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Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death: Studies in Musical Iconology

Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death: Studies in Musical Iconology

Copyright Date: 1970
Pages: 404
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  • Book Info
    Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death: Studies in Musical Iconology
    Book Description:

    The roots and evolution of two concepts usually thought to be Western in origin-musica mundana(the music of the spheres) andmusica humana(music's relation to the human soul)-are explored. Beginning with a study of the early creeds of the Near East, Professor Meyer-Baer then traces their development in the works of Plato and the Gnostics, and in the art and literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Previous studies of symbolism in music have tended to focus on a single aspect of the problem. In this book the concepts ofmusica humanaandmusica mundaneare related to philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of religion and are given a rightful place in the history of civilization.

    Originally published in 1970.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7233-6
    Subjects: Music, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Photographic Sources
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xvii-xxviii)

    • Introduction to Part One
      (pp. 3-6)

      In 1493, Hartmann Schedel of Nuremberg published hisBuch der Chroniken.It is one of the earliest attempts at a history of the world and is illustrated with 1,809 woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff.¹ Musical instruments are depicted in six of the many illustrations. In one, four couples perform a quiet dance to the accompaniment of flute and drum. In two others, Tubal, the mythical inventor of music according to the Bible, and King David are shown with instruments, a portable organ and a harp, as signs and emblems that they are musicians. In the other three woodcuts,...

    • I Theories of the Cosmos in Antiquity
      (pp. 7-19)

      For the basic framework or background of the majority of the images and symbols on which this study will touch, it is essential to sketch the cosmologies of some of the ancient peoples. The ideas of the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, quite as much as those of the Old Testament authors, provided the original structure and population of the cosmos from which later concepts and figures related to music were derived. Hence, we begin with a brief account of how they envisaged the universe, the number of spheres or heavens they presumed it to contain, the order in which the...

    • II The Hellenistic Period
      (pp. 20-28)

      Alexander’s conquests spread Greek ideas to all the countries of the Near East, where they were variously adapted to the idiosyncracies of surrounding cultures. Virtually all Plato’s images recur, often singly and never all together, in the writings of quite different authors—Jewish, Gnostic, and Stoic, not to mention Neoplatonic. Among the fruit of this new cross-fertilization was a variety of images of music in the heavens which ranged from the purely pagan to those in Gnostic and early Christian works. Judging by the surviving literature, the Hellenistic era also produced many early elaborations of the orders of angels—ultimately...

    • III The Early Christian Centuries
      (pp. 29-41)

      The ideas of the musical cosmos and the angel orders were woven into all the beliefs of the ensuing period, into Jewish, Pagan, and Christian thought; and the. first five or six centuries of the Christian era saw the crystallization of systematic concepts in both fields, concepts which were to influence thought and art throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. The orders of angels were further elaborated by authors of different creeds, and the Christian version was finally, in effect, codified in Dionysius’s treatise,The Celestial Hierarchy.The idea of music in the cosmos underwent more or less parallel development,...

    • IV The Early Works of Art
      (pp. 42-69)

      The developments we have followed in written sources were reflected as well in painting and sculpture, but there are curiously few direct references to music in the works surviving from the period prior to the tenth century. Since a profusion of relevant works and manuscripts have come to light in recent years, this chapter will concentrate on a relatively small number of typical examples, with cursory mention of the more important of the others. The discussion will focus largely on four points: how the structure of the cosmos was imagined and depicted; how angels were visualized, especially their grouping; what...

    • V Tonal Theories of Music of the Spheres
      (pp. 70-86)

      The idea of music of the spheres was also the foundation for the semi-mythological theories of music that evolved in the early centuries of the Christian era and became one of the preoccupations of medieval writings on music. During the centuries preceding uoo, considerable intellectual energy was lavished on elaborating systems of musical scales and harmonics with reference to planetary orbits and mythical figures. It is, however, perhaps the measure of the complexity and abstract quality of this theorizing that its direct reflection in art was rare.

