The Consolations of Music
I had followed the track on foot. You know my interest in follies. I have often made long diversions in search of a ruined tower. I seemed to remember the name of the village I had passed through and that there was something of interest nearby, even if it would mean an alarming adventure, climbing over a fallen estate wall or being tangled in ivy. The track was long unused. The deep ruts must have been made by wagons that had rotted long ago. I passed moulding mossy woodpiles and found the path leading deeper into the trees. The light and shadow were intense. It was beautiful but confusing to the sight. It became a changing abstract pattern as if seen through a green glass kaleidoscope. I was dazzled. I may have left the path.
The brilliance of the flickering light dimmed. Had I lost all sense of time and entered the wood just before night fell with unnatural speed? The atmosphere was warm, humid – which confused my senses even more, as if I were in a moist cloud of damp green air with no tangible shape. If I were to turn back I would, I felt, still face the same direction. Or as good as. I felt strangeness rather than fear. There was a sense of detachment. I have been lost in woods before but there was none of that panic that comes with scratched legs, stumbles over fallen trees and bind stems. What shall I do now? There was nothing I could contemplate doing, and, so I sensed, quite literally nowhere to go. I was held immobile. A muffled and directionless sound of wind in the formless trees was a cocoon more unbreakable than silence. I have lived, as you know, on the move. Stasis was a new sensation, as if produced by an anaesthetic draught. Perhaps I would never move again. Held in this web I found myself, quite calmly, thinking about the travelling that had brought me here.
I have always followed irregular and indirect paths. I am a person of changeable and indecisive moods. As a “composing mortal” I have wavered between the varying attractions of several muses. Yes, “muses” is the word, however fanciful some may think this is. I can picture them in human terms, but they are, (aren’t they?), the embodiments of the conflicting calls of different creative spirits. There is the fantastic light hearted muse with the quizzical smile, who brings the desire to play with forms, explore fantastic stories and games. There is the more sober and melancholy muse who makes me want to dwell on the sacred, to contemplate in the shadows. There is the muse of the fields, wood and roads who draws me to the changing music of nature - which we may never be able to imitate but to which we may add a single voice. Each has brought me pleasure and, as you know, has given me the energy to compose a few small things in each of their qualities - in their honour, if you like. But has this service of multiple mistresses caused me to take too irregular a track? Is it simply indecisiveness that has brought me to this impasse? Should I turn my full devotion to one – at my advanced age, perhaps, to the contemplative, to the shadowy study or solitary tower?
“Where I may oft out-watch the Bear, With thrice great Hermes…”
“What place is this? Where have you led me?”
Having formed the images of my three guides in this way and having asked them this question I became aware that the deep greyness had risen as mist does to reveal the path again – and I moved forward. I saw that the path had become artificial. It was a lightly gravelled track, edged with rough dark stones that sparkled in places with quartz. The ground beyond, such as I could see it, was a confused mass of low lying greenery, scattered with cold blue flowers. I seemed to be moving into a garden, or what had once been a garden. Here, eerily appearing above me, was an archway. It was a roughcast arch, of flints and crumbling cement. Above the arch a block of stained marble had been set with the inscription:
The word was as crude as the stonework. What language was it? Was it a name - or a warning? I passed through the arch and entered what must have been the garden proper. The mist was brightening. At the sides of the path now were well cut shrubs, not formally placed but irregular, with patches of red and yellow flowers between them. I looked upwards, aware of a further brightening. I saw something which made me almost stumble with giddiness. The mist had opened a window and through this opening I could see what at first seemed to be a white moon, high above and far way.
As my reason adjusted my vision I could see that I was looking at a dome, circled by a stone parapet, a small dome as might crown an observatory, designed to iris open to allow the use of a telescope – though I could see no sign of an opening. Yes, I remembered. This was the folly I had originally been looking for. The Observatory. I was now close to the modest building. A plain portico stood at the end of the path – and an open door. I walked forward as the last wraiths of mist scurried into the shrubbery. The door opened into a modest sized room, not a hall, but a study or library. There were fine classical book cabinets on both sides set between tall and narrow windows. I am always drawn, on entering any room, to look at the titles of the books. Most of those that caught my eye as I moved towards one of the cabinets were old bindings and the names were hard to read – perhaps 17th and 18th century tracts and poetry – but I could make out “Siris”, “The Principles and Power of Harmony”, “Poems for Several Occasions”, “A Discourse on the Freedom of the Will”, “Hermes”, “The Vanity of Dogmatizing.” A clavichord rested to one side, a long box like instrument.
