Monday, September 16, 2013

The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe

Book Review: The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe  by Jamie James (1993 – Springer-Verlag 1995)

I really enjoyed this one. It is a history of music, a history of science in relation to music, but mostly it is history of the “great theme” - the Music of the Spheres. From Pythagoras to Plato, the Neoplatonists, Boethius, to rediscovery in the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino, Vincenzo Galilei, Pico della Mirandolla, and on through Fludd, Kepler, Newton, and Mozart to its demise amidst the Romanticism of the 19th century, and finally to a few revivals in the 20th century. The author is a journalist of both music and science and so is quite at home with these subjects. Before the Industrial Revolution and its artistic companion, the Romantic movement, the Harmony of the Spheres presented a model of the universe where everything was in its perfect order and all made sense. Thus was the orthodoxy of science based in the harmony of celestial music and astronomy.

The author notes that the history of Western science is a history of the widening chasm between the ideals and practice of science. The “pure” scientists of the past were more like poets and were more concerned with describing the beauty of the universe than improving the quality of life through technology. The rigid hierarchy of pre-Industrial society, though oppressive to the common man, tended to enhance the creative freedom of scientists. He gives the example of medicine being considered an art rather than a science. Classical science is far removed from modern science. Modern science requires certainty so searching for the Key to the Universe through science would be considered an abstract philosophical pursuit. It seems that pure science and applied science have been thoroughly separated. The random nature of the theory of evolution was another nail in the coffin of the old scientific order.  

The author suggests that from Plato onward music theory as an ideal was regarded highly while music performance and enjoyment was more or less scorned as inferior. Of course, it was noted that music could inspire soldiers in battle, support religious experience, or promote healing.

“Music contains in its essence a mystery: everyone agrees that it communicates, but how? … the Greeks knew the answer: music and the human soul are both aspects of the eternal.”

Distrust of modern science and its randomness and lack of easily apparent meaning and harmony is now prevalent in places like the New Age movement and in religion in general. The old classical science was firmly tied to order and the celestial (religious) harmony model of the universe. Perhaps now there is some returning to the synthesis of rationality and the ecstatic as the fervor of Romanticism and individualistic expression wanes a bit.

Pythagoras of Samos was a very influential figure in the history of Western science and music. None of his works survive but those of his students and commentators abounds. There is also much legend about him, even in ancient times. Legend has it that he traveled widely, synthesizing knowledge from many lands. The author sees his influence as the tradition of Pythagorean humanism. Pythagoras was both a scientist and a mystic. He is said to have coined the term ‘philosopher’ (lover of wisdom) to describe himself. Pythagoras was also the founder of the esoteric tradition, as his insistence on the secrecy of his followers attests. Of course, this is another reason so little is known of the details of his thought and life, as Porphyry lamented in the 3rd century CE. Even though Pythagoras can be seen as the source for the Western tradition much of his study was in the Middle East – geometry and religion from Egypt, numbers from Phoenicia, astronomy from the Chaldeans, and knowledge from the Persian Magi. The Pythagorean Brotherhood became established at a Greek colony in Italy with Pythagoras as a sort of philosopher-king, according to Porphyry. Eventually, he and his followers were banished, and scattered about the known world though some survived to keep the school going which later likely became the Platonic tradition.

Aristotle gives some of Pythagoras’s teaching in his Metaphysics and On the Heavens. Porphyry elucidates the tetractys attributed to Pythagoras. This is a series of ten dots arranged in a triangle or pyramid shape (like bowling pins) and emphasizes the relationship between the One and the Many and the emanation from the First Cause, from the formless infinite to finite form. It forms the basis of Pythagorean numerology. As Aristotle explained it, the Pythagoreans saw the perfect relationship of number, music, and the cosmos. Pythagoras classified three types of music (according to Boethius): musica instrumentalis – ordinary music made by using instruments such as lyres and flutes, musica humana – the continuous but unheard music made by the soul of humans that resonated with the body, and musica mundana – the music made by the cosmos which came to be called the music of the spheres. The relationship between musica instrumentalis and musica humana could be utilized to heal with music, which is a practice attributed to Pythagoras and his school. The various “modes” in ancient Greek music were purported to affect one in various ways. Iamblichus told the legendary story of Pythagoras hearing the smith’s hammers in harmony with the exception of one hammer. This led to Pythagoras’s great discovery of the ratios, or arithmetical relationship between the harmonic intervals – by noting the ratio of the weights of the hammers. He developed a plucking stringed instrument called the ‘monochord’ to change the string lengths according to the math ratios.  The author explains the details – with the 7-note major scale and the 12-note chromatic scale defined as well as the idea of half-steps, whole-steps, the 4th, and the 5th = basic music theory. The basic ratios- 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4 can be explained by the tetractys. Thus Pythagoras discovered the mathematical laws of music – though he may actually have learned them from someone in the Middle East. These detailed and harmonious relationships between number and music formed the basis of the earliest science. Pythagoras went much further in envisioning the structure of the cosmos than the Milesian philosophers before him – Thales and Anaximander. He saw the universe composed of crystal spheres that made music like the strings of a lyre. The earth itself was thought to be a sphere by Pythagoras, says the author. The distances to the planets were thought to be governed by the same musical ratios, some whole steps and others half-steps.

