Music of the Spheres, or, Why I wish I was in Banff

Tafelmusik: The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres
Last Friday Tafelmusik helped inaugurate the International Year of Astronomy with a special concert in Banff, Alberta. The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres is a special program of baroque music from the time of Galileo and inspired by the stars and planets.

Our programme begins and ends with reflections on the ancient concept of the “Music of the Spheres,” thought to have been created by a heavenly ensemble of planets and stars making music together as they move through space. The concert’s opening speech from The Merchant of Venice contains Lorenzo’s beautiful expression of this idea: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st but in his motion like an angel sings, still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.”

The subject was treated extensively in Harmonices Mundi (The Harmony of the Worlds, 1619) by Johannes Kepler, who used the formulas from his laws of planetary motion to derive musical intervals and short melodies associated with each planet. We perform these short tunes on their own, and then weave them into the chorale tune “Wie Schön Leuchtet die Morgenstern,” (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star).

Astronomy and Music were closely connected at the time, and astronomers and musicians were sometimes the same people:

Uranus was discovered in 1781 by oboist, organist, composer and amateur astronomer, Sir William Herschel who, like Handel, had moved to England from Hanover. Herschel also built the largest and finest telescopes of his day, catalogued nebulae and discovered infrared radiation with the help of his musician sister Caroline, the discoverer of several comets.

Even Galileo Galilei, whose first astronomical observations we are celebrating this year, was an accomplished lutenist, and his father was a composer who studied the physics of the vibration of his lute strings.

The programme notes for the concert mention the 1719 Dresden Festival of the Planets:

George Frideric Handel made more of a sensation when he travelled from his adopted country of England to his homeland of Germany in order to play at a glittering royal wedding celebration in Dresden in September of 1719. It was a month-long “Festival of the Planets” with numerous operas, balls, outdoor events and special concerts in honour of each of the known planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn….

There are detailed archives of the musical events at the 1719 Festival of the Planets, and we know that not only Handel but also Georg Philipp Telemann, who was living in Frankfurt at the time, joined the renowned musicians employed by Augustus the Strong in Dresden. These included double-bass player Jan Dismas Zelenka and Silvius Leopold Weiss, Europe’s most famous lutenist.

Can you imagine? Unfortunately I can’t travel back in time to see Handel or across the country to see Tafelmusik, but I can listen to Bach’s ode to Venus, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly shines the morning star, BWV 1!):