Sunday, 17 February 2019

Musica Universalis

I must have gazed up at the night sky many tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of times during my life but I have never once heard the Musica Universalis, or the music of the spheres. Pythagoras taught that the planets had a harmonic relationship to each other. He identified that the pitch of a musical note is inversely proportional to the length of string that produces it. Extending this theory to the night sky he postulated that the distances between the planets could produce tones or semitones that were inaudible from Earth but filled the spaces between the planets. In Shakespeare's time, however, people thought that they could indeed hear the music of the spheres. In The Merchant of Venice Lorenzo claims to hear the sweet harmony (Act V, Scene 1) and also Pericles in the eponymously named play hears "the rarest sounds, most heavenly music" (Act V, Scene 1). In As You Like It Duke Senior comments to Jacques that "If he, compact of jars, grow musical. We shall have shortly discord in the spheres" (Act II, Scene 7). In Twelfth Night and Anthony and Cleopatra there are also fleeting mentions of the heavenly music (Act III, Scene 1 and Act V, Scene 2 respectively). Clearly Shakespeare's audiences thought it entirely reasonable that the planets and stars emitted musical notes as the passed through the night sky and that on occasion this celestial harmony could be heard on Earth. In 1907 Gustav Mahler completed his 8th Symphony of which he wrote  "Imagine that the Universe is singing and humming. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns that spin". Mahler's 8th is sometimes called the Symphony of a Thousand and is very loud in places! The music of the spheres has in recent years inspired contemporary musicians like Bjork and Mike Oldfield to produce new work. Of course we now know that there is near vacuum between the stars and planets and so there is no medium to propagate sound waves but it turns out that the heavens are not entirely quiet. Radio waves can pass through a vacuum and through the Earth's atmosphere. It turns out that many celestial bodies produce radio waves and can be identified by their unique call signal. A You Tube video contains several examples. I would not describe the sounds as sweet harmony but science, Shakespeare and Pythagoras are not too far apart. 

Saturday, 2 February 2019


Shakespeare only uses the word China once in his entire works. In Measure for Measure Act II, Scene 1 Pompey refers to dishes being offered not being China dishes but still very good.  Search for orient instead and there are seven instances in total but five of these refer to pearls and the other two to a general eastward direction. It is likely that even if Shakespeare's audiences did not own pearls they would have been aware of their round shape and brightness and so would have understood the allusions to tears (Richard III, Act IV, Scene4 and Venus and  Adonis line 1001) or the dew on a plant bud (Midsummer Night's Dream Act IV, Scene 1 & Passionate Pilgrim line 132)  In Antony and Cleopatra (Act I, Scene 5) Alexas refers to Mark Antony in complimentary terms as an oriental pearl. Shakespeare often writes of merchants and traders and also of high value gifts given to the nobility so it is odd that he does not refer to China or Manchuria as the place of origin of the traded goods. Shakespeare must have heard of Marco Polo as his account of his travels to the East was a bestseller. However, like China, Marco Polo is also absent from his works.  In a couple of days time on February 5th it will be the Chinese New Year the time of which is set by the lunar calendar and the new moon. In England it is more or less impossible to be unaware of this as every supermarket seems to have a prominent a seasonal display of Chinese food, woks and cooking utensils. Looking to the South on February 1st the old moon, Jupiter and Venus formed a straight line in the morning sky. Venus is to the left and Jupiter is to the right. In astrology the conjunction of these two beneficial planets is thought to be extremely favourable. In Chinese astrology the year of the pig which begins in three days time is considered auspicious as the pig is considered to attract success so the astrological signs are all there for an extremely favourable and auspicious Chinese new year.