Continuing the tradition forged by Pythagoras and his school we come to Plato. Plato was a very rational thinker and had a massive influence on Western thought. His Socratic dialogues defined the method of philosophy. His most mystical writing, the Timaeus is said to be his most Pythagorean. Here he explains the “great theme”, the harmonious structure of the cosmos. Much in the Timaeus is now contradicted by modern science so its relevance to academia has waned. But as a cosmology it is fascinating. Plato described the world as inherently orderly, created by a Demiurge that was good. According to the Timaeus, the Demiurge quilted together snippets of the World Soul in such an odd manner that many – including me and Cicero too – have become perplexed reading it. The Timaeus is an exposition of the Pythagorean synthesis of the cosmos, mathematics, and music. The Demiurge as the First Cause made the World Soul from three components: Existence, Sameness, and Difference. He made the cosmos from various mathematical proportions of the three components. The author demonstrates that Plato;s cosmology here is equivalent to Pythagoras’s table of opposites where the even numbers are opposed to the odd ones. This also relates to the mathematical ratios of the C-major scale – 5 octaves of it. The cosmos itself is composed of spheres within spheres. These are related to the motions of the planets vaguely. In the Timaeus, Plato also creates the ‘Myth of Er’ where the universe is described by a soldier, Er, recently slain in battle. His afterlife journey involves musical and planetary symbolism and the Spindle of Necessity about which the rings of the cosmos spin. On each of the eight rings a Siren sang one note of the octave. The Fates were there as well bidding the voyagers to choose their new lives. Er was permitted to return to earth to tell his tale. Some trace the tale through Empedocles and Pindar to the earlier Orphic tradition as Ur-Er, where the Thracian poet Orpheus rescues his love Eurydice from the underworld through the enchanting strings of his lyre. The author notes two strands here: the power of music and the renewal of life. Indeed the Orphic tradition is entwined with the Pythagorean tradition and can be seen as an accompanying mythology. The demi-god hero Orpheus may be a source of  Pythagorean tradition. Plato believed that rhythm and harmony pervaded not only music, but even political and ethical thought, being a precursor to nobility. Plato speaking to Damon in the Republic:

“The decisive importance of education in poetry and music is this: rhythm and harmony sink deep into the recesses of the soul and take the strongest hold there, bringing that grace of body and mind which is only to be found in one who is brought up the right way …”

Through Plato the Pythagorean model of the cosmos became the standard in the classical world. The mostly widely read early account of the music of the spheres came from Cicero in his “Dream of Scipio” which is very strongly based on Plato’s Myth of Er. Rather than a story of a warrior’s afterlife travels it is a story of a warrior’s dream where the nature of the universe is revealed. According to the story, man was created from the fire of the stars as a guardian of the earth. Scipio’s account is apparently in accordance with the revisions of the nature of the heavens provided by Ptolemy, as an earth-centered system. Cicero’s version also lacked the mathematical approaches of Pythagoras and Plato. Cicero’s work emphasized man’s mind as immortal due to its ability to propel the body through thought and will. Science and music were linked in Greek thought as Apollo and Orpheus were considered both the most wise and the most musical of the gods. Clement of Alexandria, in his second century CE Exhortation to the Greeks sought to reveal the errors of paganism in favor of Christianity. He did so by arguing against the qualities of Orpheus as a true god of music and instead extolled Jesus as the “new song” One can certainly argue that he simply replaced Orpheus with Jesus, thus Christianizing the Pythagorean tradition. Musical order was now allied with Christ as the new Logos and Orpheus, the “Thracian wizard” was seen as inferior and equated to the music of Jubal in the Hebrew scriptures, as the first musician. The reason he sees Jubal as inferior may have something to do with him being descended from Cain.

