Boethius vs Erigena (long - part 1)

Harry Miller hmiller at u.washington.edu
Sat Oct 7 12:11:48 PDT 1995


On Fri, 6 Oct 1995, Margritte wrote:

> give some more information on the above subject, or at least tell us where
> we can look for more info. Thanks.

Sorry, I had just read of this disagreement in medieval theory and thought
it might be interesting to debate.  I was reading "Music in the Medieval
World" 2nd ed., by Albert Seay (Prentice Hall History of Music Series,
p.19ff) but I imagine that it would be mentioned in most music history
texts covering the period.  Bear in mind that this is the 
intellectualization of music done in the universities and churches, and 
probably not much thought of by the actual musicians.

p.19: "At the root of Boethius' ideas is the concept that music is number 
made audible.  This is illustrated by a legend of Pythagoras, echoed by 
later writers.  It seems that Pythagoras was wandering one day in the 
forest and, passing a forge, heard such wonderful harmonies from four 
hammers beating on anvils that he stopped to investigate.  Determining 
that the sounds were caused by the heads of the hammers, he then weighed 
them, discovering that their weights were, respectively, 12, 9, 8, and 6 
pounds.  The sound of the octave was given by the relation of the 
12-pound hammer to that of the 6, or 2:1; the perfect fifth resulted from 
the comparison of that of 12 and that of 8, or of those of 9 and 6, or 
3:2; the perfect fourth from that of the 8 and 6, or 12 and 9, 4:3; and 
the whole one from that of 9 and 8.  That these sounds were harmonius is 
explained, according to Pythagoras and his followers, by their numerical 
ratio, for the simpler the numerical relationship, the more beautiful is 
the sound.  Music demonstrates in sound the pure world of number and 
derives its beauty from that world." . . .

p.20: "Thus it is that music stands as a way of depicting the beauty and 
perfection of God and his creations, the world and man.  It is here that 
music achieves its real place in medieval philosophy, for as a microcosm 
in the macrocosm it can duplicate on a small scale the power of number 
inherent in the otherwise almost incomprehensible grand expanse about 
us. ... To carry out the implications of this position, Boethius (b.470? 
- d.525) divided music into three levels, musica instrumentalis, musica 
humana, and musica mundana, three divisions that were to remain immutable 
for the remainder of the age with but one change, that of musica mundana 
to musica caelestis.  Musica instrumentalis, at the lowest level, is that 
music which is sounding, both vocal and instrumental.  Its primary 
purpose is the concrete demonstration of the fundamental ratios, a 
demonstration made clear by the use of a one-stringed instrument, the 
monochord, on which the ratios could be measured off in physical 
distances."

End of part 1.

Gruffydd Llandaff
Familia Goliae



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