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The Harmony of the Spheres

  From: Ernst Bloch, Essays on the philosophy of music, tr. by P. Palmer

[...] On one occasion the word [music] will be used to designate the wholly unformed, the pure mood, and the note's spectral character is appropriate to this. On another, conversely, it will signify a mastery in the learned skills of combination, a concern with the part rather than the heart. Sometimes music is regarded as a diffuse vagueness, as in the context of Schiller's observation: 'A certain musical frame of mind comes to me first, and only then does the poetic idea follow.' Christian Weisse, the Hegelian, expressed this in his aesthetics by placing music in the lowest category of the arts; by saying that in the tonal realm the spirit of the ideal still lacks shape and is weaving within itself, only expanding in the plastic arts and only expressing itself in a concentrated way in poetry (see Lotze, Geschichte der Asthetik, 1868, pp. 455f). At other times, on the contrary, music is regarded as a supremely finished construction, in fact a piece of mathematical logic which has strayed into the flimsy carryings-on of art almost by mistake, like Saul among the prophets. This is a repercussion of music's academic status in the quadrivium of mediaeval studies, where it constituted a science together with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. It was the Pythagorean, mathematical-astronomical, theory of music which gave the art its place in the quadrivium and indeed elevated it to a very superior, cosmically governed science. In this view, music was anything but a shapeless rushing or a warm bank of mist. Kepler connected it rather with the firmament, the realm of the purest cyclical motions, which were also the most objective in the world. Here, music did not well up out of feeling but gushed forth from the planets, pouring itself on the Earth first and only then on human beings.

'It is the task and predisposition of the Earth-soul to provoke the Earth into sweating so that rain will arise and the Earth will be usefully moistened. It is impelled to this through the attraction of the aspects, which is rather like a heavenly music; it will not stir until encouraged by a celestial tune. ..But the reason for the comparison of the astronomical aspects to music is that both the circle divided according to the aspects and the monochord divided according to the harmonies have divisions' (Johann Kepler in his Letters).  

So whereas music lacks all precision when taken to mean a mood, it has been treated as mathematics when it has meant proportion and also composition. Men have thought that music as a mood ceases to be music as soon as it assumes an intelligible shape, hence turning into architecture and poetry. Music as form and proportion, on the other hand, is deemed to become all the more itself, the more orderly its utterance and cosmographic nature are. Whereas music as a mood remains buried within the soul and seems the most chthonian of all the arts, so-called musica mathematica becomes wholly Uranian and steps off in heaven.

These, then, are controversies which are quite different from the dispute between expression and form, although they are related to it on an elevated theoretical plane. And the upshot is that in ages where expressive contents are rare, the great formal achievements of musical craftsmanship will be reified with particular ease. It has been said that a composer is a combination of a shaman and an engineer; at all events, after the discrediting of Romantic exuberance, it is the engineer who makes the more modern impression. Thus musical craftsmanship itself is denied its expressive task and becomes allied totally to a physical theory of notes, though a very highly developed one. The problem raised is not only melos without expression but -deriving from the self-sufficient canon's ideal and image of perfection- melos without an 'I', music dictated by rules. The Pythagorean and Keplerian background dimly but insistently makes itself felt: music is presented as a framework of parts following or rotating in an extra-human order. This order can be of the most prosaic kind, in fact a regulating of mere chance. A popular example is Scarlatti's Cat's Fugue, said to have taken its theme from the keys depressed by a cat which was crossing the keyboard. The ordering, however, can be extra-human in a more elevated way. Then even the keen disciplinarian will not frown upon its appearance in expressive music, as in the Adagio of Bruckner's Sixth Symphony, where three octaves of a scale slowly pass each other the gold buckets -a favourite example (even Beethoven offers a similar one in the Pastoral Symphony's finale) of music that exists on welltempered tone-physics and, on the face of it, nothing else. 

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