Boethius Essay, Research Paper
Throughout history, every society has searched for some way to express its feelings and beliefs.
Music has been an integral part of virtually every culture, so it is quite natural for people to have
written about this subject. More literature has survived than actual music, which leaves modern
scholars with the job of translating, interpreting, and trying to understand the writings of people
prior to modern musical notation. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius wrote and translated many
books on subjects he felt were important to the education of future generations. Of particular
interest is his book, The Fundamentals of Music (De institutione musica). Even though this book
is no longer used as a basis for music education, it has had a lasting impact on music history and
Boethius was born either in or around Rome sometime around the year 480 AD. His father
died when he was only seven, and he was taken in and raised by one of the wealthiest aristocrats
of the time, Symmachus. Boethius received an exceptional education, married Symmachus?s
daughter, and led an esteemed career as a politician, writer, and scholar until he was imprisoned
and executed in 524. ?Boethius?s works may be divided into four categories, in chronological
order: didactic works, treatises on the mathematical disciplines; the logical works, in essence
translations or commentaries on Aristotle, Cicero, and Porphyry; the theological treatises, works
expounding orthodox Christian doctrine by the philosophical method; and the Consolation of
Philosophy, a purely philosophical treatise written in prison.?1 It is the first category, which deals
with the mathematical disciplines, that contains his Fundamentals of Music. At the time Boethius
wrote these books, music was considered one of the mathematical subjects, along with arithmetic,
geometry, and astronomy. ?Boethius described these disciplines as the Quadrivium, the fourfold
path to the knowledge of ?essences?- things unaffected by material substance.2? The fact that
music was considered one of the mathematical disciplines is interesting to modern people, since it
is 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 would
be limited to the mathematical characteristics of harmonic proportions. In this respect, music
does have many characteristics that can be related to math, and it was on these observations that
Boethius based a large part of his Fundamentals of Music.
Some people have stated that Boethius?s five books on music are merely translations of
works by Pythagoras. This could not be true, because Pythagoras left no writings. ?But they are
based on a strong tradition and on the work of later members of the Pythagorean school; from his
education by his father-in-law Symmachus and in Athens Boethius was well acquainted with
these, and it is evident from his writings that he was firmly convinced of the system?s validity.3?
A large section of Fundamentals of Music deals with musical instruments. Boethius outlines the
development of the tetrachord and other instruments, and describes their relationships to
mythological gods and astronomy. Boethius also wrote about the Greek beliefs in various modes
having different impacts on human beings and their emotions. This was a primitive, but very
intuitive and brilliant observation on the effect music can have on man. Pythgoreans believed, as
did Boethius, that different modes had different results. Some modes ?induce sleep, while others
?purge ?the stupor and confusion of sleep? when they woke up.4? People of Pythagoras?s time or
of Boethius?s era lacked the notation or knowledge of melodic movement to pinpoint exactly
what qualities of each mode evoked specific feelings. However, the observations made were giant
steps in the proper direction.
Though much of Boethius?s writing on music seems to be built on Pythagorean theories
and observations, many of Boethius?s ideas and notions seem to be original and are somewhat
close to modern beliefs. ? Some of them are so close that the metaphors he uses are still quoted
in textbooks on physics or harmony in use today.5? Boethius?s observances on sound and hearing
were centuries ahead of his time. He theorized about the motion of sound and sound waves, and
?one of these is the classic comparison of a wave of sound with the wave caused in water by a
stone 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 Boethius?s theory is quite a landmark. Not
only did Boethius express his comparison of sound waves to waves in water, he theorized about
the effects of these waves on the sound and its impact on the ear. Edmiston states, ?He knew that
the speed of these vibrations governed the depth or shrillness of the sound, and that this was not
due, as earlier writers had thought, only to the thickness or even the length of the string, but
chiefly to the tension at which it was held.7? The fact that Boethius corrected this misconception
adds even more strength to the evidence that supports the belief that much of Boethius?s work
was original. In fact, numerous sections of Boethius?s Fundamentals of Music contradicts earlier
notions of theorists. In several instances, he corrects Aristoxenus and Ptolemy. In book three, he
specifically describes flaws in Aristoxenus?s writings.8 These statements and beliefs written by
Boethius have endured centuries of scrutiny by countless critics, and many have been disproven,
but a large portion of Boethius?s work has stood the test of time. His Fundamentals of Music
was used as a text at Oxford University until the eighteenth century.
