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The Copernican Theory Copernicus (1473-1542) was the first man to realise that the earth went round the sun rather than the sun round the earth, as appears to happen and was always believed in ancient and medaeval times. By Galileo’s day all the advanced thinkers, including Galileo himself knew that Copernicus was right, but Pope Paul V in 1607 passed a bull proclaiming that Copernicus was heretical. When Galileo’s friend became Pope Urban, Galileo hoped that Urban would repeal his predecessor’s bull, but Urban, who seems to have been afraid of being influenced by Galileo, refused to do it, which caused Galileo’s trial.

My darling Peggy - I met her first coming up those rickety stairs to the garret at 28 Woburn Square where we had a meeting of my students booked for Bach’s Art of Fugue at the Summer School at Westonbirt. I knew at once that this was someone who was going to be of great importance to me, but it took time for this to come to fruition, and it was only after my appointment to take the Music Class at Wanstead where she was teaching that we came to recognise that we were to be man and wife.

I grew familiar with her friends at Wanstead, and went to see her children’s opera which she had written for her 7-8 year-olds ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’. They told the well-known fairy tale in the form of a simple opera on the stage while she accompanied them on the piano behind scenes.

What I thought so remarkable was that these little people appeared on the stage without any grown-ups to overshadow them, so that they might be in a world of elves themselves. They were like a species of small people, as the Cornish call the fairies, and they seemed to establish their stature as a world of their own.

Looking back I could wish I had done more to encourage my wife to write more of these fairy operas for young 7 or 8 year olds. There might have been a vogue for them. But I was too taken up with my own artistic problems to give much thought to hers, and our married life, with the arrival of small children of our own, began to occupy all our attention.

I forget how I first became interested in Galileo as a subject for an opera. Perhaps it was in reaction to Brecht when I first discovered what a travesty of the truth he had made of the life of this great man. I remember following the broadcast of Brecht’s play some ten years ago and being completely unmoved by it. Perhaps I realised subconsciously that it was anything but the truth. I became more and more anxious to do something to put things right.

Brecht was a communist and as such was anxious to portray Galileo as 19th century atheist scientist with no leanings towards religion, but Galileo was a contemporary of Shakespeare and had a much more subtle mind.

When Marina his mistress sent his two daughters, Virginia and Livia, from Venice to Florence, where she refused to follow him, or when he brought them there, he must have hoped that his Mother would take charge of them. But if she did so it must have been only for a short while. What was she to do with this embarrassment? He invented, or at any rate perfected the telescope. He wanted to go ahead as court Philosopher (as scientists were called at the time). Two little girls were rather an embarrassment for a man who was unmarried.

It is here that we lose sight of Livia altogether, but we know that he placed Virginia in the Franciscan Convent at Arcetri and kept in touch with her for the rest of her life. He even went to live at Arcetri, in order to be near her. She did his washing and repairs for him when he was on trial at Rome and she even took charge of his papers and hid them in her Convent. She did not go to Rome as Brecht makes her, but wrote encouraging letters daily. When he returned she was the first to welcome him. It is this obviously very intelligent girl that Brecht turns into a silly religious maniac who becomes his watchful guardian "now aged 40" she died aged 35 - much to the distress of her father.

I think I have now said enough about Brecht and can now set about describing my own approach to this wonderful subject. It is set in a magnificent frame-work, in the form of a 5-Act Shakespearean drama with the choral episodes between the Acts which I believe were the origin of opera, from the ancient Greek drama.

In addition to this there are two Prologue scenes at the start. The first of these is set in Galileo’s house at Venice before he moved back to Florence. He has recently perfected the telescope, which he still calls the spy-glass.

