Music has been an integral part of virtually every culture, so it is quite natural for people to havewritten about this subject. More literature has survived than actual music, which leaves modernscholars with the job of translating, interpreting, and trying to understand the writings of peopleprior to modern musical notation. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius wrote and translated manybooks on subjects he felt were important to the education of future generations. Of particularinterest is his book, The Fundamentals of Music (De institutione musica). Even though this bookis no longer used as a basis for music education, it has had a lasting impact on music history andtheory. Boethius was born either in or around Rome sometime around the year 480 AD.
His fatherdied when he was only seven, and he was taken in and raised by one of the wealthiest aristocratsof the time, Symmachus. Boethius received an exceptional education, married Symmachussdaughter, and led an esteemed career as a politician, writer, and scholar until he was imprisonedand executed in 524. Boethiuss works may be divided into four categories, in chronologicalorder: didactic works, treatises on the mathematical disciplines; the logical works, in essencetranslations or commentaries on Aristotle, Cicero, and Porphyry; the theological treatises, worksexpounding orthodox Christian doctrine by the philosophical method; and the Consolation ofPhilosophy, a purely philosophical treatise written in prison. 1 It is the first category, which dealswith the mathematical disciplines, that contains his Fundamentals of Music.
At the time Boethiuswrote these books, music was considered one of the mathematical subjects, along with arithmetic,geometry, and astronomy. Boethius described these disciplines as the Quadrivium, the fourfoldpath to the knowledge of essences- things unaffected by material substance. 2 The fact thatmusic was considered one of the mathematical disciplines is interesting to modern people, since itis now considered part of the arts, and on nearly the opposite end of the spectrum from math. Math is now considered strict, predetermined, rigid, and structured, while music is expressive,emotional, and subjective.
However, people of the time assumed that the study of music wouldbe limited to the mathematical characteristics of harmonic proportions. In this respect, musicdoes have many characteristics that can be related to math, and it was on these observations thatBoethius based a large part of his Fundamentals of Music. Some people have stated that Boethiuss five books on music are merely translations ofworks by Pythagoras. This could not be true, because Pythagoras left no writings. But they arebased on a strong tradition and on the work of later members of the Pythagorean school; from hiseducation by his father-in-law Symmachus and in Athens Boethius was well acquainted withthese, and it is evident from his writings that he was firmly convinced of the systems validity. 3 A large section of Fundamentals of Music deals with musical instruments.
Boethius outlines thedevelopment of the tetrachord and other instruments, and describes their relationships tomythological gods and astronomy. Boethius also wrote about the Greek beliefs in various modeshaving different impacts on human beings and their emotions. This was a primitive, but veryintuitive and brilliant observation on the effect music can have on man. Pythgoreans believed, asdid Boethius, that different modes had different results. Some modes induce sleep, while otherspurge the stupor and confusion of sleep when they woke up.
4 People of Pythagorass time orof Boethiuss era lacked the notation or knowledge of melodic movement to pinpoint exactlywhat qualities of each mode evoked specific feelings. However, the observations made were giantsteps in the proper direction. Though much of Boethiuss writing on music seems to be built on Pythagorean theoriesand observations, many of Boethiuss ideas and notions seem to be original and are somewhatclose to modern beliefs. Some of them are so close that the metaphors he uses are still quotedin textbooks on physics or harmony in use today.
5 Boethiuss observances on sound and hearingwere centuries ahead of his time. He theorized about the motion of sound and sound waves, andone of these is the classic comparison of a wave of sound with the wave caused in water by astone dropped into a pond. 6 This theory could have been aided by Greek theories, but even so,all knowledge is built on previous knowledge, and Boethiuss theory is quite a landmark. Notonly did Boethius express his comparison of sound waves to waves in water, he theorized aboutthe effects of these waves on the sound and its impact on the ear.
