20. On the Music in Heaven

I began my school days in Hutchinson, Kansas. During my first year in school someone told the class how lucky we were to live in Hutchinson, because it is in the center of Kansas and Kansas is in the center of the US and the US is in the center of the continent! Going one step further, I had observed that we were also directly beneath Heaven, because during the preacher’s constant references to Heaven and Hell he always pointed his finger straight up, pointing to the sky, whenever he mentioned Heaven!

But then during the third grade I saw something I had never seen before; the teacher brought a globe to class. Since I knew I had an extensive German background in my family, I asked the teacher to show me where Germany was on the globe. I can still recall my deep concern when I discovered then that the children in Germany did not have a Heaven, for Heaven was over Kansas!

One of the most interesting and curious points of agreement among the religions of all cultures is the assumption of a future life, as is early documented by the ancient pyramids of Egypt. According to Gibbon, the promise of a new and better life was one of the most important selling points for the new Christian Church and one of the most important explanations for its rapid growth:

The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for their present existence, and by a just confidence in immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect faith of modern ages cannot give us any adequate notion.

“The History of the Decline and Fall of he Roman Empire,” 1845, I, XVI

The belief in this promise continues to be strongly held by Protestant and Catholic churches everywhere. Given its promise, it is more than a little curious that church philosophers have been so reluctant to tell us what Heaven will be like, aside from the popular notion of people wearing wings and sitting on clouds playing harps.

When you think about it, it is rather interesting to consider all the things which are never spoken of as existing in heaven by theological and philosophical books. No one ever speaks of paintings, sculpture or books, not to mention houses, food and drink, golf or tennis or cats and dogs. The humorist, Will Rogers, when once asked about his thoughts on Heaven, commented that he would rather go to wherever the dogs went!

How do the people there spend their time—for eternity, after all? They must perform and listen to a lot of music, for music seems to be the only agreed upon activity assumed to exist there. One must assume that the origin of this idea lies in the association of music with the divine assumed by many ancient writers following the observation that Music is the only Art which cannot be seen.

For most writers of the Christian era, interest in this subject begins with the account in the New Testament where we are told that a choir of angels appeared and sang to shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus. By the way, in the fifteenth-century anonymous play, The Shepherds, one of the Chester mystery plays, there is a humorous scene in which the shepherds do not understand what the choir of angels is trying to tell them, because the choir was singing in Latin! [The Chester Mystery Cycle, 1992, 140ff]

The idea of music in Heaven seems to have found general acceptance by the Baroque Period for there we begin to find references in stage plays. In a 17th century play by Molina, Damned for Despair (III, iii), which was one of the sources for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the character, Paulo, hears “Heavenly music filling the air!” This performance was by two angels who are bearing the soul of a criminal, Enrico, up to heaven. Another seventeenth-century play, by the English playwright, Thomas Dekker, in The Virgin Martyr (V, i) has two references to music of the spirit world, one of which reads, “tis in the Air, or from some better place, a power divine.”

The German composer and critic, Johann Mattheson (1681–1764), believed that while in the Garden of Eden man could hear the music of heaven, but once expelled this knowledge was lost. [Der vollkommene Capellmeister, 1739, Foreword, III] It is interesting that Mattheson also believed that the music of heaven existed before the creation of the earth, a conclusion he apparently based on Job 38:7,

when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.

Some of the most interesting commentary on the music of heaven is by philosophers who find that even if we cannot hear this music, it nevertheless has some specific purpose on earth. The fourteenth-century English writer, Richard Rolle, for example, finds the first purpose of music sung by angels is to comfort the soul. [English Writings of Richard Rolle, ed, Allen, 17]

Also oure Lorde comforthes a saule by Aungells sange. Bot what that sange es, it may noghte [be] dyscryuded be no bodyly lyknes, for it es [spiritual], and abown all manere of ymagynacyone and mans reson.

Only those with a pure soul can hear this song, but if they can, then they can sing a new song, of heavenly bliss, without deceit or pretending.

Than [truly] may he synge a newe sange, and [truly] may be here a blysfull heuenly sown and Aungells sange, with-owtten dessayte or feynynge.