As the curtain goes up, the stage is in darkness and Galileo is seen peering through a telescope into the auditorium accompanied by the high music of violins and harmonics, suggestive of a starry landscape. Someone appears on the stage with a lighted candle. It is Marina, Galileo’s mistress. "When are you coming to bed?" "Look at this, Marina." But she is not interested. "You and your old spy-glass!" He comes down from his observing position and the high string music stops. He picks up his lute. (Both Galileo and his father, who was a professional musician, were great lutenists.) He tunes the lute, then accompanies Marina when she mentions their two daughters, Livia and Virginia. It becomes apparent that if he insists on going to Florence she will not be accompanying him:

"I’m a Venetian,
I’m a republican,
I can’t stand all this Grand Duke business."

At last she decides to go to bed without him and he returns to his telescope. The high string music immediately starts again:

"So the moon has mountains and deep ravines
over its shining face.
So much for poor old Aristotle.
And there are many more fixed stars
than have ever been seen before..."

The Second Scene of the Prologue has an actual date. It is known that it took place on April 16th 1611. Prince Cesi had formed a Society of Scientists and literateurs called "The Lincean Academy". (Every intellectual Society was called an Academy in those day). Although he lived as far south as Rome, he must have heard of Galileo as the inventor of the telescope and must have been pleased when Galileo had now got his new job and was appointed "Senior Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy to the Grand Duke Cosimo of Tuscany." This was a man to be courted and to be invited to Rome to become a member of the Lincean Academy

One can understand that the little girls had to be looked after elsewhere so it is thought that they stayed in convents while he journeyed to Rome to stay with Prince Cesi, as he undoubtedly must have done. He can have little foreseen how dependent he was to become on his daughter Virginia one day.

It is at this banquet that our Second Scene of the prologue takes place. It is introduced by a short orchestral scherzo, in which the whole orchestra appears for the first time. As Prince Cesi later describes it:

"The lynx was a fabulous animal
half dog half panther,
Famous for his penetrating eye,
and so it is doubly appropriate
that we should be celebrating here tonight

Signor Galileo Galilei,...
and what he calls his spy-glass
but what I here christen the telescope."

The scene is set as a banquet in mid-progress. A chandelier covers the mid-stage with guests seen receding into the darkness, so that some of the male chorus, who are going to be wanted in the next scene can be used to swell the sound of the guests when they drink to Galileo.

When Galileo responds, he tells them first about his Jesuit friends, who were so appalled by the thought of mountains on the moon that they thought he must be "seeing things" - mere cobwebs on the glass! But they have accepted the telescope now, after all, was he not once a member of the Jesuit College at Vallombrosa, - even accepted as a novice. If it had not been for his father, he might have been one of their number. The strings then continue with the starry music.

"But soon you will he able to see
a sky more wonderful
than you have ever seen before...
the Milky Way ablaze with stars
as of a whole universe beyond our ken,
never seen before by men."

The first Choral Episode follows. A curtain is drawn on the stage and the Chorus of peripatetic philosophers appears. ("Philosopher" was the name given to "scientist" at the time.) They are indignant because Galileo has been placed right above them.

"The varlet!
The dastard!
The wrangler!"

Galileo had been called "a wrangler" when he was a student at the University because he had the habit of arguing with his professors. It is now, of course, a term of great respect - Senior Wrangler at Cambridge, But we are in the 17th century.

"Why, he never even took his degree!"

This is true, and the academic find it difficult to forgive a student that thought himself so above his fellows that he never even bothered to take his degree.

One of Galileo’s rivals joins them - delle Colombe.

"The fellow has managed to ingratiate himself
with the Court at Florence.
The young Duke Cosimo
who was once his pupil,
has been persuaded to promote him
Court Mathematician and Philosopher,
placing him right above the heads
of all the most senior professors.
Are we to stand by tamely
while he struts ahead interminably?"

The Chorus shout "No!" and they make it clear in their final chorus that they are not going to stand for it.

"Enlist the support of the Church.
Alert the Inquisition."

After a short orchestral interlude, during which the Chorus are heard again, repeating their last phrases, the choral curtain goes up on Act I, which is set in the Court at Florence.

