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April 16, 2013

Exploring Celestial Harmony




Daniel Hope, violin

Berlin Radio Chorus, Berlin Chamber Orchestra; Simon, Halsey, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon

The idea that the universe can aspire to elegance, harmony and symmetry has long been an irresistible concept for artists, musicians and even some scientists. Indeed, last month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science devoted its annual conference to the theme of “The Beauty and Benefits of Science,” in which speakers explored the historical roots of this idea, and how it’s applied today. It’s a controversial notion, of course, suggesting that subjective aesthetics can be applied to an inherently objective discipline.

But flip the concept around, and you get projects like “Spheres,” the thought-provoking album by the British violinist Daniel Hope. The collection is based on “music of the spheres,” the philosophical idea that the proportions of the movements of celestial bodies–the sun, moon and planets–can be viewed in the form of music, inaudible but perfectly harmonious.

Daniel Hope, ‘Biafra,’ composed by Alex Baranowski and featured on Spheres. Hope is accompanied here by Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) and members of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

Hope has assembled a collection of 18 pieces whose repetitions evoke the recurrent orbits of astral bodies. As bookends are two Baroque works: Imitazione delle campane by Bach predecessor Johann Paul von Westhoff, and a string trio arrangement of Bach’s own Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. In between are minimalist works by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, a film music selection by Michael Nyman, and ear-massaging new pieces by Ludovico Enaudi, Alex Baranowski, Max Richter and others.

Among the more intriguing new works is the title track, Spheres, by Gabriel Prokofiev, the DJ/composer and grandson of Serge Prokofiev. Also worth hearing are two beguiling Preludes by New York composer Lera Auerbach. The Berlin Radio Chorus, pianist Jacques Ammon, and the Berlin Chamber Orchestra under Simon Halsey are among Hope’s sensitive collaborators. Album of the Week, March 10, 2013


EPK for Daniel Hope’s Spheres album


‘…substantial music sounding beautiful…’

Never mind the “music of the spheres” album concept: These 18 melodic, gently pulsing tracks could find a receptive audience in the easy-listening (excuse me, “chillout”) market. But that doesn’t mean classical buffs should pass it up; there’s no rule against substantial music sounding beautiful, and everything here is beautiful while exhibiting a fair amount of variety and even imagination. The opening track, Baroque composer Johann Paul von Westhoff’s “Imitazione delle campane” (No. 3 of his solo violin sonatas, a short one-movement work arranged for violin and string orchestra by Christian Badzura), is a little surprising for how its restlessness sounds quintessentially modern. Most of the pieces are by living composers (the rest are arranged by modern composers), with many premieres, including Gabriel Prokofiev’s title track, hewing gently towards dissonance.

The performances are mostly for violin and piano; pianist Jacques Ammon never has anything technically challenging to play, so what matters is tone and dynamic control, and his playing is beautiful in those regards. But the textures and forces expand to include violin, string orchestra and chorus (the German Chamber Orchestra of Berlin and members of the Berlin Radio Choir are conducted by Simon Halsey), plus various combinations of violin, strings, and additional featured instruments, which also keeps things from blurring together. Hope is featured on every track, and his sound is wonderfully lustrous. –by Brooklyn-based poet and composer Steve Holtje at


Daniel Hope plays ‘I giorni’ by Ludovico Einaud from his album Spheres

Daniel Hope on Spheres

‘It was Carl Sagan who first opened my eyes to the magnitude of the universe, and essentially to the notion of ‘music of the spheres’’

When I was a boy, the only thing which captivated me as much as music was the night sky. At the age of eight I bought my first telescope and would spend hours gazing at the moon and stars. I remember thinking what it must have been like when man first realized that we were only a very small part of the overall picture.

When I was in my teens, Yehudi Menuhin, who was at work on his project The Music of Man, introduced me to the great astronomer Carl Sagan. It was Sagan who first opened my eyes to the magnitude of the universe, and essentially to the notion of “music of the spheres.”

In this album my idea was to bring together music and time, including works by composers from different centuries who might perhaps not always be found in the same “galaxy” but yet are united by the age-old question: is there anything out there?

