Music Director’s Message, October 7, 2017

Welcome back, Dr. Salgado! You thrilled us two years ago with the breathtaking images accompanying Holst’s The Planets, and we look forward to tonight’s “Universe at an Exhibition”, as you seek to promote science through the inspiration of art and music.

That science, math, and music are interconnected has been known since the ancient Greek philosophers walked the earth, even if explanations for that connection have changed. Pythagoras’ theory of the “Harmony of the Spheres”, in which the mathematics of musical relationships described the motion of the planets, was an elegant and satisfying way of explaining the universe. In the Middle Ages, learning was divided into two groups of related subjects: the Quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, while the Trivium consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Astronomy is the offspring of physics and mathematics. Acoustics—the science of sound—shares astronomy’s parentage, and so the two are—cousins? Music is an art, not a science, but its medium is sound, making it a close relative to acoustics. Our bodies are both producers and receivers of music’s sounds, and so the biological sciences enter; human physiology studies our hands, voices, ears, and brains, while physicians stand by to fix problems of transmission and reception related to our bodies. The close kinship of music to science is clearly established, even if the details of the family tree remain elusive.

Mussorgsky audaciously sought to transmute the visual artwork of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, into music; impossible, according to the laws of physics and music. But imagination has the power to overrule both art and nature. When we hear “The Great Gate of Kiev”, we imagine something far grander than Hartmann’s bizarre drawing (look it up!). What’s stopping us from visualizing exploding supernovae, or galaxies millions of light years away?

In his Celestial Suite, James Stephenson pays tribute to five of history’s greatest astronomers—Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Hubble, and Hawkings—whose work made those images possible. They gazed through telescopes, made endlessly calculations, and thought deeply. Their discoveries upset conventional world views, exposed them to ridicule and sometimes even provoked threats to their lives.  

So how does Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture contribute to this heavenly theme; a work that Bernard Shaw described as combining “every classic quality of a concert overture with every lyrical and dramatic quality of the overture to Die Meistersinger”? It doesn’t. It was programmed first. I like it. You will, too!


Steven Larsen