Ibid., 18

And finally, Rolle considers the singing by the angels as being almost a kind of insurance policy, protecting the listener against sin. Accordingly, he warns that if you see a man spiritually occupied fall into sin, deceits or “frensyes,” you will know he has never heard angel’s song or heavenly sound. For truly, hearing the angel’s song makes one so wise he cannot succumb to the sins of fantasy, indiscretion or tricks of the devil.

For [truly], he that verreyly heres Aungels sange, he es made so wyse that he sall never erre by fantasye, ne by indiscrecyon, ne by no sleghte of the deuelle.

Ibid., 19

Zarlino, the famous sixteenth-century Italian Music theorist, found one purpose of the music in heaven to be a genetically implanted aid for the support of man in manual labor.

Many were of the opinion that in this life every soul is won by music, and, although the soul is imprisoned by the body, it still remembers and is conscious of the music of the heavens, forgetting every hard and annoying labor.

Quoted in Palisca, “Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought,” 179

John Milton apparently thought that the music of heaven played a role in helping singers learn to connect with the divine. In his poem, To Leonora, as She Sings at Rome, music is referred to as a “Third Intelligence” which comes from Heaven which enters the throat of the singer and “graciously teaches mortal hearts the power to grow accustomed insensibly to sounds immortal.” [The Works of John Milton, ed. Patterson, I, 229]

Regarding the function of music in heaven, Thomas Mace (1613–1709) offers his interesting belief that normal languages will not be used and that we will all communicate through music there. [Musick’s Monument, 1676, 272.] This was ana idea which attracted a number of other early philosophers, including Voltaire. Sudre, who actually created such a system, will be subject of the following essay.

And I am subject to believe (if in Eternity we shall make use of any languages, or shall not understand one another, by some more spiritual conveyances, or infusions of perceptions, than by verbal language) that music itself may be that eternal and celestial language.

One of the most familiar references to Music in Heaven is the blowing of the trumpet on the Day of Judgement. A typical example is found in the fourteenth-century English ‘Merceres’ play when God says,

Therefore mine angels will I send
To blow their trumpets, that all may hear
The time is come when I make end.
Angels, blow your trumpets high,
Every creature for to call.

Purvis, “The York Cycle, 374

The use of the plural here, when God says he will send his angels to blow their trumpets, reminds us of the terrible tales of destruction told in the Book of Revelations, 8:2ff, when seven angels, one by one, blow their trumpets. Seven trumpets also play for the fall of the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6:8. The Book of Revelations passage begins,

Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them. The first angel blew his trumpet and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, which fell on the earth; and a third of the earth was burnt up, and a third of the trees were burnt up, and all the green grass was burnt up.

Chaucer, in addition to a very rare description of one of the medieval minstrel schools, creates an interesting variation on the use of the trumpet on the Day of Judgment in his poem, The House of Fame. In this allegorical dream, we come upon the goddess of Fame who sits in judgment of various groups of people making their pleas for lasting fame. To help dispense her judgments, she calls upon Aeolus, the god of the winds, to bring his trumpets [clarioun]. One of these is a trumpet of gold, called “Clear Praise” [Clere Laude], and the other is black, made of brass by the devil, and is called “Slander.” When this black trumpet is blown, the sound, coming out as fast as a ball from a gun, is described as a foul noise, a kind of black, blue, red, greenish smoke, such as comes from the chimney where men melt lead.

For a group of people who have done good works, but never received credit, the golden trumpet is blown. Presumably the golden trumpet was also blown for the next group, those who don’t want credit, their good works having been done for goodness and for no other reason. “I grant your wish,” says the goddess of Fame, “let your works die!” The following group also wanted no fame, for their works were done for God. “What! are you mad?,” the goddess responds, “You think you will do good and have no glory for it?” She has the golden trumpet “ring out in music” their deeds for all the world to hear.

The next group is surely troubadours, for their “good works” have all been done for women, for which “women loved us madly,” but often rewarded only with brooches or rings. For all this hard work, they felt they deserved renown and the goddess agreed and had the golden trumpet play again.

Another group, though they were “gluttonous swine and idle wretches full of the rotten vice of sloth,” thought they deserved fame on the same basis as the previous group, but the goddess had them condemned by the black trumpet. The following group of “treacherous” people received the same reward.