I touched a key and it made a toneless rattle. Carl Philip Emanuel would be horrified. Its open cover was decorated with a familiar motto:
MUSICA LAETITIAE COMES MEDICINA DOLORUM
Before I could look more closely at the bookshelves, or at the pages of music heaped on the instrument, I saw that a lady had appeared in the room. At first I felt a certain chill. She was a slightly forbidding figure - very tall, elegant, silver haired, and dressed in a simple black velvet dress ornamented by a bright jewelled brooch. There were, held in some way I could not quite make out, a few smaller jewels in her hair, bright against the silver. In the same moment as I saw her she spoke, as if continuing the conversation I had been having with in my thoughts.
If we follow three guides is it surprising that we may find ourselves in a fog?
I’m sorry. I am indecisive by nature.
Or fickle to your muses?
You know them?
Of course. They each speak of you when we meet. We have our occasional convocations.
When the stations of the stars and days allow.
I hope not fickle. I have long found myself wandering from one to the other. I feel I should be settled, decide to serve a single muse. Shouldn’t I devote myself to the sacred and turn away from the Countess’s temptations, her games, her formal gardens, her pagan stories? I feel Maude has been looking at me critically, hoping I would turn to more sober explorations – and then there is the music of Nature, the wish to sing the songs of the trees.
And what do they say, these muses? Has Maude expressed this criticism? Has she expressed sorrow that you play the Countess’s delightful games? Has the Countess mocked Maude’s vocation?
No, never. They always speak to each other respect, and they enjoy the company of that young earthy friend, that female clown.
That is how it should be. You know the truth of it, but it falls to me to remind you. This is the essential truth. You cannot think of one as sacred, one as profane, one as earthy or pagan. They are all servants of harmony. All harmony is sacred. There is only one harmony. Harmony is in itself an expression of unity as all tones are derived from a single sound.
I understand harmony, but as something intangible. Music is something other.
What is music?
Music is made of many harmonies, many changes of tone, concord and discord. It has forms in time. It can express feeling, suggest meanings.
Music is harmony expressed in Nature. Harmony is unchanging, The Music of the Spheres is unchanging and inaudible to Nature. This unchanging Harmony sounds through changing Nature as Music, giving form and meaning to everything. Nature can only know the unchanging harmony through the experience of Music. This living experience of mutable song is the way we know the source of harmony. It is quite useless to attempt to imitate the Harmony of the Spheres in itself. The mystic has only one way to escape earthly music and that is in SILENCE. Only SILENCE can lead us directly to the source of harmony. But the musician who knows that all music is one music and that all music takes its meaning from Harmony, that all music is an infinite expression of the One can help reveal the song in the world and can fill his heart with the desire for the One so that, one day, or just for a moment, the SILENCE beyond music can fill his soul.
But can all music be equally sacred? Some believe no music can be sacred as it is purely earthly, sensual.
As with love human music can be misdirected. It can be selfish, it can be dominating. Of course your own music, instrumental music, has taken hundreds of years to learn its language. In its simplest state it could be crudely physical, but even in its most subtle art it could be used to impose feelings or enforce ideas. Your music, to be part of the universal music, should come from humility and love, be always something shared between performers and listeners. But can we ever say that even the roughest music is not part of a larger music and has its place? You know that in Nature all our fragmentary works are parts of one whole.
I see that. Everything we do, either in its imperfection or in its own unity, reveals the greater unity.
Your sacred music, then, what is it?
I suppose, then, it is no more sacred in itself than any other music, but it can be music, or the writing of it, that helps us worship or meditate on sacred things.
And the end of such meditation?
Should be to make us better listeners – to help us hear the music in everything or to inspire us to seek SILENCE.