Even though these observations were probably his most accurate by modern standards, his
strongest effect on musical thought came with his division of music into three classifications. The
first division was called the music of the spheres, and it was supposedly caused by the rhythmic
motions 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 because
of Adam?s betrayal of God in the Garden of Eden story from the Bible. The second division
Boethius devised was the music of the humans. This music was created by the harmonies that
should exist in human life, both within the individual and through the interactions between a man
and his environment. Any undesirable condition that one could encounter in life would be
considered disharmonious and therefore it would detract from this type of music. Even though
the name would suggest that this division of music would be heard by humans, that was not the
case. 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 this
category. 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, a
reflection – following in the tradition of Plato – of a great principle or higher Reality.9? This
theory had a great impact on musical thought for a long time, but it was not as scientifically
accurate 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, Boethius?s
Fundamentals of Music was one of the first musical works to be printed.10 Nearly one thousand
years after it was written, this book still carried great weight with musicians, theorists, and
historians. It is a remarkable achievement for a book to still be in use a millenium after it is
written, and most of the handfull of books that have achieved this feat are centered around
religion. For centuries, Fundamentals of Music was considered the authoritative document on
Greek musical thought and systems. After the middle ages, as composers and musicians began
focusing on counterpoint, there was a time where Fundamentals of Music lost importance as a
definitive text on musical theory. Music began to grow rapidly more complex, and as it did,
Boethius?s work was left behind. However, this did not send the book into obscurity. Many
authors cited Boethius as a source, and he was recognized as having a large impact on countless
musicians and writers. Gradually, his book came back into general use, not with the same
purpose, but it did gain importance again. It now holds a great deal of historical significance. In
the preface to the English edition of Fundamentals of Music, Palisca states, ?Today we value
Boethius for a multiplicity of reasons. We read him to understand Western medieval theory and
how it evolved. He is at the center of the theoretical quarrels of the sixteenth century. As Calvin
M. Bower has shown, he appears to have handed down in a glossed translation a massive music
treatise of the Hellenic period by Nichomachus that otherwise would not have survived, one of
the broader windows that we have on the tonal system of the ancient world. Finally, Boethius
appeals to the modern theorist, ever searching for consistent schemes and principles of tonal
organization, for in the first four books he lays down such a system in great detail.11? This is
quite an impressive list of uses for an author who lived fifteen hundred years ago. The fact that
his writings diminished in popularity, but later resurged shows how significant his work is. In
brief, Boethius?s importance and his place in music history has probably stabilized.
In conclusion, though some of Boethius?s theories have not proven to be completely valid
in the modern practice of music theory, many of his ideas have had a profound and lasting impact
on musical thought and history. As long as people remain interested in the development of music
theory and its applications, then Boethius?s 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 subject
of music, and he has earned a distinguished place in the study of not just music history, but the
history of Western civilization.
Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. Fundamentals of Music. Trans. Calvin M. Bower. Ed. Claude V. Palisca. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Bower, Calvin. ?Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus.? In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musician, ed. Stanley Sadie, 2: 844-45. London: Macmillan, 1980.
Bray, Roger. ?Music and the Quadrivium in Early Tudor England.? Music and Letters, vol. 76, no. 1 (Feb. 1995), 1-18.
Chadwick, Henry. Boethius, the Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. New York: Clarendon Press, 1981.
Edmiston, Jean. ?Boethius on Pythagorean Music.? The Music Review, vol. 35, no. 3-4 (Nov. 1974): 179-184.
Erickson, Raymond. ?Eugena, Boethius, and the Neapolitanism of Musica and Scholica Enchiriadis.? Musical Humanism and Its Legacy. Ed. Nancy Baker and Barbara Hanning. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1992. 53-78.
Maher, Terence. On a Contemporary Boethian Musical Theory. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1980.
Palisca, Claude V. ?Preface by Series Editor? to Fundamentals of Music by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. Trans. Calvin M. Bower. ed. Claude V. Palisca. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Seaton, Douglas. Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition. Mountain View,
CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1991.