THE ORGINS OF PHILIP GLASS' GALILEO GALILEI
(S + M)3G = Opera, where S = Science, M =Music and G = Genius
“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are artists as well.”
Galileo was a poet. Maybe not the best poet, but certainly a competent amateur. His interest in the form and his forays into the writing of it lent his prose a lyrical bent, full of apt metaphors, his arguments clear and persuasive. His thought experiments are entertaining and vivid. Once understood, it is hard for the reader to argue with them, even if there is no definitive proof of their truth. Consider:
“Shut yourself up with some friend in the main cabin below decks on some large ship, and have with you there some flies, butterflies, and other small flying animals. Have a large bowl of water with some fish in it; hang up a bottle that empties drop by drop into a wide vessel beneath it. With the ship standing still, observe carefully how the little animals fly with equal speed to all sides of the cabin. The fish swim indifferently 22 in all directions; the drops fall into the vessel beneath; and, in throwing something to your friend, you need throw it no more strongly in one direction than another, the distances being equal; jumping with your feet together, you pass equal spaces in every direction. When you have observed all these things carefully … have the ship proceed with any speed you like, so long as the motion is uniform and not fluctuating this way and that. You will discover not the least change in all the effects named, nor could you tell from any of them whether the ship was moving or standing still. In jumping, you will pass on the floor the same spaces as before, nor will you make larger jumps toward the stern than toward the prow even though the ship is moving quite rapidly, despite the fact that during the time that you are in the air the floor under you will be going in a direction opposite to your jump. In throwing something to your companion, you will need no more force to get it to him whether he is in the direction of the bow or the stern, with yourself situated opposite. The droplets will fall as before into the vessel beneath without dropping toward the stern, although while the drops are in the air the ship runs many spans. The fish in their water will swim toward the front of their bowl with no more effort than toward the back, and will go with equal ease to bait placed anywhere around the edges of the bowl. Finally the butterflies and flies will continue their flights indifferently toward every side, nor will it ever happen that they are concentrated toward the stern, as if tired out from keeping up with the course of the ship, from which they will have been separated during long intervals by keeping themselves in the air. And if smoke is made by burning some incense, it will be seen going up in the form of a little cloud, remaining still and moving no more toward one side than the other. The cause of all these correspondences of effects is the fact that the ship's motion is common to all the things contained in it, and to the air also. That is why I said you should be below decks; for if this took place above in the open air, which would not follow the course of the ship, more or less noticeable differences would be seen in some of the effects noted.”
This is how Galileo described the principal of relative theory in his famous 1632 book Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems. It is clear, concise, full of humor, and readily accessible. Galileo was excellent at making his science accessible, and it was perhaps this that, late in life, would run him into trouble with the Catholic Church.
Galileo was also a painter. His beautiful sepia washes of the phases of the moon as he observed it from his exciting new telescope made the pitted surface of the moon real to people, who had always been taught of the incorruptible smoothness of her glassy face. He cared only for the truth of his observations, not for the philosophical and metaphysical implications of his pronouncements. The moon had long symbolized the incorruptible purity of the Virgin Mary. To some, pointing out the pockmarked face of the moon was tantamount to impugning the Mother of God.
And Galileo was a musician. His father, Vincenzo, was a famous lutenist and member of the Florentine Camerata, which is credited with inventing opera as an art form. His brother was a brilliant lutenist as well, and Galileo, as reported by his friends, could keep up with any professional musician. Music was one place where his passion for mathematics and science could be put to good use helping his father (also a passionate mathematician and curious man) develop the modern tuning system. Together, father and son spent countless hours disproving the reality of Pythagorean and Ptolemaic tunings to music in practice and touting the benefits to music of our modern equal temperament. In Vincenzo’s heated publications, which attacked the proponents of the older science of tuning, we hear the future echoes of his son, attacking his Aristotelian rivals.
Of course, what Galileo is most famous for is being a scientist and mathematician. But it is useful to remember that he was also an artist. His art was brilliantly and inextricably tied to his math and science at a time when artists were newly mastering perspective, geometry, trigonometry, optics—there were far fewer barricades between human endeavors, and art, science, philosophy and morality commingled freely. It is fitting, then, that another “renaissance man,” musician (and philosopher and mathematician by education) Philip Glass should choose to write an opera about him.
Science, philosophy and math have always been an integral part of the man that Philip Glass is. Fifty years ago, the young man majored in mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago, and, in fact, busied himself with recreating Galileo’s experiments with balls on an inclined plane. A lifetime later, he was recreating the scene on stage in an opera. Galileo has been with him all his life. When asked, “Why Galileo?” he replied:
“…I have reflected at length on his personal drama. And then today his is a highly topical figure. Scientific discoveries, such as cloning, involve moral decisions, and as such open the way once more to the interference of religious authorities. Moreover, I have always been impressed by the fact that Galileo concluded his earthly existence as a blind man. Undoubtedly this led him repeatedly to relive all the stages of his life in his imagination.”
It was with this idea of Galileo as a blind old man, sitting next to a window opening onto a night sky, his telescope pointed to the heavens, that Glass approached playwright Mary Zimmerman. Glass was interested in Zimmerman, because, “‘Accessibility’ isn’t a bad word for her.” And, in keeping with Galileo’s desire for his elegant, beautiful vision of God’s universe to be accessible, they have created an opera of his life that honors his desire for the simplest, broadest, most logical solution to natural observations, his ability to present science in an artistic way, and his deep and abiding faith. Because Galileo was a faithful man. His biggest argument with the Church and the Aristotelian theories of the world was that it put God’s creation in a box that didn’t match the clear observation of natural phenomena, and denied the loveliness and cleverness of the actual creation. “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven. Not how the Heavens go.” For Galileo, science and religion were not mutually exclusive.
This was another goal of Zimmerman’s. Unlike Bertolt Brecht’s famous and highly political play about Galileo, the opera is not a polemic on science versus religion. Zimmerman focuses on Galileo’s journey to his beliefs—he did not defy his Church idly. 23 In order to arrive at why Galileo faced the Roman Inquisition, Zimmerman and Glass wanted to show us the beauty, excitement, and—dare I say it—fun of science. So there is a lot of science in this opera. Galileo’s experiments with inclined planes has its own joyful recreation in Scene Six of the opera.
The structure of the opera is unique, and underscores Glass and Zimmerman’s desire to create a hopeful vision of what could be a dreary proposition. Galileo did, after all, go blind and die under house arrest after being forced to recant his heliocentrism. Again, though, for Zimmerman it wasn’t simply about the outcome, it was about how he got there—his faith both in God and what he could see with his eyes. We start at the end and work backwards. We see what he lost and then we see what he gained, knowing all the while what it cost him.
Unlike Glass’ larger operas about great men (Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten), Galileo Galilei is not a monumental work. It is short at an hour and a half, but it explores the big questions. Zimmerman says, “It’s asking … ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘Does the adult already exist in the child?’” It looks at a man who changed how we look at the world, and hopefully, it aims to broaden our perspective of that man, seeing him through the lenses of all of his talents, a satisfying blend of music, poetry, art and science. How very fitting.