The Music of the Spheres and a Bach Fugue in the Sky! The Fascinating Connection between Cosmology and Church Music

There are some pretty fascinating connections between cosmology and the music that has predominated in different ages of the Church. Now I said cosmology, not cosmetology. Cosmetology is the art of beautifying women, the beauty shop owner is a cosmetologist. But cosmology is the understanding of the universe (cosmos) in which we live. How do we see andunderstand the universe in which we live and our relation to it? And what does all this have to do with Church music?  Hmm… let’s see.

Chant and the Unity of All Things- In the earliest days of Church music plainsong and chant predominated.  A melody was sung unaccompanied and with no harmony. In fact there is early Church legislation  that frowned on use of harmony seeing it too strongly connected with paganism. There was also a cosmology among early Christians that stressed the unity of all things. That everything, no matter how  varied was ultimately from God and was united in God. The Patristic Fathers (eg Ignatius of Antioch et al.) imagined in heaven the angels and saints and yet despite myriads of them singing they all sang as if with one voice.  This patristic  teaching found its way into the prefaces of the mass sung or recited just before the Holy, Holy. There it is said that we join our voices with that of the angels who with one voice (una voce dicentes) say: Holy Holy, Holy Lord…. Thus unaccompanied, unharmonized chant reflected a cosmology of the day that all things and all people were ultimately one, united in God and sustained by Him.  St Augustine imagined that, in the end, when Jesus finally handed over the kingdom to his father that there would be unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving himself).  Gregorian Chant exemplified through unison singing the cosmology of the oneness, the unity of all things (cf Quasten: Music in Pagan and Christian Antiquity).

Polyphony and the Music of the Spheres – But moving forward into the middle ages and toward the Renaissance we begin to discover rich and extended harmonies introduced into Church Music. Here too a cosmology is lurking just beneath the surface. As the ancient Greek Philosophers began to be “rediscovered” the ancient cosmology of the “music of the spheres” began to re-emerge. The ancients pondered the planets and stars as they swept through space. Each planet was thought made a perfect circle around earth. As they made this perfect circle they each rang out a different tone or note. These different notes rang out as a beautiful celestial harmony. Now harmony in church music began to be seen as reflective of the celestial harmony. Such cosmology and celestial harmony reached its apex and perfection in Renaissance polyphony (see video below).

Mathematical Baroque and the Ellipse of the Planetary Paths – Another change in cosmology is reflected another form of music.  In the 16th Century Copernicus discovered that the planets orbited the sun, not the earth.  Studies of the planets by Kepler and others at the same time revealed that planets do not orbit in perfect circles but in elliptical orbits, in a kind of a mathematical progression. This is really the insight of a musical form perfected at the time called the “fugue” A fugue introduces a musical theme and then develops the theme in a kind of mathematical progression. Much music of the Baroque period exhibits a kind of mathematical. If you’ve ever heard the famous Canon in D by Pachelbel you will note that it begins with a simple theme that builds mathematically as the as the half notes become quarter notes, then eighth notes, then sixteenth and even 32nd notes at the high point. Math as music reflecting the mathematical progression of the planets sweeping out their ellipses! So again, music and cosmology inter-relate.

Modern dissonance and relativity –  In modern times, the theory of relativity has come to predominate. Most people interpret relativity to mean that truth varies (it does not) and that beauty and perfection are ultimately indefinable (everything is relative). Of course this is not what the scientific theory of relativity really holds but most people have allowed this interpretation of the theory to affect their cosmology, their interpretation of the universe. Thus in modern music dissonance and chaotic rhythm often predominate. The music reflects a kind of uncertainty with the truth and order of things and in an almost iconoclastic way many modern composers radically reinterpret harmony, melody, and rhythm. Much modern art also bespeaks this “relativistic” cosmology.

So there is a quick tour of how cosmology and music are linked. Our Church is very old and we have lived through many shifts in cosmology. Our music reflects this journey. Below are two videos that illustrate the music of the spheres and the art of the fugue.

This first Video represents the “music of the spheres wherein the ancients saw the planets and stars sweeping though the heavens and each sounding a musical tone that added up to a beautiful celestial harmony. This cosmology is beautifully reflected in the Renaissance polyphony of the Church. This piece is Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium and is translated: “O great mystery and wondrous sacrament that animals would see the birth of Christ. O blessed Virgin whose womb merited to carry Jesus Christ. Alleluia!” Listen and imagine the planets sweeping through the heavens in celestial harmony!

