Isidorus Hispalensis

Isidorus de Seville (6th-7th century AD) was a scholar and, for over three decades, Archbishop of Seville. He is widely regarded, in the oft-quoted words of the 19th-century historian Montalembert, as “the last scholar of the ancient world.” At a time of disintegration of classical culture, and aristocratic violence and illiteracy, he was involved in the conversion of the Arian Visigothic kings to Catholicism, both assisting his brother Leander of Seville, and continuing after his brother’s death. His fame after his death was based on his Etymologiae, an etymological encyclopedia which assembled extracts of many books from classical antiquity that would have otherwise been lost. In his De musica he affirms that music is the only real knowledge, connected with the structure of the universe itself. Without music no discipline can be complete. Moreover music has a great power over the human mind as well: it can change the perception of reality and, therefore, can modify human behaviour.

  • 5th-6th centuries AD
    Domination of Visigoths in almost all the Hispanian peninsula
  • 6th century AD
    Eastern Roman Empire expanded under Emperor Justinian, who recaptured North Africa from the Vandals and attempted to fully recover Italy as well with the aim to reinstate Roman control over the lands once ruled by the Western Roman Empire.
  • 554 AD
    Eviction of the Ostrogoths from Rome, and reunification of Italy under Byzantine rule
  • 560 AD
    Isidore of Seville was born
  • 585 AD
    Suebian Kingdom was conquered by the Visigoths in Hispania
  • 587 AD
    Reccared, king of the Visigoths in Spain, converted to Catholicism
  • 600 AD
    Isidore becomes bishop of Seville after his brother’s death
  • 619 AD
    Isidore convened the council of Seville
  • 625 AD
    Isidore convoked another council in Seville
  • 633 AD
    National Council of Toledo
  • 636 AD
    Isidore dies
  • 711-718 AD
    Nearly all the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by Moorish Muslim armies from North Africa.

Isidori, De musica, 27

Quid possit musica. 1. Itaque sine musica nulla disciplina potest esse perfecta, nihil enim est sine illa. Nam et ipse mundus quadam harmonia sonorum fertur esse compositus, et coelum ipsum sub harmoniae modulatione revolvitur. Musica movet affectus, provocat in diversum habitum sensus.
2. In proeliis quoque tubae concentus pugnantes accendit; et quanto vehementior fuerit clangor, tanto fit fortior ad certamen animus. Siquidem et remiges cantus hortatur. Ad tolerandos quoque labores musica animum mulcet, et singulorum operum fatigationem modulatio vocis solatur.
3. Excitos quoque animos musica sedat, sicut legitur de David, qui a spiritu immundo Saulem arte modulationis eripuit. Ipsas quoque bestias, necnon et serpentes, volucres, atque delphinas, ad auditum suae modulationis musica provocat. Sed et quidquid loquimur, vel intrinsecus venarum pulsibus commovemur, per musicos rhythmos harmoniae virtutibus probatur esse sociatum.

The power of music 1. So without music there can be no perfect knowledge, in fact there is nothing without it. For even the universe itself is said to have been put together with a certain harmony of sounds, and the very heavens revolve under the guidance of harmony. Music moves feelings and provokes the senses to different behaviors.
2. In battle the resounding trumpet fires the soldiers and the louder is its blare the more are their souls strengthened for the strife. The same way, singing encourages oarsmen. Music soothes the soul so that it can better endure the labors and the melody of a song lightens the weariness of every kind of work.
3. Music relieves also altered minds as it’s told that David delivered Saul from an unclean spirit with the art of melody. Music also stirs the very beasts, even serpents and birds and dolphins, to want to hear its melody. But everything we speak about or everything which we are inwardly moved by, as seen in the beating of our veins, is proved to be the virtues of harmony through musical rhythms.

Henri Rousseau, The Snake Charmer (“Charmeuse de serpents”), 1907

In this painting a woman with glowing eyes is playing a flute in the moonlight by the edge of a dark jungle with a snake extending toward her from a nearby tree. The painting has an asymmetric vertical composition with a detailed depiction of the jungle on the right and a woman playing the flute on the left, back-lit by moonlight from a full moon. A snake, charmed by the music, stretches horizontally across the painting. The composition is suggestive of the mysterious power of music on the human soul.

Schubert, “An Die Musik”