Life and Works of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
Life and Works of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a Roman statesman, theologian and philosopher. He is often referred to as “the last of the Romans. Boethius was born in Rome in 480 and died at Pavia in 524 or 525. Descended from a consular family, Boethius was orphaned at a tender age and was adopted and educated by Symmachus a noble-minded and pious patriarch of Rome. Boethius would go on to marry Symmachus daughter, Rusticiana. By the year 507, he was already renowned as a learned man and was entrusted by King Theoderic with several crucial missions. He held the confidence of the king and as patrician of Rome, greatly admired by the members of the Roman nobility. His enemies, however, accused him of disloyalty to King Theoderic and his Ostrogothic kingdom. He was alleged to be plotting restoration of “Roman Liberty”. Neither his noble birth nor great popularity would rescue him. Boethius was imprisoned, unheard but condemned and later executed by the orders of King Theoderic. During his time imprisoned, Boethius reflected on the fleeting nature of favours from monarchs and at the lack of consistent devotion from his friends. These reflections later became his best known philosophical work, “De Consolatione Philosophiae”.
Boethius is remembered as one of the main thinkers who connected the different thoughts worlds of ancient Greeks as well as their successors, especially Aristotle, Neoplatonism, and the Stoics to the Medieval Latin movement that eventually came to be referred to as Scholasticism (Mark, 2008). Simply put, Boethius studied Aristotle and Augustine, expounded on their ideas and passed the mantle to another philosopher, Aquinas. However, Boethius did add to others areas of knowledge with as much impact as he had on philosophy. Some of his other works covered logic, mathematics, arithmetic and music. His work on music was ground-breaking, the resultant book, De Insitutione Musica became almost universally accepted in almost all major European music schools.
Music theories in the antiquity differ from those at work today. They were philosophies and mathematics, as well as music specific theories, but none analysed specific compositions. For nearly a millennium, starting from roughly 400 BCE to 500 C.E, thinkers wrote about how mathematics and science serve as a natural and physical expression of music. Towards the tail end of this period, the Roman philosopher Boethius combined the essential tenets of ancient Greek musical theory. He then translated the original works from Greek into Latin in and then provided a summary of the most important points.
De Insitutione Musica, was a five-book compendium which he produced as a result of this effort. The book was a sensation and went on to become a most critical treatise on music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The book I of the five-book volume became the favoured “textbook” for music studies in almost all colleges or universities in Europe. As with a lot of Greek cultures, the surviving information is interpreted through Roman eyes. Ironically, should one want to know more about Greek music theory, the best source to read is Roman Boethius (Chadwick, 2003).
In the first book of De Insitutione Musica, Boethius introduces the types of music mentioned by ancient Greeks though not articulated in-depth by them. The first type he describes as the celestial harmony or unheard music of the spheres. The second type of music described by Boethius was music that unites the body and soul as a harmonious whole. The third type he described is music as we normally think of it, sound music, especially that produced by musical instruments. For hundreds of years after that, musicians argued as to whether the planets generated music as they orbited. The concept of “music of the spheres” even made it to several of Shakespeare’s plays.
In the Book 1, Boethius attempt to define what music is and say how it is perceived by those who study it. The three kinds of music: music of the spheres [mundana]; music of the body [humana]; and music made by particular instruments [instrumentalis]. Music of the spheres can be observed especially in the heavens, in tandem with the elements or as the season’s change. Boethius wonders how a celestial machine (celestial bodies) can move so fast yet silently on their course. He infers that, although sound they make may not reach our ears, for a variety of reasons, it is impossible for such extremely fast motion of large bodies to make no sound. Boethius opined that the paths of the stars are all set in a manner that nothing more perfect can be created. For some celestial bodies travel in a higher, a while others occupy a lower orbit. All turn each with its force in a manner that though dissimilar, the paths form a rational order. With such a perfectly tuned celestial model in place, no less rational order is expected in music (Jeserich, Curley & Rendall, 2013). All of this diversity produces a variety of seasons and outcomes, and thus defines the cycle of one entire year. Boethius imagines if such a range of phenomena disappeared from our collective memory, everything would perish and fade into oblivion. Therefore, in loosening the low strings, one does not go so low that the sound disappears into inaudibility; nor, should one place too much stress on the strings in the top range for they could break. Rather, these elements are kept appropriate and fitting. In the music of the spheres nothing that gets excessive or goes beyond itself.
As to the matters appertaining music of the body, Boethius asks us to look within ourselves to understand it. There is a certain harmony that links the spiritual parts with the physicality of the body, the same way high and low pitches by use means of temperance induce one’s consonance. According to Boethius, this element joins the different sides of the soul: as Aristotle puts it is a cocktail of the rational as well as the irrational. For what better brings together the different elements of the body together than rational harmony? The third type of music involves particular instruments. These instruments come to life by pressure, like strings, or by the wind, or by striking, like with those made of metal in a concave shape, or by water i.e. hydraulic organs. Each of these organs makes distinct sounds (Chadwick, 2003).
