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Philosophical Puppets

Apollo and the Muses

When you create any type of art, there is a lot that gets culled away as you refine your work. In researching The Divine Madness of Isabella, there were so many gems of stories and ideas, many of which we reference without going into longwinded explanations of, that I decided to take a moment to discuss a few of them. Calling Il Dottore to the lectern please…

The Divine Madness of Isabella has two concurrent “plots.” The first is the simple narrative of commedia dell’Arte actress Isabella Andreini’s extraordinary life, told primarily with masks and puppets. The second storyline addresses the more immediate (and philosophical) questions, why is she here? Where is she, and what does the disembodied voice of Italian poet (and notorious madman) Torquato Tasso want from her? Why is she alone on stage performing? And why can’t she just … leave?

When I began researching Isabella Andreini, three themes kept reappearing – sometimes as references in poetry, sometimes in essays or letters, and oddly enough, sometimes, oddly enough, as the titles to TV shows I was watching. The first theme was “The Music of the Spheres,” the second was the relationship between genius and madness and last was the inspiration of the Muses. The most exciting part was how they all tied together.

“There is a geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres.”

“The Music of the Spheres” refers to an ancient philosophical concept (musica universalis) that regards the proportions in the movement of celestial bodies as a form of music. Pythagoras (you remember him from Algebra? a2+b2=c2? Yeah, him) first identified that the pitch of a musical note is proportional to the length of the string that produced it. Extrapolating this mathematical relationship and applying it to the heavens, Pythagoras theorized that the celestial bodies (the sun, moon and planets) each had their own harmonic frequencies (inaudible to the human ear) and that the quality of life here on Earth reflects those celestial songs. Pythagoras also believed that the human body and soul were governed by similar vibrations – musica humana – and that we could achieve a spiritual connection with the universe through our understanding of the Harmony of the Spheres. Full disclosure here – Pythagoras probably got some of these ideas from the Egyptians. Nothing new under the sun.

Direct and oblique references to the Music of the Spheres abound in the poetry of the Renaissance. Sir John Davies’ “Orchestra,” published in 1596:

“Since all the world’s great fortunes and affairs
Forward and backward rapt and whirled are
According to the music of the spheres.”

Today, we can actually listen to the Music of the Spheres. NASA has audio recordings of space taken by Voyager as it passes each of the planets and various moons. The recordings are beautiful, peaceful and at times a little eerie. Scientists have also identified one of the oldest “notes” in the universe – a black hole in the Perseus Cluster that has been “singing” for more than 2 billion years. The note? B flat, 57 octaves below middle C.

“There has never been a genius without a touch of madness”

We are familiar with the concept of the “mad genius,” excusing their excesses and bad manners, as necessary to the creation of their exceptional work. Recent scientific evidence actually supports the connection between mental instability and creativity. The changes in brain chemistry that occur during manic episodes have been shown to be conducive to creative endeavors. The concept of the “mad genius” stretches back through time; we saw the “mad poet” idealized in the romantic era in the figure of Lord Byron. The Greeks recognized it – Socrates said, “Our greatest blessing come to us by way of madness.” The Greeks, however, did not acknowledge artistic misbehavior as a cause for artistic inspiration, but rather as a result of being touched by the Muses.

“There is also a madness which is a divine gift…”

The story of the Muses changes over time, but generally they were nine in number, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory) and resided on Mt. Parnassus. The Muses are the goddesses of music, song and dance, and are the inspiration for poets. In Plato’s description of the artistic process, the Muses take hold of a soul and inspire a frenzy that awakens lyrical impulses. The artist becomes merely a vessel for the song of the Muses. Plato gives virtually no credit to the poor artist himself, saying “there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses.” And what exactly does the artist hear when thus possessed? We go back to our friend Pythagoras, who affirmed that the Muses were constituted by the sounds made by the seven planets, otherwise known as: the Music of the Spheres. Pythagoras claimed to be the only person who could hear the Music of the Spheres, his students not being sufficiently developed to be able to do so.

So it goes like this: the Muses grab a hold of you, make you crazy, and you get to hear the Music of the Spheres. And if you are enlightened enough, you get to be like Pythagoras, who hears the Music of the Spheres any old time he wants. But how do you get to the Muses in the first place? And what does all this have to do with The Divine Madness of Isabella? Everything, but only if you are looking for it. One of the Gelosi’s (Isabella’s commedia troupe) most famous scenarios was entitled La Pazzia d’Isabella (The Madness of Isabella). La Pazzia was performed many times, most notably during the 1589 wedding celebration of Christine of Lorraine and the Grand Duke of Tuscany. (On a side note – one of the other performances at this wedding included a musical intermedii entitled The Harmony of the Spheres – Spooky coincidence? I think not.) Isabella was praised by everyone for this transcendent performance, particularly her mad scene in which she speaks nonsense in foreign tongues, sings French chansons and imitates her fellow comedians. But Isabella, though recognized in her day as a poet and intellectual, was never reputed to be a “mad genius;” her life appeared to be well balanced between her art and her family. The first poems in her collected poetry Rime (published 1601) begins:

“If ever there us anyone who reads
These my neglected poems, don’t believe
In their feigned ardors; loves imagined in
Their scenes I’ve handled with emotions false:

The Muses’ inspirations high I have
Set forth with lies…”

Don’t believe her poems? The Muses’ inspirations set forth with lies? Is this a case of the lady doth protest too much? There was no tolerance in Isabella’s time for a female mad genius. Women were already considered emotionally suspect; to be taken seriously as an artist Isabella would have had to portray herself as more rational than any man.

In The Divine Madness of Isabella we explore Isabella’s relationship with the Muses and madness and ask what exactly is the sound of Music of the Spheres? Is it unique for each person? Can someone tell you how to achieve inspiration? Are all roads to the Muses the same? Or do we have any control at all over inspiration — do the Muses simply “come when they will?” We try not to hit our audience over the head with these heady ideas, preferring instead to rely on the intelligence of our audience to keep up.

And the TV episode I mentioned? A Doctor Who short titled “The Music of the Spheres” (2008)Coincidence? I think not.

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