Boetius

The treatise De institutione musica by Boethius is the work from which the foundations of music theory are drawn throughout the Middle Ages. This work translates the ancient Greek system of organizing sounds into precise proportional relationships within a musical scale, then adapted to the needs of liturgical song and to the modal classification of Gregorian melodies. Although centered on musical mathematics applied to that sector of music that Boethius defines as “instrumental”, Boethius’ musical treatise is known to the medieval scholars also for the Platonic theme of cosmic harmony, which the Roman philosopher sees as realized in the inaudible music of the spheres

MUSIC, SCIENCE OF THE “QUADRIVIUM”

In the introduction to the treatise De institutione arithmetica Boethius uses, for the first time in the European culture, the term “quadrivium” to indicate the organization of mathematical sciences in four different disciplines: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. This organization is already present in Plato in the Republic, VII, and is followed by successive philosophers who place themselves in the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, who recognize in the number the founding principle of the rational organization of the world. According to this, we can have scientific knowledge only when the mind is able to understand the numerical aspects that underlie the manifestation of sensitive things. So even the world of sounds, in its plurality and diversity of expressions, can be scientifically investigated by studying the heights of the intervals, reduced into mathematical parameters.

THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

According to Boethius, who recalls Platonic philosophy, the physical phenomenon of sound and music is only one aspect of what music really is. Music is in fact the totality of natural phenomena in which order and harmony are present, starting with the highest expression of this order, that is, the regular motion of the skies. This idea is formalized in the De institutione musica by dividing the music itself into three major genres, namely music of the cosmos, of man and of instruments; three different realities, all three connected by the “power of harmony”. This famous tripartite division of music into “mundana”, “humana” and “instrumentalis” constitutes the bestknown notion of Boethius’ conception of music since the Middle Age. According to Boethius, the music of the celestial bodies is sonorous, and presents an “ordered relationship” of modulation corresponding to the rational order that determines the motion of the planets. Together with the celestial reality, the earth reality also presents harmony among its components: in fact, the four Empedoclean elements that form every material substance (earth, air, water and fire) are in balance and proportion. And also, the cyclical course of time marked by the celestial rotations presents harmony, manifested on earth by the changing seasons. Human music, according to the genre in which Boethius divides the totality of music, reflects this cosmic harmony. It is inaudible but can be perceived through an internal analysis from which it emerges that the soul, the body and their combination in the human compound are structured components in admirable proportion. Boethius also demonstrates in this that he follows the Platonic idea of macro and microcosmic harmony exposed in Timaeus, but does not neglect to openly mention Aristotle and De anima, III, 9, when he emphasizes that the two components, rational and irrational, of the soul must be in perfect balance for the right psychic harmonization: harmony, Boethius reiterates, is always the conjunction of contrary things, and is the presence of opposing elements.

  • 480 AD
    Born from a senatorial family
  • 493 AD
    Theodoric (king of the Ostrogoths) won over Odoacer
  • 500 AD
    Theodoric edict
  • 502 AD
    First literary and philosophical publications (De institutione musica)
  • 520 AD
    Worked on the translation and comment of logic’s treatises and wrote theological books
  • 523 AD
    Period of political contrast concerning the relationship of Theodoric’s court, the Pope of Rome and the Byzantine Empire
  • 523 AD
    Conspiracy against him while he was working as magistrum officiorum for the king
  • 524 AD
    Incarceration (Pavia)
  • 525 AD
    Capital punishment in obedience to Theodoric’s will
  • 526 AD
    Theodoric death

MUSIC AND MORALITY

De institutione musica, I,1

Unde fit ut, cum sint quatuor matheseos disciplinae, caeterae [=matematica, geometria e astronomia] quidem ad investigationem veritatis laborent; musica vero non modo speculationi, verum etiam moralitati coniuncta sit. Nihil est enim tam proprium humanitati, quam remitti dulcibus modis astringique contrariis. Idque non modo sese in singulis vel studiis vel aetatibus tenet, verum per cuncta diffunditur studia.[...] Hinc etiam internosci potest, quod non frustra a Platone dictum est, mundi animam, musica convenientia fuisse conjunctum.[...] Unde Plato etiam maxime cavendum existimat, ne de bene morata musica aliquid permutetur. Negat enim esse ullam tantam morum in republica labem, quam paulatim de pudenti ac modesta musica invertere. Statim enim idem quoque audientium animos pati, paulatimque discedere, nullumque honesti ac recti retinere vestigium, si vel per lasciviores modos inverecundum aliquid, vel per asperiores ferox atque immane mentibus illabatur. Nulla enim magis ad animum disciplinis via, quam auribus patet. Cum ergo per eas rhythmi modique ad animum usque descenderint, dubitari non potest quin aequo modo mentem atque ipsa sunt efficiant atque conforment.

