The Medieval Review 17.12.08

Hicks, Andrew. Composing the World: Harmony in the Medieval Platonic Cosmos. Critical Conjunctures in Music and Sound. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. 344. ISBN: 978-0-19064-820-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Nancy Van Deusen
Claremont Graduate University

The present volume contains chapters organized under the categories, Part I: The Framework, 1. Harmonizing the World: Natural Philosophy and Order, 2. Knowing the World: Music, Mathematics, and Physics; Part II: The Particulars, 3. Composing the Human: Harmonies of the Microcosm, 4. Hearing the World: Sonic Materialisms, and 5. Composing the Cosmic: Harmonies of the Macrocosm, with a "Postlude": The Musical Aesthetics of a World So Composed. There are two appendices with quotations from William of Conches, Glosulae de Magno Prisciano, Priscian being the grammatical textbook of the Middle Ages (and beyond); and from a lesser-known author, Hisdosus, De anima mundi Platonica. There is an extensive bibliography and index. [1]

The volume, dedicated to Eduard Jeaneau, who apparently was Andrew Hicks' mentor, is published under the general editorship of the series, "Critical Conjunctures in Music Sound" with the series editors, Jairo Moreno and Gavin Steingo, as an aspect of what is a resuscitation, in effect, of the medieval discipline of music, that is, sound both of spoken words, and musical tones, as substance, to be treated as unseen materia/ substantia/ natura; and, especially in the Chalcidius translation of the Timaeus, silva. This is a welcome, although hardly innovative, development, since, on the basis of the unseen substances of time, movement, and sound, music has had the "ministry" according to Augustine, on to Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and many others--also including Chalcidius in his commentary on the Timaeus--of making the abstractions of particularity, relationship, and the nature of motion plain. One is not used to thinking about unseen substance as in fact substantial, i.e. material in nature (due to inroads of multiple, if confused (and confusing), strands of "materialism" in which, superficially delineated, what is seen is identified as "matter," what is not seen as "immaterial;" but this is an important aspect that also differentiates more recent, contemporary mental culture from that with which one is dealing here, that is, an important equivalence, and proportional relationship, between anima and substantia that is seen, an equivalence that is clearly made in the Chalcidius' commentary on the Timaeus (Chalcidius is the more common medieval spelling of this author). This point is absolutely dispositive for the importance and function of music as a discipline throughout the middle ages until recently, since through the exemplification of sound one could exemplify every other concept of importance, leading then to the understanding of the unseen substance of the nature of God (this is important to the system, if not, often, to modern "medievalists"). Music therefore is at the forefront of new scientific conceptualization illustrating, for example, mass differentiated into the figurae/ diagrammata/ schemata/ music notation as figurae.

All this is well-known, but obscured by modern specialist disciplines, with their textbooks, jargon, agendas, code languages, academic confraternities, not to say cliques, and professional/commercial goals. The concepts of both a proportional equivalence between seen and unseen substance, as well as the interaction between all of the disciplines--communicational as well as material and measurement--with music exemplifying all of them, although given lip-service as the "trivium" and "quadrivium," has not been understood to the extent that would insure sound/music's place as absolutely essential to the project of understanding the basic principles of the world. Nothing could be truly understood except through the exemplification of music, thought (and wrote) Augustine. [2] It is against this backdrop of common topic, concept, and term, such as modus (way of moving, nature of moving itself), figura (delineation within way of moving), eventually armonia (reconciliation of contrary motion or opposing directionalities into concordancia through motion and time), used in, and having application as term and concept, to the subject matter of all of the disciplines, that writing on music must be understood, not as a self-contained textbook for a course in music, but rather as the exemplification of concepts, an understanding for which one would also have acquired as viewed through the lens, for example, of grammar and arithmetic (disciplines that address particularity). Figura would have been viewed as the particularity of alphabetical letter (grammar), number (arithmetic), in relationship such as triangle (geometry), and within the concept of motion (the figura of a constellation, astronomy/physics) to be then exemplified by the figurae of music notation, making particularity, relationship, and motion all plain, clearly, and simply. This is the "ministry" of music as an analogical discipline, making plain the principles of the world, within medieval education and thought. Since music proceeded one instant at a time within continuity, demonstrating the nature of motion, it could also illustrate the process of life itself.

