What is musica mundana?

I think musica mundana has been misunderstood both in antiquity and today. The point is not, I think, to redefine our conception of the heavens into our predefined concept of music, but the other way around, at least, or maybe a redefinition of both. Mostly our conception of music needs redefining, though. It’s interesting to note that Boethius in De Musica registered himself as something of a skeptic of the idea of musica mundana and made fun of people who thought the music was actual music, music that you could hear.

Clearly we can’t hear it, and the usual explanation is that the music of the spheres is something so fundamental to our surroundings that we have ceased to notice it for its ubiquity, but were it to stop, we would immediately notice its absence. I’m not sure where this idea has its origins, but it may be clouding us as to exactly what the ancients thought about the subject.

This is just guesswork, but I think the idea comes from a few observations about music and about astronomy:

(a) Motion through air creates sound.

(b) That sound can be manipulated into music by combining two motions whose movements span certain ratios (2:1 being an octave, 3:2 a fifth, and so on).

(c) The heavens also move.

(d) They can be explained in terms of similar ratios.

(e) Consequently, the heavens are engaged in the same sort of activity.

Music, then, is a genus—the genus of objects in motion according to whole-number ratios—which subsumes the species (a) heavenly bodies (musica mundana) and indeed also (b) what we now call music (musica instrumentalis).

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The Effects of Love

For surely there can be no harmony so long as high and low are still discordant; harmony, after all, is consonance, and consonance is a species of agreement. Discordant elements, as long as they are still in discord, cannot come to an agreement, and they therefore cannot produce a harmony. Rhythm, for example, is produced only when fast and slow, though earlier discordant, are brought into agreement with each other. Music, like medicine, creates agreement by producing concord and love between these various opposites. Music is therefore simply the science of the effects of Love on rhythm and harmony. (Plato, Symposium, tr. Nehamas & Woodruff)

Lewis, Tolkien, and Music of the Spheres

Music of the spheres, musica mundana, is the music that the spheres make in their rotations around the earth. (That’s why, incidentally, the first person to put forth a coherent theory of musical intervals was Ptolemy. Just like the heavens could be described in perfect ratios, so could music.) C. S. Lewis explains in The Discarded Image that, like Dante in Paradiso, “if our ears were opened we should perceive” that which makes the universe “lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.” (Discarded Image, 112)

The problem comes in the motion of the spheres. It must, to an Aristotelian mind, come from something that moves but is not itself in motion (hence Aquinas’ cosmological argument in ST 1.2.3). God must himself cause the Primum Mobile to rotate, and then, like Timaeus’ demiurge, PM passes on what it has received from the ineffable God to lower spheres. The problem for the Medieval Model, similarly in Timaeus, is that God himself can’t be soiled with this act of moving or creating. “But we must not imagine Him moving things by any positive action, for that would be to attribute some kind of motion to Himself and we should then not have reached an utterly unmoving Mover.” (113)

So, attempting to “save the phenomena”, Aristotle postulates that God “moves as beloved.” C. S. Lewis explains, “He moves other things, that is, as an object of desire moves those who desire it. The Primum Mobile is moved by its love for God, and, being moved, communicates motion to the rest of the universe.” (113) This is what Dante means when he ends the Divine Comedy with “the love that moves the Sun and the other stars” (114).

It’s a beautiful thought, but Lewis points out that this is not the typical sense in which we refer to the “love of God”. Usually we mean his love for creation, but in this case, we’re referring to creation’s love of him. This isn’t necessarily a point of tension, but the general idea that the ineffable God couldn’t be involved directly in the act of creation is precisely the bone of contention that is picked in the battle between Neo-Platonism and Christianity.

Interestingly, in Tolkien’s play on the idea of musica mundana, he resolves the tension by a sort of “we love God for he loved us first” creation story. Of course, it still comes back to music.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme,  unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. Then Ilúvatar said to them: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 15)

Here you have many of the elements involved in the music of the spheres, but the theme is declared to them directly by Ilúvatar. He wills it and he has kindled in his angels the Flame Imperishable, much more like the theistic conception than the deistic conception, but at the same time he does delegate, much like the ineffable God of the Medieval Model. This God, however, “will sit and hearken” and is glad “that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”

Lewis points out that the Medieval Model is hierarchical according to the devolutionary principle: anything derived is necessarily less perfect than the original from which it was derived. That is why man and matter are at the bottom of the Hellenistic totem pole (ha, ha). Every middle-man creator that has created has lost more and more of that original ineffable God, and man and matter are the last to be created. Tolkien’s universe, though, is hierarchical still, but not according to the devolutionary principle. The theme is first explained by Ilúvatar, but is inevitably harmonized upon and adorned by the Ainur, “each with his own thoughts and devices.” It is through them that great beauty has been wakened into song. Just as the boss who takes a personal interest ends up getting better work out of his employees, Ilúvatar is intimately involved in the music making—not distant—and so, through his Ainur, the music doesn’t devolve but evolves. Instead of corrupting the original, the Ainur crown it.

