The Mythical Powers of Music in the Age of the ‘Scientific Revolution’

Writers about music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drew extensively on classical mythology to exemplify its powerful effects and importance to society. With little in the way of musical exemplars from classical antiquity to inspire Renaissance musicians as the literary and architectural remains of Antiquity might, the reputation of Greek music was founded was instead on its theoretical or philosophical texts, and myths of music’s wondrous powers. It was these myths were most accessible and evocative in shaping conceptions of music. Jacob_Hoefnagel_-_Orpheus_Charming_the_Animals_-_Google_Art_Project (1).jpgThe most famous figures were Orpheus, Amphion and Arion who were fabled to have tamed wild beasts and dolphins or caused trees and stones to move with their music. These stories provided themes for song and spectacle – for example the numerous Orpheus plots in early opera. Yet did early modern people really believe about these tales? Did they truly believe in an Orpheus whose music had literally tamed wild beasts and gained him entry to the underworld, or that Amphion’s music had built the walls of Thebes?

Writers often do appear to take these myths at face value. Matthew Gwinne’s inaugural speech as lecturer in music at Oxford University in 1582 is typical, if not entirely accurate in attributing the myths to the right musicians:

Such is [music’s] sweetness that it moved a fish, bestial by nature, dull of sensation and all but deaf, to bear a man riding on its back over the bounding main; that it could move rocks and trees when Orpheus sang, rivers and beasts when did Amphion.

Yet beyond such rhetorical usage, authors were generally aware that these stories were fables, the feigning of poets, which required special treatment.The question should perhaps not be did they believe, but what did they believe. Certainly they held such stories as benchmarks against which the efficacy of modern music was judged and often found wanting. Yet they also referred to them as the feigning of poets and could be uneasy of their pagan origins. What were the consequences of this belief (or lack of it) for perspectives on the powers of music? And how did such beliefs fare as the so-called scientific revolution took hold during the seventeenth century with its emphasis on generating understanding not from ancient wisdom but rather from observation, experience and experiment?

Interpreting the truths thought to lie behind myths was far from straightforward. Following classical approaches, authors might interpret the mythical figures as either historical—turning the stories into benchmarks against which the efficacy of modern music was judged—or as merely allegorical—providing moral and philosophical justifications for music. Indeed it was not uncommon to blend both approaches. Here’s John Playford’s interpretation in the 1664 edition of his Brief Introduction to the Skill of Music:

Great Disputes were among Ethnick Authors about the first Inventor, some for Orpheus, some Lynus, both famous Poets and Musicians; others for Amphion, whose Music drew Stones to the building of the Walls of Thebes; as Orpheus had by the harmonious touch of his Harp, moved the Wild Beasts and Trees to Dance:…the true meaning thereof is, that by virtue of their Music, and their wise and pleasing Musical Poems, the one brought the Savage and Beast-like Thracians to Humanity and Gentleness; the other persuaded the rude and careless Thebans to the fortifying of their City, and to a civil conversation

Here Playford treated Orpheus and Amphion as the historical inventors of music, but portrayed their musical exploits as allegories of their achievements as the founders of civilizations.

Moreover, in the seventeenth century the authority and status of classical mythology began to change, with consequences for the fabled powers of music. Whereas for medieval and Renaissance scholars referencing mythological stories or classical authorities was sufficient to prove one’s argument, within the new empirical philosophy authority for one’s arguments was to be drawn from observation or experiment. Ancient wisdom underwent a profound shift in status, no longer being regarded as infallible doctrine but rather as opinions and observations to be tested. Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646) was symptomatic of this changing approach to knowledge. He argued that a ‘peremptory adhesion unto Authority’ was the ‘the mortalist enemy unto knowledge’ and saw the tendency to regarded the most ancient times as those nearest to the truth as a delusion. Turning to mythology specifically, he condemns the ‘mendacity of Greece’ which has been ‘poisoning the world ever after’. Pointing out that the Greeks themselves regarded a considerable part of Ancient times to be ‘made up or stuffed out with fables’, Browne cited the sixth-century (BC) Greek Palaephatus who had attempted to rationalise Orpheus’s supposed power over trees. Palaephatus interpreted a less miraculous event behind the story, in which Orpheus had calmed the rage of the Bacchides, who then came down from the mountain bearing branches, thus appearing from a distance like a walking wood. Music retains its power over human affections, but is stripped of its effects on inanimate things, thus making it more credible. For Browne this was the way in which all mythology needed to be re-evaluated.

Increasing attempts to provide rationalized interpretations for the astonishing mythical powers of music transformed them from wondrous marvels into everyday phenomena. Moreover Orpheus, who had been regarded as a musical founder of civilization, could now be likened to a common ballad seller or fiddler. In 1592 John Dennis published ‘The Story of Orpheus Burlesqu’d’ in which Orpheus is a mere ballad singer, who charms the mob to leave their work and spouses, and the rustic mob is likened in nature to beasts and stones from the myth. While Dennis’s aim is comic, the same imagery begins to appear in more serious genres too. Fellow of the Royal Society, John Wallis, for example, believed that the mythical stories of music’s power were ‘highly hyperbolical, and next door to fabulous’ and argued that in mythical times music was comparatively rare and that the ‘rustics’ on whom music was said to have its effects, would not have heard the like before. Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_Jig.jpgMoreover he draws comparison with fiddlers and bagpipers of his own era who could make the country people dance and skip. The tales of music moving beasts, stones and trees were surely nothing more than what was seen daily in country towns when boys, girls and country people run after bagpiper or fiddler? He regarded the myths as having gradually emerged from the exaggerated re-telling of such ordinary occurrences.

The result of this changing attitude to myth was that expectations regarding the powerful effects of music declined and both the ethical justifications for music and the long-held aim of moving the passions came into question. If moving the passions was what any common fiddler or bagpiper could do, then it was not such a worthy aim for those aiming at the height of musical art. Whereas Orpheus had represented the civilising power of the highest musical artifice, he was now was allied with the ill-trained, common minstrel satisfying the passions of ill-educated, rural crowds. For Wallis it was the modern, contrapuntal composer who assumed the role of master of musical harmony for the appreciation of sophisticated listeners with the ability to ‘discern and distinguish the just Proportions’. This ultimately allowed new ways of thinking about music to emerge, valuing it less for its utility and sensuality than for its intellectual pleasures—ideas that would come to underpin the development of notions of fine art and aesthetics in the eighteenth century.

You can read more about the changing attitudes towards mythical tales of music’s powers during the intellectual changes of the seventeenth century in my recently published article in Music and Letters.