Yes. If a composer believes that his sacred music, as music, has more value than his secular music he is denying the music in Creation. He is following a false God, a partial God. I can see that you have a vocation. Your friendly muses have guided you carefully. Everyone may follow different muses, have a soul that responds to one as leader and others as echoes or subsidiary guides. We all have the music of the heavenly spheres within us – and these muses are echoes of that intangible celestial harmony. Their purpose, our purpose, is always the same – to help one hear more clearly and feel more clearly. Your vocation must be to serve the music, all music, and in your very limited and humble way, using your very limited resources, to learn the workings of harmony and form in nature and to reveal the music to others. Of course, some serve in other ways. To some Harmony is experienced in words, in poetry, tragedy or comedy. Some have muses that guide them to work physical Form. Some serve simply by living. To live fully these must never be exclusive. However one devotes oneself to the tragic, the sacred or the comic one must never deny or denigrate the other expressions – or one is denying Harmony itself by denying Unity. We all need to know our harmonies, the modes of the spheres within us, in a healthy balance, like planetary bodies held in the play of their gravities, but in combinations unique to each. The architect of this temple understood this.
She led me through a door into another room. It was a blaze of colour, and circular, with doors at the cardinal points. The walls were painted with vivid and exquisite murals. I could hardly make out any detail, just a fantastical sweep of landscapes, curious buildings, forests, rivers, lakes and seas, figures riding, embracing, encountering monsters, following paths. Perhaps because of my own interests I did, I think, recognise Orpheus, walking forward with Euridice following, resting her hand on his shoulder. Would he resist the temptation to look back? Or had he turned - was she, or her soul, vanishing into Hades?
I have been here before. Thirty years ago I wrote:
The sky’s horizon spreads on all four walls,
Reaching a few feet down from the ceiling
To a stylised range of white-capped mountains,
Sharply piercing the blue, softening as they fall
To smooth green foothills, bursting with flowers.
Twining tendrils follow no perspective,
Trailing to coloured blooms, wild roses Intricately painted, exact and alive;
And amongst the flowers are goddesses and gods:
Delicate eyes, filaments of golden hair In the imitated style of Botticelli.
The painted gods relax with unicorns, flee
The pursuit of bulls to craggy caves, And burgeon into butterflies.
The seasons Rule each wall. The north (I take it)
Has the cold rock of winter to the floor.
Spring’s born in the east and the Graces dance.
Flora hardly draws a breath, and she springs
Into flower, sighs as petals fall a mantle on her.
Summer has the south – the grass is gold.
And sun’s delighting lovers lie asleep.
The west, of course, is autumn. Here the hills
Rise from the wealth of wine-press, harvest store
And roses overblown amongst the vines,
To a colder, better, height – the rocks like glass
Beyond the death of winter, that achieve
The startling shine and glamour of the stars
Our friend who made this room was a classicist – and so it was painted – but I wonder if all visitors would see the same scenes and the same stories? Here we see through one of Nature’s veils. These images may tell of the deeper workings of our souls and of the world but all this is still Nature. Shall we climb to the Observatory?
A spiral staircase, set off centre in the circular room, led upwards. She followed as I climbed to enter the domed Observatory that I had seen through the window in the cloud. There was no telescope here, but the mechanism of a Camera Obscura, lenses and brasswork and controlling chains hanging from the ceiling. Beneath this was the vividly white disc of the table, the screen. Around the perimeter of the table was an inscription in brass letters:
MUSICA NIHIL ALIUD EST QUAM OMNIUM ORDINEM SCIRE
She turned a handle on the wall and the shutters closed on the windows. There was darkness for only a moment as she reached to one of the controlling chains and light flooded the table. First I saw lines radiating from the centre like a compass, but these were marked with the signs of the zodiac.
THE LADY For our philosopher this place was at the centre of everywhere. These “region rhombs” (as he calls them) mark out the world beyond.
An image began to form beneath the overlying compass which gradually resolved itself into an aerial view, seen from too great a height to be identified – but a further adjustment of the controls revealed enough, through parts of coastline at certain points, to show that this was a view of this island.
THE LADY This is England, simply because we are in England. I can widen the field if you wish, or view the world from another focus. Delphi, perhaps? Some other omphalos? Shall we stay with this small island? Look, you can see roads and rivers. For some mysterious reason, due to the peculiarities of the mechanism, you can see the feint green lines of the ancient tracks more clearly than the modern roads. Some of these you may have followed.
