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May 2007

May 2007 - Music

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  • Myths and Symbols:
    Harmony of the Spheres

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  • Harmony of the Spheres
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    Music: a rather common word and one that is remarkably similar in most of the European languages. It is musica in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; musique in French; Musik in German; muzyca in Polish . . . Where does this almost universal word come from?

    Mousichè technè (often only mousichè) is an ancient Greek expression meaning "the Muses' art". As late as the fifth century B.C., this definition was used not only for music itself but also for poetry and dance, all art forms in which sound had a fundamental role.

    Music, movement, and voice in a civilization that at least until the fourth century B.C. was almost exclusively oral, were the main means of cultural transmission and expression.

    It is no coincidence that in the fifth and fourth centuries the term mousikòs anèr (1) (man of the Muses or musical man) was used to designate a cultured man, able to perceive and appreciate the totality and complexity of poetry.

    Archaic sculpture, pottery, and painting show a rich musical activity in ancient Greece from as early as the second millennium B.C. Early literature (for instance The Iliad and The Odyssey) also stresses the strong role of instrumental and vocal music both in social life and in ritual. Songs are sung to honor the gods and the heroes, in lamentations at funerals and to celebrate a victory or a wedding, but Achilles also sings to himself, playing alone, to lift sadness from his heart (2).

    In later centuries the musical life in Greece (as well as in Rome) appears even more intense and multi-faceted.

    All ancient lyrical poetry was composed to be publicly sung, and in theatrical plays (both dramas and comedies), music and song played a part at least equal to dialogue and action, every social event featured some sort of musical display, and music even had a part to play in political struggles (3).

    At the same time music features prominently in myth: with his songs, Orpheus charms man and animal and is able to persuade the gods to allow him to bring back his adored wife from Ades.

    Music even made stones move: the demi-god Amphion played his lyre to build the walls of Thebes, from the stones his brother Zethus had carried to the city.

    Apollo, the god of the golden lyre was the patron of poetry and music and the leader and guide of the Muses; while wild dances on rhythms arrived from the East announced Dionysus' ceremonies, where his followers, the Maenads, danced themselves into an ecstatic frenzy; and Zeus' priests at his oldest temple in Dodona (4) imitated the rumble of the god's thunder by hitting rhythmically large bronze cauldrons placed near his sacred oak.

    Meanwhile, the philosophers of the Pythagoric School analyzed music on a scientific level, studying its relationship with mathematics and discovering the formulae governing the pitch. The Pythagoreans saw the world as an expression of mathematics, and to them music was the highest symbol of this harmonious order linking man and universe, from their school comes the saying music of the spheres: planets, satellites, and stars were thought to be revolving around Earth, each in its proper sphere. The spheres were believed to be related through the whole-numbers ratios of pure musical intervals, thus creating musical harmony. This theory survived the millennia, and found its most high poetic incarnation in Dante's Divine Comedy.

    Christianity inherited the classical music from Greece and Rome, blending it with Jewish ritual music, keeping also a philosophical approach derived from Pythagoras.

    Fundamental for the view of music in the Western world was a book by a philosopher and statesman of the early Middle Ages: Boethius (5).

    He was from an ancient noble Roman family, classically educated and a devout Christian, consul of the Eastern Roman Empire and minister of King Theodoric. Boethius wrote treaties for the four main disciplines of Middle Ages learning: mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy (the last two are, unfortunately, lost). From his work on music (based on multiple Greek sources) come the names for musical notes used in the English speaking world and also the trine view of music that was to play a relevant role for at least a millennium after the author's demise.

    Boethius recognizes three different kinds of music, all sharing common principles:

  • Cosmic music: not perceivable directly by man but derived by harmonic and ordered cosmic relationships.
  • Human music: the inner harmony of soul, psyche and body derived from an ordered relationship of the constituting elements of the human being, music that can be perceived by introspection, harmony within and in the relation between man and cosmos.
  • Practical music, made with instruments and voices, expression and symbol of the previous two.

    The idea of universal harmony did not disappear with the dawning of the modern age. Kepler himself elaborated on the Pythagorean and Boethian theory with his musica universalis, connecting geometry, cosmology, astrology, harmonics, and music—an approach that found its way into occultist and esoteric traditions.

    The most widely known piece of cosmic music is probably Gustav Holst's suite The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916 (although the suite has an astrological approach, not an astronomical one). In 2006 Greg Fox conducted an experiment, dividing orbital periods of planets in half again and again until they became audible. The resulting piece, born originally by a suggestion to write a new take on The Planets was called Carmen of the Spheres and can be heard here.

    Hoping to have piqued your curiosity on this vast and complex theme, I leave you for this month. Suggestions and comments are, as always, welcome.

  • Notes

    (1) In passing it may be worth noting that anèr in Ancient Greek means specifically human male, distinct from anthropos, which means human being

    (2) Iliad IX 185 and following

    (3) At this regard see the songs of Alcaeus of Mytilene as well as those written by Timocreon of Rhodes against Themistocles. Political music is definitely older than the 1960s.

    (4) About the sanctuary see my column The Tree of the Thunder Gods published in our October issue.

    (5) Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius (AD 480-425) executed under charge of treason (probably the result of a political ploy in the contest of Theodoric’s repression of Catholicism) is buried in the town of Pavia and venerated as a martyr.

    Illustration credits

    Statuette of a lyre player from the island of Keros, now in Athens National Museum. From Storia dell’arte, Istituto Geografico De Agostini-Novara, 1982 Vol.2 pag. 9

    Consular dypthic of Boethius, fifth century ivory at the Museo Cristiano in Brescia (uncredited photo) ,

    Marina Bonomi
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