In contradictory philosophy, Boethius influenced musical style
Friday is the feast day of St. Severinus — at least, that’s the name under which the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Rites canonized him in 1883. But history knows and celebrates him by another name: Boethius. The discrepancy oddly suits someone whose various efforts — literary, political, religious — orbited in sometimes contradictory ways; indeed, for a time, some scholars believed that the historical Boethius was two different people. A Roman aristocrat after Rome’s fall, a dutiful Christian entranced by secular philosophy, Boethius took refuge in a world of ideas — a retreat that, centuries later, indelibly influenced European musical style.
Born in 480, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius rose through the (by then mostly ceremonial) Roman political ranks until becoming senior administrator to the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. After Theodoric accused him of treachery, Boethius was imprisoned and killed (the probably political murder nonetheless entering him into the rolls of Christian martyrs). While awaiting execution, Boethius wrote his most famous work, the “Consolation of Philosophy,” a fanciful dialogue with a personified Philosophy, a rumination on knowledge, fortune, and purpose that condensed a lifetime of Platonic and Aristotelian study, and would anchor his posthumous reputation. Boethius’s prolific writings, having survived the Dark Ages, came to represent, to medieval Europe, the final flowering of ancient philosophy.
In music, especially, his influence was far-reaching — albeit murky. Through Boethius’s unfinished survey, “De institutione musica,” ancient ideas about music entered medieval discourse; most of the elements of European musical craft owe something to what medieval scholars read (or thought they read) in Boethius, and what Boethius read (or thought he read) in older sources. But for Boethius, music as we think of it was a byproduct of a far more expansive conception, a study of mathematical ratios and proportions (as in the “music of the spheres”), disciplining the mind toward higher metaphysical truths. Such speculation sat dissonantly alongside the practical music theory it spawned: sounding music, however intricate, could only ever approximate mathematically pure ideals. Debates over the perception of musical beauty hinged on principles originally designed to transcend the senses rather than gratify them.
Still, his fame was enduring. Not that Boethius could — or, maybe, would — have cared. In the “Consolation,” Philosophy dismisses literary immortality as an illusion in comparison with the attainment of eternal knowledge. “[T]here will always be ratio between finite things,” she notes, “but between the finite and the infinite there can never be any comparison.”