Tonight’s premiere live performance of The Abacus And The Rose is a very special occasion for me. Although my entire professional career has been related to the fields of science and engineering, I have always had a deep passion for music (especially classical) and over the years have been involved in a good number of musical projects on the side.
The four songs that make up this cycle were written between 1976 and 1982 and the manuscripts have been stored away in a box ever since. This summer I pulled them out of storage and began working with two of the most extraordinarily talented classical musicians I have ever known—soprano Merissa Coleman and pianist Alexandre Marr—both members of Singers Companye who will present the songs at tonight’s concert. I want to thank Merissa and Alexandre for their extreme dedication to preparing an exquisite performance of The Abacus And The Rose that far exceeded my expectations.
I also want to thank Dr. Samuel Gordon, director of Singers Companye, who, after hearing the songs, graciously proposed placing the premiere performance on one of his wonderful choral group’s concerts.
Visit https://abacus-rose.com/ for more information.
Jacob Bronowski is probably best remembered today for his classic 13-part television series, The Ascent Of Man, produced and originally broadcast by the BBC (1973) and soon after on public television in The United States. The Ascent Of Man was a brilliant, insightful and passionate look at the history of science and its close relationship to the arts.
Bronowski was born in Poland in 1908 and during childhood his family moved first to Germany and then to England where he was educated in mathematics and biology. In later years (1964), he moved to California and became a Resident Fellow of the Salk Institute at the invitation of its founder, Jonas Salk, developer of the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Bronowski died at the age of 66 in 1974, less than a year after completing The Ascent Of Man. Although he had a long and distinguished career as a scientist, Bronowski also had a deep interest in the arts, especially poetry, which resulted in a significant collection of poems, most of which are unpublished.
The premiere live performance of these songs is taking place on a Christmas concert, but it is purely by coincidence that each of the four poems are related to the holiday. For many years, Bronowski and his artist wife, Rita, created custom Christmas cards with his poems and her artwork that were sent to friends and associates. The first three songs are based on poems that were written as Christmas cards and the fourth was also purely by coincidence written during the holiday as described in the notes below.
The voice of God that spoke and struck
Was the cuckoo in the clock.
The exiles in the garden heard
The engine tremble in the bird,
Sobbing throat and iron bill:
Time on his springy wheel stood still.
Time began and time runs down.
The voices in the garden drown.
No God from his machine unhands
The exile with a mouth of sand.
The clockwork cuckoo on the hill,
Abrupt and wheeling, stoops to kill.
Jupiter and Saturn played
The age was broken and re-made.
A rocket rose from Bethlehem.
Christ marched with the Orangemen;
Till, diving the exploding light
Struck today and charred it white.
The rocket roars and plunges out.
Saturn and Jupiter turn about.
No child again shall put to shame
The gunsights trained on Bethlehem;
While ice-cap omen, march to birth
The orbit of the screaming earth.
Jupiter and Saturn “playing” derives from a popular term in astronomy for the apparent retrograde motion of the two planets that occurs during their orbital conjunction every twenty years. Conjunction is when the position of the planets in the sky—as viewed from Earth—occur at the same time and retrograde motion is an illusionary effect produced by the physics of the event that causes the planets to appear to move temporarily in opposite directions.
Bronowski explains that this regular planetary event has foreshadowed numerous historical events, including the birth of Christ and the “Glorius Revolution” of England in 1688 during which the Catholic King James II was overthrown and replaced by his Protestant daughter and her husband, William of Orange.
The poem was written in 1940 during that year’s conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The instances of war events in the poem are clearly related to the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine against mandatory control by the British. Bronowski was born a Jew and was living in London during these years so the effects of “The Great Revolt” were certainly on his mind.
The last conjunction of these two planets took place in 2000 and the next will take place in 2020.
I, having built a house, reject
The feud of eye and intellect,
And find in my experience proof,
One pleasure runs from root to roof,
One thrust along a streamline arches
The sudden star, the budding larches.