All this, of course, is relevant to the present volume in which Andrew Hicks' book, Composing the World, is motivated by a desire, apparently, to bring out the exemplary capacity of sound, hence music, particularly with respect to the concept of harmony. In his opening "Prelude," Prof. Hicks sets forth the project of "discerning" in terms of sound as epistemological. Quoting Stephen Feld, he writes "Put another way, to hear the cosmos is to experience the world through a cosmic acoustemology...that privileges the experience of sound as a special kind of relational knowledge, a knowing-with and knowing-through the audible" (3). [3]. (This, by the way, could be a modern paraphrase of Chalcidius' commentary.) The author then moves on to Thierry of Chartres, and his probatio musicalis, looking for something on the order of a modern textbook on music (indicated also by the heading of this section, "Where are the writers on music?"). Music per se, by its very nature, by particular tones, related to one another, one tone after the other in cantus (erroneously but commonly translated into English as "Gregorian Chant"), exhibiting the nature of material generation and degeneration as one tone dies out and another takes its place, as well as the armonia (also Latin modulatio) that exists between the contrary motion of a melody that goes up horizontally and then down again, but by no means a random use of individual tones; this, in the twelfth century, amongst the authors he cites, needed no repetition, no explication, no footnotes, and no tiresome reiteration of what was known so well. This understanding is foundational to the study and practice of music in the middle ages, in fact, until recently.

Concord is a principle not only for William of Conches, but forward to Aristotle, with the comment that [concordantial], order, arrangement, ordination, as "well-ordered and harmonized nature" is not "new to the twelfth century." Invoking "humanism in the twelfth century," Hicks writes (109), of "late-ancient music theory" serving twelfth-century "humanism"--here, an example of ill-defined categories applied to collected texts from a variety of sources. An impression of jumble is given by the fact that Hicks moves from one consideration and author to another, with his own priorities motivated by those raised within the secondary literature.

In this respect, however, Hicks has cited an abundance of works in his bibliography; many of which do not impinge upon what one perceives as his area of consideration, yet it is amazing to see Augustine's De musica, as well as, especially, De ordine omitted, Raymond Klibansky's expanded reissue of his important The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition. Plato's Parmenides in the Middle Ages (The Warburg Institute, London, 1982), the useful collection of essays edited by Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, [4] recent publications on Chalcidius and the terms he uses, as well as his commentary; additionally, a careful reading, for example, of the introduction and publications of J. H. Waszink, as well as on the discipline of music in the Middle Ages. A good deal of the recent literature that would have been useful to Hicks in his project of relating music to what he refers to as the "school" of Chartres is missing both from his references as well as his bibliography. What is especially surprising is that although there are many references to Chalcidius in his notes, there is little indication that he has actually thoroughly acquainted himself with the commentary. That Chalcidius' translation and commentary were the first and only translation of the Timaeus throughout the Middle Ages is mentioned only on p. 77; what exactly was translated of the Timaeus and what that includes only on p. 109. Further quotations and discussion of Chalcidius are most often prompted by what has been taken up as topic by other writers in the secondary literature, as, for example, whether or not Chalcidius used Porphyry (77). Given the fact that Chalcidius was mostly what one had on the Timaeus, a more systematic and thorough use of this topic would have been valuable. [5]

Finally, one shares the sense of excitement that music both most succinctly, and comprehensibly, exemplifies both rationally, and sensorially perceived, principles of the world, in particular, the nature of motion as well as the reconciliation of two opposing directionalities into armonia, concordantia--a topic that would occupy discussion for the next centuries, especially following the multiple translations of the Physica of Aristotle into Latin, late twelfth-thirteenth centuries. The conviction, however, that the place of music as an illustrative discipline is news, a persuasion that appears to have provided an underlying raison d'être for this book, is a point of view that cannot, even with the best of intention, evidenced by the author's compilation of so many sources, be accepted.

--------- Notes:

1. A recent review of this volume thoroughly addresses the contents of this book with excellent comments; see Antonio Donato in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2017.09.41.

2. Cf. articles "De musica," "Music," "Rhythm," and "De Ordine," in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. (Grand Rapids, MI, 1999).

3. Stephen Feld, "Acoustemology," in Keywords in Sound, eds. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny (Durham, NC/London, 2015), 12.

4. Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable with Carol D. Lanham (eds.), Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1982).

5. The fragmentary translation of Cicero apparently did not have either the dissemination or influence of Chalcidius, and Cicero, so far as one knows, wrote no commentary.

Copyright (c) 2018 Nancy Van Deusen

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