      The starting point for most theories was, again, Plato. In this instance, the...

    • VI The Emergence of Celestial Musicians in Christian Iconography
      (pp. 87-115)

      The earliest appearance of celestial musicians in Christian iconography seems to have evolved, paradoxically, neither from the Christian nor from the Graeco-Roman pagan tradition, but as a result of Arab influence, stemming originally from the Near East. Despite the frequent references in medieval poems and hymns to angels in connection with music of the spheres, not to mention many Biblical references to angels in connection with music, the only reflection of this in the visual arts was the occasional representation of angels carrying tablets inscribed with the Thrice Holy.

      The earliest pictures of angels with musical instruments are found in...

    • VII Late Medieval Writings and Dante’s Paradise
      (pp. 116-129)

      Earlier chapters have outlined the literary history up to the twelfth century and indicated that for the period from about 500 to 11OO the visions of the cosmos provided by Martianus Capella and Dionysius the Areopagite became predominant in pagan and Christian ideology, respectively. It was possible to trace the influence of both these books in theoretical treatises on music, in Christian writings and hymns, and in secular poetry; and from their frequent use, it may be concluded that they must have been widely known among literate people.

      Mention was also made of attempts to merge and integrate pagan and...

    • VIII Musician Angels
      (pp. 130-187)

      The angel as a participant in the making of celestial music finally began to be a prevalent figure in works of art in the fourteenth century. Angels appeared first as dancers, joining the dance of the blessed in paradise, and as singers in the heavenly chorus. The angel instrument player, ultimately the most popular image, was the last to join the making of celestial harmony, though angel players had appeared earlier in a rather different role related to the Psalms. The various forms of this development, and possible reasons for its seeming tardiness, will be discussed in this chapter, with...

    • IX Renaissance and Humanism
      (pp. 188-202)

      Earlier chapters have described how, in the vision of celestial music, the angels took over as performers and how the place for celestial concert became more and more restricted to the highest heaven, as well as how greatly the vision of paradise was influenced by Dante’sDivine Comedy.Ultimately, the angels replaced the Muses as movers of the spheres and the Elders of the Revelation and the faithful of the Psalms as musicians. With the coming of the new art of instrumental music, the angels changed more and more from dancers and singers to instrumentalists.

      However, the former forces of...

    • X Two Offshoots of the Idea of the Music of the Spheres
      (pp. 203-216)

      Two other fields where the influence of the idea of the music of the spheres was strong and remained palpable well into the nineteenth century are musical drama, or opera, and the illustrations for music books, especially their title pages. This does not, it should be noted, apply to medieval drama, in which, despite the frequent inclusion of angel choirs or a solo sung by an angel, I have yet to find a reference to cosmic structure or the music of the spheres. From the seventeenth century onward, music of the spheres was represented, not so much as a whole...


    • Introduction to Part Two
      (pp. 219-223)

      The second part of this study will trace the history of the symbolic relationship music has with death. This relationship is at once more complex and less familiar than the connection between music and harmony. It is more complex because the basic concepts involved are in themselves more problematic, the whole topic being, of course, connected with the varying ideas of death evolved by the different religions.

      As an opening illustration, there is the frontispiece of a seventeenthcentury Protestant hymnbook (Fig. 105), which aptly combines the different symbolic aspects with which this part of my study will be concerned. On...

    • XI Music as a Symbol of Death in Antiquity
      (pp. 224-241)

      Music’s varied aspect in relation to death, its connotation in some contexts of good, in others of evil, has roots far in the past. The evidence, of course, is scattered, and in many instances our knowledge is insufficient for any clear assurance in interpreting the exact role that music was believed to play. One may readily contrast the presumably beneficial chants for the dead of ancient Egypt and the benevolent soul-bird Ba with the evil intent of Homer’s sirens. Even for Egypt, however, some questions remain open, and the significance of musical figures and symbols in the tombs of other...