John Milton, in Paradise Lost, [VI, 60ff] mentions the heavenly trumpet when the angels Michael and Gabriel are at war against Satan.

Nor with less dread the loud
Ethereal Trumpet from on high began to blow …
In silence their bright Legions, to the sound
Of instrumental Harmonie that breathed Heroic Ardor to adventurous deeds …

Speaking of Satan, we might digress briefly to observe that the nature of the music of hell has never been of much interest to early writers. The sole example we are familiar with is by Voltaire. In his, The Maid of Orleans [XI, Canto V] , offers a description of Hell which includes, “songs in praise of drinking loudly roar.” A resident of Hell observes,

Cursed and tormented here, why care a jot For psalms and praises sung where we not?

We find interesting some of the specific things the various early writers looked forward to on the day when they would at last hear the music in heaven. The first century BC, Roman poet, Tibullus, looked forward not only to hearing the singing, but to his belief that “Venus herself will lead me along the way.” [Poems, I, iii] The great sixteenth-century French poet, Pierre de Ronsard [in Songs and Sonnets of Ronsard, trans., Page, 113] looked forward to hearing in heaven, in person, the singing by the great lyric poets of ancient Greece.

Ah, God! to think, mine ear
Alcaeus’ lyre shall hear,
And Sappho’s, over all
Most musical!

It was hearing “Spirits immortal sing” that Milton looked forward to. [Paradises Lost, II, 552] The seventeenth-century English poet, Edward Young, declared in his Resignation, that when he got there he would not sing with the heavenly choir at all unless it was conducted by Raphael!

But sing no more—no more I sing,
Or reassume the lyre,
Unless vouchsafed an humble part
Where Raphael leads the choir.

And Alexander Pope, in his The Dying Christian to his Soul, upon imagining that he hears the music of heaven, utters some of the most famous lines in English literature,

The world recedes; it disappears! Heaven opens on my eyes! my ears With sounds seraphim ring:
Lend, lend your winds! I mount! I fly! O Grave! where is thy Victory?
O Death! where is thy Sting?

So what do the early writers and philosophers think the music in heaven will sound like? In early literature some form of the word ‘sweet’ was often associated with the most beautiful music. The use of this word appears to have evolved from the expression, ‘honeyed’ music in ancient Greek literature. And so in the fourteenth-century English poet, Richard Rolle, in his The Pricke of Conscience, 9252] we find “all kinds of sweet tones of music, as any man’s heart might like.”

And of Alkyn swet tones of musyke,
That til any mans hert mught like.

From the fifteenth century we find the English poet, John Lydgate [The Life of Saint Alban, 4127], varies the idea by writing of ‘sugared’ music.

Herd of angelis, with sugrid notis cleer,
Celestial song in ther melodie

Again we find “Sweet harmony” in the sixteenth-century Italian poet, Guarini [The Faithful Shepherd, II Pastor Fido], and “Sweet, charming symphonie,” in Milton in describing the music of the angels. Happy or gay music in heaven was imagined by the seventeenth-century Dutch poet, Joost van den Vondel [Lucifer, II, 500ff],

O choristers of love,
Whose choral hymns and harmony Amid the flow of radiant ray
Make heaven’s hall with music gay,
And fill our hearts with melody,
And steep our hearts in bliss untold.

Most descriptions of the music of heaven involves choirs. The seventeenth-century English poet, James Thomson, thinks he already hears them. [An Ode on Aeolus’s Harp, II, 228]

Methinks I hear the full celestial choir,
Through Heaven’s high dome their awful anthem raise;
Now chanting clear, and now they all conspire
To swell the lofty hymn from praise to praise.

His contemporary, John Milton in At a solemn Musick, images a thousand choirs,

Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,
And the Cherubick host in thousand choirs
Touch their immortal Harps of golden wires.
and sound symphonious of ten thousand Harps that tuned Angelic harmonies.

“Paradise Lost,” VII, 557

The twelfth-century mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, foresees saying [in Vision Six, 4] there will be more singers than sands of the sea or fruit of the earth! She describes their voices with great enthusiasm.

