The Music Of The Spheres

Review Page

The Sunday Times (London), February 20, 1994
"KEYS TO THE COSMOS," by Anthony Storr

Jamie James calls his book “an anecdotal history of the symphony of science and its counterpoint. the wisdom of music.” This modest description belies the importance of what he has to say. His main contention is that, since the industrial revolution and the rise of Romanticism, science and music have lost an important dimension which pertained to both at a time when music and science were closely identified with each other.
Pythagoras is, to some degree, a mythical figure, but he is generally credited with having linked mathematics with music by demonstrating that musical intervals could be expressed as ratios (octave 1:1, fifth 2.3, fourth 3:4, etc). Because of this link, cosmology was conceived as musical as well as mathematical. The universe was pictured as a series of revolving spheres; and it was logical to assume that such large bodies must make harmonious sounds in their revolutions. Hence the notion of the “music of the spheres.” Aristotle believed that men could not hear this wonderful music because the sound was present from birth, and therefore could not be distinguished from silence. Eighteen hundred years later, Shakespeare wrote that even the smallest celestial orb sang like an angel, “But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
The ancient Greeks believed that music was an important ingredient in education, and also an effective balm for the distressed mind. Plato stated that music was “a heaven-sent ally reducing to order and harmony any disharmony within us.” The followers of Pythagoras developed a' science of musical psychotherapy using a daily programme of songs and pieces for the lyre which made them alert in the morning, and then purged them of the day's cares and prepared them for prophetic and agreeable dreams when they went to sleep. Music was able to exert this restorative effect because it was able to reunite the alienated individual with cosmic harmony.
The Pythagoras-Platonic view, writes James, supported “what we may call the
great theme — the belief that the cosmos is a sublimely harmonious system guided by a Supreme Intelligence, and that man has a place preordained and eternal in that system,” which later became known as the Great Chain of Being. It is a vision of serene order which can be described in terms of mathematical music or musical mathematics, since both are expressions of ordered movement and ordered relations.
Acceptance of the “great theme” bestows divine status upon music, mathematics, and science in general. Although Kepler disposed of the notion of the spheres by demonstrating that the paths of the planets round the sun were elliptical rather than circular, Newton still believed that his own work consisted in deciphering clues left by God concerning the riddle of the universe. Indeed, he was compelled to include God in his calculations about gravity. Newton had abandoned the idea of the interstellar ether, and was left with what he called “an absurdity”: the idea that bodies
could actupon each other at a distance when the space between them was a vacuum. He could only resolve this difficulty by attributing gravity to the direct intervention of the Deity. If he bad not believed in God, he might have been forced to revise his gravitational theories in ways which we can only guess at. According to James, Newton wrote a treatise about musical theory which was never published, and was the first to use logarithms in musical calculations. “Using language almost identical to that used by Pythagoras and Plato more than 2,000 years before him, Newton saw in the perfect order of music the most apt analogue of the orderly cosmos.”
Newton bridges the gap between belief in the great theme and modern science. Following Newton, scientists were no longer concerned with fitting their discoveries into a set of assumptions about a harmonious universe. Science and mathematics
came to stand on their own feet without divine support. The modern age had begun.
James deplores the fact that science, now divorced from any concern with
the meaning and purpose of life, is so often concerned with trivia. He accuses science of having abandoned the man in the street by telling him: “Your life is pointless, and you are destined to be a sterile, meaningless speck of stardust, but be of good cheer: science will tell you how to power your automobile with pig droppings.” This is quite unfair. Modern physics is surely an enterprise much concerned with fundamentals
as was the great theme. Although God may be dead, it seems to my
mind that beauty, order and meaning can be discerned in modern physics and mathematics.
James is much more interesting about music. He equates divergence from the great theme with the rise of Romanticism in music; the replacement of Bach’s sense of the divine by Wagnerian self-absorption. Although he is obviously moved by
some of the great Romantic works of the 19th century, he leaves the impression
that he doesn’t really like them. Mahler, particularly, is singled out as neurotic and ultimately hollow. However, hope springs eternal. Schoenberg’s revolution included
his writing a poem, Die Jakobsleiter, for an oratorio which he never completed. According to James, the text “explicitly sets forth the essential ingredients of the great theme: the relationship between man and God.” And Stockhausen goes still further, in claiming that music not only has healing properties, but also “provides the transcendental link between man and the cosmos .”
This learned, original, fascinating book is sometimes infuriating. But any lapses are trivial compared with James’s unequivocal affirmation that music is no mere entertainment, but vitally significant; an important adjunct in healing; an essential part of education. Our culture is in danger of relegating music to the status of an extra in schools. Nothing could be more insensitive, misguided, philistine and downright wrong.