The young Duke Cosimo, with his wife, the Arch-Duchess and his Mother, Christina, are watching a contest between Galileo and delle Colombe, which is being judged by two Cardinals, Barberini, a great friend to Galileo, but who becomes the Pope who turns against him, and Cardinal Gonzaga.

These contests were frequent, and it is known that one took place on this occasion,. I have therefore given it to Galileo and delle Colombe.

Galileo remains calm, as he is always right, but delle Colombe gets more and more upset until at last he comes near to punching Galileo in the face.

Noticing this the two Cardinals decide to end the contest as a draw.

The Cardinals bow to the Ducal party and delle Colombe also leaves, Galileo is about to follow, but Christina detains him. (The following scene actually took place but to a pupil of Galileo’s, who reported it to him.)

Christina is worried about the sun being the apparent mover, as in the Bible, whereas modern theory has proved that it is really the earth that moves.

Galileo tries to interest her in the sun’s rays rushing straight upon the earth and taking so little time to do so. There is enough to rejoice the "bridegroom" in that.

The ducal party join in singing Joshua’s command:

"Sun, stand thou still,
and thou Moon,
in the Valley of Ajalon,"

While Galileo points out that it would have involved a pause in the whole "primum Mobile" to stop the sun, whereas a pause in the earth’s movement could be effected merely by stopping the earth.

The Quartet ends with all four singers joining in words that Galileo used to love to quote, though he did not write them himself:

"The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven,
not how the Heavens go."

The Chorus Curtain is again drawn for the Second Choral Episode.

There was a popular preacher at the time called Caccini who is believed to have given a sermon denouncing Galileo. His pulpit with him inside it is pushed on at one corner of the stage as the curtain is drawn and he is allowed enough time at least to deliver his text:

"Ye Galileans, why stand ye here gazing up into Heaven?"

This is met with laughter on the part of the Chorus. Whether he gets any further with his sermon depends on the producer. It would be perfectly possible for Caccini to mime a sermon while delle Colombe enters and introduces Scheiner, who is in Jesuit robes and ready to air his grievance against Galileo.

When Scheiner has finished airing his grievances against Galileo, delle Colombe introduces Father Lorini who comes flourishing a letter which, he claims will incriminate Galileo in a charge from the Inquisition.

We find that both Scheiner and Lorini can repeat their plaints against Galileo while the final Chorus, which runs as follows is in progress:

"In course of time we’ll get this fellow down,
who dares presume to criticise our methods
and question our divine precursor Aristotle.
But he’ll soon find he’s up against the Church,
and at the mercy of the Inquisition."

  The Second Act is again at Rome in the Palace of Prince Cesi, where Galileo is again visiting Prince Cesi, who has evidently become a great friend and supporter.

They are in festive mood, because Foscharino, a Carmelite theologian, has just published a book in support of the Copernican theory. All their hopes are pinned on the trust that the church will come out on the side of the Copernican theory, which Galileo and Prince Cesi are supporting as the sensible future of mankind.

Sadly Monsignor Dini joins them with the news that Pope Paul V has just passed a Bull directing that the Copernican theory shall henceforth be banned and nobody is to teach it, or have anything to do with it. This was clearly a very reactionary move which stuns all the advanced thinkers of the time. But men like Galileo and Prince Cesi and of course Monsignor Dini, who is in the church do not think of challenging the Church. Their only recourse was to knuckle down under their Pope, though they still hoped that he would move in another direction.

The Act ends with a rather sad trio for tenor, baritone and bass.

The 3rd Choral Episode.

The Chorus is correspondingly jubilant

"Victory! Victory!
Even the Church has capitulated!
Theology has thrown away
her pride of place as queen of all the sciences.
Henceforth religion is the slave
of Science and Philosophy."

But they have to admit -

"We nearly came to grief.
Even a cleric had taken a leaf
out of the Book of Copernicus
But the Pope of Rome declared for us.
Victory! Victory!
Even the Church has capitulated!