For most of the good angels look up to God. They acknowledge God with all the melodious sound of their hymns of praise, and laud in wonderful harmony the mysteries that have always been with God and are still with God today. The angels can never stop praising God because they are unencumbered by earthly bodies. They bear witness to the Godhead through the living resonance of their splendid voices, which are more numerous than the sands of the sea and which outnumber all the fruits that the Earth might ever produce. Their voices have a richer harmony than all the sounds living creatures have ever produced, and their voices are brighter than all the splendor of the sun, moon, and stars sparkling in the waters. More wonderful is this sound than the music of the spheres that arises from the blowing of the winds that sustain the four elements and are well adjusted to them.

Beyond the choirs of angels, some early writers anticipate a variety of other instruments will be heard in heaven. John Milton mentions the instrumental sounds made by the angels in a passage where he also describes the angels as “millions of spiritual Creatures” who “walk the Earth Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep.” [Paradise Lost, VII, 254]

Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to others note
Singing their great Creator: oft in bands
While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk
With Heavenly touch of instrumental sounds
In full harmonic number joined, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to Heaven.

In Paradise Lost [II, 149] he contemplates hearing “songs and choral symphonies.”

Some seventeenth-century poets expect to find the popular Renaissance instruments in heaven, as we see, for example, in a poem, Alcaic Ode, by Matthaus Apelles von Lowenstern (1594–1648).

Great bands of angels round him soar,
Psalter and harp make His glory more.

Another seventeenth-century poet, Thomas Traherne (1634–1674), in On Christmas-Day, adds a lute to the instruments he expects to hear in heaven, in a Christmas poem which begins, ‘Shall Dumpish Melancholy spoil my Joys.’

Shake off thy Sloth, my drowsy Soul, awake;
With Angels sing
Unto thy King,And pleasant Musick make;
Thy Lute, thy Harp, or else thy Heart-strings take,
And with thy Musick let thy Sense awake.

His contemporary, Richard Crashaw, in The Weeper, anticipates that as angels are invisible, so will be their instruments when he writes, “Angels with crystal viols come.”

Richard Rolle expects to find a complete wind band, as is suggested by his use of a phrase exclusively associated with them in early English literature. [Complete Writings, 9252]

Alle other manere of melody,
Of the delytable noys of mynstralsy.

When the Puritan, John Bunyan, uses the term “noise” with regard to the music in heaven he appears to mean only trumpets. In his Pilgrim’s Progress, he gives an extended description of the music he foresees will meet those who arrive in heaven. [Works of John Bunyan, ed. Offor, III, 165]

There came out also at this time to meet them, several of the king’s trumpeters, clothed in white and shining raiment, who, with melodious noises, and loud, made even the heavens to echo with their sound …

This done, they compassed them round on every side; some went before, some behind, and some on the right hand, some on the left …, continually sounding as they went, with melodious noise, in notes on high … Thus, they walked on together; and as they walked, ever and anon these trumpeters, even with joyful sound, would, by mixing their music with looks and gestures, still signify to Christian and his brother, how welcome they were into their company.

Later in the Celestial City, “the trumpets continually sound so melodiously,” that people could not sleep yet they woke as refreshed as if they had. [Ibid., 240. A similar welcome is found in his The Holy War, Ibid., III, 359]

Finally, in his poem, One Thing is Needful, [Ibid., III, 733] we wonder if he was anticipating better intonation from the string instruments in heaven.

The strings of music here are tuned
For heavenly harmony.

Since no one can know what the music of heaven will really be like, writers and philosophers have taken the music they know on earth and supposed that must reflect what they will hear in heaven. Yes, agrees the English writer, Joseph Addison (1672–1719), Music is the part of Heaven we have on Earth.

Music—the greatest good that mortals know, and all of Heaven we have below.

Martin Peerson (1572–1650) made a similar comment in the dedication for his Mottets or Grave Chamber Music of 1630. He wrote, “that heaven upon earth, which it found here, in Musicke and Harmonicall proportions.” Which in turn recalls the line in the “Lord’s Prayer,” Matthew 6:10, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

We cannot conclude our wonder about the relationship of music between Heaven and the Earth, without recalling something Schubert once said about the first movement of Mozart’s G minor Symphony:

If you listen very carefully, you can hear the wings of angels.