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  • The Voice and Early Modern Historiography: Reading Johannes Kepler’s Harmony of the World
  • Jonathan Owen Clark (bio)


In early modernity, the human singing voice became integrated into increasingly formalized and stylized musical structures. But it was also embedded into series of extramusical systems of knowledge that had as their object of concern both the nature of music and the music of nature. This essay explores how some of these same systems had to account for their own difficulty in assimilating satisfactorily what the voice introduced: an irreducible and unexplained affective power, and a certain ambiguity as to the agency and source of this power. Within this framework, I present a rereading of Johannes Kepler’s work on musical cosmology and harmony, as contained in his five-volume Harmonices mundi (The Harmony of the World) of 1619. Kepler is celebrated today for his work on the foundations of what would become modern mathematical astronomy. Less well known is his audacious positing of a polyphonic vocal work, the “celestial motet,” that claimed to connect the sensible and worldly with the supersensible and extraterrestrial, and to unify their manifest and hidden harmonies into a coherent logical system.

What is the significance of this, and of Kepler’s work in general, for scholars of early opera? In answering this question, I will be less concerned with the musical details of Kepler’s essentially virtual composition than with how the composition is symptomatic of certain contemporaneous ideas about music and the voice, ideas that reveal much about the intellectual and musical climate that Kepler was working in, at a time and place in European history that can claim to be the birth of the operatic genre. In studying the theoretical and representational maneuvers that lay behind the construction of this “imaginary” composition, we will follow recent scholarship on early opera, most notably the work of Gary Tomlinson. In his Music in Renaissance Magic of 1993 and his Metaphysical Song of 1999, Tomlinson pioneered an approach to vocal music of the early modern period that introduced ideas and methodologies from poststructuralist thinking, most notably those of Michel Foucault.1 Tomlinson’s work shows in particular how the mechanism of the voice [End Page 307] “connects its bearers and hearers to ordinarily supersensible realities” and makes important connections between musical and more general intellectual thinking of the time.2 This work is extended here, and in much the same spirit, but with a shift in emphasis. Building closely on Tomlinson’s work, I will show how Kepler provides another example of how the voice can, via a vast cosmic system, link the sensible with the supersensible, the worldly to the extraworldly. I will also identify in Kepler, as in the contemporaneous examples considered by Tomlinson, collisions and intersections between musical thinking and more general intellectual trends of the period. Moving away from Tomlinson, however, I will also claim that one can find in Kepler historical correspondences regarding the nature of signification and representation that, when read together with poststructuralist thinkers such as Lacan and Deleuze, seem strikingly modern. These correspondences flow both ways through time. On one hand, Kepler’s musical and harmonic reasoning is fertile ground for the application of poststructuralist argumentation regarding the vicissitudes of signification. On the other hand, however, this same reasoning seems in some ways to prefigure themes in this same poststructuralist thought.

In section 1 of this essay, I provide an account of Tomlinson’s elegant reading of Renaissance music. This leads naturally into sections 2 and 3, which examine in detail Kepler’s musical cosmology, epistemology, and metaphysics in light of Tomlinson’s reading of the music of this period. Section 4 comprises a reading of the Harmony of the World and the celestial motet based on the historical correspondences identified in the preceding sections. In Section 5, I tie together some of the theoretical strands of the essay, showing how examples from early musical history and historiography can be instructive in ongoing debates surrounding the use of historicist approaches within the human sciences.

These debates often center around the claim that radical historicism has, in some sense, gone too far. Reductions of historical events and phenomena solely...


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