Delle Colombe introduces yet another Jesuit who has a grievance against Galileo - Father Grassi who makes his complaint. It looks as though the enemies of Galileo have been able to muster considerable strength against him but for the moment he is lying low and not doing anything to risk a collision with the authorities. It is different when Pope Paul V dies, and one of Galileo’s best friends - Cardinal Barberini becomes the new Pope. It is then that Galileo must have been tempted to come out into the open and try to get the new ideas adopted from on high.

The orchestral Interlude that leads to Act III is rather longer than before and uses three of Galileo’s themes: the stars, the rushing of the sun’s rays and the warning of St. Augustine.

Act III is in the Vatican. Galileo has come to congratulate his friend Barberini on becoming Pope. We learn that Galileo has already presented him with a microscope and dedicated a book to him.

After a while the Pope Urban enquires about his activities and projects and is told that he is a bit uncertain how to proceed. He would like to continue with his promised book on the Tides, but a certain edict of the Church stands against it. "How do you mean?" asks Urban.

Galileo tries to explain his theory of the tides. They are like the water in the hull of a boat rocking from side to side as the boat moves. But if there is no movement in the earth, then there is no meaning in this theory of the tides.

"I see your difficulty." says Urban. "If I had been Pope at the time, I would never have passed that Bull." Then after some reflection. "But I don’t feel like repealing it now. Can you not get round this difficulty by using the hypothetical method. If the earth moved it would admit of this interpretation of the tides?"

Galileo has to admit that this might be possible in a dialogue, with one character following the hypothesis while another speaks against it.

In the ensuing duet, the Pope (who is a tenor) grows ecstatic about the tides:

"The mystery of the tides!
It is a compelling subject
and I would like to know more about it
Why should sea water oscillate like this
between the high and the low?
We see so little here in Rome
but in Venice, so I am told
water may rise three feet in a day
while on the Atlantic sea-board
the waves withdraw far into the main
leaving great sand-fields bare,
and then in time return again
with thunderous roar and seething swell!

Galileo accompanies this with an aside:

"Is he giving me the go-ahead
for my expanded theory of the tides
combined with my
long-awaited system of the world?"

We feel that Galileo is going to risk it, on the strength of his friendship with the Pope, but he does not realise how his enemies are ready to pounce on him and show him up before the Inquisition.

Fourth Choral Episode.

The Chorus enter with copies of a book which they are examining with great disgust. It is Galileo’s "Dialogue" which has just been published. Soon delle Colombe joins them with Scheiner and Grassi. It is clear that Galileo has gone a bit too far, and exposed himself to the hostility of his enemies. Delle Colombe sees clear indications of Galileo’s heresy in his "Dialogue".

"His ‘Sagredo’ and ‘Salviati’
(characters in Galileo’s "Dialogue")
are clearly party
to the earth’s instability
and the sun’s immovability

Delle Colomb goes even further and finds:

"an hermetic look
in the very title of his book."

It is clear that Galileo is going to be hauled before the Inquisition.


Act IV starts with a solemn Ritornello on the brass alone, which becomes the subject of a number of variations throughout Acts IV and V.

The scene is set in the Hall of the Palace of the Holy Office and the date is 1633.

Galileo is discovered seated with Maculano, the Commissary General.

"You know you can trust me?" says Maculano, "as a fellow Florentine." Maculano advises him to make a general confession and place himself generally at their mercy so that they can give him the lightest sentence possible, and he can soon find himself back at home in Florence. The Ritornello is repeated on the brass alone while the Inquisitors assemble. Galileo confesses that he has perhaps over-stepped the mark and placed his own ideas in too much favour with the ambition natural to one of his kind. He asks for their leniency and sympathy for his age and the indifferent state of his health.

This plea is received in stony silence. Apparently it all had to be referred to a higher authority, who, as the Pope, had been Galileo’s friend, but he had refused to see him.

We follow up the staircase with the first few variations on the theme to find him in a bad mood with his secretary.

