Driving home from Glasgow yesterday evening I chanced to hear on the seven o’clock news that a total lunar eclipse was scheduled for 0436. Planet earth would then intrude twixt sun and moon. I imagine if such an event had occurred fifty odd years ago, when twelve earthlings actually walked on the lunar surface, the sight from their point of view – of a solar eclipse – would have been startling. In a lunar eclipse from our standpoint here on planet earth, the moon assumes a bloody hue, apparently the reflection of a grand integral of all the earthly sunrises and sunsets, and in addition, if the moon is closer to us than usual, it will appear unusually large. A Red Blood Supermoon. Mindful of observing this phenomenon, on hitting the sack to grab some shut-eye, I set my internal alarm. Thou shalt wake at 0430.
So it was. Anxious to avoid any unfortunate publicity (“Neighbours telephoned police when an elderly gentleman in a state of undress was observed, keening to the moon…”) I threw on a few clothes and went out. It was almost broad daylight, the dawn chorus already full-throated. Alas the cloud cover was what aviators used to refer to as ten tenths, more recently eight, or even, in the spirit of exaggeration, nine okta. Nothing to see here. No bloody moon. Actually, from a previous sighting, I would say it’s not red, more a salmon pink. I went back to bed.
I’m fond of the moon. I sat up all night in 1969 watching the one small step. Magnificent desolation. But I wouldn’t much like to visit. The moon looks friendlier from afar. I have a sense of gratitude that we don’t have to endure pitch blackness every night. Then there are the tides. It wouldn’t be the same, on an Ayrshire beach, alone, at night, without the sook of the bai. The moon gives us the tides just as the 23 degree declination of the earth gives us the seasons. Wouldn’t life be dull without time and tides? The metaphysical poets knew that the moon caused the tides, even before Isaac Newton told them how and why. In A Valediction: of Weeping, John Donne addressed his mistress:
O more than Moone,
Draw not up seas to drowne me in thy sphere…
I’m not sure if Newton knew that the moon is actually moving away from us, albeit at an almost imperceptible rate. I expect he did. Didn’t he tell Halley when to expect the next appearance of his comet? The moon’s subtle estrangement by stealth comes about because tidal friction is gradually slowing down the earth’s rotation about its axis; consequently the moon is slowly drifting away to conserve the angular momentum of the earth-moon system. It is the reverse process of that of the pirouetting ice skater, who contracts her profile in order to spin faster. Had he known this, Donne might well have worked up another of his “conceits”. How might it go?
What subtle harm doth we inflict ’pon thee
That thou shouldst ever from us seek to flee?
If poets are now less inclined to force disparate ideas, as in a particle accelerator, to collide with one another, maybe it’s because C. P. Snow was right when he said our society is blighted by the “two cultures” of science and art, like the earth and the moon, moving ever apart. Ever since Beethoven composed his Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Opus 27, number 2, moonlight has become romanticised. Donald Francis Tovey who wrote extensive commentaries on all the Beethoven sonatas was dismissive of Op. 27 No. 2’s name.
People whose musical taste is confined to favourite single movements may be contented to listen only to the first movement of this profoundly tragic work, and thus the popular title “Moonlight” sonata (or, as the Germans call it, “Moonshine”) may seem tolerable… But moonlight will not suffice to illuminate the whole of this sonata, nor even to constitute its dominating impression. And if you do not understand the other movements you will have but a shallow idea of the first.
Personally, I can’t be bothered with this style of utterance, in which some arbiter of taste tells you that your response to a work of art is shallow and vulgar. How can Sir Donald know the intensity of somebody else’s experience? It’s sheer snobbery, pure and simple. I heard the RSNO play Sibelius 5 in Glasgow on Saturday night. The opening to the last movement always reminds me of the protracted take-off run of a 747, or an Airbus A380. All that hasty scurrying as the enormous machine accelerates to flying speed, giving way at last to a serene calm as we get airborne and the undercarriage retracts. I don’t know what Tovey would have made of that. Sibelius himself thought of a flight of swans, so I can’t be too wide of the mark.
The attendance at the concert on Saturday was sparse. Where was everybody? Watching Eurovision? Slava Ukraini. I have a notion that the Kremlin will have great difficulty in concealing the result of Eurovision from the Russian people. They will just have to put on an air of indifference and declare that Eurovision is decadent western Eurotrash. They could assume the tone of Donald Francis Tovey. Mr Putin is very displeased with Sweden and Finland, poised to join NATO, and Mr Lavrov has been passing dark remarks about universal “consequences”. Meanwhile the heavenly bodies continue in their more or less unaltered courses, indifferent and unabashed. Yet perhaps the moon will at length grow weary of our endless bickering and strife, and find some way of escaping our gravitational pull, to leave us to stumble alone on the beach of a pitch black night, beside an ominously silent, sullen ocean.