How High the Moon and the Music of the Spheres

From “Agnes Dei”, Mass for Five Voices
William Byrd
Tallis Scholars

How High the Moon and the Music of the Spheres

The music is by William Byrd and is a selection from one of the Catholic Masses he wrote. He was unusual for his time in that the careers of most Catholics, whatever their profession, were often frustrated by the powers that be of 16th and 17th century England. Byrd was one of the few that enjoyed some success. This was probably in part due to the fact that he began as an Anglican (Protestant Church of England). The music is characterized, for me anyway, by its ethereal quality, that seems to soar in the upper registers of the human voice, but that may just be me.

These thoughts about William Byrd were provoked by a feature on NPR this week about an English composer during the reign of Henry VIII who wrote music for the Catholic Mass. Only fragments of pieces, none of them complete, survive to this day due to the vigor with which King Henry stamped out all things Catholic during the Protestant Reformation in England. The broadcast focused on a modern composer who works, and has worked for many years, at reconstructing the missing bits of the music from what has survived. I was driving home when this came on and because I had to focus on what was happening on the road the name of the modern composer did not register (I was going through a Massachusetts rotary and had to focus on the unorthodox behavior of those drivers trying to enter the roadway). I think the name of the English composer was Robert Jones, but I am not certain of that either.

What did move me though was the music itself. Like Byrd’s music it was exhilarating to listen to and very moving. But what I found most striking was the story behind the music itself. The sheet music was burned or used to wrap fish or worse. Everything possible was done to stamp out this music. As an English teacher I teach books that at various times in their careers were slated for burning or other forms of censorship. It is not unusual to discuss book burning, not just in school but also in the culture at large. But last week’s news broadcast reinforces the fact that not just the written word but all of the arts have come under attack by those that are offended or frightened by them and the ideas they articulate.

17th Century Russia book burning of noblemen's books

Burning books of Nobility during Feodor III of Russia regorms (sic, I think) 1682 old litograph

Nazi book burnings in the 1930's

1933 May 10 Berlin book burning — taken from the U.S. National Archives

That the Nazis burned books is common knowledge but I was fascinated by the first image of Russian reformers burning the books of aristocrats, not in 1917 (who would be surprised by that) but in the 17th century. The aristocrats always seemed adept at avoiding such things, if only because they could afford to get out of town, but apparently not. What were the themes of these books that were burned? The one doing the burning was also, of course, an aristocrat. What views did he have that put him at odds with the books of other noblemen? What is it in the human heart that wants to destroy the ideas that it does not endorse? But, again, it is not the destruction of books alone that is troubling.

When a painting is destroyed that can never be recovered in quite the same way it existed originally. A piece of music can be played the way it was originally played on period instruments and the like if someone was able to recover or remember the original score. Books often return after burning because there have been those that make the effort to preserve them either by memorizing them or hiding them. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his memoir The Book and the Calf talks about his writing career while in the Soviet Gulag. He could write nothing down because if it were found it could be used against him to get him into more trouble than he was in already. And in addition the work itself would be destroyed and lost. So he composed his poems and stories in his head and memorized them so that they could not be found.

He eventually got out of prison and started writing things down. It got him into trouble of course but because the writing had gotten him a reputation outside of the Soviet Union he had a bit of cover, though he was eventually forced into exile. But what happens to the ideas that are destroyed before a permanent copy can be preserved. What happens to the painting, the piece of music, the book or poem that is entirely expunged from the cultural record? Do the ideas continue to exist; do they survive somehow? Is there a muse, an Erato of ideas, that plants the ideas in another place where they can live and prosper long enough to make a mark on world culture? In the video that follows Ray Bradbury discusses what went into his writing of the book Fahrenheit 451, a novel about the attempts of those in authority to silence the ideas they disagree with. Bradbury also said “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” The interview runs about eleven minutes, so if you choose to listen you may want to get comfortable.

Ray Bradbury discussing the writing of Fahrenheit 451

Is it necessary to destroy the ideas with which we disagree in order to rid ourselves of them or is a kind of benign neglect all that is required. The world is facing serious economic problems. This is an environment that makes it much easier to cut funding for the arts and the humanities. There is an attitude on the part of many in the United States that sees the arts as a kind of elitist entertainment that is only enjoyed by members of these elites. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with entertainment, but the labeling of art as only entertainment is intended to trivialize it. This view takes a kind of pragmatic market driven approach to things that sees little value in anything that does not increase the Gross Domestic Product.

But what are the long-term consequences of ignoring the arts and by extension the imagination? Is the esthetic imagination necessary to culture so long as that culture produces those that can imagine within the confines of math and science and the market place? Is there a problem with a culture that can invent the iPod but not alternative forms of energy or other less profitable technological advances that would improve the health of the world and the individuals in it? What role is played by the arts in maintaining the psyche of a people; its intellectual and emotional health? The first step to solving a social problem is admitting a problem exists and it is difficult to recognize problems we do not first imagine if only by empathizing with those that are struggling with those problems. Will teaching the arts end world hunger? Probably not. But is there a problem with a people that can only grasp the problems with which they grapple as individuals?

In the end why are people frightened of ideas that run contrary to their own? If it is true that “iron sharpens iron” then the ideas that run counter to our own are necessary to the health of our own ideas. They are a kind of gymnasium that tests the endurance of an idea and forces it to grow strong and healthy. It is also in this exercise room that we all learn the limitations of our own beliefs whatever those beliefs might be.