Yes indeed. As she drew the operating chains to and fro the image seemed to focus more closely on ways I had known. Or was it simply a green blur that could at any moment turn into a shapeless fog like the wood I had passed through? As the green image moved I could hear the music that I had tried to compose, not my own but my attempt to record in music what I had seen and felt on my journey. But there were other musics overlapping, music like the unfolding hills, voices singing – and I could see the singers – dim figures against ploughed fields, singing as they worked, singing as the chopped turnips in a freezing shed, singing on narrow boats passing between fields, singing in vast factories resounding with machinery, singing as they danced outside inns, in school playgrounds, singing and dancing in a frenzy of coloured light, in complex choirs which weaved sounds over sound which seemed to weave stones, vaults, windows from itself and landscapes beyond the windows – and there were images too where no one was singing, but merely walking paved or cobbled streets, remembering over a mangle, kneading dough, laughing at a nine inch television, dodging the cars at a crossing, lying alone in darkness – but all had their unheard music. As she drew the lens away further I could see and hear larger works, the sense of movement of people - entering unknown forests, abandoning fields for cities, armies tracing the greater forms of gloomy symphonies, branch trains tracing string quartets through hills and villages, pendolinos sketching a swift melodic line with the sweep of a draughtsman’s stylus.
Some say the Earth has no music – but this is your music, the infinitely varied and ever growing web of music that makes harmony audible. You hear the music, which is Harmony in Time, and you see Nature dancing to the music. Dance is music in Space and Time.
She reached for a higher chain and as she pulled it the confused colours were replaced by darkness – and then brilliant sparks of light. Stars and galaxies, moving, dancing, sometimes changing in colour and size, forming and dissolving. This was the material universe – not the archetypal cosmos of Harmony. And in the dark blue inner dome above us, from which the apparatus of the camera obscura hung, I could see another universe, in painted gold, of the circling spheres of the planets around the small green globe of earth, and beyond them, at the outer limits, the celestial sphere of the stars. Around the outer circumference, set in silver letters, was this verse:
O QUI PERPETUA MUNDUM RATIONE GUBERNAS, TERRARUM CAELIQUE SATOR
This was the representation of harmony, rather than the observed universe. This Music of the Spheres lived in all these worlds – exploding suns, demi-gods, singers in the field.
The same music, the same dance. You see, our philosopher has allowed us to observe a wider Nature than many see. Do you remember now? I have shown you these things before. Do you remember, now, after years of distraction, how I spoke to you then? How this search for music, to join the dance, is our vocation, which we must all follow in the way the music in our individual soul guides us?
“If we live in ourselves we’re lifeless, meaningless, destructive, but once we find the flow of love, the swing of the music, we come to life. To join the dance is a strange delight. We find true joy, and, if it suits us, inspiration, only in the dance. It’s not just people. It’s everything. Every part of Nature follows the dance. Rocks and hills can arrange themselves, the stars themselves dance. We may not see the movement but we can feel the tremor of joy when we join. When we give ourselves to the dance we find it is all ours, and, more than that, it is all each and every dancer’s. The patterns the dance weaves wind sideways through time and space. We may not see them but we can sense the moments of grace when we pass through those mysterious interstices. Love is never static, but active, and often difficult - sometimes a light pleasure, sometimes intense, the old white spiritual flame, agonising but always rewarding with joy. The dance moves towards the establishment of peace - but it will never end. When the work of this dance of Creation is complete we will see the pattern of the dance, as visionaries may see it now, but we will dance on to preserve the peace and imitate eternity. The dance matters. Love matters. Nothing else.”
This Observatory, then, was a place for the study of the celestial music in all of nature, from the dance of the stars to the sculptures moss shapes on the face of a fallen statue. Music, the study of music, is, indeed, the study of the order of things, the understanding of forms in the whole of nature, whether of the conjunctions of stars, the silent wave of the moss on the stone, of the changing balance of the planetary modes in our souls, of a life, of a conversation. To compose music, which is only one aspect of performance, and no more important than the sources of ideas, the performers or the listeners who share the creation of the work, is also to share in the dance of creation itself.
