In the disastrous years before and during the Second World War, when ever more aspects of life were overshadowed by Nazi atrocities and trust in a harmonious future was as difficult as it was crucial for spiritual survival, two German artists in exile wrote what would become their late masterpieces. The composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) collected material for an opera whose subject matter, the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler's mature life and theories, he had been considering since 1939. Die Harmonie der Welt [The Harmony of the World] was completed in 1956 and premiered at Munich's opera festival in August 1957. The poet and novelist Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) conceived his “tentative description of the life of the magister ludi Joseph Knecht”—thus translates the original subtitle of The Glass Bead Game—in 1931, completed it in 1942 and first published it in Zurich in 1943. Both works address the topic of universal harmony in the fabric of creation and culture, as well as the urgent problem of how such harmony can heal the spiritual, mental, and emotional developments of individuals and of society at large. The two quests are mirrored into circumstances that are almost equidistant from the mid-20th-century period in which their stories are being told: Hindemith's opera centers on an outstanding intellectual hemmed in by the aristocratic whim and religious bickering rampant in the late 16th and early 17th centuries; Hesse's work focuses on this intellectual's counterpart projected into a fictional world of the early 23rd century, a world in which mental restrictions are subtle and decisions about life's course are made by that hierarchical society's steering leaders. True spiritual qualms, however, are painfully one's own in either scenario. In both cases, the quest for “harmony” and “truthful proportion” manifests at all levels of the stories told and of the works telling them.
The study is organized along the lines of the seven areas in which scholars of the Pythagorean tradition from Plato to Kepler and beyond found universal harmony paradigmatically realized: music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (which together formed the so-called quadrivium of the medieval
Throughout this study, I will be using the key concept, “the harmony of the world,” in three
languages: the Latin Harmonices mundi for Kepler's treatise, the English The Harmony of the
World for the translation of that treatise, and the German Die Harmonie der Welt for
Hindemith's opera about Kepler.