Civil War Discord and Cambridge Platonism

Music played a distinct role in the civil war period and its aftermath as a source of both discord and divine healing. Queens’ College’s staunch support for the Royalist cause received expression in elaborate chapel services that included complex vocal music composed in parts (polyphony) by musicians such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis (see p. 2). This kind of music had been instrumental in widening the chasm of belief and practice that separated the warring factions. If for High-Church Royalists polyphony offered the means to draw believers closer to God, Puritans saw its use in worship as a corrupting influence. Yet when Cromwell compelled Queens’ to expel Royalist ringleaders from its fellowship, some of the Puritan clerics who took their place brought with them a deeply philosophical conception of music. One such was the viol-playing John Smith (1618–52). As one of the ‘Cambridge Platonists’, his aspiration to settle religious differences without rancour was closely informed by a conception of music founded on Platonic harmony. In his posthumously published Select discourses Smith invoked an inner musical ideal through whose beauty and inclusiveness men could recover vestiges of divine harmony. A scientific dimension to such thinking is clearly evident in the vast bequest of books Smith left to Queens’. Its inclusion of works by Galileo, Descartes, Mersenne and Kepler offered material ways in which conceptions of musical harmony would contribute to scientific advances.

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