Edmiston states, He knew thatthe speed of these vibrations governed the depth or shrillness of the sound, and that this was notdue, as earlier writers had thought, only to the thickness or even the length of the string, butchiefly to the tension at which it was held. 7 The fact that Boethius corrected this misconceptionadds even more strength to the evidence that supports the belief that much of Boethiuss workwas original. In fact, numerous sections of Boethiuss Fundamentals of Music contradicts earliernotions of theorists. In several instances, he corrects Aristoxenus and Ptolemy.
In book three, hespecifically describes flaws in Aristoxenuss writings. 8 These statements and beliefs written byBoethius have endured centuries of scrutiny by countless critics, and many have been disproven,but a large portion of Boethiuss work has stood the test of time. His Fundamentals of Musicwas used as a text at Oxford University until the eighteenth century. Even though these observations were probably his most accurate by modern standards, hisstrongest effect on musical thought came with his division of music into three classifications. Thefirst division was called the music of the spheres, and it was supposedly caused by the rhythmicmotions of the heavenly bodies. Man was and is unable to hear any of the music in this category.
Later some Christians thought that this inability to hear the music of the heavens could be becauseof Adams betrayal of God in the Garden of Eden story from the Bible. The second divisionBoethius devised was the music of the humans. This music was created by the harmonies thatshould exist in human life, both within the individual and through the interactions between a manand his environment. Any undesirable condition that one could encounter in life would beconsidered disharmonious and therefore it would detract from this type of music. Even thoughthe name would suggest that this division of music would be heard by humans, that was not thecase.
The third type of music that Boethius described was what he considered the lowest form,and it was named instrumental music. All sounding music, including singing, was placed into thiscategory. This makes the third division the only one that people could hear and experience. Thus actual music sung or played would present a concrete image of the order of the universe, areflection – following in the tradition of Plato – of a great principle or higher Reality.
9 Thistheory had a great impact on musical thought for a long time, but it was not as scientificallyaccurate a statement as were many of his other theories and ideas. As a signifier of its importance at the time, in Venice in 1491-92, BoethiussFundamentals of Music was one of the first musical works to be printed. 10 Nearly one thousandyears after it was written, this book still carried great weight with musicians, theorists, andhistorians. It is a remarkable achievement for a book to still be in use a millenium after it iswritten, and most of the handfull of books that have achieved this feat are centered aroundreligion.
For centuries, Fundamentals of Music was considered the authoritative document onGreek musical thought and systems. After the middle ages, as composers and musicians beganfocusing on counterpoint, there was a time where Fundamentals of Music lost importance as adefinitive text on musical theory. Music began to grow rapidly more complex, and as it did,Boethiuss work was left behind. However, this did not send the book into obscurity.
Manyauthors cited Boethius as a source, and he was recognized as having a large impact on countlessmusicians and writers. Gradually, his book came back into general use, not with the samepurpose, but it did gain importance again. It now holds a great deal of historical significance. Inthe preface to the English edition of Fundamentals of Music, Palisca states, Today we valueBoethius for a multiplicity of reasons.
We read him to understand Western medieval theory andhow it evolved. He is at the center of the theoretical quarrels of the sixteenth century. As CalvinM. Bower has shown, he appears to have handed down in a glossed translation a massive musictreatise of the Hellenic period by Nichomachus that otherwise would not have survived, one ofthe broader windows that we have on the tonal system of the ancient world.
Finally, Boethiusappeals to the modern theorist, ever searching for consistent schemes and principles of tonalorganization, for in the first four books he lays down such a system in great detail. 11 This isquite an impressive list of uses for an author who lived fifteen hundred years ago. The fact thathis writings diminished in popularity, but later resurged shows how significant his work is. Inbrief, Boethiuss importance and his place in music history has probably stabilized. In conclusion, though some of Boethiuss theories have not proven to be completely validin the modern practice of music theory, many of his ideas have had a profound and lasting impacton musical thought and history.
As long as people remain interested in the development of musictheory and its applications, then Boethiuss work will continue to survive. He has proven,through time, to be one of the most important thinkers and writers to have written on the subjectof music, and he has earned a distinguished place in the study of not just music history, but thehistory of Western civilization. 1858 wordsBibliographyBibliographyBoethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. Fundamentals of Music. Trans. Calvin M.
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