Music of the Spheres

No Cinderella movie, but a concert fit for a royal audience 🙂

Music of the spheres

Tafelmusik performs Vivaldi, Allegro, from The Galileo Project

In May 1999, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, preparing for her maiden flight to the International Space Station, packed only the bare essentials: oxygen, water, food and a recording of baroque ensemble Tafelmusik performing Handel’s Messiah. The astronaut, herself a soprano and former member of the Tafelmusik choir, accompanied the recording to the galaxy’s outer reaches and, on playing it, exposed it to the stars.

One of the world’s leading period instrument orchestras, the Canadian-based Tafelmusik, was formed in 1979 and is a Baroque orchestra in residence at the University of Toronto. It regularly tours the world giving concerts and workshops, and its discography runs to more than 75 recordings. Tafelmusik was a term common during the 17th and 18th centuries which, translated from German, means table music, or music for a feast.

In 2007, Tafelmusik was approached by music lover John Percy, professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto, a fan and long-term supporter of the orchestra, with an unusual idea for a concert. Why not celebrate in music the 400th anniversary in 2009 (also the International Year of Astronomy) of Galileo’s first public demonstration of the astronomical telescope?

Galileo showed the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope (Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini)
Galileo showed the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope (Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini)

The result was The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which featured the music of Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Telemann and others, played from memory against a backdrop of high-definition images from the Hubble telescope, Canadian astronomers and astro-photographer Alan Dyer. Actor Shaun Smyth was also brought on board to recite the words of Galileo, Newton and Kepler.

The Galileo Project was premiered at the Banff Centre and in Toronto in January 2009 and has toured in Canada, Mexico, the US, Malaysia and China. At some performances, astronomers have set up telescopes so the musicians and the audience can see the sky the way Galileo would have seen it. The orchestra was honoured by the International Astronomical Union, which named an asteroid after Tafelmusik in recognition of this project. In 2012 Tafelmusik brought The Galileo Project to Australia for Musica Viva. Tafelmusik has now performed its Galileo programme more than sixty times around the world – far more often than any other programme the ensemble had assembled before then.

Tafelmusik, Galileo Project, Perth, February 2009
Tafelmusik, Galileo Project, Perth, February 2009

The performance used music, words and images to explore the artistic, cultural and scientific world in which 17th and 18th century astronomers lived and did their work.

In late 16th century Florence, the house of lutenist and composer Vincenzo Galilei was a fertile breeding ground for important innovations in the realms of music and of science. Vincenzo’s experiments with the expressive power of accompanied solo song influenced the creation of opera as a musical form, and the style of music we now describe as baroque.

He also conducted repeated trials under controlled conditions with lute strings to find the mathematical formulas that express the relationship among length, tension and musical pitch. He is thought to have been assisted in these experiments by his oldest son, Galileo Galilei, a brilliant young teacher of mathematics who went on to apply his expertise to world-changing discoveries about the universe.

Galileo inherited his spirit of scientific inquiry and a love of playing the lute from his father, and it is fitting that a musical tribute should honour an astronomer whose intellectual and artistic vitality stemmed from a place where music and science intersected.

Ancient civilisations depended on an awareness of the natural world for their livelihood and survival, and enjoyed an intimate relationship with the daily, monthly and yearly patterns of the night sky. The Greeks and Romans identified characters in their mythological stories with planets and stars and gave them names that we still use today. In Ovid’s story of Phaeton, the impetuous son of the sun god Apollo, the minutes, hours, days and seasons are personified as denizens of the palace of the sun.

Nicolas Poussin, Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons
Nicolas Poussin, Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons

At Versailles, the French “Sun King”, Louis XIV, created his own palace of the sun, a building that strongly reflected the cosmology of the ancient world in its statuary and decoration. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the resident composer at Versailles, wrote some of his most magnificent music for his opera Phaeton. Excerpts of the opera are included in the concert as an example of the cultural inheritance that the world of Baroque music received from the observations of ancient stargazers.

The first important opera, Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, was composed in 1607 and published in Venice in 1609, the year that Galileo travelled from Padua to Venice to offer his newly created telescope as a gift to the Venetian Doge. Monteverdi and Galileo were exact contemporaries and hear the end of their lives, Galileo arranged for Monteverdi to procure a beautiful Cremonese violin (probably built by Nicolo Amati) for his nephew Alberto Galilei, the son of Galileo’s brother Michelangelo who composed the lute solo in the first half of the program. Monteverdi, Tarquinio Merula and Biagio Marini were the most important composers in Galileo’s world and the program includes some of their most beautiful works as a backdrop to Galileo’s account of his discovery of the moons of Jupiter and the events that followed.