Times Literary Supplement, September 12, 1994

“The concept of a mass audience for music is a heritage of the early Romantic era we would do well to question ... while a composer has no need of great fame, he does need an audience ... yet there is no reason why it cannot be a small and enthusiastic one.” So writes Jamie James in the final chapter, entitled “Into the Future,” of his book The Music of the Spheres. It is part of the cogently argued conclusion to his thoughtful and clearly presented argument analysing the nature of the unity which underlay the aspirations and, indeed, the convictions of artists, philosophers and scientists in the West, from Pythagoras to the close of the Enlightenment.
James lays the blame for the demise of these beliefs and hopes at the door of the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of Romanticism. “Music was no less metaphysical after Beethoven, but the search for transcendence turned inward. Divinity was to be found in the spirit of man, not in a remote and theoretical cosmos.” This sentence encapsulates the book’s message; music, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and astrology were, for 2,000 years, inextricably linked by “the Great Theme,” a conception of the universe in which, as James puts it, “a serene order presides over the earth around you, and the heavens above revolve in sublime harmony.”
Where James is at his strongest is in his carefully argued distinction between the humanist ideals of the Renaissance that gave birth to opera, and the personality cult — exemplified by Paganini, Liszt and Wagner — of the Romantic era. He maintains that, whereas for Mozart and certainly for Haydn, there remained a divine order, just as there had been a century earlier for Kepler and then for Newton, the nineteenth century was “concerned above all with creating the impression of being bold and original.”
Considered from a late twentieth-century viewpoint, James’s argument has deeper relevance; we live in an age of media hype and the musical (or unmusical) “quick fix,” a situation created and fostered by market forces. Most recording companies and many artistic managements long ago forgot about “the Great Theme”
— if they were ever aware of it. If they weren’t, it is not merely a case of amnesia, but of ignorance of over two millennia of thoughts, ideas, concepts and aspirations. The conflict is between the history of ideas and the entertainment industry; as James says, “all art, including music, was a much more serious matter before the self-conscious aestheticism of the late nineteenth century took root … in the same way, science was deeply involved in the whole ethos of the culture ... the history of science is the continuing process of the widening gulf between the ideals and the practice of science.” Nor does he fight shy of what may not be currently popular beliefs; for example, he heads his eleventh chapter “Schoenberg and the Revival of the Great Theme,” not only pointing out the connection between the Einsteinian time-space continuum and Schoenberg’s vision of complete musical cohesion and unity, but also including a photograph of the two great men together in evening dress at Carnegie Hall in 1934.
James movingly outlines Schoenberg’s Pythagorean belief in numerology as well as Hindemith’s conception of musical intervals as being related to planetary distances, so as to emphasize the clear desire of post-Romantic artists to come to terms with the Great Theme: “Hindemith takes an explicitly astronomical view of harmony — just as Kepler had taken a musical view of the cosmos.”
Above all, James is concerned with our temporality, with our obsession with art and science as items in a consumer society. He is not, I think, advocating mere historical awareness but lamenting the passing of a culture in which belief in the wholeness and rightness of the Great Theme was secure. He identifies the root cause of the eventual separation of music and science as being “a progression from belief to theme: what was for the Pythagoreans inexpressible yet implicitly believed ... what constituted the very essence of being human and a sensible part of the phenomenal universe, now exists only in formal expressions, and is believed only in the most self-conscious and artificial sense.”
This is an important and well-researched book. It does not contain the depth of detail to be found in Joscelyn Godwin's Harmonies of Heaven and Earth (1987), and there are errors; for example, on page 151, the interval ratio 4:5 is attributed to the perfect fifth when it should be the major third; but this is a fine point. For anyone, professional musician or not, who is not only interested in the essence of our musical/cultural heritage, but who is also concerned about its survival within the whirlpool of an increasingly crass and debased cultural populism, The Music of the Spheres is essential reading.