St. Augustine wrote about music in the Pythagorean format though lacking in detail as did Cassiodorus, secretary to Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Apparently, the best and most clear writer about music in medieval times was Boethius. His long and immensely influential Principles of Music presented music as an ethical science soundly based in Pythagorean principles. Boethius began the standard notation of music which was completed by a monk in the 10th century named Hucbald in his Principles of Harmony. A Benedictine monk named Guido added the standard syllable to the seven notes of a C-major scale very similar to the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So of today.

Polyphonic chanting was established in the Church in the 10th century. Ancient Greek music was not polyphonic. That done with one singer or a flute couldn’t be, though with stringed instruments one could do it with chords. Even so, it is though that the ancient concept of harmony involved successive notes rather than simultaneous ones and there is no mention of simultaneous notes in accounts of Pythagoras or by Plato. The invention of the organ greatly influenced the popularity of polyphonic music and the modern concept of harmony. Pure scientists continued to tinker with the Pythagorean-style music, math, and cosmos connections through the Middle Ages. Such connections would re-emerge explosively in the Renaissance but not without debate and doubt. Polyphonic music exposed a few weaknesses in the Pythagorean model. The octaves and fifths don’t quite add up and there is a “shift”, and adjustment, known as the Pythagorean Comma, said to have been known by Pythagoras himself. Such an adjustment to harmonize the dissonance could be made on a stringed instrument such as a violin or cello by moving the finger for certain octaves. This lack of perfection of the multiple-octave scales was considered an intellectual issue for debate in Renaissance times. There was a famous feud between Zarlino and Galilei (the astronomer’s father) where Galilei disproved Pythagoras’s legendary ratio’s as weights (of hammers) – though the ones regarding string lengths still applied. The feud was about the best way to resolve the dissonance of the comma – Zarlino preferred the “just intonation” method while Galilei pioneered the “equal temperament” method.

The next subject involves the birth of the opera. The Renaissance was fueled by fantasies of rediscovering a lost golden age where legendary figures like Orpheus and Pythagoras did their thing. The author describes the opera as “the most extravagant and voluptuous form of musical entertainment ever devised.” The first predecessor to the opera was the Pellegrina  intermedi, composed for the wedding of Ferdinand de Medici and princess Christine of Loraine, in 1589. The theme of the “intermedi” (between scenes of a comedy play) was The Power of Music. This involved 6 scenes depicting the mythic history of music, including Plato’s Myth of Er, Jove’s gift to mortals of rhythm and harmony, and a singing contest between the nine Muses and the daughters of Pierus. The first full-fledged operas began around 1600. What is considered the first ballet in 1581 was also performed at a wedding in France. Thus the opera and ballet evolved in similar place and time, under similar circumstances, and with themes often related to the Music of the Spheres. These forms are still popular today. An idea in Elizabethan times was the “Great Chain of Being”, a vast ordered hierarchy based on those of the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition. This was incorporated into Renaissance alchemical diagrams as well as represented in opera.

The Pythagorean- Platonic tradition is one where science and mysticism are in harmony. Esoteric Pythagorean cults were revived in classical times alongside Mystery religions and Christianity, both Gnostic and Orthodox. One such school was that of Hermeticism which derived from the legendary Hermes Trismegistus – thrice-greatest Hermes – a compendium of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. The legend was that Hermes Trismegistus was an Egyptian of great antiquity and so too were his teachings. Thus, the rediscovery of the Hermetic texts – the Corpus Hermeticum and the Aesclepius were highly venerated in the Renaissance. Clement of Alexandria, in the second century CE, evoked Hermetic moralism in a bid to convert pagans to Christianity. Marsilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum from the Greek, as well as many of Plato’s works. Around 1460 while working at Cosimo de Medici’s Platonic Academy. Thus these Hermetic works were elevated as very old holy writings comparable in influence to the great books of the Hebrews (at least among the intellectual elite). Later, the Corpus Hermeticum (as a text) was proven to be from later Neoplatonic times rather than of great antiquity as proposed. Ficino had devised (possibly based on earlier models) a lineage where Hermes Trismegistus preceded Orpheus then to Aglaophemus to Pythagoras to Philolaus, who was the teacher of Plato. Zoroaster was later added as a co-founder with Hermes Trismegistus. The Hermetic writings are filled with talismanic and planetary magic and thus posed an uneasy relationship with the Church in various times. Ficino wrote diagrams of planetary music probably based in Orphic tradition though his compositions were lost. His associate Pico della Mirandola added much cabalistic magic and praised the value of the Hymns of Orpheus, which are hymns to the classical pagan gods. After Copernicus revealed heliocentricity, Giordano Bruno attempted to venerate the Sun god via secret societies and for this he was burned at the stake prompting the hundreds of years of Inquisition and murder. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation re-fettered the loose intellectual climate of the Renaissance. Tomasso Campanella, a renegade Dominican friar from Spain was even more radical in his pagan revivalism than Bruno. He was imprisoned but avoided the stake by feigning madness – writing further books while imprisoned. Their utopian solar visions all incorporated elements of the Pythagorean harmony of the cosmos. Englishman Robert Fludd in the 1600’s and Athanasius Kircher were the last of the (openly) Renaissance men with their mass of diagrams based on earlier work intended to marry science and classical mysticism.

