How to commemorate the centenary of acid guru Timothy Leary, born 100 years ago today in Springfield, Massachusetts? Many will dig into their psychedelic rock collection to spin something like Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” (1967) or the Grateful Dead’s “Aoxomoxoa” (1969). More historically-minded psychonauts, however, will reach for their Mozart and Wagner records, paying tribute to the psychologist who broke ground and taboos by advocating for the widespread use of LSD in American society. Before hallucinogens became indelibly linked with rock in the late ’60s, Leary and his fellow researchers curated their experimental use of psychedelics—whether the naturally–occurring psilocybin found in magic mushrooms, or the lab-made lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD or acid)—with recordings of classical music.
According to Leary, a good drug experience required a carefully-managed “set and setting,” meaning the user’s mindset and the place in which they had their conscious-altering experience. “Music, of course, is most useful, and attention should be paid to the subject’s favorite selections and composers,” one of Leary’s followers wrote in the Psychedelic Review. “The music of Wagner, Sibelius, Saint-Saëns, Richard Strauss, Liszt, Chopin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Grieg is suggested.”
This chronological playlist presents a select history of the relationship between classical music and psychedelic experimentation. So turn on—and tune in.
Wagner : “Liebestod” (from “Tristan und Isolde”)
In August 1960, Dr. Timothy Leary visited Mexico to ingest psilocybin mushrooms. He then returned to Harvard’s psychology department and began a series of controversial experiments exploring how psychedelic compounds affected human consciousness.
He wasn’t the first: Throughout the 1950s, U.S. Army- and CIA-funded psychiatrists had been exploring the clinical and military applications of these compounds. They believed the drugs had psychomimetic properties that simulated the symptoms of mental illness in so-called “normal” subjects. This is how poet Allen Ginsberg found himself hooked up to an EEG machine at the Palo Alto Mental Research Institute in 1959. After dosing him with LSD, researchers observed his brainwaves as he completed a battery of cognitive tests while listening to music. The poet chose a recording of Austrian soprano Gertrude Grob-Prandl in Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”
Ginsberg enshrined the ecstasy he felt from this trial in the poem “Lysergic Acid.” But he also experienced horror during this trip: “I felt my soul being sucked out through the light into the wall socket and going out,” Ginsberg later wrote. “I had the impression that I was an insignificant speck on a giant spider web, and that the spider was slowly coming to get me, and that the spider was God or the Devil—I wasn’t sure—but I was the victim.”
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135
“We’re going to take a whole new approach with this research,” Leary told colleague Richard Alpert (who later became known as spiritual teacher Baba Ram Dass). “Everyone thinks these drugs cause psychosis, but that’s because they’ve been controlled by psychiatrists. Of course they’re going to view this as psychosis.”
The two Harvard psychologists, however, believed LSD could be used to enhance human consciousness. “Can this drug enlarge man’s mind?” queried the inaugural issue of Psychedelic Review, published in 1963 by Leary and Alpert’s nonprofit, the International Foundation for Internal Freedom. Author Gerald Heard answered in the affirmative: “You see and hear this world [while on LSD], but as the artist and musician sees and hears.”
To best access these positive effects, the researchers hypothesized, a subject required “the congenial surroundings of a tastefully furnished room containing a tape-and-record player console and carefully chosen works of art.” However, subjects who soundtracked their experiences sometimes had mixed results: “Under LSD I asked that my favorite recording of my favorite Beethoven Quartet (Opus 135) be played, but after a few minutes I had it turned off,” one subject reported in 1962. “Its emotions had become too searing—and besides, I had suddenly made the discovery that one of the instruments was playing every so slightly off pitch.”
Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
At his Cambridge home, Leary himself began tripping alongside high-profile guests. “We are offering the experience to distinguished creative people,” he wrote to novelist Arthur Koestler in 1961. “Artists, poets, writers, scholars. We’ve learned a tremendous amount by listening to them tell us what they’ve learned from the experience.”
The notoriously irascible writer accepted Leary’s invitation, visiting for a dinner with his host’s Harvard colleagues and a small box of pink pills.
“Impulsively, Koestler washed down ten of them with his highball,” writes Leary biographer Robert Greenfield. “Soon the novelist was communing with Bach as he never had before.” Koestler himself later wrote that he “had had never heard music played like that before, I suddenly understood the very essence of music, the secret of its magic. Unfortunately, I was unable to tell the next day whether it had been a quartet or a quintet or a trio, and whether by Mendelssohn or Bach; I may just as well have listened to Liberace.”
