FROM HEAVENLY  HARMONY 

TO EARTHLY DISCORD

An exhibition of medieval and Renaissance musical treasures, revealing the role of music in shaping early modern perceptions of man, nature and the universe

Can it be true that musical harmony was once believed to offer insights into the workings of man, nature and the universe? That this was indeed the case is evident in the music and books displayed in this exhibition. As collected and used by early modern Queens’ readers, these artefacts reveal music’s role in shaping modes of thought that inspired medieval visions of the divine cosmos and informed the great scientific and political debates that created the modern world.

Attributed to Pythagoras and taken up by Plato, ancient notions of cosmic harmony had at their root one momentous discovery: that the differing lengths of two strings tuned to sound a harmonious musical interval will correspond to a simple number ratio bearing the pattern n+1:n. When similar patterns were observed in relation to geometrical shapes and the movements of planets, philosophers attributed mystical significance to the musical ratios themselves. Perceived since antiquity as legend, religion, metaphor and hard science, the idea that audible music embodies a universally prevalent organising principle has proved alluring. The survival at Queens’ of musical works and books acquired during the Tudor period and its aftermath provides a unique insight into music’s allure and impact on worship, learning and life in early modern Cambridge.

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