A Baroque History of Time: Stars, Hearts and Music

A Baroque History of Time

The past is a foreign country,

they do things differently there.

L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)

The past is a foreign country;

there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language

and understood its assumptions.

Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)

One of the challenges of Historically Informed Performance is to try to catch a glimpse of our own assumptions, to notice where something seems so ‘obvious’ and ‘absolute’ that we  don’t even question it. The worst decisions in Early Music are the decisions that we don’t even realise we are making, because we don’t even notice there is a question to be addressed. But as soon as we become aware of an assumption, we can look for evidence of whether the same assumption held good in the past, or if attitudes might have changed with the centuries.

In this post, I’m exploring the subject of musical Rhythm by examining period concepts of Time: historical belief-systems at both cosmic and human levels; the grand philosophy and naive assumptions that underpin pragmatic performance decisions; the changing views of science; and the various practices of artists as they performed their passions. The assumption that I’m challenging is that we today understand Time itself in the same way that Monteverdi and Shakespeare did.


1900 and 1600

The question I’m posing to Renaissance Man, in order to understand his ways of thought, is the same question we can pose to ourselves, in order reveal the assumptions of our own age:

What is Time?

Modern Time

Now, it’s almost a century since the London newspaper, the Times, declared that Newton’s ideas had been ‘overthrown’ by Einstein (7th November, 1919). One might say that this ‘Revolution in Science’  which led to a ‘New Theory of the Universe’ began with a paper written by an official in the French Bureau of Longitude, mathematician Henri Poincaré. In The Measure of Time (1898), he asked two deep questions:

1. Is it meaningful to say that one second today is equal to one second tomorrow?

2. Is it meaningful to say that two events which are separated in space occurred at the same time?


A century later, the answers are: (1) we still don’t know, and (2) No. That resounding “No” came  from the work of Albert Einstein, who in his annus mirabilis of 1905 published four papers, on the Photoelectric Effect (establishing the Quantum nature of light), on Brownian Motion (addressing the methodology of statistical physics that Quantum Theory would come to rely on), on Special Relativity (overthrowing Newton’s concept of Absolute Time) and on Matter-Energy Equivalence (formulating that most famous equation, E=mc2). He also submitted his PhD thesis.

Perhaps relativistic effects helped him get so much done in just one year!


Poincaré and Einstein

The predicted and observed effects of all this new science still seem ‘paradoxical’ to most of us. Schrodinger’s Cat is neither alive nor dead, until the act of observation collapses the quantum dynamical waveform one way or another. There’s no certain answer, only statistical Probability.

Schrodingers Cat


Even Einstein himself didn’t want to believe that ‘God plays dice with the universe’ like that. Whatever the science told him, Einstein’s own assumptions were inevitably conditioned by the thinking of previous generations. Before the 20th century, religious beliefs and traditional assumptions led most people to expect Cosmic Power to control the everyday scale. Like Einstein, many of us find it hard to grasp that tiny particles might dictate the fate of the universe.

20th-century Science presents many more paradoxes. Heisenberg’s Principle means that we are forced to balance knowledge with uncertainty in pairs of values, for example mass and momentum. The more precisely we establish Time, the less we can know about Energy. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity predicts that a man who travels to Mars and back will return slightly younger than his twin brother, who waits for him on Earth.

Time itself might be reversed, if the arrow of entropy changes, in some future contracting state of the universe. Meanwhile, Quantum effects in the brain allow our nervous system to respond to stimuli measurably before the stimulus is received. The mathematics of Quantum Theory predict the existence of Wormholes, opening up the possibility of travel through time. This raises the question of what might happen if you went back in time and killed your Grandfather, forestalling your own birth. The Bootstrap Paradox refers to creating something out of nothing by complex loops of time-travel, like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.



In Heinlein’s novel All you Zombies, kidnapping, love-affairs and gender-change surgery leave us with a time-travelling character who is his own mother, father, son, daughter, long-lost lover and kidnapper. Scientists are struggling too: Quantum Theory and Relativity do not mesh well, so that a Grand Unified Theory of Life, the Universe and Everything is currently out of reach.

But for most of us, the paradoxes of Einstein’s science, let alone more recent findings, do not affect our daily lives. We find Relativity counter-intuitive, because we do not see it at work in the everyday world. For us, Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) works just fine. If I drop an apple it will hit the ground more or less when I expect. Our intuitive assumptions about Time are more than 300 years behind the cutting edge of scientific theory.

