Music of the Spheres

From Gioseffo Zarlino, Istitutioni harmoniche (1558)

...The Pythagoreans in particular believed that the world was composed musically, and that the heavens caused harmony in their revolutions, and that our soul is formed according to the same laws, and that it is awakened and its powers vivified by songs and instrumental music.

The ancient Greeks (and the Renaissance writers like Zarlino who brought the ancients to the... early modernists) believed that the movement of heavenly bodies was just like the movement of musical tones and harmonies.  This was called musica universalis or music of the universe (as opposed to music of the body--singing--and instrumental music).  I've always been moved by this idea and wondered what these sounds would be--not just harmonically, but timbally as well (Just to clarify, you can't really HEAR musica universalis.  In addition to it having always been more metaphorical, sound doesn't exist in the vacuum of space.  Don't tell George Lucas.).  I don't know if I've been unduly influenced by Star Trek IV, but when I close my eyes and see Jupiter whoosh past Saturn, I hear whale song.

Many cultures and religions place special meaning on certain numbers, but I don't know of any that do the same with ratios.  I think if we're talking about harmony of the spheres, then we need to get to the ratios of the movements of the planets.  I can't really get into it here, but I would really like to explore these harmonies sometime.

Over the past week I've enjoyed reading about the mythical beginnings of music.  The Greeks said Pythagoras first heard music in hammers striking anvils.  The Jews and Christians said it was Jubal in a similar story.  I prefer J.R.R. Tolkien's version from The Silmarillion, and I'll leave it in parting since it reminds me of the Pythagoreans.

In the beginning Eru, the One, who in the Elvish tongue is named Ilúvatar, made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun; for Ilúvatar made visible the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness. And many among them became enamoured of its beauty, and of its history which they saw beginning and unfolding as in a vision. Therefore Ilúvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Eä.

Why does everyone hate opera?

Megan and I were talking last night about opera. She hates it (though she did really enjoy the one opera we've seen together--a BYU production of Le Nozze di Figaro). She doesn't like that style of singing. It's not an uncommon viewpoint among those of my generation and even the one before me. Seems that most people my age (who aren't musicians) don't like the high notes, the vibrato, the resonance of operatic (bel canto) singing. It is a little distracting for people who grew up with folk-derived music, with its more intimate, speechlike quality. My theory has always been that the rise of recorded music, with microphones and amplification, made the bel canto style obsolete. Bel canto ("beautiful singing" in Italian) was developed during the 17th century in Italy around the same time as opera grew out of more and more elaborate and complex art songs called madrigals.  The rise in popularity of opera led to larger venues that required louder voices (which were also needed to sing over the expanding orchestras).  The need for loud, powerful voices in large concert halls with large orchestras only increased with the demands of Romantic composers like Wagner and Mahler.

"Hey mister! I don't mean to be tellin' tales out of school, but there's a feller in there that'll pay you ten dollars if you sing into his can."

-Oh Brother Where Art Thou

The microphone let anyone sing and be heard over instruments in a large hall without formal training (required by bel canto).  By the 1940s the most popular vocalists were crooners singing with the big bands.  A generation later amplified singing had acquired a diversity that made bel canto seem inflexible and outdated.  Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Little Richard all had unique styles.  Who among us can tell the Three Tenors aparts by listening? Just kidding... a little.

All this brings me to something I read this morning in book called The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul (Walter Everett, Oxford University Press, 2001).  Here's part of the excerpt from page 71.

...the solo singers of that time [the 1950s], spearheaded by Presley, make their expression as physical and individual as possible.  What was at the time frequently condemned as the product of a lack of training (in a fiercely fought generation-defined battle of tastes) might conversely be appreciated as a new interest in expressive ornamentation, comparable to the situation created by the introduction of the Nuove Musiche at the turn of the seventeenth century.

What was condemned for lack of training, rock and roll, has become so common a generation later, that bel canto is foreign and difficult to comprehend (even when sung in English).  Ironically, perhaps we've traded a condemnation of a lack of training for a condemnation of the pretentiousness of training.

©2017 Joshua Harris