Glossary entry for
music of the spheres

The concept of the "Music of the Spheres" dates back at least to the 16th century, and is a central idea in the Elizabethan world picture:
"The idea that the universe is bound together by harmony or concord is fundamental in Elizabethan cosmology. The music of the spheres orders the heavens, and music alike orders and tempers human passions and social forces." (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol 1., p.1049)

This phrase and the idea behind it figures prominently in Sir John Davies' "Orchestra, or A Poem of Dancing" from 1596:

"The poet recounts how one night when Penelope (Ulysses' Queen) at Ithaca appeared among her suitors, Athena inspires her with special beauty. Antonius, most courtly of the suitors, begs her to dance or in his own words to
Imitate heaven, whose beauties excellent
Are in continual motion day and night.

Penelope refuses to join in something that is mere disorder or misrule, and there follows a debate between the two on the subject of dancing. Antonius maintaining that as the universe itself is one great dance comprising many lesser dances we should ourselves join in the cosmic harmony. It was creative love that first persuaded the warring atoms to move in order. Time and all its division are a dance. The stars have their own dance, the greatest being that of the Great Year, which lasts 25,800 years of the sun. The sun courts the earth in a dance. The different elements have their different measures. The various happenings on the earth itself

Forward and backward rapt and whirled are
According to the music of the spheres.

[...] stands [...] for something central to Elizabethan ways of thinking: the agile transformation from abstract to concrete, from ideal to real, from sacred to profane. And the reason is the one given before for similar catholicity: the Elizabethans were conscious simultaneously and to an uncommon degree of 'the erected wit and the infected will of man'. It was thus possible for Davies to pass from the mystical notion of the spherical music to the concrete picture of Elizabeth's courtiers dancing, without incongruity."

(E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, Pelican 1943, pp. 112-114)

To relate this back to Van: His world picture seems to me remarkably similar in its ability to incorporate the opposites (say Jellyroll and Spiritual Healing) in one song, one performance, one breath. He certainly has many references to the powers of music and dance, and I think he would gladly agree to the feeling that 'the universe itself is one great dance...'

It is possible that Van never read the Elizabethan poets, and that he came to this philosophy via other routes (f. ex. some of the New Age/therapy ways of thinking, that themselves are not original but derivates of Western philosophy and Eastern religion and mysticism), but clearly there are some correspondences here in the lyrics to "Dweller", for instance the phrases "I'll sing the song of ages", "I'm gonna turn and face the music, the music of the spheres", etc.

Contributed by B. Sorensen

Van references in:

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