The force that makes the winter grow
Its feathered hexagons of snow
And drives the bee to match at home,
Their calculated honeycomb,
Is abacus and rose combined.
An icy sweetness fills my mind,
A sense that under thing and wing,
Lies, taut yet living, coiled, the spring.
In 1965, a revised edition of Bronowski’s 1956 book, Science And Human Values, was published with an additional chapter titled The Abacus And The Rose. The chapter was discussion between three fictional characters: Sir Edward St. Albish representing “the establishment,” Dr. Amos Harping representing “the arts,” and Professor Lionel Potts representing “science.” The three were attending a conference in Lucerne, Switzerland and Sir Edward invited Harping and Potts to dinner to discuss his displeasure over the discord between their views of science and the arts. He wanted Britain to speak with a unified voice at the conference.
At the end of the chapter, Professor Potts presents a poem written by one of his “fellow scientists” (Bronowski?) which delves into the unification of science (The Abacus) and the arts (The Rose).
Faster than light and cold as absolute,
The edge of darkness races in pursuit
Of this expanding leaf, this Christmas tree
Of veins in which I hold the galaxy.
It is my hand, from which there streams and rips
The cosmic shift, red to the fingertips,
And what the flying shadow hunts is me.
Some astral bang, some primum mobile
Rocketed both of us, the headlong Bear
And me, into the incandescent air.
The motion that we share entails it all:
The virgin birth, the carol tune, the tall
Luminous star that prophesies—although
Its only secret is that children grow.
Faster than night and cold as Helium II,
The edge of shadow races to undo
The secret of creation, the abrupt
Choice of a womb or atom to erupt,
And what the flying darkness hunts is you.
Faster Than Light is quoted in The Imaginative Mind in Science, Chapter 3 of THE VISIONARY EYE: Essays in the Arts, Literature, and Science (1978), a set of six essays presented by Bronowski at The National Gallery of Art in 1969. In this publication, Bronowski provides background information about the poem—and once again, like the others, it is related to Christmas—so it seems appropriate to simply provide Bronowski’s own description:
“The theme of the poem is the connection between what happens to each of us individually and how the universe behaves as a whole. No one, says the poem, stands apart from the cosmic process as a whole; the great movements of the universe enter and extend into our most specific individual acts. It happens that one of the images that runs through the poem is the shift of the spectrum of distant galaxies toward the red which I have described. And it happens also that poem was written at Christmas, and came into my mind when standing beside the tree, I saw the red veins in my hand like branches.”
The Voice Of God originated as a Christmas card in 1947 with an illustration by Bronowski’s wife, Rita. The theme of this poem will possibly be a bit disturbing to those who might expect it to be religious in nature. Instead, it is an allegorical description of the cruelties of war which was a recurring theme in Bronowski’s writings about human nature.
In the footnotes to Science And Human Values (1956) where it appeared in print, Bronowski explains that the poem was highly influenced by Karl Kraus’s masterful satirical plot about World War I, Die Letzen Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days Of Mankind).
The image of ticking clockwork was influenced both by the Kraus verses and other poems that Bronowski quotes by Alexander Pope and Bolingbroke which compared the human mind to clockwork, another allegorical fascination of his.
Isaac Newton’s theory of the Clockwork Universe in which he imagines God as creating the universe in the style of a massively complex and perfectly designed machine was the subject of a chapter in The Ascent Of Man and also appears to have possibly influenced this poem. Although Bronowski did not explain the meaning of the “clockwork cuckoo on the hill” it could possibly be referring to a tank.
Near the end of World War II the British captured a German Panther tank which was far superior to their own. They renamed it “Cuckoo.” Bronowski was surely aware of this as he was living in England during the war and working on war-related scientific projects for the government. The hints in the poem—sobbing throat, iron bill, stooping to kill (aiming the gun down the hill)—all seem to indicate the essence of a tank.