Newton Principia 1687


We are very comfortable with Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, with its one direction ‘like an ever-rolling stream’, Time that exists independent of any other quantities. We are very accustomed to measuring the accuracy of a clock, the movement of a star, or the beating of a heart, against the absolute scale of Newton’s Time. So accustomed are we,  that as well as ignoring what we know from Stephen Hawking about post-Einsteinian Time, we also overlook the fact that Peri and Monteverdi did not know about Newton’s Time.

Early baroque musicians, around the year 1600, did not feel about Time the same way we do. They could not have had the same assumptions. Even after Newton’s 1687 publication, it would have taken some years for his ideas to gain acceptance amongst fellow-specialists, and many decades for those ideas to become part of the instinctive assumptions of the population at large.

Monteverdi’s Time

The Early Modern philosophy of Time was founded on Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle’s Physics characterises Time as

A Number of Motion in respect of Before and After

Time is only meaningful in the context of Motion or Stillness, of observable Change before/after.

In the year 1610, this was no mere philosophising: swordfighters bet their lives on it. Capo Ferro describes a swordfighting tempo as ‘measuring the Motion of my opponent by the Stillness of my sword’. Such a tempo could be long and slow, when the duellers were far apart and reluctant to come to close combat, or terrifyingly fast, as the sword-master parries and ripostes in a single lightning-strike of tempo, driving his rapier through his opponent’s left eye.

 Capo Ferro Plate 7

Viggiani’s sword treatise specifically refers to Aristotle. Agrippa’s fighting manual shows the period theory of Light, beams that come from your eyes, as he demonstrates how to save your life with a timely turn, the scanso della vita.

Agrippa rays of light

Tasso, whose poetry Monteverdi set as  the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, owned a copy of Agrippa’s book, and that music-drama is full of swordsmanship jargon: schivar (deceiving the blade), parar (parry), ritrarse (step back), destrezza (sword-skills).

Cavalieri’s musical morality play, Anima e Corpo (the earliest surviving ‘opera’, the first oratorio; Rome, 1600) presents Plato’s philosophy of Time. Past and Future are divided by the moving point of the Present, which is an instantaneous image of all Eternity. As Soul and Body battle against worldly temptations, this libretto too is full of swordsmanship jargon, but the first character to sing is Il Tempo, Old Father Time.

Old Father Time

Cavalieri tells us that Time flies, does not last, wears us away, measures us, that Time is short. We are told to do good works – act with the hand, act with the heart –there is a clear parallel to an actor’s performance, linking baroque gestures and heartfelt emotions.

But 17th-century texts use the word Time (in Italian, tempo) to translate from Greek two different words, conveying two distinct concepts. Kronos is Aristotle’s numbered Time of Before and After: kairos is a timely opportunity. In Rhetoric, kairos is when the time is ripe to press home logical arguments – I hope that as you read these words, there is kairos now.

For a swordfighter, tempo  is not only motion and stillness, but also the moment of opportunity, the crucial instant in which you must strike to defend yourself and wound your opponent.

In the Christian New Testament, the Messiah comes in the fullness of time – at the moment of kairos. And the Apostle Paul frequently exhorts his followers to seize the chance of their own instant of kairos.

In life, in debate, in a fight, or on stage, kairos is the moment to act. The anonymous 16th-century Bologna sword-master said that swordsmen need the same skills of timing as a fine singer: this gives an idea of the level of sharp rhythmic precision singers must have had back then. As one voice-student said to me ruefully of today’s early music singers: ‘we’d all be dead!’.

Hierarchy of Disciplines


Since Aristotle links Time to Number and to motion in Space, the Renaissance recognised an intellectual hierarchy relating Arithmetic (the study of Number), Geometry (Number and Space) and Music (Number and Time). At the top of this hierarchy is Astronomy (Number, Time and Space), the study of the heavens. That lofty position is shared by Dancing and Sword-fighting, which (in contrast to today’s devaluing of ballet, let alone martial arts) outrank absolute music.

Both philosophically and practically, sword-fighting and renaissance dancing are related, and ballets of the stars are a 17th-century cliché. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Nymphs ‘leave the mountains, leave the fountains’ to dance a ballo ‘even more beautiful than those danced to the moon on a dark night by the heavenly stars’. The first opera from the New World, Torrejón’s La púrpura de la rosa (Lima, Peru 1701) begins with Urania, the Muse of Astronomy, sighting a new planet.

So here are the Stars of my sub-title. For period musicians, swordsmen, even for baroque sailors, Time is a matter of Astronomy. Around 1600, it is defined by the stars and planets (on the largest, cosmic scale) and followed here on earth (on a smaller, human scale).

Three kinds of Music

Time & Music

Continuing to examine the assumptions of the past, what about practical music-making? For Cavalieri, Peri and Monteverdi, what is Music? Again, period thought was based on ancient authorities, and there is a consistent view that differs from modern assumptions.