Boethius also delves into the acoustics of music. He comprehends the behaviour of sound waves as well the relationship between string tension and pitch. He also understands that strings do not vibrate once, rather the do so many times faster than the eye can see. Boethius was however not aware that the sound waves produced by any instruments vibrate in sections and therefore produce partials (overtones). This discovery did not come until the turn of the 1700s. Consonance regulates the flow of all music. It cannot appear without sound. Sound, too, cannot exists because of a pulsating and percussive force. Neither of these forces exists unless proceeded by movement. If everything is static, no can strike or impel the other. If all things were bereft of motion, no sound could be generated. Using this reasoning, Boethius defines sound as a percussive activation of the air to the process of audibility.
There are a variety of motions, some fast, others slow. When someone perceives continuous motion, they will regard the speed as either fast or slow.
When motion slows and is less frequent, low sounds are produced, as a result of that slow speed and infrequency. On the other hand, when the motion is speedy and frequent, high sounds are necessarily produced. If the same string is stretched tighter, a high sound is generated; when tension relaxes, a lower one sound is the result. For when a string tighter, it pulsates faster activating the air more times and rapidly. In a situation vice versa, the same string will pulsate more casually and slowly due to weakened string tension (Kaylor & Phillips, 2012).
It is critical to note that when a string is struck, several sounds result. Each time the air is activated a percussive force is involved in the process. Several different sounds are usually produced but they immediately join and thus no interruption is perceptible by the ears. Rather, it is a single sound, whether low or high that strikes the senses. One sound derives its qualities from many. This scenario applies to not only to slower, infrequent pulsations but also to faster consistent ones. The situation is likened to when one creates a cone then paints a line of dashes of green on it when turned as fast as possible. Then the entire line appears to be green, not because it is true, the reason is the green parts overwhelm the parts without colour, rendering them invisible (Chadwick, 2003).
In summary, since high pitches are precipitated by fast, frequent motion, while low pitches are produced by slower, infrequent motion, it is inferred that addition of motion causes a lower pitch to climb to a higher one. Reducing motion causes a high pitch to become lower, for high pitch needs more motions than low pitch. Plurality is the main difference maker in these matters, and thus it is prudent to consider the numbers behind the phenomenon. Everything in nature is on a continuum from many arises from a few, and one number can directly be compared with another. When numbers are put side-by-side, some will equal, and others are unequal. The same is with sounds: some are the similar, and others distant one each another. The pitches that do not arrive at an agreement in their inequality said to be dissonant. For consonance is defined as the concord of dissimilar pitches into one.
Boethius ends Book I by discussing who a musician is. He distinguishes between the intellectual, or enlightened musician and the artist who does it for the sake of it. Gradually, he also develops to the creator of music. Whether Boethius’s approach of adjudicating, fabricating, and practice is likened with the modern day roles critic, composer, and performer is not straightforward. Prejudice against performers continued in theoretical works for centuries, especially due to the fact performers were not trained in the complex system of musical notation that was emerging (Kaylor & Phillips, 2012).
Boethius stresses that it is more of honour to work from true understanding, instead of basing your reasons on manual labour. It is way better to know the process of doing something, rather than do something but not know the process. Also, physical exertion is akin to slavery; reason, one the other hand reigns like a mistress (Mark, 2008). For if the hand fails to follow the instructions of reason, all will amount to nothing. In music, it is better to have rational comprehension in than in the science of music than to be a mere creator of work or a just practitioner. Boethius asserts it is nobler that the mind is a master of the body as it is only reasoning that sets apart the superiors from the servants. The reason often leads to desirable results, and unless the wisdom of reason is followed, the undertaking is doomed.
The difference in greatness, glory and merit of reason is observed by considering mere practitioners of art derive their names from the instruments they play not from the discipline as a whole. For the pianist is named from the piano, and the saxophonist from the saxophone, many others are named from their instruments. A musician is an individual who has unlocked by reason a deeper appreciation of the science of music. This state is achieved not from the servitude of work, but by the dominance of logic. Another example is in the construction of monuments for heroes, the same process as with the bestowing of names repeats itself. For individuals are remembered or victories celebrated by etching the names of those who conceived them, the names of the actual labourers go unmentioned.
There are three main groups of individuals familiar with the art of music: 1) the person who plays an instrument; 2) a composer of songs; 3) the person who evaluates the performer and art in their songs. An instrumentalist who spend all their just playing their pieces—as, for example, pianists, organists or players of other musical instruments largely are excluded from the deeper appreciation of the science of music and thus are servants. Boethius remarks this state without all reason and lacks the catalyst for speculative thinking. The second class is made up of individuals involved with music as poets who possess a little propensity for thinking and reason but has a natural aptitude for songwriting. Still, from this type, the musician has kept away from a deeper understanding of music as well.
The third class is that group which possesses the capability to judge so that not only the rhythm and the melody but the entire song undergoes evaluation. Since this class is rooted in rational thought and logic, it esteemed to belong to, and many musicians strive for it. This next level musician applies reason and thought to what fits and is appropriate for music when it comes to modes and rhythms. The process also applies to the genres of songs as well as how the mixings of sounds occur [consonances] (Jeserich, Curley & Rendall, 2013). Another important quality of individuals in this class is reflected in their ability to judge the songs of the poets.
Chadwick, H. (2003). Boethius, the consolations of music, logic, theology, and philosophy (pp. 7,23). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jeserich, P., Curley, M., & Rendall, S. (2013). Musica naturalis (p. 56). Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University.
Kaylor, N., & Phillips, P. (2012). A companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages (p. 102). Leiden: Brill.
Mark, M. (2008). Music education (p. 11). New York: Routledge.