Whitwell, Music of the Spheres

USD $120

A 40-minute, 8-movement masterpiece for band by Dr. David Whitwell.

Product Description

Music of the Spheres
David Whitwell (1937–)

A 40-minute, 8‑movement mas­ter­piece for band by Dr. David Whitwell.

Date: 2013
Instru­men­ta­tion: Con­cert Band
Dura­tion: 40:00
Lev­el: 4

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An ancient Egypt­ian hymn to the god Hathor sug­gests that some form of the con­cept of “Music of the Spheres,” the notion that musi­cal sounds are pro­duced by the move­ments of the plan­ets, was known in Egypt long before the begin­ning of Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture. One might assume the log­ic for such an idea would have pro­ceed­ed some­thing like this: [1] music tones are cre­at­ed by vibra­tion, [2] vibra­tion is caused by move­ment, hence [3] the move­ment of the plan­ets must ipso fac­to cre­ate sound.

The first impor­tant ancient writer asso­ci­at­ed with the Music of the Spheres was Pythago­ras (6th cen­tu­ry BC), best known today for his hav­ing iden­ti­fied the ratios of the low­er part of the over­tone series. Hav­ing dis­cov­ered these ratios, he is said to have con­clud­ed that these same ratios must be iden­ti­cal with the ratios of the dis­tances between the then known plan­ets as viewed from the earth, an idea which lost its cred­i­bil­i­ty when it became known that every­thing rotat­ed around the sun and not the earth. Nev­er­the­less, due to philoso­phers’ desire to account for all nat­ur­al things in a log­i­cal expla­na­tion, the notion that the over­tone series might be relat­ed to the place­ments of the plan­ets did result in music being includ­ed among the real sci­ences of the medieval Quadriv­i­um, with astron­o­my, geom­e­try and arithmetic.

How­ev­er attrac­tive this log­ic seemed to philoso­phers who dis­cussed this top­ic dur­ing the thou­sand years fol­low­ing Pythago­ras, the stum­bling block was always the fact that one can­not hear this Music of the Spheres. Many ear­ly thinkers advanced rea­sons for this, as for exam­ple in the case of the great 17th cen­tu­ry math­e­mati­cian Marin Mersene in his mon­u­men­tal Har­monie uni­verselle of 1636. He sug­gest­ed that the fact that we had become accus­tomed to this music from the time of being in the wombs of our moth­ers caused the very con­tin­u­ous nature of the music to be unno­tice­able. Or, then again, per­haps it is because this music is too far from us, too low, too high, or too great to be heard, as hap­pens with cer­tain oth­er phe­nom­e­na. We are, for exam­ple, unable to hear the sound or noise which ants and oth­er lit­tle ani­mals make when they walk, run, crawl, or fly, inas­much as the sound is too lit­tle and too feeble.

Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) was the last impor­tant astronomer to take seri­ous­ly the music of the spheres. One day, when teach­ing a geom­e­try class in 1595, he was draw­ing on the black­board a tri­an­gle inscribed with­in a cir­cle, in the cen­tre of which there was yet anoth­er cir­cle, where­upon he expe­ri­enced a sud­den insight—it seemed to him that the ratio between these two cir­cles was the same as that between the orbits of Sat­urn and Jupiter. This led to a long peri­od of study in which he attempt­ed to prove that the orga­ni­za­tion of the plan­ets fol­lowed basic geo­met­ric fig­ures. Then he real­ized that in his pure­ly geo­met­ri­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal expla­na­tions he had giv­en no con­sid­er­a­tion to time. It was the real­iza­tion that time must be a fac­tor in plan­e­tary design which caused him to turn his atten­tion to musi­cal har­mo­ny (which also moves through time), even­tu­al­ly result­ing in his Har­mo­ny of the Uni­verse (1619).

A minor­i­ty of impor­tant ear­ly thinkers, begin­ning with Aris­to­tle, had imme­di­ate­ly dis­missed the entire idea of the Music of the Spheres as non­sense and after Kepler the sub­ject has had lit­tle dis­cus­sion. How­ev­er the dis­cov­ery in 2002 by NASA’s Chan­dra X‑ray Obser­va­to­ry that a black hole in the Perseus clus­ter pro­duces a Bb, 57 octaves below mid­dle C has rein­tro­duced the sub­ject. It is not the Music of the Spheres of old, but it rais­es once again fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of pitch, move­ment and time.

Music lovers today are famil­iar with The Plan­ets by Gus­tav Holst, a mag­nif­i­cent cycle of com­po­si­tions which attempt to give an actu­al phys­i­cal or char­ac­ter­is­tic descrip­tion of the indi­vid­ual plan­ets as under­stood by Holst. This was not the goal of the present Music of the Spheres. In my case I want­ed to com­pose music which expressed some of my own ideas of the plan­ets, ideas often being mere feel­ings too indis­tinct to put into words. Since this sub­ject was still very much a top­ic of dis­cus­sion dur­ing the Renais­sance and Baroque Peri­ods, I decid­ed it would be inter­est­ing to asso­ciate my feel­ings with ear­ly dances of those years.

David Whitwell
Austin, 2013

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