Twenty years ago, I was fortunate enough to mastermind a project of recreating the Orphic Hymns, ancient invocations to the seven planetary deities, to evoke the spirit of Marsilio Ficino's astral magic in 15th century Florence.
1:14:20 minutes of downloadable music
Images of Melancholy is an evocation of the revival of Hermetic philosophy in Elizabethan England, through the music of John Dowland and his contemporaries.
This thesis regards the ancient Pythagorean-Platonic idea of heavenly harmony as a philosophical paradox: stars are silent, music is not. The idea of ‘star music’ contains several potential opposites, including imagination and sense perception, the temporal and the eternal, transcendence and theophany, and others. The idea of ‘star music’ as a paradox can become a gateway to a different understanding of the universe, and a vehicle for a shift to a new – and yet very ancient – form of consciousness.
Septimana is a suite of seven musical sketches contemplating the seven planetary weekdays, expressing the characteristics of numbers and divine eponyms using seven keys, rhythms, scales, melodies, sound collages and some improvisations.
I will begin on a personal note. Monteverdi’s music has been a catalyst in my life, awakening me to a ‘spiritual eros’, as the Platonists would describe the intimation of, and yearning for, an experience of union with an ineffable, and undefinable, ‘other’.I have also been an astrologer for nearly forty years, and a central focus of my academic life has been the challenge of addressing the revelatory function of the symbolic in a world which no longer values poetic metaphor as a primary mode of knowledge. Instead, such knowing is assumed to be ‘merely subjective’, incompatible with the sharp scalpel of the rational mind.
Through his revival of Platonic thought, the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) stands at the forefront of the great spiritual and cultural rebirth we call the Renaissance. Priest, theologian, astrologer, physician, musician and magician, his life was dedicated to the reconciliation of faith and reason in the quest for self-knowledge, and knowledge of God.
In September 1462, aged almost twenty-nine, Marsilio Ficino wrote to Cosimo de’ Medici in gratitude for his generous patronage:
A few days ago I was celebrating [the hymn to the Cosmos] in an Orphic ritual, when my father brought me some letters, in which the wise Cosimo de’ Medici, most health-giving doctor of my life, said he would reflect on my studies, kindly provide for me, generously favour me, and hospitably and piously welcome me into his sacred dwelling. So it happened that not only your magnificence, but also the ancient prophecy of Orpheus evoked in me the most immense wonder. For he seemed to be directing to you the hymn that he consecrated to the Cosmos,..
To write about music of any era as an operative magical power in the world poses an epistemological challenge, since it requires the use of discursive and descriptive language to convey intentions and experiences which, in their immediacy, are far removed from any attempts to theorise, categorise or observe from a distance.
The Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) is chiefly remembered for being the first translator of the complete works of Plato into Latin, and thus standing at the forefront of the Humanist revival of classical learning known as the Renaissance. He founded the Platonic Academy in Florence, and dedicated his life to the reconciliation of Platonism with Christianity.
Most people are familiar with the exquisite painting by Botticelli known as the Primavera. But perhaps it is not so widely known that the programme of its enigmatic symbolism was inspired by the neoplatonic notion of the harmony of creation, reflected in the correspondences of the mythological characters to both the eight planetary spheres and the eight tones of the musical octave.
Monteverdi pioneered a new form of dramatic singing which led to the development of opera and away from the 'old style' of polyphonic composition. How does his Mercury-Venus conjunction in Gemini (among other chart features) help us understand the inner landscape of his creative genius?
In a letter to Paul of Middelburg, written when he was nearly sixty, Ficino looks back over the great achievements of the Florentine Renaissance: "This age, like a golden age, has brought back to light those liberal disciplines that were practically extinguished: grammar, poetry, oratory, painting, sculpture, architecture, music and the ancient singing of songs to the Orphic Lyre". He is of course referring to both his own and his friends' well-attested skill at improvising or composing musical settings for the Hymns of Orpheus, which he himself had translated from the Greek, and whose ritual use in the practice of natural magic lay at the very heart of Ficino's work with the Platonic Academy.
Magic, Astrology and Music; the astrological music therapy of Marsilio Ficino and his role as a Renaissance Magus
This thesis is structured in four substantial chapters with sub-sections. The first two cover the background of Ficino's thought, the second two present his own attitudes towards magic, astrology and music.