He has just heard from his secretary that his secret treaty with the Protestants is out and this has not put him in the best of humours though the treaty was made with the best of intentions, for the sake of avoiding hostilities.

Then the Secretary says: " Signor Galileo has confessed". "He had better!" mutters Urban "The Commissary General awaits your decision on his sentence."

"And in that connection there are two members of the Roman college awaiting an audience."

"Admit them," says Urban.

In the opera, Pope Urban listens to Scheiner and Grassi but refuses to listen to his old friend Galileo. Perhaps the real Pope refused to listen to anyone.

He is careful not to be influenced by anyone, but he passes judgement all the same, and it is certainly not what Maculano had been hoping: "full confession and life imprisonment, which I might commute to house-arrest."

We follow back to the Hall of the Palace of the Holy Office, where we find Galileo in the white supplicant’s gown of a penitent. A loud bash on the cymbal has warned us that something sinister is happening and we find Galileo in an almost inaudible voice repeating words given to him by Maculano. The limp figure of Galileo in his white robe is removed by attendants.

The MS which the Cardinals have been signing is passed to Maculano. "I refuse to sign it", he says emphatically. Two other Cardinals join him: "We also refuse to sign it."

Fifth Choral Episode.

The Chorus are triumphant. But delle Colombe is still jealous of the fact that Galileo is being encouraged to go on writing by Piccolomini the Archbishop of Siena and that there is a market for his books in Protestant Northern Europe, if they can be smuggled out of Italy. He is afraid that Galileo is rapidly becoming a Protestant pet. When the Chorus object that he can no longer write delle Colombe retorts: "He is already writing another book." When the Chorus object: "He is imprisoned for life, delle Colombe can reply: "Commuted now for house-arrest." Indeed, delle Colombe makes it look as though Galileo has come off better than his enemies. But the Chorus refuse to be convinced and go off singing their song of triumph.

During the orchestral interlude nuns’ voices are heard behind scenes singing a quotation from the mediaeval opera "Visitatio Sepulchri" (Fleury Version): "Non est hic, sed surrexit, praedixit ut discipulis".

When the curtain rises, Virginia is discovered in the habit of a Franciscan nun. She is writing a letter to her father, Galileo and these are her own words:

Virginia (reading over what she has written):

"There are beans in the garden
waiting for you to pick
Your tower laments your long absence.
When you were in Rome I used to say to myself
if only he were in Siena.
but now that you are in Siena,
I say to myself
if only he were at home.
But God’s will be done.

"Do not say that you have been
blotted out of the land of the living,
for this is not so,
neither in the rest of the world,
nor in your own country.
Rather it seems to me
that if you and your reputation
were temporarily under a cloud
they have now returned to greater fame."

The nuns join Virginia in singing a Welcome Ode for the eventual return of Galileo to his home at Arcetri. They seem to have no compunction in celebrating the return of a man who had been condemned by the Pope and their celebration is continued in the orchestral interlude which leads to Scene 2. We reach an almost ecstatic moment when Virginia stands at the door of Galileo’s house and when her father appears in the doorway.

"Welcome home, welcome a thousand times."

Galileo: "At times I thought I might never return

I feared I might never see you again."

She questions him about her letters. Did he receive all her letters? He thanks her profusely. In many ways her letters had kept him sane. He describes the turmoil he had been through, and we hear a variation on the Ritornello theme that still haunted him. They had persuaded him to confess, in promise of a light sentence. But when he came to acknowledge his faults, they took this for a general confession of guilt, which he had never made. He found himself being treated like a convict when all he had confessed was that he had been a little remiss through trying to make himself out more brilliant than he was. He found himself being treated like an ignoramus when he had only tried to elicit their sympathy for a man with grey hairs. In the end he found himself degraded to the position of a common culprit....

But suddenly he becomes aware that all this has had a terribly damping effect on Virginia who is staggering as if about to faint. "don’t say there’s something wrong with you. I could not bear it."