Without Dullness Grave

The text to Purcell’s Ode to St. Cecilia was written by Nicholas Brady. He goes through various instruments, dealing with the organ thus:

With that sublime Celestial Lay
Can any Earthly Sounds compare?
If any Earthly Music dare,
The noble Organ may.
From Heav’n its wondrous Notes were giv’n,
(Cecilia oft convers’d with Heaven,)
Some Angel of the Sacred Choire
Did with his Breath the Pipes inspire;
And of their Notes above the just Resemblance gave,
Brisk without Lightness, without Dulness Grave.

The poet here makes the old apology for the organ: it is the closest earthly approximation to music of the spheres. Emma Kirkby likes to talk about polyphonic music in just this way. Angels (like the angel that “did with his breath the pipes inspire”) have no lungs, are unchanging, incorporeal. The Medieval model associates all of these qualities to the spheres. That music needs no lungs, no breaths, but is everlasting and continuous. This is the reason polyphonic music was the music of the church, according to Kirkby, because of the impression it gives of that unchanging, continuous, celestial sound, just the sort of music that a church service needs. This is also the apology that many, including Brady, make for the organ. Its sound is continuous, and it produces a “just Resemblance” to the heavenly music.

And what exact sound do the organ and heavenly music have in common? They are both “Brisk without Lightness, without Dulness Grave.” To me, that’s just a fascinating description of the organ. We think of dullness always accompanying gravity and lightness always accompanying briskness. But the organ’s music has the solemnity without losing the joy, and the joy without gaining the triviality. Thanks (or no thanks) to 19th century French composers, those categories for the organ have almost been destroyed. Selling the organ to modern churches is going to mean reinventing this sort of connotation when the word “organ” is heard. “Brisk without Lightness, without Dulness Grave.”

Josquin and the Relentless Climax

This is a selection from Josquin’s Ave Maria. On the text Coelestia, terrestria, Nova replet laetitia (click the link to listen), look at what he does harmonically with the baseline. The soprano and bass move in measure 45 in parallel motion, and because the soprano moves toward a leading tone on the upbeat to m. 46, we expect a I chord on the downbeat. But he tricks us. He’s keeping moving up the scale—the bass goes to an A, creating vi. And, the same sequence repeats a step up, but that means—yes, shocking, shocking—he’s going to a vii chord. Raw diminished vii tonality in a 15th c. work.* It creates total instability and drive toward the protracted I that comes from the third time the sequence is repeated. But once we finally arrive there, a surprise creeps in the alto line. It actually goes below the bass and subverts the tonic with an A, creating another vi. Josquin is simply refusing to let us rest in a tonic. In fact, he doesn’t until way later, in measure 53. And even then, the tenor doesn’t really end so much as launch us into the next phrase.

from Ave Maria, taken from sheet music in the public domain

So. Ask yourself—who is the composer in the 19th century famous for the relentless climax, the climax that refused to ever give you a tonic without a fight? It was Wagner. It’s a concept that requires a mature understanding of harmony. Yet again, I’m frustrated at music history analysis. Why do we have a positivist outlook that views Medieval music as groping for a V-I cadence? I’ve argued before that this is simply viewing the past through our age’s peculiarly post-Wagnerian sunglasses (aviators, they are, and darn ugly). This seems like another proof of that very point. Josquin knows exactly what he’s doing harmonically. It’s just that he doesn’t have the same set of compositional priorities we do.

There’s a similar occurrence in Josquin’s Absalon fili mi that I’d also like to post here soon. There, Josquin’s clearly using a leading tone to make us expect a cadential point that never occurs. Just like…Wagner.

*The recording I linked to, ironically, interprets a fixtus on the B in the bass that creates the vii, making it a VII (creating a juicy dissonance with the alto line). The Hilliard Ensemble and Sex Chordae both reject this and (I presume) take the manuscript at face value. Either way, I think, creates the drive, but the vii is, in a “technological” sense, more edgy.