Metaphysics of Musical Polyphony

Marco Pallis

Like every genuine art, music provides an image of the Universe at the level of “the Lesser Mysteries”; when practiced with this truth in mind, it will serve as a support of contemplation, and the joy it incidentally evokes will be seen as a reflection of the Divine Bliss.

The suchness of God, inexpressible and unmanifestable in Itself, corresponds, in our human experience, to voidness or silence. When silence is affirmed, sound then takes birth: “In the beginning was the Word.” Music comes out of silence, and into silence it retreats in the moment of fulfillment. The primary affirmation of this truth is recognizable in the keynote, whether actually heard or implied in what is first heard; the keynote remains, throughout any piece of music, as a reminder of the Unity from which all that is manifested or developed derives its existence; the keynote, as it were, represents the germ of creation, it is never absent in fact, as efficient cause, from all the effects it will subsequently give rise to. Those effects are all contained in the primary cause, just as that same cause is communicated across its every effect, cause and effects being in fact inseparable: the prototype of this relationship is the Divine Intellect, wherein all that God “has created” or “will create” remains in a state of permanently present actuality which things and beings, in the course of their successive becoming, at once veil and reveal.

What actually happens in the created universe we see around us and in which we are involved? This universe is characterized by the triple fatality of change, competition and impermanence; to speak of a world (any kind of world) is to speak of contrast or opposition, for distinction of one being from another inevitably imposes this condition; “a world” is always a play of black and white, with all the intermediate shades of grey or, shall we say, all the changeful play of the spectrum: what then exactly happens when two or more beings are developing in the same world? These beings may either converge or diverge or, for a brief space, move parallel with one another (or almost so, since an absolutely parallel course is not a possibility) and this will from time to time bring the beings in question into contact or even collision: what happens then? In proportion as one being is carried along with greater force as compared with another, the latter will get pushed and deflected from its course till it is free to move again in its own direction; this fresh direction it will pursue until it again runs into opposition of some kind—perhaps this time its own impetus will prove the stronger and it will be the other being which will be deflected in its turn and so on indefinitely.

What does this picture suggest but a counterpoint which, by its continual interplay of tensions and releases, expresses that unity out of which all its constituent elements have arisen and which they are all forever seeking to regain consciously or unconsciously? The musical parallel is self-evident and it is this, in fact, which confers on contrapuntal music its strange power to move the soul. The rigor of the contrapuntal principle governing the music of the XVth-XVIIth centuries in Western Europe easily accounts for the tremendous effect which this kind of music makes on the performers and, in a slightly lesser degree, on outside listeners.

For instance in a fantasy for Viols (or in the Church music of the period) what is it that typically happens? Silence is affirmed (therefore also broken) by the primary enunciation of a theme which evokes, from another player, either agreement (i.e. repetition of the theme in the original key or else in a related key) or contrast (i.e. reply in the form of another subject); but this very agreement, inasmuch as it introduces a duality, leads to collision at some point or other; the stronger part pushes the weaker off course until the sense of opposition (which is what a “discord” amounts to) has ceased, only to give rise to another such opposition as the parts in question encounter fresh points of resistance in trying to cross the path of some other part or parts. The search for freedom goes on as long as this process continues; each relation of concord represents a relative and provisional freedom with its corresponding degree of comfort, but so long as there is a process of change no situation can remain comfortable for long; oppositions will continue to arise, with a consequent urge to resolve them: only by a return to the original unity, of which the lurking memory constitutes one’s incentive to achieve that very return, can peace at last be found.

Just as in the world one finds uphill and downhill, the one imposing extra effort and the other allowing of relaxed movement, so in our contrapuntal scheme we find that the interplay of parts is such as to impose, from time to time, an increase of effort perceptible by the ear as a crescendo and vice versa: this impulse to increase will always start in a particular part, it is never due to an arbitrary (=‘heretical’) wish to play louder. In contrapuntal music, crescendi and diminuendi are always expressions of musical logic, not of some individualistic or sentimental motive in the players. It is always possible to determine exactly in which part, and why, an increase or decrease in sound is needed, evoking in its turn a corresponding response from the other parts, until a collective climax results for such time as musical logic does not begin to reverse the tendency in the direction of more or else less sound. The discipline of contrapuntal music is to heed the signs telling one what to alter at a given moment; otherwise one goes on as one is. This kind of music—it is the secret of its quality—is half-way between a science and an art: ars sine scientia nihil. In teaching this music one should from the start accustom one’s pupils to see and feel things in this way; one induces the right way of seeing through concrete example—theory and application keep step at every turn, but it takes some time before one is in a position, as now, to sum up one’s experience in terms of a coherent synthesis.

Similarly that counterpoint we call “life” is a search for a unity which, across all the vicissitudes of existence, is sensed as ever present: only in a return to our existential keynote will peace be found. Temporary resting-points or closes there may be; each passing cadence in fact provides in its own way a micro-image of the whole process of resolving dualistic opposition into unity. Each note included in a cadence calls for a different kind of emphasis; certain notes have to be joined smoothly, others separated, and some have to be swelled and others diminished. For a group of players or singers to shape a cadence just right is already a collective exercise in unity.

In terms of the more static arts, God has often been described as “the great Architect of the Universe”; in terms of the essentially dynamic art of Music, He could with equal appropriateness be called “the great Contrapuntist of the Universe,” since “creation”, the expression of “being” through “becoming”, also implies its corresponding Divine Name, as above.

A more succinct version of the same idea might read thus:

Counterpoint, whether musical or existential, affirms and illustrates the unchanging presence of Unity across all the vicissitudes of multiplicity, as also the reduction of the opposition consequent upon the very process of change to that same Unity in which the process itself took birth (whereby it was created) and from which, causally, it can never become released except in the Divine Presence: this is the mystery of existence which counterpoint, in terms of sound, serves to reveal. Hence also the spiritual profit to be derived from its intelligent performance, for those “who have ears to hear.”

Click here to read an enlarged PDF version of this article.

The following recording of a “Fantasy for 6 Viols” by Weelkes is performed by the Dolmetsch family, from whom Marco Pallis had his musical education.

Right-click here to download – 1:59 (1.9MB)

First published in Studies in Comparative Religion , Vol. 10, No. 2. (Spring, 1976). Included more recently in Pallis’ anthology A Buddhist Spectrum: Contributions to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, published by World Wisdom, 2003.

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