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Echoes of an Invisible World : Marsilio Ficino and Francesco Patrizi on Cosmic Order and Music Theory

By J.W. Prins


Music theory of almost all ages has relied on cosmology and philosophy of nature in its attempts to explain music. The understanding of what the universe is, however, is subject to cultural and historical differences. In exploring ways in which music philosophy has represented and employed the concept of cosmic order during the Italian Renaissance, this study asks some fundamental questions not only about cosmological ideas in music theory, but also about musico-philosophical ideas in cosmology. The Italian Renaissance philosophers Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597) still firmly believed that the universe was a stately, ordered harmonic organism. They were convinced that the smooth operation of the cosmos created a divine, eternal and perfect harmony which they sought to capture and express. Their philosophy provides compelling evidence of a world view in which earthly music was envisaged as a weak echo of the music of the spheres. Central in the Renaissance chapter of the harmonic universe was the fifteenth century revival of Pythagorean ideas on the cosmos as a musical creation, followed in the sixteenth century by the naturalization of music, which was accompanied by the decline of the tradition of the harmony of the spheres. Patrizi’s attempt, towards the end of the sixteenth century, to transfer music from the medieval quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, still present in Ficino’s philosophy, to the rhetorical arts of the trivium, divided music into its physical and metaphysical dimensions, and consequently deconstructed the doctrine of cosmic harmony. The music that remained in the science of the physical world became the science of acoustics. Moreover, from being a science based on number it became a science based on sound. The transfer of music from the traditional mathematical sciences to the rhetorical arts brought about a transformation in the tradition of the harmony of the spheres: celestial music was shifted into the realm of the human mind, in which numbers and musical proportions functioned as things conventional rather than natural. Instead of planetary motion, birdsong became an example for human song, because birds were envisaged as being able to express the harmonic laws of nature in the most pure way. This transformation brought along a transfer of the magic of the cosmos to the realm of human musicality and the human voice. In Patrizi’s music philosophy singing became a temporary means for re-enchanting the world, that is, for evoking the lost musical paradise of Ficino’s traditional view of the universe as a musical creation

Topics: Muziekwetenschap, Renaissance, Specialized histories (international relations, law), Literary theory, analysis and criticism, Culturele activiteiten, Overig maatschappelijk onderzoek, Marsilio Ficino, Francesco Patrizi, Italian Renaissance, cosmology, music philosophy, Timaeus
Publisher: Utrecht University
Year: 2009
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