Therefore, among the four mathematical disciplines, three [i.e. mathematics, geometry and astrology] have as their object the search for truth, while music is not only connected to speculation, but also with morality. Nothing belongs to human nature more than relaxing oneself listening to sweet harmonies and feeling tense by the discordant ones: this is not limited to individual tastes or individual ages, but embraces everyone’s inclinations [...] Accordingly, we can understand what Plato did not say without reason, that is, the soul of the world is in close relationship with musical harmony [...] So, Plato considers it especially important to avoid changing something about well-mannered music. And he affirms that in the State there is no greater ruin for customs as gradually moving away from honorable and discreet music. In fact, even the minds of the listeners move away gradually from the common emotion: they don’t keep their honesty and integrity, if something impudent comes into their minds through lustful rhythms or something aggressive and cruel through too rude melodies. In every field there is no more direct way than hearing to reach the mind. And when, through this, the rhythms and melodies have penetrated the soul, there is no doubt that they, according to their nature, influence and regulate the mind.

THE REAL MUSICIAN

De institutione musica, I,1; I, 34

(I,1) Intendenda vis mentis est, ut id quod natura est insitum, scientia quoque possit comprehensum teneri. Sicut enim in visu quoque non sufficit eruditis colores formasque conspicere, nisi etiam quae sit horum proprietas investigaverint: sic non sufficit cantilenis musicis delectari, nisi etiam quali inter se coniunctae sint vocum proportione discatur.
(I, 34) Nunc illud est intuendum quod omnis ars, omnisque etiam disciplina honorabiliorem naturaliter habeat rationem, quam artificium, quod manu atque opere artificis exercetur. Multo enim est majus atque altius scire quod quisque faciat, quam ipsum illud efficere quot sciat; etenim artificium corporale, quasi serviens famulatur. Ratio vero quasi domina imperat [...] Quanto igitur praeclarior est scientia musicae in cognitione rationis, quam in opere efficiendi atque actu tantum, scilicet quantum corpus mente superatur! [...] Isque musicus est cui adest facultas secundum speculationem rationemve propositam ac musicae convenientem, de modis ac rhythmis, deque generibus cantilenarum, ac de permixtionibus[...], ac de poetarum carminibus, iudicandi.

Therefore, among the four mathematical disciplines, three [i.e. mathematics, geometry and astrology] have as their object the search for truth, while music is not only connected to speculation, but also with morality. Nothing belongs to human nature more than relaxing oneself listening to sweet harmonies and feeling tense by the discordant ones: this is not limited to individual tastes or individual ages, but embraces everyone’s inclinations [...] Accordingly, we can understand what Plato did not say without reason, that is, the soul of the world is in close relationship with musical harmony [...] So, Plato considers it especially important to avoid changing something about well-mannered music. And he affirms that in the State there is no greater ruin for customs as gradually moving away from honorable and discreet music. In fact, even the minds of the listeners move away gradually from the common emotion: they don’t keep their honesty and integrity, if something impudent comes into their minds through lustful rhythms or something aggressive and cruel through too rude melodies. In every field there is no more direct way than hearing to reach the mind. And when, through this, the rhythms and melodies have penetrated the soul, there is no doubt that they, according to their nature, influence and regulate the mind.