This video is of a Fugue in D Major by JS Bach (BWV 532.2). Notice how the organist announces the main theme in her right hand. The left hand answers, then the feet. The basic theme is then taken through a series of “mathematical” progressions. The fugue reflected the cosmology of the day which saw the planets as sweeping out an ellipse (not a perfect circle) around the sun in a kind of  mathematical perfection and progression: a Bach fugue in the sky! If you’ve never seen a fine organist play get ready for an experience. It is said that the organist is the greatest virtuoso and you’ll see why as our lovely and gracious organist shows forth the incredible skill needed to play the great Bach organ works. Her hands and feet will amaze you as they fly through the notes, never missing one!

12 Replies to “The Music of the Spheres and a Bach Fugue in the Sky! The Fascinating Connection between Cosmology and Church Music”

  1. Thx for the info. A former priest at Holy Comforter, Father Peter, was a great resource to me as well on this subject. Christ in the “cosmos” — another fascinating talk.

  2. If you’ve never seen a fine organist play get ready for and experience.

    I’ll do you one better, Monsignor — listening up close to a quality small ensemble, e.g. string quartet, playing Bach. One of the most stunning musical experiences I had was sitting near the stage at the Kennedy Center for the Brandenburg Concertos. Listening to Concerto No. 3, especially, with a group of about six or seven spread out, with the point-counterpoint bouncing back and forth between them. The sound coming at you from multiple directions (as opposed to hearing an entire orchestra, where the sound tends to all meld together), with multiple things going on at the same time, just leaves one in awe. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a couple glasses of wine beforehand.)

    Now that I think upon it, there was also a concert I went to at Orsanmichele (Florence) that just left me saying “Wow.” Given the small size and the sound of the music bouncing off the stone walls, that was an experence!

    For those with kids, I’m one of those who advocates exposing children to such music at as early an age as possible (in the crib if not in the womb!). Especially music with the complexity of Bach, it definitely stimulates the developing brain in multiple areas. And it is probably so that such music engages the entirety of our being, we hear it not merely with the ears of our head, but the ears of our souls as well.

    1. When I was a freshman (freshwoman? freshperson?) in college, I was drafted along with a dozen or so other wind-ensemble members to play a piece in a modern music concert. This piece (which if memory serves was at least in part computer-generated) placed the ensemble members in various parts of the room. My part was: Wait x seconds, play this pattern for y time, then stop.

      Oh, how I dreaded the rehearsals.

      The date of the concert finally came. I was amused to read in the program’s description of the piece that my fellow musicians and I were Sonic Particles Scattered Throughout Space. [There was more to the description, but after 26 years my memory of it has long since become dust. Not unlike a Space Particle.]

      I rather astonished that the audience seemed to like it. Perhaps many of them had been fortified with wine. I, unfortunately, was several years away from being of legal drinking age.

  3. “Especially music with the complexity of Bach, it definitely stimulates the developing brain in multiple areas.”

    I’m chuckling as I write this, as an letter came home from my son’s school several years ago citing a study about activity in certain parts of the brain in response to certain kinds of music. The school suggested, if a student was struggling with math, to have them do their homework to marching band music (don’t remember any mention of Bach), and I remember thinking, “Thank God my son does well in math!” Couldn’t imagine making dinner and peeling potatoes to the Penn State Marching Band.

    On a side note- with my youngest child, I did have a CD player in her room as a newborn. She was the fussiest of the crew and classical music really soothed her. Five years later, after the first time she hears a song, she can sing it back to me. After a few times of hearing the song, she can play the notes back on he piano. She’s never taken a music lesson.

  4. Music does seem to enhance learning, and classical music does it best. And you’re right about Bach – my kids study Suzuki piano so they get a lot of classical stuff anyway, but the older ones can play the Bach Inventions which are quite difficult to master. I don’t really know if someone takes up music because they have more raw intelligence, or if playing music does help one to do so much better academically – either way, most of the people I know who play an instrument very well, especially piano, are exceptional students.

  5. Many thanks this is very useful for teaching how this concept is used in meaphysical poetry.The music definitely helped my brain work better!

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