Michael Slattery as Orfeo and Megan Monaghan as Euridice in Glimmerglass Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo
Michael Slattery as Orfeo and Megan Monaghan as Euridice in Glimmerglass Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo

England’s most important astronomer, Isaac Newton, was born within a year of Galileo’s death, in 1642, and was buried in 1727 in Westminster Abbey near the tomb of Henry Purcell. This period saw the establishment of a Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Newton’s creation of the reflecting telescope, his discoveries about the properties of refracted light, and his development of the principles of universal gravitation.

Newton used the musical analogy of a seven-note scale in explaining the seven colours of the rainbow, but unlike Galileo, he does not appear to have been a music lover. Having been to hear Handel play in a concert, he complained that there was nothing to admire except the elasticity of his fingers.

Coudn't resist...
couldn’t resist…

George Frideric Handel made more of a sensation when he travelled from his adopted country of England to his homeland of Germany in order to play at a glittering royal wedding celebration in Dresden in September 1719. It was a month-long ‘Festival of the Planets’, with numerous operas, balls, outdoor events and special concerts in honour of each of the known planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (Uranus was discovered in 1781 by oboist, organist, composer and amateur astronomer Sir William Herschel who, like Handel, had moved to England from Hanover. Herschel also built the largest and finest telescopes of his day, catalogued nebulae and discovered infrared radiation with the help of his musician sister Caroline, the discoverer of several comets.)

There are detailed archives of the musical events at the 1719 Festival of the Planets, and we know that not only Handel but also Georg Philipp Telemann, who was living in Frankfurt at the time, joined the renowned musicians employed by Augustus the Strong in Dresden. These included double bass player Jan Dismas Zelenka and Silvius Leopold Weiss, Europe’s most famous lutenist. The program includes excerpts from works by these four composers, and a reconstruction by Lucas Harris of the Allegro from Weiss’s Lute Concerto in C major: all that survives of the original is the solo lute part, but the title page confirms that the lute was accompanied by two violins, viola and violoncello. Lucas has composed the missing parts.

The program begins and ends with reflections on the ancient concept of the ‘Music of the Spheres’, a heavenly ensemble of planets and stars making music together as they move through space. The concert’s opening speech from The Merchant of Venice contains Lorenzo’s beautiful expression of this idea: ‘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.’

Music of the spheres

The subject was treated extensively in Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the World, 1619) by Johannes Kepler, who used the formulas from his laws of planetary motion to derive musical intervals and short melodies associated with each planet. The program includes these short tunes on their own, and then they are weaved into the chorale tune Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly shines the morning star).

This is followed by music adapted from the opening sinfonia of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata of the same name (BWV1), and from the opening sinfonia of Bach’s Cantata BWV29. These two works speak profoundly and eloquently of what lay at the heart of the International Year of Astronomy – a celebration of the wonders of the cosmos and the achievements of the human spirit.

Listening to music of the past is like seeing the light of a star long dead. There’s that same sense of presence and absence you get looking at a photograph. So to combine Baroque music and projected images of the night sky with readings from the works of astronomers past in one magical concert is to experience joy tempered by wistfulness. And it keeps the royal entourage spellbound 🙂

Music of the spheres

Galileo Galilei was born on 15 February 1564 by the Julian calendar and on 25 February 1565 by the Gregorian calendar. Yes, there is a year and 10 days difference between the two dates. It has to do with the different definitions of leap years in the two calendars and the different definitions of the ends and beginnings of years in the two calendars in the place and at the time of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, ie under the Julian calendar the year did not start on January 1. In 1564 Italy and the whole of Christendom was following the Julian calendar, which was replaced in 1582 Pope Gregory with the Gregorian calendar. Online date converter is the way to go!

Justus Sustermans, Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636
Justus Sustermans, Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636

Galileo Galilei was born in the duchy of Florence, into an eminent, musical family. His father Vincenzo Galilei (c1520 – 1591) was by training and profession a lutenist and composer. A year before Galileo’s birth, Vincenzo’s first publication appeared. It was issued at Rome, and was a collection of arrangements (intabulations) for the lute of vocal compositions by some of his Italian and Netherlands contemporaries, plus works specifically for the lute by him and the composer Francesco da Milano. This publication was followed by two books of madrigals by Vincenzo, in 1574 and 1587 respectively. In between came a substantial collection of contrapuntal instrumental music, and an instruction manual on playing and composing for the lute, entitled Fronimo [‘practical wisdom’, or ‘the wisdom of experience’]: this in turn contained a vast quantity of lute intabulations – 96 in the first edition and 108, many of them different pieces, in the 1584 revision, including a set of 24 ricercars in all the major and minor keys. A great deal more lute music, as well as arrangements for solo voice and lute, were left in manuscript at his death.