For the moment she pulls herself together and explains that she is subject to these fainting fits. For the time being she pulls herself together and they end in an ecstatic duet in which they both sing of their happiness together.

But we have been warned to expect what is coming next - another variation on the Ritornello theme in the form of a Marcia Funebre. When the curtain rises again we find Galileo alone and completely devastated, "So she has gone and I am left alone. This last blow is more than I can bear. To find my Church turn against me, my Jesuit friends become my Jesuit enemies, and then to lose my dearest, only solace!"

Her voice is heard behind scenes. "I seem to hear her voice calling, calling, to the land beyond the grave. Yes, Darling, I am coming. There is nothing left for me to live for now."

Suddenly her voice stops and is heard no more. Viviani has entered a young man who tries to interest Galileo in his work. At first he is completely impenetrable. "I am in no mood for work any more."

The following passage is a translation (which I should gladly acknowledge if I knew who it was by) of some words written by Galileo in his copy of the Dialogue. I have set it as a sixth variation of the Ritornello theme.

"Who can doubt that it will lead to the gravest disorders when men created free by God are compelled to submit like slaves to the judgement of those who have no competence to be their masters, when experts are forced to bow to the ignorant, when we are made to deny our own senses. Such enormities could lead to chaos, the subversion of the state,"

Taking no notice of this outburst, Viviani again tries to encourage him to write.

Galileo: "I have been told not to write any more."

But Viviani has the answer to this

"Perhaps not here in Italy
but we can smuggle out
anything you may write,
and this new book, the discorsi,
bids fair to be your masterpiece.
A shame if it should not be completed."

(This is the seventh and the final variation on the Ritornello theme.)

Galileo (again disregarding Viviani):

"In years to come,
it will be said of me
that I tried to abolish Heaven,
when all I did
was to try to rid
man of his foolish superstition of the sky.
I shall be remembered as a scientist,
But I was more than that.
I was a pleader for the Truth."


"Is not this your Cross?
Remember Jesus was condemned
by men in priestly robes
If you refuse to write any more
you are condoning their condemning."

At last Galileo volunteers to work again. He picks up the discarded lute which he tunes.

The rest of the opera is accompanied only by the lutenist behind scenes.


"Where was I?"


"We are setting forth on a new science dealing with a very old subject..."

Galileo plays the mediaeval theme in the manner of a dance tune on the lute (dictating and echoed by Viviani).

"There is perhaps nothing older in nature than motion
about which volumes have been written
by philosophers neither few nor small.
However I have discovered many properties of Nature
which have not been noticed or demonstrated before..."

(Slow curtain)

(He went on for years helped by many young people, including the heir to the throne and his own son. The Pope never forgave him, or allowed any monument to his memory when he died. It was a terrible mistake to have made one that has caused the whole division between Science and Religion in modern times and have only been acknowledged in fairly recent times by the Papacy. And yet for Galileo there was no schism between Religion and Science. If Pope Urban had only listened to his friend Galileo he might have saved the world many a heart-ache. A truly wonderful man - greatly misunderstood.


Copernicus (1475-1543) was the first man to realise that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the reverse. In Biblical, Classical and Mediaeval times is had always been thought that the earth was stationary and that the sun moves around the earth, as appears to be the case.

By Galileo’s time, probably all advanced thinkers were Copernicans, but Pope Paul V, who was a reactionary, passed a bull proclaiming that Copernicus was heretical. This meant that all the advanced thinkers, like Galileo, were in danger of proceedings for heresy. When Galileo’s friend, Cardinal Barberini, became Pope, Galileo must have hoped that he would repeal the Bull, but Urban, though not entirely agreeing with it, refused to do so, It was this that gave him the sentence he did in order to save him a worse fate - e.g. a charge of heresy, which might have brought the death penalty. But if this is so, why did he remain hostile to him, even refusing to allow any monument to be erected to him after his death?

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