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Anicius Manlius Severinus BOETHIUS (c.477-524 A.D) Songs of Consolation – Metra from 11th-century Canterbury
rec. Topaz Audio Studios, Cologne, 2017
Latin texts and English translation provided. GLOSSA GCD922518 [51:05]
His name may not be one that crops up with any frequency in most universities or conservatoires nowadays, but Boethius was a very important figure, to whom lovers of music, students of philosophy or theology owe a good deal. He was a great scholar, but also a man very active in public life. He was born shortly after the Roman Empire came to an end, and as an adult he entered the service of Theoderic the Great, one of the Ostrogothic kings of Italy. Boethius served as a senator and a consul, and in 522 he was made magister officiorum, in effect the administrative head of the court and government. But in the very next year he fell from office. In circumstances too complex to explain here, he was accused (somewhat absurdly) of treason, and imprisoned – and tortured – in Pavia, where he was eventually executed.
As a scholar, Boethius, who had studied in Athens in his youth, had a considerable knowledge of Greek philosophy and prepared Latin versions of key works by Aristotle, as well as Latin commentaries on Aristotle. Indeed, he was of major importance in the transmission of ancient thought to ensuing centuries. A convinced Christian, he also wrote a number of significant theological treatises (for a good survey of his work, see Henry Chadwick, The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy, 1981). Two other works are particularly relevant here. One is his De Institutione Musica, written early in the sixth century, in which, in addition to many original ideas, he re-presented Pythagorean (and to some degree Orphic) ideas. It circulated widely in manuscript, before being printed in Venice in 1491/2; it influenced significant musical theorists such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-90).
Boethius’ most famous work, however, was De Consolatione Philosophia (the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’) written in the last two years of his life, during his imprisonment under the shadow of execution. It takes the form of an imaginary prose dialogue between Boethius and a female personification of Philosophy, who convinces him that, for all the injustice of his treatment, there is a higher Providence in which trust can, and should, be placed; that all that is enduringly valuable belongs to the realm of the spirit and the mind, not to that of worldly power, reputation or wealth. Interspersed in this prose dialogue are a number of poems, some representing the thoughts of Boethius, some the utterances of Lady Philosophy.
De Consolatione Philosophia must have circulated very widely, to judge by the large number of manuscript copies surviving in modern libraries. The first printed copies appeared in the Fifteenth Century. A measure of its fame can be caught in the fact that English versions were made by, amongst many others, King Alfred, Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I. Early in De Consolatione Philosophia, Philosophy describes music as her “hand maid”. In De Institutione Musica Boethius had made a tripartite division of music which was drawn on extensively by later writers; there was musica mundana (the music of the world and heavens, the Harmony of the Spheres etc,), musicahumana (the harmony of the human body and soul, and of human emotions) and musicainstrumenta (music as actually performed). As such music is seen as a kind of unifying principle of both macrocosm and microcosm, as well as an ‘art’.
This present CD furthers knowledge of Boethius. It has long been assumed that there must have been musical settings of the poems from The Consolation of Philosophy, since texts in various manuscripts contain neumes added to the words of some of the poems; but, of course, they alone, since they do not specify actual pitches, but only make clear the ‘shape’ of the intended melodies, are not enough to make modern performances possible. In recent years, research led by Sam Barrett, of Pembroke College Cambridge, has identified “song models that lie behind the neumatic notations. It has been shown that medieval musicians associated certain metres used in the Consolation of Philosophy with contemporaneous song styles and then applied characteristic melodic patterns from these repertoires to Boethius’ poetry. Scholarly detective work enabled much melodic information to be recovered about individual songs, but the final leap into sound required a second step. Collaboration with the singers of Sequentia enabled practical experimentation and the opportunity to draw on a working knowledge of early medieval song repertories, derived from decades of reconstruction, oral memorization and performance. Proceeding through dialogue, it proved possible to arrive at realisations informed by both scholarly insight and practical experience”. [This is quoted from the booklet essay by Sam Barrett]. More than one of the manuscripts of importance to this project derives from Canterbury in the Eleventh Century – hence this disc’s subtitle.
Barrett’s essay, like that by Benjamin Bagby which accompanies it in the CD booklet, provides much useful information. I found it rewarding to listen to the disc alongside a rereading of the Consolation of Philosophy, pausing in my reading to listen to the recording of each song as I reached it in the text. There are plenty of English translations of Boethius’ masterpiece, all of which would serve for this purpose. The best English translations of the poems known to me are those by James Harpur in his book Fortune’s Prisoner: The Poems of Boethius’s ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ (Anvil Press, 2007). I would quote from it – if only I could find my copy! Scholarship has established musical materials for only some of the poems in the Consolation. But what we hear on this disc works almost as a kind of song-cycle, tracing an arc from Boethius’ initial despair at his fall and suffering, at the beginning of the book, though to some of the comfort offered by Philosophy in Book IV (of the work’s five Books).
We move from (being unable to find my copy of James Harpur’s translation of the poems, I quote from the booklet’s translations by Peter Dronke – a great scholar, but not really a poet) Boethius’ opening complaint:
I who once composed songs fresh in their eagerness,
weeping alas, am forced towards mournful melodies
to some of Philosophy’s words of counsel:
If you want to give an apt repayment for deserts,
love the good as is right and pity the evil.
Musically the CD is splendidly satisfying. Benjamin Bagby sounds every bit the philosopher, whether in the all too human plaints of the opening songs or in the strong-minded clarity of thought, and associated dignity, which gradually emerge. I am not quite sure what kind of singing voice Lady philosophy might be expected to have, but Hanna Marti certainly sings with both authority and subtlety. My one slight musical quibble is that the playing of flautist Norbert Rodenkirchen occasionally sounds just a little too ‘modern’, even if very beautiful. The recorded sound is all that one could wish for, the booklet documentation is excellent and the whole is genuinely revelatory, in its restoration of what we had lost, and profound in the resonances it adds to one of the great European classics.
1.Carmina qui quondam (1,i) [6:54]
2.Heu, quam praecipiti (1,2) [6:08]
3.Tunc me discussa (1,3) [2:27]
4.Quisquis composito (1,4) [2:09]
5.O stelliferi (1,5) [8:11]
6.Cum Phoebi radiis (1,6) [3:04]
7.Nubibus atris (1,7) [3:32]
8.Stans a longe (instrumental interlude) [3:41]
9.Si quantas rapidis (2,2) [2:48]
10.Tuba (instrumental interlude) [3:12]
11.Bella bis quinis (4,7) [3:57]
12 Vaga (instrumental interlude) [3:57]
13 Quid tantos iuvat (4:4) [1:50]