This Lady of the Observatory explained that the knowledge of harmony can lead to the knowledge of the source of harmony - but I know, from my conversations with the other muses that our work is also participation in the endless creativity of the world. Nothing is static, everything evolves, new works are formed, small works become parts of larger – and that our own works, however trivial and imperfect are our own experiences of meaning and form – our humble creations (our creations?) can find a unity and truth which is shared with the source of things and with the one great dance, the “establishment of peace.” Yes, she was right to say that I should not reject any one of the muses. We all too easily fall into the trap of seeing the divine in only one part of our lives. God is in all music or in SILENCE. We can easily create our own limited gods who rule over the segments of the world our narrow minds select, even if those self-made compartments of the world are church or temple.
I can also feel confident now, dear friend, that even my most light hearted game is part of my service and study. I may be limited in my language, but I can use what I have in this playful research. “Simply the thing I am shall make me live.”
We returned to the library.
The Lady of the Observatory took a tray from an elegant table and joined her several companions, moving between the other guests, serving neat sandwiches with surprising contents, curiously coloured cakes, meringues. Ah yes, even this quiet tea party was a dance. They moved between us, appearing at each guest’s side to offer their savouries and sweets according to the individual’s taste. I shouldn’t mention who the other guests were. I am sure you would have known a few. There were four of five I knew myself, friends and colleagues in the way that you would understand, attending this reception exempt from time. By no means all musicians. I may mention, if I am allowed a cryptic reference, our witty poetess of the puddings, the seraphic philosopher, our musical Master (oh, if only I could have more time for conversation), the visionary of rural Kent – and even, yes, in the shadow by the clavichord, the tragic singer of Atlantis….
After a few delicious nibbles the purpose of the evening revealed itself. The ladies’ serving trays were replaced by salvers, each with coloured envelopes. They circled amongst us again, offering us, on the salvers, envelopes with our own names, presented variously by those of the ladies who had taken a peculiar interest in each of us. This was done in silence, or it was supposed to be a silent ritual. I was pleased to see that earthy comedian again and she couldn’t resist saying as she offered me my envelope: No worry. There’s one for you, me old cabbage. Even the Lady of the Observatory, who seems to stand a little apart from the others, offered silver envelopes to a couple of figures who were strangers to me. These, I understood as I took three envelopes, were our commissions. These commissions were, as you will appreciate, also obligations.
When I read the few words on each card I saw that I had been given work that would take a large amount of time and send me on further travels. But what welcome work and what a happy obligation. I am not to limit myself to one particular music. I know now that our vocations do not tend to monomania but we have to know all the muses who hold our soul in balance. There is only one world and only one Harmony. To serve Harmony and its Divine Source we must allow all these muses to speak through us – or, as the Countess’s dear Marsilio would say, all our planets.
What is my work?
There is music that delights purely in form and in exploring its own language. There is music that is composed as a meditation on a divine subject – and music that tells a story such as illuminates the walls of the lower chamber of this observatory. The music takes its form from the story and shows that story and music are both translations of one hidden language. There is music that reflects the world, Nature in its larger forms (our travels, landscapes) or in its smaller forms. There is the music of Nature to which I have an obligation to listen. Listening is the composer’s obligation too. We are all share in the performance of Nature’s music. I have to be an audience to the music of certain small aspects of the world, perhaps neglected path, forgotten shrines or habitations. This vocation is not by any means a solitary one or to be confined to a dark study.
The muses’s commissions are by no means exclusive. Some works please one, some please several. Furthermore, I can imagine that if I found myself here at one of these elegant receptions another year there may be envelopes of other colours placed in my hands from salvers held by muses I have not previously acknowledged. So much work to do and so much travelling to do – as all this work is a travelling, whether through forests or towns, through the scenes of sacred or fantastic story, or through the worlds of pure music, which, however abstract, cannot fail to illuminate other images and landscapes in our souls.
I know now, however, that all these works that I am called to compose are fragments of one work, are volumes of one Book and that all the sonatas, fantasias, prayers ayres and dances are expressions of one Word just as all Harmony is an expression of one tone, indeed, simply of One.
4th July 2012