pressured—the Crucifixus was very moving and when we sang the Resurrexit, all the clouds went away and right away the sun came out!

I really felt that the souls who are fixed at this ground can’t leave, that they’re very present. I had the feeling that they went through me all the time. I think for at least one week afterwards they went through me to release. And it takes a long time afterwards to recover. It’s really a very deep, moving—I don’t want to say ‘work’—but healing. It’s like you’re a channel for the souls to go into light and this is what Pir Vilayat wanted, I think. It’s my feeling he wanted to change his grief and pain and sorrow for Noor-un-nisa into joy. And for that, this piece helped him always.

MN: What is your hope for the future for Bach’s B-Minor mass in connection with Sufism and our Order?

MOvL: What comes up spontaneously is that this music is describing a celebration in the heavens. Pir Vilayat would always say this. It was very much his credo that we want to uplift our souls— and people around the world, in every religion, reflect the celebration in the heavens. We have an unconscious memory of where we come from originally. And in this music it was for him so obvious. And that’s what we want to do—create this vision of glory.

SvL: I think this music is also a healing music for the environment, the people who hear it and also the people who don’t hear it, because it is energy. I hope that we can spread the energy of the celestial spheres. Pir Vilayat always said that when you sing, the heavens sing with you, and the angels sing. They love it!

TSJ: When we finished performing today in the tent, the last words were Give us peace! That’s an important thing to add—to help spread peace, inshallah!

SvL: And it brings peace to the heart! And this is very important— to have peace in yourself.

MOvL: Back in 2002, when Pir Vilayat made the announcement in front of 300 people that he wanted a performance in 2006, I went to his little room during the break: What have you said?
Yes, it brings people together!
He said. And that is exactly true. 

We had a beautiful community this past week. I looked at those hundred chairs and thought how are a hundred people going to be happy squeezed in this room on those chairs! And they were happy. It was wonderful, the music and being together in the atmosphere of the camp. And we can feel the energy of Pir Vilayat here as much as in the meditation tent. He himself conducted in this same room! Yes, it really brings all kinds of people together.

***

For multimedia links to the performances, and for information on how you can support the B-Minor Mass project, please visit:
http://inayatiorder.org/bach-b-minor-mass-project-2016/

 

 

Newsletter Dezember 2016