Music in Early Modern Culture between Sensibility and Abstraction
at Humboldt-University Berlin, 1.-3. December 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.