Daniel Hope, ‘Musica Universalis,’ by Alex Baranowski, from Spheres

It was probably Pythagoras who first expounded the idea that universal harmony may be rooted in mathematics, after his chance discovery that the pitch of a musical note depends upon the length of the string which produces it. But can something as magical and inexplicable as music ever be explained merely by a mathematical formula? Equally, when we think of space or the planets, do we hear any kind of sound associated with them, major or minor, or is it always mute? Certainly many composers envisaged the former. It is well known that before completing The Creation Haydn consulted the British astronomer William Herschel and viewed the heavens through his telescope. Josef Strauss’s waltz Sphärenklänge provided a romantic view of the heavens, while Philip Glass–whose Echorus is, incidentally, a homage to Yehudi Menuhin–has long been fascinated by such conundrums as whether music would sound higher or lower at the edge of a black hole. And scholars today are still trying to unearth and justify some of the numerological mysteries within J. S. Bach’s music, from the obvious use of the B–A–C–H motif to the more subtle presence of elements centering on the number three, standing for the Holy Trinity.

So, is there anything out there? I like to think so . . .  –By Daniel Hope, as published on his websit


Daniel Hope discusses his album Spheres with Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev), who wrote the album’s title track, and conductor Simon Halsey. In addition to Prokofiev’s composition, the new album includes works and arrangements by contemporary masters like Ludovico Einaudi, Arvo Pärt, Karl Jenkins, Max Richter, Alex Baranowski and others.


What is the ‘Music of the Spheres’?

By Stephanie Chase

Artistic Director, Music of the Spheres Society



The phrase “music of the spheres” refers to the intertwined relationship between the structures of music and those of the physical world, and a conscious awareness of mystical or spiritual qualities being transmitted through composed sound.

All music consists of a form of dualism, an aural yin and yang in which consonance is inextricably linked with its complementary force of dissonance; one does not meaningfully exist without the other. Dissonance provokes a form of tension–an unsettled relation in the notes of music–and is relieved by the consonance of resolution. We hear this whether we are listening to Bach, Mozart, Bartók or Applebaum, although the balance is often shifted towards dissonance in post-20th century music, perhaps in reflection of societal conflicts.

Pythagoras is credited with having discovered the physical relationship, expressible as ratios, between mass and sound. He is also credited with having invented the monochord, essentially a stretched gut string on a soundboard with moveable bridges, for testing harmonic properties and their rapport with numerical ratios. (We will hear a monochord in Edward Applebaum’s Dirt Music, which may be the first instance ever of its use in composed music; more recent instruments with basic similarities to the monochord would include the Japanese koto and the Chinese ch’in.)

The octave ratio of 1:2 means that a mass, such as a string of any material, will produce a frequency an octave above the pitch of its full length when it is reduced by one half. For example, the open “A” string of the violin sounds that pitch at about 440 vibrations per second. When the string is “stopped” by the violinist’s finger so that only half of its original length is vibrating, it sounds an “A” that is an octave higher and vibrating twice as quickly. Simply stated, to play this musical interval, one part of the string length out of two parts total (the ratio 1:2) is set into vibration. The ratio for the fifth is 2:3 (two parts out of three are vibrating) and that of the fourth is 3:4.

Pythagoras and his followers believed that a universal philosophy could be founded in numbers. They differentiated three types of music: the music of instruments, the music of the human body and soul, and the music of the spheres, which was the music of the cosmos. Geometric shapes and even orbiting motions could be linked to this philosophy–indeed, Pythagoras could arguably be the first proponent of “string theory” as a tool to understanding the universe–and the important symbol of the tetractys contains the numbers of the perfect musical intervals of an octave, a fifth and a fourth:





According to Pliny, Pythagoras devised a literal “music of the spheres” by using musical intervals to describe the distances between the moon and the known planets. In his Timaeus, Plato took up the idea of a universal philosophy thorough numbers and their musical associations and devised a series that he termed the World Soul: 1, 2, 3, 9, 8, and 27. By using these as musical ratios (1:2, 2:3, 3:9, etc.) he created a series of musical notes that gave a default mathematical ratio for the half-step. By mathematical derivation, one can arrive at theoretical proportions for the non-Pythagorean intervals of seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths. These intervals are inherently subjective and context-sensitive, however, and have led to epic battles over “desirable” tuning temperaments, in part due to the fact that fixed-pitch instruments like pianos have one pitch to represent at least two distinct notes.

‘Pythagorus guides us today to learn to embody the universe from the inside out’: a discourse on Pythagoras and the monochord, ‘essentially a stretched gut string on a soundboard with moveable bridges, for testing harmonic properties and their rapport with numerical ratios. He said, ‘Study the monochord, and you will know the secrets of the universe.’

