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Musica Celestis: Three Pieces Inspired by the Harmony of the Spheres

It formed the ancient intersection of music, art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and mysticism. Originally developed by Pythagoras, the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres linked the movements of celestial bodies with universal vibrations. The sun, moon, and planets were believed to produce their own unique hum as they revolved around the earth. “Tones” of energy, expressed through mathematical relationships, manifested themselves in shapes and sounds. This supreme cosmic order was expressed in everything from a piece of music to the proportions of Chartres Cathedral. The Harmony of the Spheres found religious expression through the image of choirs of angels eternally singing in joyful praise.

The Earth-centric astronomical theories of the ancient world have faded, but the Harmony of the Spheres continues to inspire composers. Here are three examples:

De Sancta Maria, Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, composer, philosopher, writer, scientist, and Christian mystic who experienced transformative visions throughout her life. Hildegard referred to her music as “the Harmonious Music of Celestial Revelations’ (symphoniae harmoniae celestium revelationum).” De Sancta Maria – O tu, suavissima virga, Responsorium builds gradually in intensity over a shifting drone bass, evoking a timeless sense of mystery: 

Musica Celestis, Aaron Jay Kernis

The music of Hildegard of Bingen influenced American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis. As with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, this string orchestra work originated as a movement from Kernis’ 1990 String Quartet. Here is an excerpt from the composer’s program notes:

The second movement, Musica Celestis, is inspired by the medieval conception of that phrase which refers to the singing of the angels in heaven in praise of God without end. “The office of singing pleases God if it is performed with an attentive mind, when in this way we imitate the choirs of angels who are said to sing the Lord’s praises without ceasing.” (Aurelian of Réöme, translated by Barbara Newman) I don’t particularly believe in angels, but found this to be a potent image that has been reinforced by listening to a good deal of medieval music, especially the soaring work of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). This movement follows a simple, spacious melody and harmonic pattern through a number of variations (like a passacaglia) and modulations, and is framed by an introduction and codas.

Musica Celestis opens with the same shimmering A major chord we hear at the beginning of Wagner’s Prelude to LohengrinWhile Wagner’s Prelude develops as a kaleidoscope of gradually shifting color set on a single chord, Musica Celestis presents a different kind of sonic kaleidoscope- one in which harmonies emerge, dissipate, and momentarily blur together. Evoking the image of an intensely bright light, the music gradually reaches higher towards a stratosphere-shattering climax. In the final bars, pandiatonic layers of sound give way to a final harmonic progression which seems quietly to encapsulate Musica Celestis’ unique mix of striving and lament. We’re left with the simplicity of a single triad, the most fundamental and consonant building block of harmony.

The Earth Sings Mi Fa MiThe Receiving End of Sirens

The philosophy of the Harmony of the Spheres has influenced contemporary pop music from Björk’s Cosmogony to The Moody Blues’ OmOne of the more recent examples is The Earth Sings Mi Fa Mi, the second and final studio album of the Boston-based experimental rock band, The Receiving End of Sirens. (The album came out a year before the band’s 2008 breakup). The Receiving End of Sirens provides this explanation of the title:

The title, The Earth Sings Mi Fa Mi was taken from a book written by a late 16th century astronomical theorist by the name of Johannes Kepler (Harmonices Mundi) and the publication just fascinated the band. Kepler’s theory suggested that each of the 9 planets in our solar system produced tones as they orbited the sun. Throughout the orbit, Venus would stay a consistent note that was considered the 6th in relation to the rest of the planets. As Earth would shift its tonality, it would create the effect of the notes moving from the major 6th to the minor 6th and back and forth. This is where the “Mi Fa Mi” comes into action, symbolizing the corresponding syllables when singing a scale in relation to the notes of the earth (Do Re Mi Fa So La Si Do). Kepler further concurred that the Earth “singing” Mi Fa Mi could truly stand for Misery, Famine, Misery and ultimately, that is the song the Earth and Venus continued to sing. Misery, referring to an empty place and Famine, referring to the appetite or thirst for things.

The Earth Sings Mi Fa Mi features fascinating layerings of electronic sound. The vibrant sonic collage in the sixth track, A Realization of the Ear is only one example. One song blends into the next to form a cohesive and satisfying whole. The final song returns home with Pale Blue DotHere is the complete album:

Recordings

  • Hildegard of Bingen, De Sancta Maria, Hildegard von Bingen: 900 Years, Sequentia iTunes, Amazon
  • Aaron Jay Kernis, Musica Celestis, Hugh Wolff, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra iTunes, Amazon
  • The Receiving End of Sirens, The Earth Sings Mi Fa Mi iTunes, Amazon

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