Glimpses of Eternity: Music as a Window through Time

Following a trend of avian-inspired works, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra just this weekend presented Stravinsky’s famous and mythical Firebird Suite (1919 version) as well as Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, Concerto for Birds and Orchestra (1972). Rautavaara’s work features recordings of the avian wildlife of the Arctic Circle juxtaposed with the lugubrious sonorities of the orchestra, resulting in a powerful evocation of the wonder of nature. As cited in the PSO program notes, Rautavaara shared his insight into his work in this way:

 

It is my belief that music is great if, at some moment, the listener catches “a glimpse of eternity through the window of time”. This, to my mind, is the only true justification for all art. Everything else is of secondary importance.

 

Here, Rautavaara speaks not only for the awe-inspiring power of his own music, but also offers a significant insight into the nature of music with respect to time and eternity, concepts that philosophers have attempted to explain for centuries often with frequent reference to music. Rautavaara’s endeavor to access a window of time through music resonates deeply with the works of Plato and Augustine on the nature of time. As we consider the nature of time, implications for music necessarily emerge. While music itself may not persist as an eternal entity, music as a window of time ultimately creates the possibility for “glimpses of eternity”.

 

Enter the philosophers.

 

Plato, through his work Timeaus, has influenced philosophy as well as the foundations of Western music for centuries. For Plato and his ancient Greek contemporaries, all thought about the nature of the universe hinged on the principle that the world consisted of two realms: the Realm of Ideas (eternal, that which always is) and the Realm of the Senses (temporal, that which becomes). In Timeaus, Plato further explains how the “body” of the universe came to be, that is the material aspects of the world, as well as the “world’s soul”. The significance of this “soul”, a mixture of that which is and that which becomes, lies in its basis in mathematical proportion. In fact, the “world’s soul” was governed by Pythagorean ratios, with which we are familiar today as the musical intervals of the diatonic scale. Though Plato was not talking about audible music as we know it, he describes the unity of the universe as a “symphony of proportion”. How does time fit into all of this? In order for the god, Plato explains, to reconcile the eternal “model” of the universe with its begotten, material “image”…

 

And so he [the god] began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we now call “time”.

 

Time, as an image of eternity, is a reflection of that which always is but not of the eternal in itself. Moving according to number, time depends on mathematical ratio, the order, harmony, and music of the universe. For Plato, just like Rautavaara, the manifestation of time (through music) ultimately results in our closest experiences of eternity within the world as we know it, that is, the Realm of the Senses.

 

Zooming forward many centuries after Plato’s ancient Greece, well into the Hellenistic Era at a time when the Roman Empire was divided east and west, Augustine emerges on the philosophical scene. Though indebted to Plato and the ancient Greeks, Augustine had his own insights on time and music, even endeavoring to delve further into the implications of time. In his De musica, Augustine, like Plato, establishes the significance of number and order. However, he attributes this proportion, not to intervals, but to another fundamental musical aspect—rhythm.

 

Where there is equality or similitude, there is rhythmicality, numerositas, for nothing is so equal or so similar to anything as one is to one.

 

While Augustine asserts that rhythm governs our experience of time in a way similar to Plato’s “symphony of proportion”, Augustine cannot leave the subject of time where Plato left it. Plato insisted that time served as an image of eternity, and yet this poses a problem for Augustine. Having converted to Christianity, Augustine discusses in a later text, the Confessions, the problem of relegating time to an image, as this would not account for God’s eternal presence through his Son Jesus in the temporal world. For Augustine, eternity must reside within time. Ultimately, this necessity leads Augustine to conclude that time only exists in an infinitely thin present. As Augustine explains in the Confessions, time undergoes a “distention” or “stretching-out” of future (what does not yet exist) into past (what has ceased to exist) through the indivisible present moment. For Augustine, we can live with the eternality of time as an infinitely thin present through the way in which we experience music. Augustine arrives at this conclusion in the Confessions.

 

Certainly if there were a mind endowed with such knowledge and prescience that all things past and future could be known in the way I know a familiar psalm, this mind would be utterly miraculous and amazing to the point of inducing awe…A person singing or listening to a song he knows well suffers a distention or stretching in feeling and in sense-perception from the expectation of future sounds and the memory of past sounds. With you [Lord] it is otherwise. You are unchangeably eternal, that is the truly eternal Creator of minds.

 

Despite our impossibility as humans to comprehend time as an infinitely thin present, Augustine shows in the above passage that our experience of listening to or performing music is the closest approximation we have to a “glimpse” of eternity.

 

While composer Einojuhani Rautavaara makes a powerful statement about the essential nature of music and art, he is also backed up by centuries of philosophical thought. Great art, and especially great music, hinges upon these “windows of time” that can offer a glimpse of something greater than ourselves.

 

Bibliography:

Augustinus, Aurelius. Confessions, trans. Chadwick, Henry. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Augustinus, Aurelius. St. Augustine’s de Musica: A Synopsis, trans. & ed. Knight, W.F. Jackson. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, Inc, 1949.

Plato. “Timaeus,” in Complete Works, trans. Zeyl, Donald J. Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.

Rodda, Richard E. “Einojuhani Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus, Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, Opus 61.” Program notes. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. 6-8 Mar. 2015.

 

A special thanks to Dr. Jessica Wiskus for her part in inspiring this post and to my colleagues in the Philosophies of Music History & Theory course for our engaging discussions!

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