    • XII Later Greek Concepts and the Hellenistic Period
      (pp. 242-269)

      In later greek imagery, the connection of both the sirens and the Muses with music and death continued and was, indeed, elaborated and reinforced. But the nature of the relationship underwent a distinct change. Homer’s evil, luring sirens survived within the Ulysses legend, but outside the context of this specific tale, sirens became helpful spirits, no longer identified with harpies but, rather, with the gracious Muses.¹

      The radical shift in the sirens’ role was a facet of new currents in Greek thought, notably the more elaborate view of the universe generally associated with the Pythagoreans. As indicated in the first...

    • XIII The Christian Era the Development of Early Medieval Images
      (pp. 270-290)

      With the spread of christianity, basic concepts of death and afterlife underwent significant change, and these new concepts, combined with the negative attitude the early Church had toward music itself, had radical effects on the symbols and images with which this study is concerned. Unfortunately, the only sources for tracing the earlier phases of these developments are the undoubtedly biased writings of the Church Fathers. Yet certain inferences may be drawn, especially from the works of those authors who were educated in the classical tradition, such as Origen, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and Saint Augustine, and the fate of the classical...

    • XIV Later Medieval Images: The Dance of Death
      (pp. 291-312)

      The simple early medieval connection of Satan with death and of instrumental music with vice began to dissolve in later centuries, and, in the history of music’s symbolic relationship with death, the fourteenth century, with its tragic experience of the plagues, represents a culmination of change. The earlier Middle Ages had indulged in allegorical thinking, such as that displayed in Gregory’s discussion on the meaning of musical instruments. From the tenth century on, however, a trend toward factual thinking and realistic observation became evident in many fields. The new approach was reflected in the sudden appearance of musician angels playing...

    • XV The Fifteenth-Century Mystics
      (pp. 313-319)

      The images expressed or created by the mystic writers of the fifteenth century stand in sharp contrast to the rather practical approach to death discussed in the preceding chapter,¹ and seem to have more in common with far earlier models than with their contemporary, secular creation, the Dance of Death, In the mystics’ visions, typically, Christ leads the “loving soul”—that is, the faithful and devoted soul—to heaven with music. Thus the figure of Christ the musician reappears after a hiatus of many centuries. As noted in Chapter III, the figure of the Savior with a kithara is found...

    • XVI Survivals of Earlier Images
      (pp. 320-336)

      Of th e two major fifteenth-century images, the Dance of Death and the figure of Christ the musician represented in the poems of the mystics, the latter proved relatively short-lived. The mystics’ vision soon merged into other traditions and experienced no further development per se, whereas thedanse macabrehad come to stay and has continued to engage both creative and scholarly effort into modern times.

      Many far more ancient figures and images also survived in lively, if somewhat changed, form. Having led what might be termed a vigorous underground existence in oral tradition, recognizable descendants of the nereids and...

  8. Conclusion: Survivals in Contemporary Musical Concepts
    (pp. 337-348)

    This study has followed the history of two basic concepts for which music has been a symbol: harmony and life. In both instances, it has become evident that their development into the patterns still known today reached a climax in the fifteenth century. There are survivals in later centuries, but in less concentrated form and often in peripheral branches of art, such as the title pages of music books. While the whole theory of heavenly music was elaborated in complete systems, such as the attempt made by Fludd in the beginning of the seventeenth century, the basic fifteenth-century images underwent...

  9. Appendix I. Excerpts From First Chapter of Letter on Harmony Addressed to Archbishop Rathbod of Treves by Regino of Prüm
    (pp. 349-350)
  10. Appendix II. Excerpts from the Hymn “Naturalis concordia vocum cum planetis”
    (pp. 351-351)
  11. Appendix III. The Music in Dante’s Cosmos
    (pp. 352-356)
  12. Appendix IV. A Note on the Singers of the Ghent Altar
    (pp. 357-360)
  13. Appendix V. Real or Imaginary Instruments: An Examination of the Beatus Manuscripts and the Utrecht Psalter
    (pp. 360-364)
  14. Index
    (pp. 365-376)