"Perfect Harmony" and "melting strains". Music in Early Modern Culture between Sensibility and Abstraction

Event Date: 
01 Dec 2011 to 03 Dec 2011

In Early Modern culture, philosophers, musicians, theologians, and poets grappled with the ambivalent nature of music. Music was perceived as a phenomenon occupying an ambiguous position between mathematical abstraction and sensual experience. In the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, music was understood as euphonic mathematics replicating the perfection and beauty of a transcendent cosmic order. At the same time, the emotive and physiological effects of actual musical experience proved it to be a sensuous phenomenon of insistent immediacy and affective power.

The Classical concept of cosmic order and universal harmony based on the ratios and proportions of musical intervals was still prominent in Early Modern thought. Mediated through Boethius, the idea appeared in poetic texts as the trope of the music of the spheres; philosophical texts, such as the first edition of Newton’s Principia mathematica (1687), often employed “musical” terminology.

The immediate physiological and psychological effects of music on the listener, meanwhile, were no less important in the Early Modern discourse on music. Contemporaneous natural philosophical and literary texts, as well as treatises on musical composition tried to come to terms with and gauge the affective power of music. Texts concerned with the theory of composition – musica poetica – relied on classical rhetoric in their endeavours to describe and prescribe the expressive and affective potential of musical figures.

The affective power of music, mediated through these figures, was important also in matters of practical divinity, especially in the debate about church music and its liturgical function. St. Augustin, for example, had already expressed his suspicions concerning the power of music over the body and criticism of the use of music in devotional ritual. These controversial issues were of renewed interest in the Early Modern situation of denominational strife and changed musical practices. The polyphony of choral works as well as instrumental music no longer reliant on a textual basis stood side by side with the unisonous, jubilant singing of the psalms of the Old Testament.

In all these contexts, the affective potential of music was marked as highly ambivalent, illustrating the precarious human position in the cosmos – man’s bodily connection to the sensually material world and the immaterially spiritual connection with higher reality and the Divine. On the one hand, music was attributed an uplifting effect: music offered spiritual and intellectual edification or promised religious ecstasy. On the other hand, music appeared as a sensual power speaking to man’s baser bodily nature, dangerously undermining the desired rational control of the passions.

The conference “Perfect Harmony“ and “melting strains“ focuses on conceptualisations of music in Early Modern scientific, philosophical, theological, and literary discourse. It investigates the explanatory potential of these conceptualisations in the debate over natural philosophical questions in a time when ideas of universal harmony were being challenged by concepts of atomic chance and chaos.

We will also explore the debates in the new sciences, the arts, and theology concerning the intellectual and affective potential of music and the ways in which ideas about music and its affective power were utilized in theological, medical, and poetological contexts for moral and didactic purposes. In addition, the conference will focus on the philosophical, literary, and musical textualisations and dramatisations of the ideas about music and its nature as an emotionally effective sensual and aesthetic experience. These issues acquire a specific poignancy in the Early Modern context, as it is an era during which ancient musicological texts were being rediscovered and new musical genres such as the opera were being invented with reference to Classical dramatic forms.

From these general considerations follow a number of possible questions:

  • What modifications of traditional theorems can be traced in the Early Modern process of rediscovering ancient musicological texts?
  • What meaning did these transformations acquire in the discourse on music in the Early Modern sciences, philosophy, and arts?
  • What purposes do musical models serve in medical and scientific thinking?
  • How did the concept of universal harmony change in the context of emerging empiricism on the one hand, and Epicurean ideas of the world as a product of atomistic chance on the other?
  • What were the alterations in the perception of music as a physical phenomenon and in the explanations of its physiological and psychological effects in contemporaneous natural philosophical debates?
  • What configurations of seemingly antagonistic positions such as Early Modern Platonism and Epicureanism, or prevalent hermetic trends, can be observed in the discourse on music?
  • How did contemporaneous poetic texts stage and textualise concepts of music as well as musical experience?
  • How did scientific, philosophical, and poetic language render perceptible the tension between aisthesis and transcendence?
  • Which rhetorical means were employed in philosophical and literary texts to describe musical phenomena – the sound, the musicians, or the effects of music on the listener?
  • What purposes did these musicalisations and their tropes serve with regard to the social, political, scientific, and poetological questions negotiated in these texts?

We look forward to receiving proposals on aspects of the topics sketched above from the perspective of a wide range of disciplines such as philosophy, the history of science, theology, literary and cultural studies and musicology. We particularly welcome proposals focusing on the Classical conceptions of music and its transformations from an Early Modern point of view.

Papers should be given either in English or German. Papers should be no longer than 30 minutes. If you are interested in presenting a paper, please submit a 150 word abstract to Cornelia Wilde (cornelia.wilde@staff.hu-berlin.de) before 15th September 2010.