‘Galileo’s Muse’ brings science to musical life

Students and community members alike gathered in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall Sunday afternoon for Galileo’s Muse. The concert, which was performed by the group Listening to History, turned out not to be a performance, but rather an opportunity to travel to 16th-century Italy on the eve of revolutionary assessments of gravity.

The show began with footage of Commander David Scott from the Apollo 15 mission dropping a hammer and feather onto the moon. The fact that the two objects hit the moon’s surface at once first demonstrated how two bodies of different mass will fall with the same acceleration. The sweet twang of the lute transitioned the audience’s attention from the video to the program’s narrator, Benjamin Wolff. He told the story of a young Galileo; Wolff painted the picture of the young student as he walked through a piazza during a storm and observed how both large and small hailstones hit the ground simultaneously. Wolff demonstrated this concept for the audience, dropping two ball bearings into a cloth box. As Galileo watched the hailstones descend, he began to question what he learned about how mass affects falling bodies. The young scientist headed home, and as Wolff described, heard music.

This music transcended centuries as the ensemble began to play “Ciaccona,” a composition by Andrea Falconiero. In this happy, upbeat melody, the violins interacted in a fast-paced duet while the lute and cello provided a steady rhythm. The tune faded and Wolff resumed illustrating Galileo’s life. In 1604, as chair of math at the University of Padua, the scientist became “consumed by desire to understand the movement of falling bodies,” Wolff said. After countless unsuccessful experiments watching objects plummet, Galileo decided to use a gently inclined plane so he could better measure this descent. Confused about how to proceed, the physicist turned to his beloved lute; the piece he played reached the audience as they heard the strains of “Toccata” by Alessandro Piccinini. The refrain started off slow and contemplative with chord progressions, yet the sound built with faster pace as if converging toward an idea. The music mirrored Galileo’s epiphany, as he realized that “simple gut frets will help him solve the mystery of acceleration,” Wolff narrated. “He looks from his lute to his inclined plane, and bit by bit the glimmer of an idea comes to him.”

Galileo’s idea of attaching frets to the inclined plane manifested itself before the audience; Wolff arranged equally-spaced strings along a slanted surface as the quiet, slow melody of Michelagnolo Galilei’s “Toccata” guided him. As the ball clicked over frets on the inclined plane, Wolff explained to the spectators, Galileo realized he could use his musician’s ear to measure the time between sounds. As Galileo gauged the delay between clicks, Wolff showed spectators how he repositioned the frets to standardize the time between bumps. This revelation led the scientist to realize that the “distance from fall is always proportional to the square of the elapsed time … The answer to Galileo’s problem,” Wolff reminded onlookers.

Audience members got a taste of this metaphorical music as the talented musicians played Marco Uccellini’s Aria sopra “la Bergmasca.” This joyful harmony of quick tempo had a light, excited tone; the sound swelling and seizing the attention of listeners, and as the violins nudged each other into a bubbly pas de deux, the cello kept a steady low rhythm echoed by the lute. This happy tune gave way to Giovanni Legrenzi’s La Pia, which started slowly and built to a tempered exuberance.

After this explosion of jubilant song, Wolff brought the audience to present day, approximately 400 years after Galileo disproved the dependency of gravity’s acceleration on mass. In fact, without Galileo’s Law, Wolff pointed out, the Apollo 15 never could have gone to the moon or demonstrated the universality of these laws. Galileo’s story “should remind us that creativity doesn’t know boundaries,” he said. After all, Galileo never would have reached such monumental conclusions if he had not been willing to explore seemingly unrelated subjects for answers. “Let all us find sources of inspiration like this music,” Wolff urged. “This music that was Galileo’s muse.”

As the audience soaked in the weight of Wolff’s parting words, the troupe began Tarquinio Merula’s version of “Ciaccona.” The cello took the lead in the cheerful melody but the violins soon overcame their larger counterpart. The lute complimented the cello’s rhythmic resonance as the violins once more commandeered the melody with their call and response. The ensemble ended with a reprise of Falconiero’s Ciaccona, the very tune that welcomed young Galileo home as he first considered the possibility of unchanging acceleration due to gravity. These sounds brought the audience in Brooks-Rogers full circle, back to the place where this dynamic audiovisual experience began.

  • Norman Birnbaum 46

    Reading about an event like rewards one for contributing to the Alumni Fund. Galileo paid a rather heavy price for his creativity. His persecution by the Inquisition has a squallid if laughable sequel in the efforts by the present Virginia Attorney General to interfere with scientific research at the University of Virginia. It is difficult to know what motivates the contemporary enemies of scientific inquiry in the US . Their lack of intelligence and knowledge is clear, but other things are at work, too. Perhaps Bertold Brecht’s splendid drama, The Life of Galileo, offers an explanation.