European lute
European lute

Clearly, Vincenzo was a very experienced and talented composer. However, he was also strongly attracted to the theory of music, and it is for his contribution in this area that he is most famous. In fact, he is now regarded as the most important music theorist writing in Italy during the late 16th century. He was also the first important music theorist of the Renaissance not to have been a priest. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that he was a layman, his main interest was in secular music. By the early 1560s he had attracted the patronage of the influential Florentine aristocrat and humanist, Giovanni Bardi, Count of Vernio. With Bardi’s sponsorship, Vincenzo spent the years 1563 to 1565 in Venice studying with Gioseffo Zarlino (1517–1590), maestro di cappella at the Basilica of San Marco, and the most famous and influential music theorist in Italy at that time.

Around 1572, back in Florence under Bardi’s patronage, Vincenzo began to compile a compendium of what he had learned from Zarlino. He also started to draft an original treatise, which he entitled Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna (Dialogue on ancient and modern music). However, he realised that he needed to unravel some puzzles relating to ancient Greek music and its relationship to the music of his own time before continuing. From Bardi he learned that a Florentine scholar living in Rome, Girolamo Mei, was doing research into ancient Greek music, and he began a scholarly correspondence with him, which lasted for seven years. The detailed information that Vincenzo learned from Mei’s investigative methods and from his ten years of research into ancient Greek music treatises led him to question much of what he had been taught by Zarlino. Around 1577 he abandoned the compendium and began the Dialogue in earnest. It was published in Florence in late 1581 or early 1582.

In this Dialogue Galilei adopts a practical, scientific approach to musical questions, putting aside appeals to authority, and applying instead the findings of reason and experience. His phrase ‘the perception of truth’ (apparenza di verità) indicates that he believed that the final judge must always be the commonsense experience of truth, and in assessing the music of his own time he relies primarily on his own experience. The most famous section of this treatise is Vincenzo’s critique of the contrapuntal style of composition (which was the dominant style of the 16th century), and the advocacy of monody (accompanied melody), which he rightly believed approached more closely the musical style of the ancient world. This monodic style was to play a leading role in the earliest operas and the emergence of the Baroque style around 1600.

Galileo from an early age no doubt absorbed his father’s investigative methods and scientific, objective approach to problem solving. Like his father, in his own scientific work he brushed aside received authority when it was in conflict with reality perceived through the senses and through experimentation. While he no doubt studied the lute with his father, and continued to play the instrument competently throughout his life, unfortunately little is known of Galileo’s personal view of and reaction to the music of his time. His attendance at operas, concerts, and other musical events is not recorded. However, indicative of the influence of the contemporary scientific spirit on the music of the time is the fact that even the composer Monteverdi was addressed as a ‘Great Professor of Chemistry’ in a laudatory poem published after his death. This was probably on account of his interest in alchemy, which is revealed in a letter that he wrote on 23 August 1625, since alchemy was then still regarded as a science.

The Harmony of the Spheres is a concept formulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c570 – c495 BCE). For Pythagoras and his followers, harmony had cosmic significance, and they believed that the heavenly bodies (the spheres) produced a sound as they whirled through space. Since these spheres moved at different speeds, the Pythagoreans surmised that they must each produce different but harmonious notes. The philosopher Plato (c428 – 347 BCE) also taught this idea, stating that on each of the eight concentric circles in which the spheres rotate, there stands a Siren uttering a note of constant pitch, the eight notes forming a scale. The Roman writer Cicero (106 – 43 BCE) believed that Venus and Mercury were in unison, and that therefore the spheres “make seven distinct tones, with measured intervals between… but the ears of men are deafened by being filled with this melody; nor is there in mortals a duller sense than hearing… so that this harmony of the whole universe in its intensely rapid movement is so loud that men’s ears cannot take it in” (The Dream of Scipio, from Book VI of Cicero’s Republic).

In Galileo’s time the relationship between the arts and the sciences was much closer than today’s; indeed, not only was Galileo’s father Vincenzo a famous lutenist and composer; both men experimented with mathematical formulas in relation to lute strings, while Galileo and his brother Michelangelo were gifted lutenists. A solo lute piece by Michelangelo is featured in The Galileo Project.

Mark Peterson makes an extraordinary claim in his fascinating book focused around the life and thought of Galileo, Galileo’s Muse – Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts. It was the mathematics of Renaissance arts, not Renaissance sciences, that became modern science. He argues that painters, poets, musicians, and architects brought about a scientific revolution that eluded the philosopher-scientists of the day, steeped as they were in a medieval cosmos and its underlying philosophy.

According to Peterson, the recovery of classical science owes much to the Renaissance artists who first turned to Greek sources for inspiration and instruction. Chapters devoted to their insights into mathematics, ranging from perspective in painting to tuning in music, are interspersed with chapters about Galileo’s own life and work. Himself an artist turned scientist and an avid student of Hellenistic culture, Galileo pulled together the many threads of his artistic and classical education in designing unprecedented experiments to unlock the secrets of nature.

But could he have unlocked the secrets of the bears?

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