MUSIC AND ART: FROM BOETIUS TO KANDINSKY

 Vasilij Kandinskij, “Composition VII”, 1913, Tret’jakov Gallery, Moscow

Vasilij Kandinskij, “Composition VII”, 1913, Tret’jakov Gallery, Moscow

Boetius affirms that music is more than a practical subject, because it’s made of thoughts and reason, but also higher than other arts, because music is a sort of soul which comes over the whole universe and it’s directly connected to our morality. The Pythagoreans were probably the first westerners at it when they declared: “The eyes are made for astronomy, the ears for harmony, and these are sister sciences.” This relatively simple proposition was taken up by medieval (such as Boetius) and later sages, who developed it into a vast intellectual undergrowth of arcane and convoluted theories of how music and the mathematical proportions of creation were one and the same. So, music was elevated above the arts and considered in connection with philosophy, morality and painting too. Considering this, Kandinsky had the idea of breaking down the barriers between the different arts, therefore the idea of music appears everywhere in Kandinsky’s paintings. He believed shades resonated with each other to produce visual ‘chords’ and had an influence on the soul; not surprisingly, Kandinsky gave many of his paintings musical titles, such as Composition or Improvisation. The Compositions are a sequence of paintings that aspires to be, in musical terms, a cycle of “symphonies”. The Improvisations are, on the whole, less monumental, more dramatic, comparable to “concertos”. Kandinsky himself called them “suddenly created expressions of processes with an inner character”. And as for the Impressions, although this may seem less of an obviously musical title, we know that several of them were specifically written in response to the experience of hearing particular pieces of music. To support his colour theories, Kandinsky appealed in his manifesto to the evidence of synaesthesia, the scientific name for the condition in which the senses are confused with one another. The significance of the kinds of colour connections that he is talking about leads Kandinsky on to a grandiloquent cascade of musical metaphor: “Our hearing of colours is so precise (…) Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.” The colours (and shapes) change in relation to one another. For Wassily Kandinsky, music and color were inextricably tied to one another. So clear was this relationship that Kandinsky associated each note with an exact hue. He once said, “the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.” Scriabin -a composer of Kandinsky’s own generation- wrote out in schematic form his personal vocabulary of music-colour-emotion: C major = The Human Will = Deep Red, G major = Creative Play = Orange, and so on. Blue is the colour of quiet and internal reflection, but as it turns into dark blue (till black) it becomes dramatically intense, it’s associated with the cello; light blue instead, because of its energy and vividness, is related to the flute. Green is the colour of balance between dynamism and clam, it’s the colour of the violin. The most complex colour is violet, which is unstable and linked to the unusual instrument of bagpipe. Red is associated with the tuba due to its passionate, active, warm, and deep nature. Above all, orange is the colour of energy and movement and it’s brightness reminds the bell. Yellow means pure life, excitement and madness, it’s absolutely the colour of the trumpet. Music played an important role in the development of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings. The famous Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg was one influence. Schönberg abandoned tonal and harmonic conventions in his compositions the same way that Kandinsky rejected the figure or recognizable object in favor of shapes, lines, and discordant colors in his work. He deployed color, line, shape, and texture to create a rhythmic visual experience that evoked an emotional response.

Carmina qui quondam - Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae

This piece, taken from De Consolatione Philosophiae by Boethius, is the result of a long and demanding study by the Cambridge scholar Sam Barrett. Although compositions such as that of Boethius were composed only for reading, it was customary in the Middle Ages to set music to the lyrics, to encourage their learning. His study began after the discovery of a sheet of an 11th-century manuscript, believed to have disappeared after a German scholar removed it from the Cambridge University Library in 1840. This sheet represents a fundamental piece for the recovery of the songs of the period. They, at the time, were written with neums, particular signs indicating the melodic direction of a melody, but they don’t specify the intervals between the various notes, and this was a big problem for the reconstruction and performances of such pieces. The only obstacle to their performance was the transposition into the sounds. The “final jump” happened thanks to the help of a trio, expert in music and medieval singing, the group “Sequentia”, whose conductor, Benjamin Bagby, is famous for having brought back to life a repertoire ranging from Beowulf to Carmina Burana. The scholars, analyzing the notation of numerous pieces, were able to discover some models on which many of the pieces were made. The group experimented with scientific theories by testing them against the practical needs of singing and voice, taking into account the possibilities of the instruments of the time and the models discovered; after many attempts, they managed to reconstruct these pieces, allowing their execution.

Sequentia ensemble, “Carmina qui quondam”