Philosopher’s Songs (02_2023)

Philosopher’s Songs – Medieval Music Comes to Life at Cambridge

by Paweł Trzciąkowski

February 2023 – Medieval philosophy is immensely indebted to the last philosopher of Antiquity, Boethius. Witnessing the ultimate eclipse of the ancient world, that intellectual giant devoted himself to the task of preserving the achievements of greco-roman culture. It is hard to overemphasise his influence on the teaching of logic and metaphysics in the following centuries, and these areas are naturally most interesting for philosophers today. However, Boethius’ interest was far from being limited to translating and commenting on Aristotle. He also wrote manuals of the arts quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, which were widely used in medieval universities. Indeed, Boethius’ impact on the curriculum was so rich that the historian R. W. Southern nicknamed him “the schoolmaster of medieval Europe”.

Unlike the treatises on astronomy and geometry, Boethius’ work on music – De institutione musica – is still extant today. Drawing on the ancient ideas from Nicomachus of Gerasa and Ptolemy, he highlighted the connection between musical harmony and arithmetics. That led him to formulate the tripartite model of musica mundana, musica humana and musica instrumentalis (although the term instrumentalis was only coined in the early medieval period).

In this context is worth reminding that Boethius was also a poet. His last masterpiece, On the Consolation of Philosophy, has the form of alterations of prose and poetry (metra). Interestingly, some medieval manuscripts of the Consolation had musical notations for the poems – the so-called neumes, written above the text, which is a clear indication that they were performed as songs in the middle ages. Although the melodies are incomplete, Sam Barrett from the university of Cambridge reconstructed them with the aid of similar, better-preserved traditions, such as Psalmody. Next, working with the early music ensemble Sequentia, they played and recorded some of these songs on the instruments used in those times.