I can’t be the only one who felt a personality shift during the pandemic. In times of uncertainty, you hope that what remains is the essential you: the true self beyond the surface of tastes and fashions. That’s the optimist’s viewpoint, and one worth adopting. A pessimist, however, might say that through difficulty we may be merely broken. Limping through the final squares of the 2020 calendar, my cynical side began to feel as though my guts were hanging out while I crawled forward like a dying samurai in an old art house movie.
One of the most curious changes was my taste in music. So much sounded intolerably unpleasant to me. There was one major exception: early music, or music before the Classical period (think everything through Bach in the Western European tradition — medieval, Renaissance and Baroque). Like the world’s most curmudgeonly curmudgeon, even Classical sounded too new, too clangy, too pompous. I wondered why.
And why did this arcane, dusty music sound so rapturous to my ears? Why did a few galliards from John Dowland or a madrigal from Monteverdi make all my troubles disappear like wine made from glaciers, as glorious vistas flared across my closed eyelids? I lay, buds against the drums, hands folded, fleetingly blissful, night after night.
Really, I had had it up to here with 2020 and had set the controls of my internal time machine to “elsewhere.” It wasn’t until I was reading Shakespeare that the answer came to me. In his plays were numerous mentions and references to the music of the spheres, something I vaguely recalled from grad school.
Here’s a refresher. There was once a time when many people believed that celestial bodies produced through their orbits “a harmony.” Later poets and artists would see this as metaphorical, but it’s important to remember that those who believed in the “musica universalis” thought that the celestial spheres, which included the sun, the moon, the planets and heaven, were so perfect in their movements around Earth that they produced a literal sound.
This concept is central to “Scipio’s Dream,” a book written by the Roman orator Cicero between 54 and 51 B.C. It tells the story of a Roman general who dreams of standing above Carthage one night. Feeling small under the innumerable stars of the Milky Way, the general begins to perceive the sweet music of the spheres. It is a sound that is “the mystic bond of all things in the universe,” and we humans have grown deaf to it. Scipio stands in amazement. From those heavenly sounds he realizes the untapped potential of the human spirit. And this was what I heard glimmers of in the works of those long-dead composers.
The music was giving me something lacking in the world: harmony, proportion, balance. It was everything that stood in opposition to a chaotic, divisive, noisy world. I, too, wanted to stand under an infinite sky and hear again the sounds we have grown too numb to notice.
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