Wall Street Journal, August 24, 1993
from “The Cosmos Contemplated,” by Jim Holt (Bookshelf: Science roundup)
One lesser-known belief about Venus (unconfirmed by the Magellan mission) is that it shares with Earth the alto part in the harmonious music made by the movements of the celestial spheres. So thought the great 16th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, and it is not so eccentric a notion as it sounds. For as Jamie James explains in “The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe” (Grove, 277 pages, $20.95), the idea of the cosmos as a great musical-mathematical unity dominated the thinking of great scientists and composers alike from the time of Pythagoras through the Copernican revolution to the birth of opera. Only with the “aberrant irruption” of romanticism was the mystical link between music and cosmology severed, argues Mr. James in his wide-ranging and elegantly written intellectual history. By the end of it you can almost hear the cosmic music yourself.

New York Times, June 13, 1993
Review by Emily Eakin
Jamie James, the New York music critic for The Times of London, argues in “The Music of the Spheres” that music and science were born of an ancient Greek obsession with understanding the order of the universe. Pythagoras’ discovery that harmonic intervals, like octaves and major fifths, could be written as mathematical ratios meant that the divine harmonies of the cosmos could be deduced from the distances between celestial bodies. Mr. James maintains that this belief in an ordered and harmonious creation — what he calls “the Great Theme” — directly contributed to the rise of opera, higher mathematics and Freemasonry, and preoccupied Western thought until the 19th century. Mr. James exuberantly peruses Platonic texts, Hermetic legends, Renaissance mnemonic devices, a Schoenberg poem; but for all his wit and love of music trivia, the author never gives up his underlying polemic. The villain in this story is Romanticism, which he regards as a self-indulgent movement that worshiped musicians and composers who portrayed man caught in the throes of his own passions. When the Great Theme asserted itself again, in the 12-tone music of Schoenberg and Stockhausen, the 20th century was not willing to embrace it. Although the notion of a perfectly ordered cosmos is defunct, Mr. James suggests that if we could just turn our thoughts away from ourselves, we might at least be able to grasp the prominent place that the Great Theme occupied for so much of human history.

Financial Times, February 2, 1994
"MYSTICAL MUSIC TOUR," by Christian Tyler
The power of music over mankind, for dancing, fighting, love-making, praying or mourning, is one of life’s unsolved mysteries. Even cows are said to find it soothing, while Brahma’s spider was literally moved — charmed down its thread by the composer’s harmonies and sent scuttling up again by his dissonances.
Various solutions to the riddle have been attempted. Deryck Cooke tried 35 years ago in “The Language of Music” to establish a musical grammar of human emotions. More recently the psychiatrist Anthony Storr tackled it from the psycho-biological end, in his discursive “Music and the Mind.”
To describe the abstractions of music in words is notoriously difficult, so it is not surprising that most music-lovers and critics are content to leave it at that. But it is also a commonplace that science and music have some affinity (think of all those boffins who play in string quartets), so that when little Emily passes her Grade 5 piano with distinction the neighbours exclaim: “Oh, she must be good at maths!”
Therefore it is somewhat disappointing not to find in this present excursion into the metaphysics of music any account of current scientific thinking about why human beings react as they do when they hear certain tones or rhythms or cadences. Nor are we left much the wiser about that extraordinary combination of intellectual and emotional satisfaction which playing and hearing of good music brings.
The author, an American magazine writer on both science and music, does, however, trace the history of these phenomena right back to Pythagoras — credited with discovering the mathematics of musical intervals — and his cult of mystic number-crunchers. Through Plato, the early Christians, and the Renaissance the cosmic character of music, the link between the universe and the soul, went unchallenged. It was Galileo’s father who broke the Pythagorean spell when he discovered that the old Greek’s ratios were not perfect, and a vicious controversy ensued: some even said it went against the natural order to tune keyboards so that music could modulate.
Newton (an alchemist in his spare time) and Kepler (a keen astrologer) were in thrall to the concept of the music of the spheres; while Leibniz, a contemporary of J.S. Bach, said music was “the hidden arithmetical exercise of a soul unconscious that it is calculating. This cosmic conception was only dispersed by the anthropocentric. Romantic movement, a period the author is reluctant to define too sharply but appears, on balance’ to regret.
The feverish cult of the virtuoso and genius gave way in turn to the atonal Schoenberg, writing at the same time that Einstein was rewriting Newton’s physics. Even so, Schoenberg (developer of the 12-tone system) could seem the most mystical musician since Pythagoras. He was superstitious about the number 13 (naturally) and displayed, says the author, a similar “veneration of the numinous power of number.”
James completes his tour with an essay on what he sees as the fragmented, selfish sterility of the contemporary scene. Even here, he finds in Stockhausen’s account of the sympathetic and healing vibrations of music a harking back to the time of Boethius.
This is a learned, sophisticated book, full of surprises. But it is not at all clear what conclusion the author wants us to draw from his exegesis: he is by no means anti-science, yet seems to be saying that music composed in the cheerless, random world depicted for us by modern hypotheses is bound to leave us cold and unsatisfied.
If so, he should talk to John Tavener.

