Thursday, July 27, 2017


Andrew Hicks, Composing the World: Harmony in the Medieval Platonic Cosmos. Critical conjunctures in music and sound. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xix, 321. ISBN 9780190658205. $45.00.

Reviewed by Antonio Donato, Queens College, CUNY (

Version at BMCR home site


The goal of this book is to examine the decisive role that musical harmony played in the world-view of the twelfth-century thinkers associated with the School of Chartres. The book is divided into three main parts. The first (prologue, chapters one and two) provides the basic conceptual framework, showing how, in the twelfth century, musical harmony was understood both as the basic ontological feature of the cosmos and as a fundamental conceptual tool to investigate the universe. Part two consists of three chapters, each examining the three types of music recognized by Boethius and his medieval followers (instrumental music, human music, celestial music), and a postlude. Two appendixes, which conclude the book, contain critical editions of two twelfth-century texts hitherto unpublished.

The prelude argues for the contemporary relevance of the book's topic by pointing out how medieval investigations of musical harmony somewhat recall (i) the fascination with the audibility of the universe in contemporary astronomy and (ii) recent developments in the fields of biosemiotics and critical theory (e.g., Deleuze, Guattari, Merleau-Ponty, Uexkül). The analysis of these similarities, however, leaves out a fundamental issue: why does the book choose to focus specifically on the twelfth century? The book's sophisticated examination of that century's accounts of musical harmony addresses this question, but only implicitly. The book hints that the historically uncommon convergence of ethical, mathematical, psychological, and metaphysical considerations make the analyses of music articulated by the members of the school of Chartres particularly relevant for current debates in astronomy, biosemiotics, and critical theory. However, the book's lack of a direct discussion of the contemporary significance of the school's view of music ends up underplaying its potential impact..The second part of the prelude makes astute use of William of Conches' famous saying "the world loves concord" to indicate that musical harmony was for twelfth century thinkers not yet another theory, but a meta-theory that allowed them to offer a comprehensive picture of reality.

Chapter one studies the ontological foundation of the idea of the musical harmony of the cosmos. The examination of selected Platonic texts reveals how twelfth-century thinkers regarded Plato's account of the cosmos in the Timaeus, understood through Calcidius' interpretation, as a much-needed complement to the conceptually limited creation story of Genesis. The Platonic account allowed twelfth-century thinkers to develop a "secularized" idea of nature according to which nature, though created by God, operates autonomously according to its own laws. Similarly, the Platonic notion of the world-soul was reinterpreted to describe nature as characterized by "an enmattered vitalism," i.e., a dynamic and animating force. The development of some intuitions present in Calcidius allowed twelfth-century thinkers to further elaborate the Platonic idea (Timaeus 43-44; 47b-c) of a mimetic relation between the human soul and the world-soul – a relation manifested by music's ability to maintain the well-being of the human soul by bringing it into to resonance with the world-soul. On this reading, the cosmological account of musical harmony in the Timaeus was broadened to include also an ethical dimension.

Chapter two has an epistemological focus: it argues that the way in which music was conceptualized in the twelfth century was determined by its place in the classifications of human knowledge common at the time. Notoriously, the ways in which different disciplines were arranged in medieval taxonomies depended on various theoretical considerations and had long-ranging implications. Different trends are individuated through the various ways music was classified in late antiquity. Boethius (and others) seemed to oscillate between considering music as a physical science, which examines elements of the cosmos, and a mathematical science, which offers a conceptual account of the physical universe. Macrobius regarded music as an exclusively physical science; Martianus Capella drew on Calcidius to propose a "humanistic" reading which stressed music's role in aiding man's ascent to the intellectual realm. This anagogical account of music progressively took center stage in the twelfth century. Some thinkers (e.g., Hugh of St. Victor) stressed the closeness between music and mathematics, others (e.g., Bernard of Chartres) between music and physics; however, they all recognized its role in aiding man's ascent to higher realms. In the end, it was the anagogical dimension of music that became predominant.

Chapter three examines what Boethius called "human music," i.e., the inner harmony that maintains the balance in man's soul. The topic is tackled by showing that late-antique and twelfth-century theories of "human music" depended, ultimately, on the ways in which the union of body and soul was understood. The chapter begins by showing how both Plato and Aristotle opposed the "harmony thesis" (the claim that the soul is the harmony resulting from the proper actualization of the different parts of the body) by arguing that the soul is not a harmony, but has its own harmony independently from the body. Twelfth-century authors re-interpreted some elements of the "harmony thesis" and, eventually, integrated them into a new theory of the soul. Initially, thinkers such as the St. Florian commentator suggested that the harmony between the body and the soul is to be understood only as a metaphor. Later on, William of Conches (and others) employed various ancient theories of the harmony of the body (Platonic "gomphi," Galen's crasis) to argue that the soul requires an ideal vessel, the body, to express itself. William of St. Thierry uses an interesting metaphor which had long been employed by ancient thinkers: the soul is a musician who in order to convey its music needs a perfect instrument, the body. Finally, it was suggested that the soul, though separate and independent from the body, "loves" the harmony that the body possesses when the latter is in pristine form. It is this love which explains how body and soul are united. This chapter is of great philosophical interest since it presents a compelling alternative to the soul/mind-body dualism. The retelling, in this chapter, of how a theory which was strongly opposed in the ancient world was integrated, in the twelfth century, within its opposing theory is also of historical relevance. Yet one wishes that the chapter had offered a more forceful expression and exploration of the significance and implications of the theory of the soul that it presents.