The most significant type of music was musica mondana, the Music of the Spheres, the perfect music (inaudible to human ears) created by the heavenly  dance of the stars and planets. Musica humana is the harmonious nature of the human body, the divine image incarnate, the Word that was ‘in the beginning’ set to the soul-music of embodied Creation. Musica instrumentalis is what we mean by the word ‘Music’ today, the actual sounds we make with our voices and instruments.

These then are the three categories of my subtitle: music of the stars, of human hearts, and music as performed by 17th-century musicians. The structure of the cosmos, the beating of the human heart and musical rhythm are also the interlinked ideas that illustrate the period concept of Time. They are interconnected in philosophical theory and also in practical use.

What is Time

Slow Time (years, months, days and hours) is measured by Celestial movement. A brief moment is measured by the heartbeat, which is both a symbol and a practical measurement of musical rhythm.

Galileo discovered the pendulum effect in the late 16th century, but the first pendulum clock was not built until the 1630s. In this period, the most accurate clocks could just about count the seconds. This begs the question, how did Galileo measure the pendulum effect?

The most accurate clock available to him was his own, human pulse. This was sufficiently reliable to establish the constancy of period, around 7 seconds, for a chandelier hung on a very long cable from the roof of Pisa cathedral.


Galileo Pendulum


But Galileo also did high-precision experiments to determine the acceleration due to gravity, which required split-second timing. How could he do this? Circa-1600 clocks were hopelessly imprecise. His pulse (about one per second, when relaxed) was better, but still insufficient for such high-precision work.

History of Science researcher Stillman Drake realised that the Galilei family’s expertise in music would have solved the problem. Musical rhythm provides a reliable way to divide a one-second pulse into eight equal parts: in period notation, this is the equivalent of dividing a minim (half note) into semiquavers (sixteenth notes).

Joakim Linde has created an online simulation that allows you to repeat Galileo’s experiment with gravity and music, here.

What we need to understand today, is that Galileo was using Music to measure Time. Music was more precise than the very best clocks of his period. Music had the regular, heavenly equality of measure, that Time itself did not yet possess, since Newton’s idea of absolute time had not yet been formulated.


Measurement of Time


Hierarchy of Time

There is a definite hierarchy in this philosophy, in this period Science of Time. Celestial Time is the ideal, imitated on earth. As we look up to the heavens, to the musical spheres, the highest sphere is the primum mobile. It is God’s hand that winds the Clock of the Cosmos. This is imitated on earth, in that musical rhythm is determined by a long, slow count; in that we divide up those slow, long notes into faster notes (by division, or diminution); in that these faster notes must fit inside the rhythm pre-determined by the slow count; and in that we divide up the slow count in various proportions, in precise, whole-number ratios.


Hierarchy of Time


Ha, ha, keep time! How sour sweet music is/ when time is broke and no proportion kept!

warns Richard II.

Clocks had religious significance. Just as Protestants and Catholics argued about calendar reform, so musical rhythm is a moral imperative. As Dowland thunders in 1609 (translating Ornithoparcus from 1535) “above all things… “ (the language itself is hierarchical) …

Above all things, keep the equality of measure, lest you offend God himself!

To attempt to change Time (the modern practices of rubato, rallentando, accelerando; even the 19th-century concept that the performer can decide the tempo of a particular movement) is to risk the stability of the cosmos, to threaten your own bodily health.

When Phaeton seized the reins of Apollo’s sun-chariot, he could not control the movement of the sun through the heavens. He crashed and burned.

Sun Chariot


If your pulse stops, the music also dies.

 The take-home message from all of this period Philosophy, or History of Science, is that Newton’s 1687 concept of Absolute Time did not apply around the year 1600. Time does not measure music, because there is no Absolute Scale of Time.

It’s the other way around: Music measures Time. Time is determined by divine, cosmic forces that we see also at work in the human body and in music itself.

This helps us understand what seem to be needlessly complicated statements about musical notation, like Carissimi’s here:

The triple-metres all agree with regard to quantity, division and proportion, as is easily understood, but in the slow or fast quality, known by the Italians as tempo and by the French as mouvement, they are utterly different.

Carissimi lacks the vocabulary and the very concept of Newton’s Absolute time, and he flounders as he tries to explain something we can today express more clearly, more simply.

The triple-metres all agree with regard to the quantity, the duration of musical note-values in absolute time [a semibreve lasts 0.66 seconds, a minim 0.33 seconds, etc].

This is easily understood [but it is different from 19th-century practice, where the performer can choose the speed of a piece of music].

