Music as Divine Order

A statutory requirement for the solemn singing of psalms in the election of Queens’ earliest presidents attests to the profound importance of music to the medieval mind. With the assimilation of Greek ideas on music into the teachings of St Augustine (AD 354–430) and other Church Fathers, the perfection of cosmic harmony became synonymous with the work of God. It was in this context that medieval chant (as used in psalms) was believed to make perceivable the reality of God’s existence. As the supposed inspiration of God himself, the vast repertory of chants attributed to St Gregory had been ordered into distinct ‘modes’ so as to enable medieval musicians to memorise and notate them. To facilitate this, theorists had appropriated ancient Greek music theory as a means to codify music in terms of intervals derived from Pythagorean ratios. The Platonic notion that the sensuous beauty of music could be reduced to its abstract numerical essences emphasised music’s status as the embodiment of divine order. The currency of such thinking in medieval and Renaissance Queens’ is evident in the existence here of early editions of key works through which the ancient learning had been transmitted, the most influential being De institutione musica by Boethius (AD 477–524). From the middle ages until the late sixteenth century his abstract mathematical conception of music had become an essential component of the liberal arts curriculum as taught in universities across Europe. After the Chair of Mathematics was first instituted in Cambridge in around 1500, the teaching of music was undertaken by mathematics professors, the first known being Roger Collingwood of Queens’.

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