Sunday, April 13, 2008

Universal harmonies

Late night, candlelight, a glass of wine. Outside, the stars of Orion are setting in the west. Mars and the Moon, in Gemini, will soon follow. On the stereo -- Henry Purcell's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day 1692.

The overture begins in oboes and trumpets, followed by a lively dance of strings. Then a duet of strings and oboes. The bass soloist intones "Hail! Hail bright Cecilia, Hail, Hail," and the chorus joins in.

St. Cecilia is the traditional patroness of music. Her feast, November 22nd, has long been celebrated with melody and song. On St. Cecilia's Day, 1692, music-loving Londoners gathered at Stationer's Hall to hear a program of new choral music by the most admired English composer of the day, the royal organist Henry Purcell (with words by the clergyman-poet Nicholas Brady). By all accounts the concert was an stunning success, with the composer himself singing the alto solo "'Tis nature's voice."

A sip of wine. The candle sputters. It is of music that the alto sings: "'Tis Nature's voice, thro' all the moving wood, of creatures understood, the universal tongue...In unseen chains, it does the fancy bind."

Nature's voice. The universal tongue. The words are much in tune with Purcell's time, and especially with the beginning of the last decade of Purcell's century. Only a few years earlier, in 1687, Isaac Newton had published what many consider the greatest scientific book of all time, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, better known from the abbreviation of its Latin name as the Principia. In that book, Newton proposed an unseen force -- gravity -- acting upon all objects in the universe, binding the planets in their courses, bidding the tides to ebb and flow, guiding the fall of the apple from the tree -- a universal harmony.

Purcell can hardly have been unaware of Newton's work. He was an acquaintance of the architect Christopher Wren, who was himself a friend of Edmund Halley, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and others of a circle of scientific geniuses who together helped create modern science. It is not improbable that some of these men were in the audience at Stationer's Hall for the 1692 performance of Purcell's St. Cecilia ode.

Newton's Principia created a sensation among the London intelligentsia. Here was convincing proof that the world was ruled by mathematical laws, not by the whims of gods. The laws of gravity and motion bound all things with unseen chains. In Newton's theory, scientists of the late-17th century believed they heard the voice of nature's universal tongue.

Saturn is high in the south, keeping company with Regulus in Leo. On the stereo, soprano and bass voices begin one of the most beautiful of Purcell's choral movements, "Soul of the World." Altos and tenors take up the lyric, weaving together a perfect hymn in praise of music:

"Soul of the world, inspired by thee, the jarring, jarring seeds of matter did disagree. Thou didst the scatter'd atoms bind, which by thy laws of true proportion joined. Made up of various parts, one perfect harmony."

It is not hard to detect the spirit of Newton moving in these lines. Purcell was not the first to describe nature's scattered parts bound into a harmonious whole by the power of music. The idea originated with Pythagoras, 2000 years earlier. Johannes Kepler, Newton's predecessor, struggled all his life to discover the musical harmonies that guided the planets in their orbits. Kepler's laws of planetary motion were the basis for Newton's work.

What most impressed Purcell's contemporaries about Newton's achievement was its completeness. From a handful of simple mathematical laws Newton derived the orbits of comets, the motion of the moon, the sweep of the planets in their courses, the flight of earthly projectiles. This all-embracing harmony of stars and atoms finds expression in Purcell's ode. An andante in oboes, then the soprano soloist sings: "Thou tun'st the world, this world below, the spheres above, who in heavenly round to their own music move."

Music and mathematics have much in common, but seldom has music so explicitly captured the spirit of scientific achievement as in Purcell's composition for St. Cecilia's Day, 1692. The music rapturously celebrates what Halley, in his prefatory poem to the Principia, called "the Laws which God, framing the universe, set not aside but made the fixed foundations of his work."

The Principia was the culmination of the Scientific Revolution, a triumph of law over miracle, of reason over subservience to chance or the whims of gods. Newton convincingly demonstrated a truth that would transform civilization: Nature is ruled by mathematical harmonies, and the harmonies are at least potentially discoverable by the human mind.

Eye-lids droop, candle gutters. Mars and the Moon sink toward their western setting. The bass soloist begins a magnificent song in praise of the organ, the king of musical instruments, which is also a song of praise for the universe revealed by Newton: "Wondrous, wondrous, wondrous machine."

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.