Is Music the Food of Love? You Better Believe It. Mark the Music!

‘The man that hath no music in himself … is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils’

‘Gregorian Chant’
‘Gregorian Chant’ (photo: Thoom / Shutterstock)

The opening words of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night are some of the most famous in literature. They are uttered by Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, a lovelorn young man, who is pining with the passion of unrequited love. Since this is so, should his words be taken seriously? Or should we see his coupling of “music” with “the food of love” as being a little excessive, or even absurd? Should we smile at the lovesick duke’s elevation of music to the level of the divine or even the eucharistic? The answer that we give to these questions will depend on what we mean by music. 

Surprisingly perhaps Shakespeare might have agreed with Orsino, who was expressing an understanding of music, wittingly or not, which was rooted in the way it had been understood throughout the history of western civilization. This understanding had been explicated in Boethius’ seminal book on music, De Musica, which was itself rooted in Greek philosophy, especially the teaching of Pythagoras and Plato, encapsulated in Plato’s dictum, which Boethius cites, that “the soul of the universe was composed according to a musical harmony.” This harmony is, therefore, ultimately divine, dwelling in the mind of the Maker and expressive of the intrinsic goodness, truth and beauty of the Godhead, which pours forth though Creation in the musica mundana, the music of the spheres (or the world), the inner harmony of the cosmos itself. In this sense, music is united with arithmetic or mathematics, following the rules of order and proportion. Boethius also speaks of the musica humana, the inner harmony of the human person, body and soul, as well as the musica instrumentalis, the physical manifestation of music in an audible sense.

De Musica would become the standard music theory textbook throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, as Boethius’ Consolatio would become a standard philosophical text. Boethius’ enduring influence is made manifest in the words of Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, written more than a thousand years later, in which Lorenzo’s words echo Boethius’ understanding of the musica mundana, the musica humana, and the musica instrumentalis, alluding to each in the order in which Boethius writes of them: 

 How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
 Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
 Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
 Become the touches of sweet harmony.
 Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
 Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
 There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
 But in his motion like an angel sings,
 Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
 Such harmony is in immortal souls;
 But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
 Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
 Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
 With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
 And draw her home with music …
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

As for the musica instrumentalis, it is indisputably Gregorian chant which has a place of prominence and preeminence in the history and culture of Christendom. According to the musicologist, music historian and StAR columnist Susan Treacy, “Gregorian chant is a totally humble art that also happens to be sublime prayer. There is no other reason for which it was composed than the praise of God.” It is also, she argues, “the foundation of all Western music.” 

Although it bears his name, it is unlikely that Gregory the Great was responsible for the birth of chant, which probably developed from chants used in the Early Church and, prior to that, in the Jewish Temple. It is, however, reasonably certain that he did much to encourage its use and popularize it, thereby having his name associated with it so inseparably. 

Gregorian chant is, of course, inseparable from the beauty of the liturgy which it exists to serve. “The preservation and development of … liturgical tradition was one of the main preoccupations of the Church in the dark age that followed the barbarian conquest,” wrote Christopher Dawson, “since it was in this way that the vitality and continuity of the inner life of Christendom which was the seed of the new order were preserved.” Putting the matter more bluntly, John Senior observed that “Christendom, what secularists call Western Civilization, is the Mass.” Specifically, and returning to Christopher Dawson, it was the Mass celebrated according to “the ancient and conservative Roman tradition, which from the time of St. Gregory the Great came to exercise a far-reaching normative influence on all the Western Churches.”

The Mass is itself the most beautiful musical masterpiece, a liturgical dance in which the one who made the inner harmony of the cosmos (the musica mundana) restores the inner harmony of the human person (the musica humana). Well might we sing songs of praise in plainchant or polyphony (the musica instrumentalis) in thanksgiving for such a gift of music. Is music the food of love? You better believe it. Mark the Music!