The Cosmic Dance

Ever since the early Greek philosophers, creation had been figured as an act of music. There was the further notion that the created universe was itself in a state of music—it was one perpetual and complex dance.

(To account for the movement of the planets, the ancient Greeks placed each of the known seven bodies that moved around the Earth— Sun, moon, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn—in its own moveable sphere, which rotated independently of the other spheres. Additionally, each of the seven spheres was associated with one of the seven notes of the musical scale: hence, the Harmony of the Spheres.)

The idea of the sound of creation actually has been receiving some serious consideration by astrophysicists. While giving a concert at the University of Virginia last April, I became re-acquainted with Mark Whittle, an astronomy professor at UVA. Mark had travelled down to South Carolina for a week-long guitar workshop I gave in 1995 and we became friends. After my concert, Mark and I chatted at length about his research, which involves Big Bang Acoustics. It's fascinating, but not unprecedented, at least by the mediaeval and metaphoric mind.

Isadore of Seville, the mediaeval scholar wrote, “Nothing exists without music; for the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven itself revolves under the tones of that harmony.”

The ancients saw their created world as part of a cosmic dance. This, incidentally, is essential to understanding Renaissance instrumental music, which is often glossed over in music history classes in favor of sacred, text-based, vocal music, but dances had their own less-literal sacred qualities, and it is no accident that dances dominate instrumental music in the Renaissance.

Creation as a dance implies motion, and motion implies degree. To the Elizabethan mind, for example, the regiments of earthly, ethereal, and divine beings were sped on varied but controlled wanderings to the accompaniment of music. The slightest disruption of degree was seen to upset the order of the universe.

Shakespeare knew this well when he had Ulysses say in Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows.”

Here lute playing serves as a metaphor for the state of political, social, and cosmic order. The abstract heavenly world of the ancients is united with the harmony or discord of earthly life through lute playing. Dance music was important because it helped the Renaissance mind tame a bursting world, a world increasingly difficult to fit into a rigid order.

Although the characteristics of individual dances might have changed over time, to the musicians of each generation the dance forms themselves were as immutable as the crystal spheres that held the planets in place and reflected the order of the universe. This was less a conscious connection than an unquestioned belief that was simply there.

But this received order was showing its cracks as early as 1543 when Copernicus published his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. Still, this great work had limited effect and was banned by the church. The cracks grew larger as the century progressed. In 1577 Tycho Brahe’s observations of the orbits of comets could not be reconciled with the existing view of the universe.

In 1596 Johannes Kepler went public with his laws of planetary motion. Yet even Kepler could not separate his scientific views from his religious views. In 1618 he wrote: “It is no longer a surprise that man, the ape of his Creator, should finally have discovered the art of singing polyphonically, which was unknown to the ancients, namely in order that he might play the everlastingness of all created time in some short part of an hour by means of an artistic concord of many voices and that he might to some extent taste the satisfaction of God the Workman.”

But the biggest bombshell was the publication of Galileo’s Starry Messenger in 1610. Galileo’s invention of the telescope and subsequent observations offered irrefutable proof that the universe was not engaged in a cosmic dance. (Incidentally, Galileo’s father and younger brother were both lutenists.) The slow, gradual, but inexorable divorce of instrumental music from heavenly activity had begun. This freed instrumental music to be used for purposes other than a reflection of God’s order of the universe.

(Galileo’s 1632 book, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), compared the ancient Ptolemaic system with the new Copernican system. This was placed on the church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum and was not removed until 1822. In 1983 Pope John Paul II retracted the ban on Galileo and in 1992 issued an apology on behalf of the church and lifted the edict of the Inquisition.)

The importance of instrumental music and its connection with heavenly activity did continue in some circles into the seventeenth century. This connection is made explicit by the manuscript La Rhetorique des Dieux, an anthology of lute music by Denis Gaultier. Created around 1652 in Paris and consisting of dances and occasional preludes, its existence implies that although speech was the language of man, music was the language of the Gods.

By the early eighteenth century musical pieces began to appear without dance titles but with simple tempo indications: largo, allegro, presto. By the time of J. S. Bach’s death in 1750, the dance suite was old fashioned, the Enlightenment was well under way, and musical forms, while retaining certain musical characteristics of the dance, became formed more and more out of their content: sonata-allegro; theme and variations. The cosmic dance had ended.