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    High Art: Counterpoint, Math, and the Music of the Spheres

    February 16, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    As I’ve been reading through Ken Myers’ book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, I keep coming back to this issue of “high art.” I think we all instinctively know what it is, or at the very least can come up with an example. For me, it’s Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven because I was a pianist in my youth. {I say “was” because I am just now getting back into practice after my seven-year pregnancy stint.} I don’t connect well with the discussion of visual art {think painting, sculpting, etc.}, simply because I’ve not studied the subject much.

    Anyhow, I’ve always held up history’s Big Three composers. Bach especially was beyond amazing due to his ability to improvise such beautiful music right on the spot. But I still didn’t “get” it. What I mean is, how is it that Baroque music, for example, could really be said to be closer to God? How can one say that rock is farther away? Or even inherently rebellious against God? Even though Myers doesn’t say such things outright, my mind instantly drifts to questions like these. How do we know? What makes one sort of music different from another?

    This weekend, I think I came a bit closer to understanding. Just a bit. It wasn’t a giant leap for mankind or anything. But still, it was significant.

    I’m reading a wonderful biography, which is really two biographies. Written by James Gaines, the title is Evening in the Palace of Reason. This is the biography not just of Bach {Johann Sebastian, the most historically significant of the Bach family musicians}, but also Frederick the Great. The book centers on a famous meeting between the two early in Frederick the Great’s reign, which is late in Bach’s life. But, of course, in order for a reader to understand the significance of this encounter, the author must back up and explain the history of the country and the place of each character within the history.

    At one point, Gaines begins to pit counterpoint, which is to say “Old” Bach’s music, with the simple melodies of Frederick the Great. It becomes apparent early on that each type of music is born of a corresponding worldview. And, not unlike how Myers describes rock music, Frederick’s music is a sort of rebellion against Bach, counterpointe, and the philosophies and ideologies and religion that such music represented.

    What shocked and amazed me was Gaines’ description of counterpoint and its relation to the music of the spheres, an expression I always thought was metaphorical. The music of the spheres, like all music, is mathematical:

    [T]he learned composer’s job was to attempt to replicate in earthly music the celestial harmony with which God had joined and imbued the universe, and so in a way to take part in the act of Creation itself…[T]he practice of threading musical voices into the fabric of counterpoint…[has] been endowed with…metaphysical power.

    The key is music’s relation to number, a connection that was as old as Plato and as new as Newton…

    For Western music, the most important discovery attributed to Pythagoras was that halving a string doubles its frequency, creating an octave with the full string in the proportion of 1:2. A little further experimentation showed that the interval of a fifth was sounded when string lengths were in the proportion of 2:3, the fourth in that of 3:4, and so on. This congruence was taken to have great cosmic significance. As elaborated over a few centuries around the time B.C. became A.D., the thinking {much oversimplified} was that such a sign of order had to be reflective of a larger, universal design–and sure enough, the same musical proportions were found in the distances between the orbits of the planets. Further, since such enormous bodies could not possibly orbit in complete silence, they must be sounding out these intervals together, playing a constant celestial harmony…


    No less than the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler gave Luther’s position the stamp of scientific certainty in his great work, Harmonices Mundi, where he correlates the orbits of the planets to the intervals of the scale and finds them to be “nothing other than a continuous, many voiced music {grasped by the understanding, not the ear}.” This last point was debated: Some thought the celestial music was abstract, an ephemeral spiritual object, but others insisted it was real, inaudible to us only because it had been sounding constantly in the background from the time of our birth. In either case, music was a manifestation of the cosmic order.

    Earlier on, Gaines had explained that counterpoint wove many melodies instead of one melody with three- or four-part harmony due to the belief that the celestial bodies would {or could} themselves provide the harmony.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Dana February 17, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Music theory is an area where I am ignorant. I am told that it is mathematical and orderly… at least classical music is. I guess that’s why I prefer it.

    Nice correlations between this book and Myers, huh?

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