Wesley/Rutter: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”
In blurring the line between psychological clinic and psychedelic salon, Leary frustrated Harvard officials with his ethical slackness. He nevertheless did manage to complete two large-scale experiments. The Concord Prison Experiments examined whether psychedelic drugs could reduce rates of recidivism. Leary claimed they had worked wonders.
The second experiment tested whether “sacramental biochemicals” would produce ecstatic religious experiences. In collaboration with a graduate student and physician, William Pahnke, Leary dosed seminary students—half with psilocybin and half with a placebo—at the Marsh Chapel on Boston University’s campus. An organist played hymns and a soprano sang. The placebo patients remained seated. The others, however, began praying, murmuring, chanting, singing—one interrupted “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” to extemporize strange chords at the organ.
Another student fled. (After catching him, Pahnke pumped him full of antipsychotic drug Thorazine to counteract the effects of the psilocybin.) And though the press reported positively on the “miracle at Marsh Chapel,” it proved the final straw for Harvard’s administrators. By mid-1963, Leary and Alpert could spread the good news about psychedelics full-time.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Freed from his academic duties, Leary decamped to Millbrook, a massive estate in upstate New York where he, Alpert, and Ralph Metzner completed their classic book The Psychedelic Experience (1964). The group lived rent-free at the invitation of the estate’s owners, a branch of the wealthy Mellon family, and organized weekend retreats and group therapy sessions.
Here, the researchers intensified their efforts to “program” tripping, and in The Psychedelic Experience, elaborated the role of the guide: “The guide or friend could read the relevant passages, show slides or pictures or symbolic figures of processes, play carefully selected music, etc. One can envision a high art of programming psychedelic sessions.” Programming could facilitate radical self-discovery: One subject successfully accessed long-forgotten childhood memories while listening to a Mozart piano concerto.
“I remember preparing tape recordings of suitable music that would play for hours,” Ralph Metzner later recalled. Under the effects of the drug (and the music), his wife had visions both good and bad: “I experienced some incredible lovely music; the notes were simply living, vibrating clusters of energy, and then later, just dancing gaiety. My wrathful visions included one where I was encased in a white metal container which was hurtling downwards. My legs and arms could be seen trying to get out. Fire and blood were coming out of it. But it melted away.”
Buoyed by newfound fame following a series of high-profile media appearances, Timothy Leary and his newly-renamed League for Spiritual Development began staging multimedia events open to the public. “The Re-Incarnation of Christ” featured incense, chocolate bars, psychedelic screen prints, and copies of Leary’s Psychedelic Review, as well as Hindu temple bells, raga music, and Congolese drums. Leary played the role of celebrant to the longhaired audience; lysergic acid diethylamide was their sacrament.
The New York Times called it “an attempt to create electronic age ritual drama by wedding mysticism to technology.” From loudspeakers boomed drums, shakers, and a choir from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The choir, Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin, was formed in 1953 by missionary Father Guido Haazen, and worked with Haazen on a largely-improvised setting of the Latin Mass rooted in musical styles found in the southeastern region of the DRC. They gained international renown for the resulting “Missa Luba.”
Increasingly, psychedelics were becoming linked to non-Western music, at least in the imagination of middle-class white Americans. This exoticist conceit troubled virtuoso sitarist Ravi Shankar, the “King of the Hippies” according to the New York Times. “I see a sincerity in these young people,” he told the newspaper in 1967. “But I don’t like the music’s association with glassy eyes and the haze of drugs.”
Mozart: Requiem in D Minor, K. 626
In January 1967, Leary completed his metamorphosis from Ivy League researcher to psychedelic spokesman when he famously told 30,000 hippies and freaks at San Francisco’s Human Be-In to: “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
But the backlash to psychedelics resulted in their prohibition at the very moment drug-inspired art, fashion, and rock music had conquered the mainstream. To some, Leary’s dogmatic insistence on managing the “set and setting” of psychedelic experiences also seemed passé, out of step with the kind of freeform freakouts organized by psychedelic populists like author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe expertly channelled Kesey’s snarky condescension toward Leary’s “set and setting” doctrine: “You should take it in some serene and attractive setting…in short, an Uptown Bohemian country retreat of the $60,000-a-year sort, ideally, with Mozart’s Requiem issuing with liturgical solemnity from the hi-fi.
“Fuck that! That only clamped the constipation of the past, the eternal lags, on something that should happen Now.” After classical music’s brief, heady affair with the psychedelic experience, the Requiem became a death knell and a punchline. ¶