Johannes Kepler was said to be a brilliant mind who figured out the laws of planetary motion, a venerable scientist in the modern sense, but he too acknowledged Plato and Pythagoras as his masters and sought to harmonize classical pure science and the applied science of his time. Kepler incorporated geometry into his planetary motion theories. He also incorporated the five perfect solids of Euclid, those of perfect symmetry with faces of regular polygons of the same shape and size: tetrahedron (pyramid), cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. These most approximate the sphere which according to Plato was the very image of God. Kepler’s ratios of planetary distances and motions seemed to closely match geometric proportions so much that he felt he discovered the universal harmony of the universe along Pythagorean lines. His big book The Harmony of the Universe is a Pythagorean style synthesis of mathematics, music, astronomy, and epistemology. Kepler’s ratios are based on “apparent diurnal movements” observed from the sun. His method was to model fit music theory and Pythagorean math to his own calculations of the now elliptical, not spherical, motions of the planets around the sun. Kepler’s numbers were fascinatingly close to musical ratios, but not exact. He also revised some Pythagorean and Ptolemaic notions and was criticized by the likes of Robert Fludd who still favored geocentricity. Kepler was more rational than mystical. Even so, he was also excommunicated and his elder mother narrowly averted being burned as a witch. Even though Kepler sought to harmonize his rational scientific logic with Pythagorean mysticism, he ultimately failed in that regard and instead increased the growing chasm.

In the 17th century it was Isaac Newton who came to symbolize the growing triumph of rational objective thought. Yet Newton also studied alchemy and saw his own work as a rediscovery of a venerable ancient theological tradition. Though it is not well known, mystical writings appear in many places in his texts, notes the author. Newton simply thought that Pythagorean tradition had gotten some of the details wrong but the original master must have been correct – so his scientific discoveries were a rediscovery of the original knowledge of the master. Newton saw the harmony of music as an “analogy” of the harmony of science rather than a directly related phenomenon.

The author describes the last flowering of the great theme in the 18th century in the form of Freemasonry. Once Romanticism set in, in the early 19th century, the heliocentrism of the Enlightenment was replaced with the anthropocentrism of the Romantic Era. Like Renaissance Hermeticism, Freemasonry developed from the Neoplatonic tradition. One might see it as the “great themers” going underground as a result of the dangers brought forth by the Reformation, Inquisition, and other anti-magic initiatives with dire consequences. The Freemasons too suffered persecution. Masons are the archetypal builders of Solomon’s temple. Their legend of the two pillars, which may have had a Babylonian origin, is grounded in the Pythagorean tradition – one pillar was inscribed with the secrets of astronomy, the other with the secrets of music. According to lore, one pillar was discovered by Pythagoras and the other by Hermes Trismegistus. Mozart was initiated into the Masons in 1784 and wrote several Masonic-themed pieces including the Magic Flute, a Masonic opera. Even the music, beginning with E-flat, and with a triad of flats – is Masonic. A totally reworked version of Cicero’s work Scipio’s Dream is included along with other notions of the Pythagorean harmony. Apparently, there are books written about the great detail of Masonic symbolatry in Mozart’s Magic Flute. One aspect was that of the then current threat of Church and state against the power of Freemasonry there in Austria. Freemasonry was outlawed there not long thereafter.