Chapter four offers an exposition of "instrumental music" by examining the ontological status of the objects of hearing. The chapter aims to overcome the traditional binary opposition between music understood as number and music understood as sensible sound. It formulates the thesis that instrumental music is fully understood when we consider not only its underlying rational structure but also the physical nature of sound. This thesis promises to have significant implications for the rest of the book since this chapter indicates that materiality is the common denominator of the three "Boethian" types of music. The structure of the chapter follows the "journey" of the sound as imagined by William of Conches: the uttering of sound by a human being, its diffusion in the environment, and its reception. After an investigation of the centrality of sense perception in Boethius' epistemology and the influence of Aristotle's account of sound in the middle ages, the chapter turns to twelfth-century theories of sound. Two main accounts are presented: sound as the product of the interaction of bodies and sound as the trace of such interaction. The examination of the way sound was investigated by grammarians reveals the centrality of a quantitative account that describes sound as "tenor." The study of the analyses by natural philosophers indicates that the concern regarding the materiality of sound was the common feature of their different explanations of the various transformations that sound undergoes from its generation to its reception. This chapter seems to be slightly out of sync with the rest of the book since only some of the authors examined are related to the Platonic and Chartrian traditions that feature prominently in the rest of the work. The impact of the theories discussed in this chapter on the overall analysis conducted in the rest of the book is not very clear: the idea that materiality is the common denominator of the three "Boethian" types of music is stated, but its implications are not fully fleshed out.

The final chapter aims to reconsider the interpretation of the music of the spheres as a figure of speech for the mathematical harmony that threads the universe together. The chapter shows how in the twelfth century the music of the spheres progressively lost its cosmological role to become a model for human behavior. This transformation took place in three ways. First, the music of the elements, which Plato and Calcidius took to be what harmonizes the world-body, was reduced to a metaphor. Similarly, the crucial cosmological and ontological role that the music of the world-soul had in Calcidius (as a manifestation of the world-soul's harmonization of the cosmos) and Macrobius (as the link connecting the divine and material realm) faded more and more into the background. Finally, the Carolingian astronomical interpretation of the music of the spheres as what describes, via precise musical structures, the planetary motions was turned into a model for human ethics (e.g., by Bernard Silvestris). The interesting outcome of these various transformations was that, once the Platonic view of the cosmos as a celestial harmony become just symbolic, the new image of the universe that resulted appeared rather Aristotelian - though the De Caelo was not yet widely disseminated in the Latin West. In other words, a transformation within the Platonic tradition turned a Platonic view of the cosmos into one that was surprisingly and intentionally Aristotelian. The postlude recaptures the results of the book and reaffirms the parallelism between twelfth-century theories of music harmony and contemporary developments in biosemiotics and critical theory.

Composing the World makes a distinct contribution to the scholarship in medieval studies; there is no other work on this topic that can compare in terms of depth, scope, and complexity. This book is likely to become an indispensable point of reference for the study of both medieval musical theory and the school of Chartres. The book displays great command of the rich and daunting scholarship on the topic and, especially in chapters four and five, offers persuasive, new solutions to longstanding exegetical issues.

One of the strengths of the book is its subtle and sophisticated examination how classical texts were reinterpreted in the twelfth century. However, although the book is accurate in documenting such processes, it is not very effective in highlighting their different steps. The book moves from one text to another and the overall thread that connects all of them is not clearly pointed out. The result is that the crucial features and implications of these exegeses end up being obfuscated by the details of the analyses of the texts.

Although this book is very learned and historically informed, it seems to lack, in part, historical perspective. The authors examined are hardly ever contextualized and the problem with this approach is that without any indication of the authors' broader philosophical frameworks and backgrounds their differences cannot be fully accounted. For example, the late antique Platonic thinkers examined in the book (Boethius, Calcidius, Macrobius, Martianus Capella) belong to rather diverse intellectual environments and different Platonic traditions with specific goals and agendas; failure to take these factors into due consideration limits our ability to understand these philosophers. Similarly, when the book examines different authors associated with the school of Chartres it does not point out that such thinkers represent various philosophical tendencies within that school – tendencies that impinge significantly on their ways of interpreting classical sources. The way in which medieval texts are examined also suffers, to some extent, from a lack of contextualization. The texts are interpreted by paying attention exclusively to their content; their literary genre is not taken into consideration. Yet, especially in the middle ages, the theory of an ancient thinker was examined in ways that varied significantly depending on whether the exegesis was developed in a treatise, commentary, gloss, etc.

Composing the World is not just a very well-researched and erudite book; its conclusions have broad implications for various fields: classics, musicology, medieval studies. However, the lack of a synthesis and a compelling analysis of conclusions reached in the different chapters end up underplaying the impact of the results of this work.

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