June 18, 2024



Sounding Desire – An Evening of Music and Philosophy

Begin with ‘A Stroll (along the River Lea)’ with visuals as people take their seats and settle down. pskovmusic.ru fades, stage to black, silence. Then stage lit with a single spot. SC comes on stage, finds the spot and speaks:

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am Simon Critchley. Somewhere in the darkness lurks John Simmons. Together, we are Critchley & Simmons, not a firm of solicitors, but a gorgeous, throbbing, living experiment in words, sounds and images.

Music matters. It matters immensely. For some people it matters more than anything else. Yet, the why and the how of its mattering remains an enigma for us, a dark riddle. Why does music matter? Why does it speak to us so powerfully? This is where a little philosophy might help. The task of this evening’s entertainment is to peer philosophically into the enigma of music, to read its riddle not in order to solve it once and for all, but to shed a little light in the darkness.

And when it comes to the philosophy of music where else should one first turn but to the sage counsel of Albert Freiherr von Thimus, 1806-1878, author of the compendious Die harmonikale Symbolik des Alterthums (The Harmonic Symbolism of the Ancient World). He was an intriguing fellow, a lawyer, a judge and a Prussian politician, an obsessionally dedicated amateur whose work on music is distinguished by the fact that it was totally ignored in his lifetime. He was a personal friend of Baron Teufelsdröckh of Weissnichtwo, hero of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. Albert Freiherr von Thimus thought music, the music of antiquity, looked like this,

What von Thimus is dressing-up in rather tight-fitting 19th Century britches is the ancient Pythagorean theory of music, the so-called ‘harmony of the spheres’. This is an ancient, unwritten, esoteric and highly influential tradition that begins in the mists of antiquity but whose first textual support is a passage from Plato’s Timeaus on the creation of the world soul written about 2,500 years ago. The Timaeus was the only of Plato’s texts to be available throughout antiquity and the mediaeval period. Sadly, the passage in question is almost completely unintelligible. Here’s a taste,

‘From an essence impartible, and always subsisting according to sameness of being, and from a nature divisible about bodies, he (the Demiurge) mingled from both a third form of essence, having a middle subsistence between the two. And again, between that which is impartible and that which is divisible about bodies, he placed the nature of same and different.’

You see what I mean. Yet, the basic idea behind the music of the spheres is that the heavenly bodies made sounds as they moved through space. The ancient Greeks knew of nine spheres: the Sun and Moon, the planets that we know as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the Starry Sphere of the fixed stars in the sky and the Crystalline Sphere which controlled the procession of the equinoxes. On the Ptolemaic, earth-centred view of the universe, these spheres moved around the earth in a stately and unvarying procession. It is believed that Pythagoras believed (we don’t know for sure; in fact, we don’t really have a clue as no writings of Pythagoras have survived) that the Spheres, in common with all other objects which move, must vibrate and that these vibrations must produce sound. The different spheres, being of different size and moving in a different way from the others, produce accordingly different sounds. Saturn, being in antiquity the furthest planet from earth would provide the bass note moving up through to the treble of the Moon. However, as for the Pythagoreans all nature was a harmonious whole, the sounds emitted by the various spheres must also be harmonious, a kind of glorious universal chord as the universe rotated eternally through space. It might have sounded something like this…

On this view, music, human music – plucked or strummed with human fingers – provided it was composed and played according to proper rules, was a reflection of the mathematical harmony and perfection of the universe. More than that, insofar as musical harmony was in tune with the harmony of the universe, music made possible a communion with the creator of the universe, God himself, herself or no self. Music is the key by which we might enter the mind of God. Borrowing the diagrams of the 16th Century Swiss humanist, Heinrich Glarean, the musical universe would have looked like this…

Here, the nine spheres of the universe correspond to the nine muses. Of course, the word ‘music’ derives from the Greek mousike, that art over which the muses presided which was one of the three pillars of Athenian education where young citizens were taught to sing poetry to the musical accompaniment of the lyre, which is where we get the idea of lyric poetry..

The key concept in the music of the spheres is harmony: the universe is harmonious for it is the work of God and musical harmony is the human key to the divine harmony. Far from having all the best tunes, the devil abhors harmony. In the words on St. Thomas of Villanova (1486-1555), “Music puts the devil to flight…and he whom no force can overcome is overcome by harmony”.