Saturday, December 3, 2011

“Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres!” - "Celestial Music" and Vaughan Williams’ Hodie

Last night, the Hartford Chorale, the Connecticut Children’s Chorus, and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (all under the direction of the Chorale’s Music Director, Richard Coffey) gave the second of four performances of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Christmas cantata Hodie. Our first performance on Thursday was very good, and earned a nice review in The Hartford Courant (click here to read it on Quodlibet). Last night’s performance was even better than Thursday’s, and I sense that this evening’s performance might surpass them both. Do come to hear this marvelous music, so rarely performed. The first half of the program is also wonderful: the dashing overture to Glinka’s Rulsan and Ludmilla, and the enchanting suite of dances from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Richard Coffey conducts the entire program. Details on times, venue, and tickets are at the end of this post.

The other day I wrote a bit about some of the beautiful poetry that Vaughan Williams selected for Hodie (click here to read that post), and I mentioned that “The March of the Three Kings” (movement XIV) was one of my two favorite movements, by merit of the poetry as much as the music. My other favorite is the Epilogue, which includes verses from the Bible (John 1: 1-14) and these three marvelous verses from Milton’s 27-stanza poem Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity (composed in 1629):

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so;
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow;
And, with your ninefold harmony,
Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.

Such music (as ’tis said),
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of the morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced world on hinges hung:
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.

Yea, truth and justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued cloud down-steering;
And heaven, as at some festival.
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.

Oh, that is so beautiful. But what is it all about?

It’s clear that Milton is writing about music; and in fact, he is writing about Musica Universalis, or the "music of the spheres," the ancient philosophical-mathematical concept in which the movements of the celestial bodies (planets, sun, moon, stars) were believed to create a perfect music, inaudible to human ears, but representative of perfection in the universe. The idea may have originated with Pythagoras (ca. 570 to ca. 490 BCE), the Greek philosopher-mathematician, whose writings on mysticism and numerology influenced Western thought for many centuries. At that time, of course, the Earth was believed to be at the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, and planets revolving around the Earth in their “proper spheres.” This celestial arrangement was thought to be aligned and related by the same whole-number ratios by which musical intervals are also governed. Thus, it was believed that when the sun, moon, and stars rotated around the Earth, they would generate a “celestial music,” the “music of the spheres,” which was, by definition, perfect. [I always envision, and enaudiate, this as something like a universe-sized glass harmonica.]

The idea of the “music of the spheres” influenced Pythagoras’ explorations of musical intervals, and supposedly supported his discovery that actual musical intervals (the entire harmonic series well-known to every musician) can be represented by the same simple mathematical ratios that supposedly govern the celestial harmonies.

Plato (429–347 BCE.) incorporated some of Pythagoras’ concepts into his own philosophies about the structure of the universe, and centuries later, the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), drew on both men’s work in his 1619 work Harmonice Mundi (Harmony of the World), in which he “explain[ed] the proportions of the natural world - particularly the astronomical and astrological aspects - in terms of music.” Central to his work was the concept of musica universalis, or "music of the spheres," specifically that geometry (and “sacred geometry”), cosmology, astrology, harmonics, and music are deeply and mystically connected through the music of the spheres. He conceived actual musical pitches for the heavenly bodies:

In 1629, just ten years after Kepler published the Harmonice Mundi, Milton composed his Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity. And now, understanding the prevailing philosophy of musica universalis under which Milton wrote, we can examine some of the musical references in the first two of the three verses that Vaughan Williams set in the Epilogue to Hodie.

Ring out, ye crystal spheres = the stars, sun, moon, and planets that revolve around the Earth. RVW rearranges the verses so that all three stanzas seem to be addressed to the celestial bodies.

If ye have power to touch our senses so = it must be an extraordinary event that would make the celestial music audible to human ears. (Lorenzo expands on this idea in Merchant of Venice, 5:1; Vaughan Williams set that entire, magical scene in his Serenade to Music.)

And let your silver chime / Move in melodious time = referring to the silvery music supposed to emanate from the heavens, and the orderly fashion in which the music was generated by the movement of the spheres

And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow = Organs are powered by wind/breath. The bass is the lowest part, of course, and would be the sound generated by the largest of the celestial orbs; this bass sound would be the fundamental to the overtones that are the celestial music.

And with your ninefold harmony = harmony formed from nine separate melodies, representing the nine planets.

Make up full consort to the angelic symphony = A consort is a performing ensemble.

Such music (as ’tis said), /Before was never made,
But [except] when of old the sons of morning sung... = This entire stanza refers to the understanding that the celestial music did not exist until God created the heavens and set the celestial spheres in motion. The word “but” at the beginning of the second line means “except.” “Sons of morning” refers to Job 38:6-8, but is probably a perpetuation of the common misspelling of “sons” for “suns.” But the most important idea here is that on this day, the day of Christ’s birth, the music of the spheres is as profoundly beautiful as it was at the beginning of Creation.

I find this all fascinating, and I know that my performance will better for an improved understanding of this history and Vaughan Williams' appreciation for it.

You may read Milton’s entire poem -- 27 stanzas with a four-stanza prelude -- with commentary, here:

In Hodie, Movement III (“Song”) sets lines from stanzas 1 and 3, and all of stanzas 4, and 5. The Epilogue (Movement XVI) sets stanzas 13, 12, and 15 (in that order).


You can read all my posts about this music here:


Come hear the concert. Come early to catch the pre-concert lecture on Vaughan Williams Hodie; Mr. Coffey and Dr. Alain Frogley, an internationally-renowned expert on the life and music of Vaughan Williams, will share the lecture duties.

Hartford Symphony Orchestra Masterworks Series
with Richard Coffey, guest conductor
Stephanie Gilbert, soprano; Eric Barry, tenor; Eric Downs, bass-baritone
Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Hartford Chorale - Richard Coffey, music director
Connecticut Children’s Chorus - Stuart Younse, artistic director
Saturday, December 3, 2011 • 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, December 4, 2011 • 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater • The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

Mikhail Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Suite No. 1 from The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Hodie

Ticket Information
Tickets range in price from $35.50-$70.50.
Student tickets are $10
On Saturday, December 3, $25 tickets are available for patrons age 40 and under.
To purchase tickets or for more information, please contact HSO ticket services at (860) 244-2999 or visit

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.