Heavenly music

Fans of opera and science rejoice: celebrated modern composer Phillip Glass has written an opera on Johannes Kepler, the 17th century German astronomer who made a huge breakthrough in our understanding of the universe. New Scientist points out the good timing of this premiere: this year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Astronomia Nova, in which Kepler revealed his first two laws of planetary motion: that planets move in an ellipse, with the sun at one focus, and that a planet always sweeps out the same amount of area of the ellipse in a given time, no matter where it is on its elliptical path.

These laws appear in the libretto, which was largely culled from Kepler’s writings, although a critic at the New York Times complains that this makes for some dry moments:

When, for example, Kepler asks, “Is it cold that gives snow its starry shape?” and then ponders the question from several angles, or when he explains the scientific method (“First, we pose our hypothesis”) and his theories of how the planets’ orbits are shaped, chills do not run up your spine.

But Glass says that Kepler’s character, not his science, is the centerpiece of this work. “This kind of opera is really a portrait of a person. I want the audience to know something of his character, what he was thinking. What’s unique to Kepler is the quality of his thinking,” Glass said in an interview in the video above.

From what I can tell from video of the opera’s September debut in Linz, the work doesn’t go in for elaborate period costumes. Instead, Kepler, played by tall, gaunt-faced baritone Martin Achrainer, wanders the stage in a metallic trenchcoat that’s more Matrix than Renaissance. The stage is littered with gold mylar space-blankets; singers, perhaps representing the planets, walk precise trajectories while wearing geometric white shifts.

Ever since writing his first opera, Einstein on the Beach, in 1976, Glass has drawn from his fascination with science and scientists to create his music. In 2001 he portrayed Galileo’s struggle against the Inquisition in the opera Galileo Galilei. In an interview with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the opera had its US premiere on November 18, Glass explains this fascination with the giants of astronomy and physics. “We tend to honor them in terms of their established scientific credentials, but in fact they all were deeply spiritual people,” he says. “I’m interested in the scientist as the dreamer, the scientist as the poet.”

Kepler’s mind was always in the heavens, and not just in the secular sense; he was educated in religious institution, entering a Protestant seminary at the age of 13 and going on to study theology at university and as a graduate student, and remained profoundly spiritual throughout his life. Through special graduate seminars with his teacher Michael Maestlin, who didn’t dare slight Ptolemy in his lectures, Kepler learned of the new Copernican, heliocentric theory of the planets.

According to reviews, the opera also ambitiously tries to encompass Kepler’s strife-ridden historical milieu; the Thirty Years War, a bloodbath that pitted Protestants and Catholics against each other, developed and broke out during Kepler’s lifetime. In 1600, tensions between the two groups were already high; a decree that Protestants convert to Catholicism drove Kepler from his position as a mathematician at a Protestant seminary in Graz, Austria, so he moved to Prague to work under Danish astronomer and eccentric Tycho Brahe. Brahe’s precise observations of planetary motion gave Kepler the data he needed to realize that planetary orbits were elliptical, sweeping out equal areas in equal times. Kepler also did work supporting Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons. In 1612, Kepler became district mathematician in Linz; that city, almost 400 years later, commissioned Glass’s opera.

Kepler encountered religion’s ugly, murderous side as an individual, not only as a scientist. Between 1615-1620 Kepler had to defend his own mother against charges of witchcraft, and in 1618, when the Thirty Years War broke out, Kepler began to face persecution in Linz for his Protestant beliefs. The Thirty Years War destroyed almost everything in Kepler’s world; after his death in 1630, even his tomb was obliterated in the fighting.

As Glass suggests, Kepler was far from being strictly a man of science. He used his mathematical know-how to investigate theological matters; he even published work on the Christian calendar that argued that Jesus had been born in 4 BC. But this quotation from “The Harmony of the World,” published in 1619, suggests that he saw his day job as an implicitly holy enterprise:

” …I am stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle to my God from them, far far away from the boundaries of Egypt. If you forgive me, I shall rejoice.; if you are enraged with me, I shall bear it. See, I cast the die, and I write the book. Whether it is to be read by the people of the present or of the future makes no difference: let it await its reader for a hundred years, if God himself has stood ready for six thousand years for one to study him.”

Kepler also wrote in a letter to his teacher, Michael Maestlin, “I wanted to be a theologian; for a long time I was unhappy. Now, behold, God is praised by my work even in astronomy.” This makes Kepler a timely figure even 400 years later; religion and science don’t seem much nearer to making their peace. His central belief, that science uplifts rather than profanes spirituality, is relevant today.

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