One of these battles was between the lutenist and pedagogue Vincenzo Galilei and his teacher, Gioseffo Zarlino. A member of a neo-Platonic academy, where the ancient associations of music, science and philosophy were again united, Galilei’s use of practical experimentation in his scientific studies of tuning temperaments and their physical properties was influential on his son Galileo, whose own didactic techniques and observations from nature led to revolutionary discoveries in physics.

The great Kepler followed these leads in developing his laws of planetary motion, describing the relationships of planets and their orbits through numbers and ratios and using them to create geometric figures of two and three dimensions.  He also employed musical references and even desired to create a “symphony of the cosmos,” stating that “the movements of the heavens are nothing except a certain everlasting polyphony.” Sir Isaac Newton was likewise inspired by the cosmic music of the ancients, as set forth in Proposition VIII of his Principia.

Edgard Varèse, ‘Density 21.5’ combines an ancient instrument type with a radical view of the ratios of music and an inspiration from the earth itself: the gravitational weight of platinum, the metal used to build the flute that first played this work. From ‘According to the composer, Density 21.5 is based on two melodic ideas–one modal, one atonal–and all of the subsequent material is generated from these two themes. Despite the inherent limitations of writing for an unaccompanied melodic instrument, Varèse expertly explores new areas of space and time, utilizing registral contrasts to effect polyphonic continuity.’

The notion of the “music of the spheres” continues today through studies of cosmic background radiation and “string theory,” among many other applications, and composers have often been directly or indirectly inspired by its concepts:  Density 21.5 by Varèse combines an ancient instrument type with a radical view of the ratios of music and an inspiration from the earth itself: the gravitational weight of platinum, the metal used to build the flute that first played this work. Mozart’s frequent musical allusions to Masonic symbolism continue this notion, and Lou Harrison used the sounds of our world’s music–through time and space–to create memorably beautiful and compelling sounds in new combinations. Beethoven’s “music of the spheres” derives from a Romantic appreciation of the oneness of nature with the interior music of the soul, and Edward Applebaum’s Dirt Music was inspired by a love story (by Tim Winton) and the jazz idiom, with a nod to the architectural proportions of a Stradivarius violin transformed into music. Josef Strauss was also moved to write the “Music of the Spheres” Waltz, which links many lovely dances after a celestial introduction.

Notes by Stephanie Chase from a chamber music program presented by the Society at Merkin Concert Hall in New York, October 2005. ©Copyright Stephanie Chase 2005. All Rights Reserved.



Founded in 2001, the Music of the Spheres Society promotes and develops new audiences for  classical music through innovative programs of chamber music concerts, lectures, and educational workshops that illuminate music’s historical, philosophical, and scientific foundations. These programs, which feature renowned musicians and scholars, are presented in the greater New York City area and on tours throughout the United States. The Music of the Spheres Society, Inc. is a non-profit, 501 (c) (3) organization.


Stephanie Chase has been hailed by Newhouse Newspapers by Newhouse Newspapers as “one of the violin greats of our era” and the BBC Music Magazine has praised her “matchless technique.” Her playing is characterized by “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), with “great intensity and a huge tone, the epitome of the modern violinist” (The Baroque Cello Revival, Paul Laird) and she is “renowned for her impeccable intonation” (Temperament, Stuart Isacoff). In December, 2009 her “sensational” account of Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the Louisville Orchestra was deemed a “Classical Act of the Decade.” In the fall of 2011, her New York recital with pianist Sara Davis Buechner was chosen by WQXR as one of “20 Concerts to Hear this Fall” and a Critics’ Choice by Musical America. Among Ms. Chase’s hobbies is making arrangements of virtuoso violin music for string orchestra, which have been performed and recorded for MSR Classics by The American String Project, performed by The Perlman Chamber Orchestra in venues that include Carnegie Hall, and featured on concerts by the Music of the Spheres Society. Her other hobbies include researching her genealogy, studying the “music of the spheres” and strength training. She is married to the noted organologist Stewart Pollens and is the proud aunt of two remarkably talented actors, Matt and Becki Newton.

Ms. Chase has recorded for Koch International Classics, Harmonia Mundi and Cala Records, and plays a violin made by Petrus Guarnerius in Venice in 1742.

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