The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Title: The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Author: Jamie James

Published: Abacus, 1995

"There was a time when the universe was believed to cohere, when human life had a meaning and purpose. ... The key to the universe is no longer of use to anyone, because the exquisite edifice it once unlocked has crumbled into nothingness. Nonetheless, it does seem worth knowing that down through the vastest [sic] majority of history, our ancestors believed that the world made sense, that it was a place where they belonged. And because they were human even when they were wrong, we can belong there, too."

The Music of the Spheres by Jamie James, p.xiv-xv

This sets the tone and colours the entire book. On the one hand, we are (according to Mr James) grown up enough to forget about things like religion today. On the other hand, we are so depressed in our state of liberation that it is necessary for us to take visits into music of the deluded past, just to cheer ourselves up. This is an interesting signpost in terms of humanistic music. The presence of joy in the music of an era of Christian civilisation is observable. The lack of joy in modern music is equally palpable. Mr James uses Mahler to illustrate how joy and hope have been extinguished in music:

"... by the time we come to the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the sense of oppression is overwhelming. For all that the musical idiom has the sweeping exaltation and surface brilliance of high Romanticism, the cumulative effect is a sense of crushing chagrin, almost of calamity. By symphony’s end, the audience feels as though it has just concluded an especially traumatic session with the psychiatrist: drained, nerves jangled, and yet still with no answers.

"At the core of the experience, finally, there is a hollowness. One feels that it has not been any more satisfying for the composer than it has been for us - the search for answers has ended in the realisation that the questions were all wrong, or, worse, that it was not permitted to ask them. The composer’s yearning has expanded to the outer limits of the universe, which he finally comes to feel cannot contain all that he yearns for, because the universe is precisely himself; what he longs for most is to transcend and escape his own selfhood. Yet there is no place left to wish for, no exit possible, because his yearning, his wounded soul has absorbed every atom of what is. The artist became the victim of a cruel paradox: even as his self-conscious sensibilities grew ever more exquisite, the objective image of the universe being pictured by science left less firm ground for him to stand upon."

The Music of the Spheres by Jamie James, “Chapter 11: Schoenberg and the Revival of the Great Theme” (p.213-214)

Mr James' honesty is commendable and appreciated by this reader at least. He identifies his fears and doubts and dissatisfaction with culture without any prejudice towards Christianity. This begs the question, if he can see the problems why cannot the Church?

It is of no lasting comfort for Mr James to have historical hope and finite joy in Classical music. He - like us - hungers for new expressions of the same matters. We do want new music of the same power. Boris Ford doesn't think we will find it:

"One may come to feel that a culture which lacks a firm centre of coherent life-giving wisdom, a common sensibility or sophia as distinct from institutions, scholasticism, and debate, is no culture at all, and that the post-Christian world is essentially cultureless."

The Pelican Guide to English Literature 6: From Dickens to Hardy, ed. by Boris Ford, p.56