In the slow or fast quality [how it feels to the listener] the triple-metres are utterly different [3/1 feels slow, 3/2  feels medium fast, 6/4 feels very fast].

‘What the Italians call tempo’ can mean Time itself, or the subjective feeling of how fast a piece of music is going. Carissimi has no vocabulary to separate these concepts, except for his idea of Absolute quantity and subjective quality.

The difficulty for Carissimi’s generation is that they do not have a concept, or a vocabulary for Absolute Time. Their best measure of Time is Music. So it’s extremely difficult for them to explain how different pieces of music can have consistent note-values, yet still produce such different subjective impressions of speed.

The French language is  bit more helpful: Mouvement for a piece of music helps us appreciate that music can seem to ‘move’ faster or slower, whilst we measure time steadily. But in the 17th-century they still measure Time with Music (so one can’t establish an objective description of how music moves in time), and (looking back to Aristotle) Time itself needs movement (i.e. change) in order to be measured. Without Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, it is very difficult to talk about the subjective speed of music!

Towards the modern assumptions of Time


As the 17th century progresses, the idea of an Absolute measurement of Time emerges. Clocks become more accurate, and the clock itself becomes a metaphor of time, and of music.

Thus Playford can advise music students to learn rhythm by listening to the tick-tock of a clock. Musicians’ modifying words, such as tarde, velociter, adagio, presto function like subtle adjustments to a clock, so that it ticks somewhat slower or faster. Similarly, Frescobaldi, Caccini and others allow the Tactus beat to go faster or slower according to the affetto, just as the human heart beats faster or slower under the influence of differing emotions. Gradually, music becomes a clock that can be adjusted by emotions to count Time faster or slower.

Nevertheless, this is still far removed from Newton’s concept of Absolute Time, and from our modern ideas that music can move freely whilst time itself is regular.

We need to think carefully, we need to understand the language and assumptions of the 17th century, before we rush to conclusions about rhythmic freedom. Rather than starting from the modern assumption of Absolute Time and musical rubato, we would do better to start from the period assumption that steady time is a religious imperative; that the heavens, our hearts and our music are inter-connected.


If the rhythm breaks, the cosmos will collapse!

If your heart stops, the music also dies.


 No rubato, no conducting



Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.



7 thoughts on “A Baroque History of Time: Stars, Hearts and Music

  1. Pingback: The First Opera & The Beginning of Baroque | Andrew Lawrence-King

  2. Pingback: Text, Rhythm, Action! Research, Training & Performance | Andrew Lawrence-King

  3. You wrote:

    “we would do better to start from the period assumption that steady time is a religious imperative.”

    That is: saying that we need to stick to absolutes.
    Which is incorrect. Completely incorrect.

    It is also: a postmodern call to use metronomes, without actually mentioning the word metronome.

    Mr King, you are a modernist through and through: a formalist!!!

    • Dear Jason,

      Thank you for your comment. My position is not at all absolute: I don’t believe there is ‘one way of playing music’ which should be applied to all repertoires. On the contrary, I advocate trying to approach each repertoire from within its own historical and cultural context.

      The idea that steady time is a religious imperative is not mine, but is a characteristic view of European musicians circa 1600. John Dowland expresses it clearly, in his translation of Ornithoparcus’ ‘Micrologus’: “Above all things, keep the Equality of Measure. For to sing without law and measure is an offence to God himself.”

      I certainly wouldnt advocate the use of a metronome, an early 19th-century invention, in music from circa 1600. In that earlier period, “steady time” means “as steady as humanly possible”. If any mechanical help were used, it might be a pendulum (playing to a pendulum swing is very different from playing to a metronome click: we’ve tested this out).

      The crucial concept I am arguing for is that musicians, circa 1600, tried their very best to keep steady time. But “steady” includes all kinds of regular subtleties, for example the subtle difference between down- and up-stroke, arsis & thesis. I plan to explore these subtleties in a future post. But you can read my summary of circa 1600 assumptions (my summary, their assumptions) here: https://andrewlawrenceking.com/2015/02/16/tempus-putationis-getting-back-to-monteverdis-time/

      I favour neither the 19th-century metronome, nor 20th-century rubato. Rather, I’m interested to explore how early 17th-century musicians thought about time, in the age before Newton.

  4. Pingback: Frescobaldi Rules, OK? | Andrew Lawrence-King

  5. Pingback: Quality Time: how does it feel? | Andrew Lawrence-King

  6. Amazing! I’ll have a look. Thx for sharing X

    Enviat des del meu Ày,fon

    El 23/11/2014, a les 22:59, Andrew Lawrence-King va escriure: > >

I'd like to hear your comments. Please comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s