Bach and Leibniz, in the 18th century, were also learned and trained in the tradition of the great theme. Bach’s music is considered both spiritual and sublime and devotionally Judeo-Christian. Both Bach and Mozart did not play to large audiences with large orchestras. Mozart was known at courts while Bach was known at churches. The 1790’s brought about the beginning of the so-called Romantic Era. Yet, the author mentions, Bach’s great emotional outpouring of music signaled the end of the power of the great theme – especially through the rediscovery of Bach in the 1800’s. The author notes that composers often have risen, faded, and re-risen in popularity during their lives and after. He gives Hadyn and Rossini as examples. Bach and his son Phillip Emanuel Bach spurred schools modeled on their music and styles which resulted in their popularity after death. J.S. Bach, who died in 1750, was not well-known beyond Berlin during his life. In the 1800’s one could speak of the “cult of Bach.” The Romantic period is one in which the individual was exalted, according to the author. Bach was much more famous a hundred years after his death than during his life. Apparently, hero-worship of composers and performers and bestowing of fame was a common occurrence and principal feature of the Romantic period. Handel, Wagner, Beethoven, Paganini, Verdi, and Liszt each had cults due to their virtuosities. The symphony orchestra configuration of today came about in the Romantic Era. The author notes that the turbulence in modern classical music between the soloist(s) and the orchestra is a reflection of the competition between the individual and society. (particularly in Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto). He thinks the symphony became more personal and more elaborate at the same time.

 “Over the course of the Romantic age, the image of the artist is transformed from that of the tormented individual, estranged from society, to that of a social institution.”

The Romantic period saw the birth of the musical snob and a prototype of the rock star. The great theme faded into the background. Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and others tended toward the breakup of old-school orthodoxy in the sciences and humanities.

 Things began to change as Romanticism began to wane when Einstein re-shattered scientific orthodoxy in the early 20th century. His contemporary, the composer Arnold Schoenberg was considered the last great Romantic composer but he also incorporated the great theme and other elements of the Pythagorean tradition. He was known for his “atonality” which he preferred to call “pantonical” – utilizing all the keys. His and others’ twelve-tone method of composition would endeavor to utilize all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally in a composition. Schoenberg’s method was complex with specific rules for keeping sequences within the chromatic scale though notes could be successive or simultaneous. The method might resemble a mathematical puzzle. Some composers found the method restrictive but many others found it to be liberating. Schoenberg had many loyal students. His genius and teaching power have been likened to that of Pythagoras himself and like many composers he was apparently a bit obsessed with numbers.

The author also mentions the works of  Paul Hindemith such as his not so well-known 1957 opera Harmony of the World  based on Kepler’s planetary work with complicated tonalities based somehow on Kepler’s ratios. Hindemith’s tones were based on the planets of the solar system with C as the sun.

The decline in popularity of classical music can be attributed mainly to the rise of electronic music and the elevation of popular and folk music. Romanticism’s contribution was the birth of “art religion” where artists, musicians, poets, composers, novelists, etc became deified.

Later offshoots of the twelve-tone school included the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis whose compositions were based on complex mathematical probability theory, though some liken his method based on form rather than content, as cold-blooded. He sees classical composition in the Pythagorean-Platonic school as “causal and deterministic” But that was all proved wrong, he said, by statistical theories in physics that show that things come into being without cause. This attitude ascribed to art has been described as arrogant by some but such is all subjective.

Karlheinz Stockhausen is a modern composer who can sort of trace his lineage to that of the mystical past. Like Schoenberg was, he is convinced of his own genius. His works on the Zodiac are interesting listening. He brings back the importance of musica mundane – the music of the cosmos in relation to the others of the Boethian classification – musica insrtumentalis and musica humana. The author notes that while Stockhausen exhibits a practiced Pythagorean attitude, he is still grounded in the self-exalting cultural paradigm of the modern world rather than the cosmos-exalting paradigm of the classical world.

This was a great ride through musical, artistic, operatic, and scientific history leaving me with wondering what these compositions sound like, what seeing these operas would be like, etc. – since I am not at all an experienced listener of classical music. Sure I have a dozen or two CDs of classical music and I listen too it on the radio at times while driving but there is so much I have not experienced in this vein. Perhaps a little experimentation is in order. I have also thought of composing an opera (of sorts) with many cool ideas rattling around in my brain – but to what end? I keep asking myself. Art? Knowledge? To convey mythic strands in ingenius ways? Or perhaps I am just a phantasizing fool.














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