A Sixteenth-Century Warning to Students of Music

Why do serious students of music often go mad?’

This is the question posed by Elizabethan academic, John Case, in his Apologia Musices tam Vocalis Quam Instrumentalis et Mixtae (1558). (quotations are from Dana Sutton‘s online translation and edition)Medieval-university

One wonders if Case was speaking from experience: he had been a chorister at New College and Christ Church before becoming a scholar and then a Fellow at St John’s college (all in Oxford). He continued to teach for St John’s even after resigning his fellowship in order to marry. Among his colleagues at St John’s was Matthew Gwinne who was appointed to read lectures in music in 1582 (though he was allowed to discontinue these on the grounds that music ‘if not useless is little practised’ (Carpenter, p.156)). Case also practised medicine, although he did not yet have his medical degree by this date. His response to the question of musical study and madness merges his musical and medical knowledge.

Case’s attempt to answer this question raises the problematic distinction between the effect of hearing or playing music and that of studying of music: ‘Music which delights the mind is one thing, but the study of music, which exhausts and consumes the spirits, is quite another’. Interestingly, this contrast between music as studied and music as practised and experienced still troubles musicologists today, as in Carolyn Abbate’s ‘Music-Drastic or Gnostic?’ (2004), which contrasts the immediate experience of performing music with the reflective and analytical position generally taken in musicological writing.

Yet what Case regards as the study of music is different from what we would recognise today. In the sixteenth century, music in the university formed part of the Quadrivium where it was studied alongside Geometry, Arithmetic and Astronomy. Music was not a practical subject but a theoretical one concerned with harmony and proportions, with Boethius’ De institutione musica (6th century) as the main text. Music was therefore ‘a mathematical science which is exclusively concerned with abstract forms and ideas’ and it is this which Case sees as making the study of music difficult.

Case also comments on the study of composition. This was not a standard topic of study within the Quadrivium, but from the late-fifteenth century procedures had evolved at Oxford for recognising composers as Bachelors or Doctors of Music on the basis of their previous study and the submission of a composition (examples of composer’s achieving degrees include Dr Robert Fayrfax, Dr Christopher Tye, John Dowland and Thomas Morley). Case would also have known composers among the singing men employed in the college chapels. For Case composition also has the potential to cause madness as ‘the songs of many singers seem to be resounding like a perpetual chorus in composers’ brains.’ The image is of a composer absorbed within his musical environment and accumulating an encyclopedic knowledge of melodies heard, studied and created. It is not only the difficulty of musical mathematics but these tunes buzzing round a composer’s head that can cause this madness.

Case ends by declaring that ‘the energetic study and contemplation of music is harmful, since it shatters and enervates the instruments of the mind and wit’. This assertion is all the more striking as music was usually considered beneficial to health. Within the Apologia Musices, Case describes music as enabling David to restrain the mad Saul with his harp (a Biblical story – 1 Samuel 16:23) and Ismenias the Theban to cure gravely sick men, aiding digestion, and being a remedy for madness, frenzies, snake-bites. This is explained through the sensation of the motions of the air caused by music, which in turn moves the animal spirits ‘which are the vehicles of the mind, and sways, strikes and inspires the mind itself with various affections in keeping with its modulation’. As diseases were most commonly conceived as imbalances of the humours which caused the affections, music’s ability to move the affections was seen as synonymous with its ability to cure disease.

Case also cites the common belief that music was could revive the spirits after hard labour, or in this case hard study, explaining music’s curative powers this time in terms of mathematics and the notion that the human mind, body and soul were susceptible to music because they were themselves a harmony: ‘in music (which consists of numbers) there is a certain power that refreshes the mind (which is called the numbering number or the first principle of numbering’. (Case refers to the idea that there were different states of numbers the numbered number of created things and the numbering number of God and the human soul which discern the properties of thing, just as there were different states of music – heavenly music, music of the human soul and body, and audible music). Yet while listening to music can refresh the mind, ‘the excessively intense study of music entails labour and effort’ so that ‘the mind’s keenness grows most blunt, and hence the over-arduous students of music lose their minds.’

For Case, the study of music was opposite to the benefits of music as heard and performed in their effects on the body. Written in Latin and published in Oxford, Case’s Apologia Musices was probably aimed at an academic audience, and perhaps it still holds a lesson for the modern students of music as a reminder of both the gap between reading or writing about music and experiencing music aurally, and the importance of knowing when to put down the books and turn on the music.

Case, John, Apologia Musices tam Vocalis Quam Instrumentalis et Mixtae (1588), trans. by Dana F. Sutton (2003) <www.philological.bham.ac.uk/music/> [accessed 10 Dec 2012]

Abbate, Carolyn, ‘Music: Drastic or Gnostic?’, Critical Inquiry 30 (2004), 505-536
Bray, Roger, ‘Music and the Quadrivium in Early Tudor England.’ Music & Letters 76 (1995): 1-18.
Carpenter, Nan Cooke, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958).
Malone, Edward A., ‘Case, John (1540/41?–1600)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 <www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4853> [accessed 6 Dec 2012]


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