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The music of the spheres, from Kepler to Mahler

Gustav Mahler, whose only surviving work of instrumental chamber music will be performed by the Boston Chamber Music Society.The New York Times

On Sunday, May 14, the Boston Chamber Music Society affords an (admittedly oblique) opportunity to mark a scientific milestone: 399 years ago this week, Johannes Kepler discovered his third law of planetary motion. Having already determined that planets orbit the sun in ellipses, not circles (the first law), and that they sweep through equal areas of those ellipses in equal intervals of time (the second law), on May 15, 1618, Kepler confirmed that the square of a planet’s orbital period is proportional to the cube of its orbit’s semi-major axis — in other words, that planets farther from the sun not only have larger orbits, but move through them at slower rates.

Kepler’s laws mathematically pinned the planetary courses, providing crucial clues for Isaac Newton’s similar systematization of gravity. Kepler knew he had glimpsed universal clockwork. “I have stolen the golden vessels of the Egyptians,” he exulted, “to build a tabernacle for my God.”


At the time, Kepler was teaching mathematics in the Austrian city of Linz. Linz, in turn, adopted Kepler as an honored citizen, forever linked (in Linz, at least) with the city’s other favorite son, composer Anton Bruckner. (The conjunction is at least slightly confluent: Kepler, like ancient philosophers, likened the movement of heavenly bodies to the laws of music — “The Harmony of the Worlds,” as Kepler titled one of his books.) The chamber-music hall in the Brucknerhaus, Linz’s arts center, is named for Kepler; Linz’s 2009 designation as a European Capital of Culture prompted an opera by Philip Glass on the subject of Kepler, premiered with the Bruckner Orchester Linz in the pit.

Bruckner’s fame was hard-won. It wasn’t until 1878 — when Bruckner was well into his fifties — that one of his nine symphonies was published: his Third, which, despite a disastrous premiere, nevertheless caught the ear of Theodor Rättig, who had just started his own Viennese publishing firm. Rättig published the full score, as well as a piano duet arrangement by a 17-year-old conservatory student named Gustav Mahler.


Mahler also sent Rättig a piece of his own: the first movement of a piano quartet (along with a brief sketch of a proposed second movement), hoping for a commitment. Rättig turned Mahler down; only decades later, well after Mahler’s death, when his own nine symphonies were ascendant in the repertoire, was that early quartet (preserved by Mahler’s widow, Alma) reintroduced and published. As Mahler’s only surviving work of instrumental chamber music, the adolescent Quartet has secured a measure of classical-music note — including a performance, this Sunday, by the Boston Chamber Music Society.

The Boston Chamber Music Society performs music of Mahler, Korngold, and Brahms, May 14 at 7:30 pm at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Tickets $8-$57. 617-349-0086, bostonchambermusic.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.