Publisher’s Weekly, February 15, 1993
From Pythagoras onward, music was perceived as a mirror of cosmic harmony and of the Supreme Intelligence believed to pervade the universe. But 19th-century Romantic composers, in James’s view, were deaf to the music of the spheres, and created instead an aberrant music of exaggerated emotional appeal. James, who writes on science and music for Discover and Connoisseur, contends that the works of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Schoenberg embody a belief in a sublime cosmic order that Beethoven overturned. This bold, path-breaking history explains how the ancient tradition of music as a branch of divine science has found support from Plato through Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton (an alchemist and self-professed Pythagorean) to Galileo, Freemasonry and the esoteric experiments of today’s avant-garde composers. A provocative, engaging reassessment of the Western musical tradition and its relation to science.

Kirkus Review, March 1, 1993
Music in relation to science is a theme that James has explored in popular articles (Discover, etc.). Here, he contends that, until the 19th century, music embodied the classic ideals of an ordered universe-having harmonies among the music of the spheres (musica mundana), the music of the human organism (musica humana), and  ordinary music-making (musica instrumentalis). In parallel, science was a noble pursuit aimed at establishing the natural order of things (embodied, for example, in the Great Chain of Being).
James cites Pythagoras as the prime begetter of these ideas. The sixth-century Greek thinker espoused a philosophy of the interrelatedness of all things and a system of dualities (one/many; odd/even; limited/unlimited, etc.) that led to his elaborate numerology. Pythagoras is also credited with the discovery of the ratios (1/2, 2/3, 3/4…) that define the harmonic intervals of the scale: the octave, the major fifth, the fourth, etc. The tradition of cosmic harmonies continued through Plato, Plotinus, the Christian mystics, and the Hermetic cults, with James reminding us of the links that joined astronomy/astrology and science/alchemy in the works of Kepler and Newton. In the 19th century came what James regards as the great anomaly in music history: Romanticism, with its earthy expression of human passions. Similarly, science divorced itself from lofty ideals to be measured on the human scale. Paradoxically, music and science became pursuits of an elite-a tradition that has continued to the present, albeit with a reaction to Romanticism in atonality, aleatory music, and other experiments.
Ours is not a happy time, James notes rather sadly, saying that perhaps we need to be reinfused with cosmic consciousness .... or to seek it outside the concert hall. Doubtless, experts will accuse the author of overstatement and will find exceptions and countercurrents; but, overall, his discussion is lively and stimulating.

The New Yorker, July 12, 1993
"Books Briefly Noted," by Lindsley Cameron
Until comparatively recent times, music was understood to reflect the workings of an orderly and purposive cosmos. In fact, the heavens were thought to produce music as the stars and planets moved through them: “the music of the spheres.” From Pythagoras to Newton, the best scientific minds of the West regarded this music as real but too rarefied to be heard by ordinary human ears. Jamie James, a music critic for the London Times, follows the history of this idea and its decline. He also traces changes in the status of composers, who were unimportant lowlifes in the ancient world, good citizens with day jobs in the Baroque era, and superstars in the Romantic, and are now an “establishmentized” avant-garde, entitled (or even obliged) to disdain their audiences. He relishes the sheer quirkiness of intellectual history, rescuing some of the battier beliefs of scientists and composers from the revisionism of textbook biographies and producing a graceful and entertaining account of matters seldom presented to the general reader.