Magazine article The Catholic World

Love among the Ruins: Music's Eternal Epiphanies

Magazine article The Catholic World

Love among the Ruins: Music's Eternal Epiphanies

Article excerpt

The scene is the garden of a magnificent Italian villa. A young couple is strolling hand in hand on a balmy summer evening. They come to a grassy knoll, and the young man, in a rapturous outburst, turns to his beloved and says:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;

Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

There have been more elaborate descriptions of the ancient theory of the Music of the Spheres, but surely none more beautiful than this by Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice (V.i.54-65), and none that so neatly juxtaposes the corollary notion - developed by Plato, and central to medieval and Elizabethan thought - that the inherent imperfection of the flesh prevents us from hearing the mysterious music that permeates the cosmos. Produced by the planets, the sun and moon, and the distant "fixed stars" as they move in their concentric orbits around the earth, this celestial harmony can be perceived now only by the higher orders of beings, like the "cherubins." We may hear it eventually, but only when our "immortal souls" are freed - by death - from "this muddy vesture of decay." Lorenzo and Jessica, on their mossy bank, must content themselves with imagining what that heavenly music must be like.

The belief in a cosmic order, and in a type of ideal music which reflected that order, was an idea shared by virtually all early civilizations. To the Greeks, enamored of the beauty and symmetry of the human body, this universal order was like nothing so much as the smoothly functional joining of the arm to the shoulder, a joining they call harmos. The extrapolation from this physiological "harmony" to that of notes in a musical scale, and from that to a cosmic harmony, was a natural one for a people who saw correspondences everywhere. In Musical Thought in Ancient Greece, E. A. Lippman writes:

Given a world replete with internal relationships, music could account not only for the mathematical meanings of harmony, but for the entire generality of the term which develops as part of a progressive musicalization of every aspect of experience. (emphasis mine)

Musical harmony, in other words, comes to be a sort of paradigm for the joining together, the congruence, first of similar elements, and before long for the reconciliation of incongruent ("discordant") ones. Harmony, the Idea of Harmony, and its presence or absence, begins to define all relationships.

Based neither on empirical evidence (i.e., actual sonorities) nor on myth, the theory of the Music of the Spheres represented a remarkable fusion of mathematics, astronomy, theology, and even poetry. On the one hand, it is a purely rational, abstract property, an outgrowth, in part, of Pythagoras' discovery (6th century B.C.) that the notes of the scale are in exact mathematical ratios, and the belief, later codified by Ptolemy (100-178 A.D.), that the planets and stars rotated around the earth in perfect, circular orbits which also were mathematically proportional. On the other hand, the very identification of a mere geometric shape, namely a circle, with any higher "perfection," and certainly with music making, represents a stunning imaginative leap: Why, after all, should these gigantic spheres make music? Why, indeed, should they "make" anything at all? And what, finally, does it mean? Is it merely a conceit, an extravagant metaphor to suggest how the varied harmonies of the world are "echoed" throughout the universe? …

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