The Music Of The Spheres

Science, on the other hand, has changed in its essential nature. Whereas modern doctors still swear the Hippocratic oath, and whereas much of our law today is based directly upon very old traditions of English common law (and ultimately, indeed, upon the Code of Hammurabi), classical science plays a very small part in the education of today's scientists. The visionaries and philosophers who created Western science are seen as noble but quaint, endearing, their “mistakes” ingenious in their way but nonetheless slightly risible. As far as most scientists are concerned, their fields are being invented daily. You are only as good as your latest published paper, which is more likely to attract notice if it disproves a paper published by someone else last year. Although credit is scrupulously given where it is due, the basic message to graduate students in science is that yesterday’s misconceptions are about as useful as yesterday’s toast.

That is not to suggest that what we now call pure science is not going on. Of course there are scientists who are studying, for example, the origin of life on the planet; yet they keep the matter firmly in the realm of biochemistry. Any discussion of what this means about man’s place in the universe, and why we came to be here in the first place, is regarded as an extraneous diversion. There are astronomers who devote themselves to studying the extent and age of the universe — again, only so long as it remains a question of interpreting radio signals. No “real” scientist would ever embroil himself in questions like these: “Life on this planet came into existence shortly after it was formed some 4.6 billion years ago; then for 2 billion years, more than half the time there has been life on earth, the most complex form it took was algae. Why did higher life forms emerge? Is it just a quirk of biochemistry that has made me a person rather than a cell of an algal mat?” Or: “The cosmos is 18 billion years old — excellent. But what came before that? Nothingness? Can something (that is, everything) come from nothing?” Those are the questions that we really want answered. A pure scientist might smile at the naïveté of such questions, and tell us that they are imponderables, unanswerable matters better left to the philosophers and theologians.

Of course such questions are eminently ponderable — we have been pondering them ever since we began scratching on clay tablets, perhaps since we started walking upright. What our hypothetical scientist means is that these questions cannot be pondered within the parameters of science as it is now practiced, because there is no answer provable with the degree of certainty required by current methods. Far from being unanswerable, the question of where the universe came from, and how man came to have a place in it, has a great many answers.
That is exactly the problem: science demands that there be only one answer, indisputably right, which it can propagate through the university curriculum. Likewise, it is permissible for a biologist to discuss the emergence of life on this planet so long as he disdains ruminating about why this interesting event took place. Thus in the modern world the phrase pure science has a double meaning. Not only is it outside the bounds of applied science, it is positioned just as firmly this side of the realm of the ultimate, the transcendent, the absolute.

None of the foregoing ought to be construed as an attack on contemporary science: like any intellectual activity, science must be judged by its own criteria. When science became an institutionalized power in society, it became concerned above all else with being right, for a reason that is well known to any logician: a conclusion based upon faulty premises will itself prove to be faulty. Thus for a student of biochemistry or mathematics or astrophysics, it is essential that all the basic premises be absolutely correct.

This imperative of infallibility caused the questions to be rephrased. If every scientific problem must have an irrefutable mathematical solution, and if every mathematical expression is conceived as having no meaning outside itself, then the grey shades of subjectivity required to examine the fundamental, underlying questions posed by the perceptible universe render the questions themselves irrelevant. That is not to say that the questions now addressed by science are lacking in interest: the biochemical background to the emergence of life, for example, fascinates; and putting a number on the age of the cosmos is unquestionably a worthy intellectual pursuit. But it is sophistry to pretend that, having posed answers to them, one has resolved . the basic questions that prey most forcibly on the human mind.

Moreover, our industrial society now places less importance on these intellectual quests than it does on the biochemistry of cheap fuel, or the cosmology required to put telecommunications satellites into orbit. Science has drifted so far from its original aims that even to bother with the question of its relationship to music might appear to be an exercise in irrelevancy, like chronicling the connection between military history and confectionery. Yet every scholar of the history of science or of music can attest to the intimate connection between the two. In the classical view it was not really a connection but an identity.

