Saturday morning quotes 5.49: Numbers
“And indeed all things that are known have number. For it is not possible that anything whatsoever be understood or known without this.”
– Philolaus (c. 470 – 385 BC), Fragment 4
Number symbolism has always had a close relationship with the structure and description of music, and music historians have spilled much ink on the subject. Today, numerology has generally been assigned to the realm of wild-eyed ranting conspiracy theorists who occupy their mother’s basements cataloguing back issues of L’Ordine Nuovo while researching the role of Operation Gladio in current continental unrest. But understanding the use of number symbolism by composers like Josquin des Prez and its role in historical music offers yet another important contextual clue to those of us engaged in deeper interpretations and performances that stir the soul.
Rather than attempt to describe the details, we refer you to the specialists:
The idea that number is the principle which governs the creation is the distinguishing feature of Pythagoreanism as an intellectual system. This is not the place to attempt a summary of Pythagorean number symbolism; what must be emphasized, however, is that this body of doctrine can in no sense be described as esoteric: on the contrary, there is scarcely a major classical philosopher or Church Father whose thinking was not coloured by Pythagorean principles. The study of numbers formed the very basis of the medieval quadrivium; in providing man with a means of plumbing the mysteries of the universe and so of appreciating the moral beauty of the divine plan, numbers possessed an important ethical value. In the Renaissance, Pythagoras himself came to be regarded as a type of that humanist ideal of moderation which combined piety with practical wisdom.
…Indeed it would be surprising if the geometrical intricacies of the typical renaissance lute rose did not conceal a symbolic meaning of one kind or another. It was, after all, the product of an age whose passion for the arcane reflected itself in pageantry, in emblem books, in allegorical portraiture, in architectural conceits, in literary puzzles and conundrums and in number symbolism of all kinds. Moreover the lute itself, as the noblest of musical instruments, was widely treated as a symbol of the harmony which underlies the cosmos. William Drummond, for example, elaborates this familiar conceit in the manner of an emblem-book writer:
GOD binding with hid Tendons this great ALL,
Did make a LVTE which had all parts it giuen;
This LVTES round Bellie was the azur’d Heauen,
The Rose those lights which Hee did there install;
The Basses were the Earth and Ocean,
The Treble shrill the Aire: the other Strings
The vnlike Bodies were of mixed things:
And then His Hand to breake sweete Notes began.
– Robin Headlam Wells, “Number Symbolism in the Renaissance Lute Rose”,
Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 1, Plucked-String Issue 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 32-42.
Number symbolism provided a framework for the way our ancestors understood the nature of science and music—and even the very nature of being. And there is no doubt that number symbolism likewise pervades important historical literary works, particularly at the points where poetry and music intersect.
I suggest that Shakespeare deliberately linked sonnets 8 and 128 both musically and mathematically. They are the only two sonnets which he wrote on mainly musical themes and their numbers, either separately or combined, are packed with musical and mathematical symbolism. In Shakespeare’s philosophical environment the combination of the following features could hardly occur by chance:-
1. The subject of sonnet 8 is music, perfect concord, ‘unions’, marriage and procreation. This is a nuptial theme which, as Fowler has established beyond doubt, was regularly symbolized in Elizabethan times by the musical octave, the octave’s 2 : 1 ratio and the number 8.
[Musick to heare, why hear’st thou musick sadly,
Sweets with sweets warre not, ioy delights in ioy:
Why lov’st thou that which thou receavst not gladly,
Or else receav’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well tuned sounds,
By unions married do offend thine eare,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singlenesse the parts that thou should’st beare:
Marke how one string sweet husband to an other,
Strikes each in each by mutuall ordering;
Resembling sier, and child, and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechlesse song being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee thou single wilt prove none.]
2. Sonnet 128 emphasizes heavily the musical fingering of the keyboard of the virginals with words such as “wood” (twice), “motion”, “fingers” (three times), “hand”, “Iackes” (jacks, twice), “hand”, “tikled” and “chips” (keys). Split as 12/8, this number symbolizes the poet’s discordant ‘envie’, mimicked first by this sonnet’s suggested effect of the discord of the 12 musical semitones fingered in sequence (a discordant ‘wiry’ combination which ‘confounds’, line 4), followed by the octave concord or union of an invited “kisse” (line 14), which is suggested by the symbolic ‘union’ of the octave number, 8. Sonnet 128 is metaphor for musical and human “temperament”.
[How oft when thou my musike musike playst,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently swayst,
The wiry concord that mine eare confounds,
Do I envie those Iackes that nimble leape,
To kisse the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poore lips which should that harvest reape,
At the woods bouldnes by thee blushing stand.
To be so tikled they would change their state,
And situation with those dancing chips,
Ore whome their (thy) fingers walk with gentle gate,
Making dead wood more blest then living lips,
Since saucie Iackes so happy are in this,
Give them their (thy) fingers, me thy lips to kisse.]
Like the works of Shakespeare, scholars have pored over the works of Johann Sebastian Bach searching for clues that help us understand his musical genius. But tempering our quest for deeper meanings with a small dose of common sense will save time and allow us to concentrate on more important things.
“As for the modern examples of elaborate number-symbolism, there is probably some cryptography in the Canons. A man who is writing a puzzle for his friends makes it as puzzling as he can. But I do not believe that the first fugue of the ‘Forty-Eight’ [Preludes and Fugues] contains a cryptogram, any more than I believe that Bach deliberately emphasized the number seven in the Credo of the B minor Mass. Coincidences are not uncommon in real life. In the world of symbolism, where almost anything can be made to mean something, they can be found in hundreds by anyone who has nothing better to do. These speculations are on a par with Ernest Newman’s ‘ proof’ that the ‘ Forty-Eight’ is ‘ a sort of musical cipher in which the initiate, but of course only the initiate, can detect a series of settings of the incidents in ” Alice in Wonder-land” ‘.
A rationalistic view of symbolism, somewhat on the lines sketched out above, has obvious advantages; but there does remain the question whether it was Bach’s view. Strictly speaking, this question is unanswerable. Bach left nothing in writing that bears directly on this subject, and if he ever discussed it with his pupils, his opinions have not been recorded. The most one can do is to study the writings of other musicians, and try to guess whether Bach agreed with them.”
– Walter Emery, “A Rationale of Bach’s Symbolism (Concluded)”, The Musical Times, Vol. 95, No. 1341 (Nov., 1954), pp. 597-600.