15 August 2009

'All the Music of the Universe'—St Gregory of Nyssa on Music

This is a passage which I first read in the liner notes to a cd of Serbian monks singing Byzantine chant in Slavonic that I bought at Hilandar. When we finally came back to the States, I tracked down the book it came from and bought it, if only so I would have this quote in its context. From St Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, trans. Casimir McCambley, OCSO (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College, n.d.):

If the entire world is a kind of musical harmony whose artisan and creator is God as the Apostle says (Heb. 11:10), then man is a microcosm, an imitator of Him who made the world. The divine plan for the world at large sees this image in what is small, for the part is indeed the same as the whole. Similarly, a piece of small, transparent stone reflects like a mirror the entire sun’s orb in the same way a small object reflects God’s light. Thus I say that in the microcosm, man’s nature, all the music of the universe is analogously seen in the whole through the particular inasmuch as the whole is contained by the particular. The structure of our body’s organs follows this example, for nature has skillfully constructed it to produce music. Observe the tube-like structure of the windpipe and the harp of the palate where the tongue and mouth resemble a lyre with chord and a plectrum.

Since everything natural is compatable [sic] with nature, music too is in accord with our human nature. For this reason the great David combined his singing with his teaching on the virtues and sprinkled his lofty teachings with honey’s sweetness by which he carefully examines himself and cures our human nature. This cure is a harmonious life which to me the singing seems to offer through symbols. (p. 29)

I thought this passage rather remarkable, and find it difficult to forget when I am in church, hearing or participating in the chanting (though of course, it has implications for music as a whole that we would do well to consider). I also find St Gregory’s reference to the Psalms as the Prophet David’s ‘teaching on the virtues’ an enlightening and fruitful way to go about reading them.


Matthew M said...

Could not find any book like this on Amazon. Sure you gave the correct title?

Aaron Taylor said...

Yeah, the title's right. I just found it a moment ago through an 'Advanced Search' for the ISBN: 0917653459. You may be disappointed though--it looks like it's out of print, and the cheapest copy is going for $49.95.