I have asserted that this phenomenon is widely accepted among historians of science. What is perhaps less well understood is that an analogous process has been at work in the evolution of music, which has been called the purest of the arts. By a process profoundly like that at work in the evolution of science, music has become established as a profane and temporal institution. As a result, the ends of music, its rationale for existing, has become muddled. The history of music, if it is to be anything more than a long and tedious succession of clefs and quavers, is the story of how musical ideals and musical practice have drifted ever further apart. For as music began to serve a variety of social functions — in the beginning to excite bravery in soldiers, for example, or to induce a state of mind receptive to religious experience — and ultimately as musical institutions themselves became rich and powerful fixtures in society, the practice of music, like that of science, gradually came to be alienated from the deeper questions posed by the very fact of its existence.

In the classical era, this underlying psychosis was exemplified by Plato’s hostility toward μουσική (mousikē), which, it ought to be borne in mind, meant any human activity governed by the Muses. While the philosopher would allow music that served the state, albeit reluctantly, whenever its sole purpose was to induce pleasure, he proscribed it. In the Middle Ages, this duality is expressed in the distinction, to be found in virtually every surviving scholarly treatise of the period, between the musici, music theorists who were considered to be the field’s true artists, and cantores, mere musical performers, the singers and instrumentalists who were usually regarded as contemptible, immoral people.

Over the course of time spanned by the music to which most of us listen, that is to say over the past four hundred years, this dualistic debate about the aims of music has been clouded and rephrased in irrelevant ways: sacred versus profane, high art versus folk art, traditional versus progressive, upper-case Classical versus Romantic, lower-case classical versus pop. Yet at bottom, the question has remained whether music has the power to “improve,” to guide man toward an awareness and contemplation of a higher beauty, of an ultimate reality, or whether it exists only to beguile the hours pleasurably.

One result of these parallel processes in the history of music and science, which we may roughly characterize as the estrangement of their practice from their theoretical aims, has been to create an artificial divorcement between the two fields. In the modern age it is a basic assumption that music appeals directly to the soul and bypasses the brain altogether, while science operates in just the reverse fashion, confining itself to the realm of pure ratiocination and having no contact at all with the soul. Another way of stating this duality is to marshal on the side of music Oscar Wilde's dictum that “All art is quite useless,” while postulating that science is the apotheosis of earthly usefulness, having no connection with anything that is not tangibly of this world.

These suppositions would have seemed very strange to an Athenian of Plato's day, to a medieval scholar, to an educated person of the Renaissance, even to a habitué of London's coffeehouses in the eighteenth century. They would all have taken it for granted that music served a number of quite specific purposes: to instil patriotism and piety, to give succor in times of distress, to cure the sickened soul, and so forth. Conversely, science was viewed as having a deeply spiritual element. By illuminating creation and the laws that governed it, by elucidating the order that underlay apparent chaos, the scientist was bringing into the world something quite as beautiful as the work of any painter, sculptor, or composer.

Then something happened. Two hundred years ago the world was turned upside down. The social order abruptly tumbled, a phenomenon symbolized by the falling stones of the Bastille, and simultaneously a revolution took place in what came to be called the humanities. The pious moralism of Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson, the dominant literary personalities of eighteenth-century London, was supplanted by the idiosyncratic, even bizarre visions of Blake and Coleridge. In painting, the serene, sheltering arcadias of Watteau and Gainsborough were displaced by Goya’s horrific allegories, Fuseli’s nightmares, Delacroix’s patriotic gore.

And in music there was Beethoven. Between the finale of Mozart's Così fan tutte, which in 1790 proclaimed, “Happy is the man who makes reason his guide,” and the willful, majestic melancholy of Beethoven's late string quartets, thirty-five years later, we may trace a profound alteration in temperament. Gloated the German critic Ludwig Borne in 1830, writing about the young generation so profoundly influenced by Beethoven, “It is a joy to see how the industrious Romantics light a match to everything and tear it down, and push great wheelbarrowfuls of rules and Classical rubbish away from the scene of the conflagration.” Of course the rules and rubbish he refers to are precisely the concepts of the orderly cosmos and the Great Chain of Being that had served as the cornerstones of Western thought since its inception.