In this book Angelo Meriani has translated into Italian a series of lectures given by Andrew Barker to Salerno PhD students in 2002. Barker addresses here a particular aspect of Greek musical thought, concerning the relationship between music and the human soul and the ways music was supposed to affect and modify the features, not to say the very constitution, of the human soul. This is not a new field of investigation, of course, especially for those concerned with Pythagorean psychology or Platonic political theories; but Barker’s approach has its own elements of novelty, as I will show.
A glance at the general structure of the volume shows that Barker takes Plato’s writings as his starting point. There are four main sections, entitled respectively: “Musica e carattere nella Repubblica di Platone”, “La teoria musicale prima della Repubblica di Platone”, “Tra etica, psicologia e cosmologia: Aristotele e Platone”, and “Musica, terapia e cosmo: Teofrasto, Aristide Quintiliano, Claudio Tolemeo”. Each of the first three sections is divided into two chapters, the last one into three, so the whole volume consists of nine chapters. The eighth chapter also contains an exhaustive “Appendix” on Aristides Quintilianus’ musical terminology.
In the first part Barker deals with the Platonic idea of the “similarity”,
The second part follows the results of the first. Barker’s thesis is that pre-platonic materials and ideas are to be found in dialogues earlier than the Republic : in particular, the main character of Plato’s Laches seems to claim that there are various degrees of coherence between a man’s words and actions, as there are between two groups of musical sounds which are perfectly attuned per se, but do not necessarily correspond to each other. Thus, we do not have a strict opposition between coherence and incoherence, that is, metaphorically, between right and wrong attunements, but instead a wider range of possibilities, some of which are more acceptable than others. A sliding conception of both moral and musical values of this sort is very likely to belong to a sophistic milieu, which suggests that the sophist Damon of Oa may be the most important source not only for music theory as it is displayed in the Republic, but also for the musical passages in the Laches. But the conception of
In the third part the author moves from Plato to Aristotle, whose statements about musical ethics, as we read them in the Politics, are given a clear and subtle outline. Barker very opportunely lays a stress on the different conceptions of musical “imitation”,
While no hints are found in pre-Platonic medical tradition concerning the possibility that music has any healing powers, this idea is quite widespread in 2nd century AD sources, such as in Aristides Quintilianus’ De musica. In providing a characteristically clear exposition of Aristides’ way of healing both physical and psychical illnesses by “exposing” the patients to specific kinds of musical performances, Barker convincingly shows that several passages in Aristides are likely to derive from Theophrastus, one of Aristotle’s most important pupils and his successor. After an opportune exposition of Aristides’ ideas as to the human soul and how each soul “chooses” a particular kind of body and perceives various phenomena through a judging faculty called
In the last chapter, Barker discusses the epistemological fundaments of “psychomusicology” in Aristides and in Ptolemy’s Harmonica. He points out opportunely that neither the former nor the latter goes beyond generic and superficial analogies between the human soul and the patterns of musical scales. In Ptolemy’s treatise, for example, many complicated mathematical processes are described in order to divide the musical fourth (ratio 4:3), which provides various genera of tetrachords; but Ptolemy does not take any of them into account in the final part of the Harmonica, in which he explains the similarities between the musical intervals, the parts of the soul and the positions of zodiacal signs.
The volume is completed by an essential, up-to-date bibliography, and by a useful index of ancient sources and modern scholars cited. Although it discusses very specific subjects, some of which require at least a basic knowledge of Greek philosophy and music theory, this book makes pleasant reading and there are no more footnotes than is necessary. Italian readers can also appreciate the great accuracy of Angelo Meriani’s translation.
1. I would note here a few verses (vv. 843-851 passim) from Prudentius’ Apotheosis: adde et distinctum quem musica tibia flatum aut tumidum largo sublimat flamine bombum […] haec cum te videas mortali in corpore posse, cur non Aeternum potuisse infundere credas qualem animam voluit?. Of course I am not in the position to claim this is a direct reference to Aristides, but it’s difficult not to see in this passage by a much later Christian author, the persistence of the metaphor of God as an aulos -player.