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Saturday morning quotes 5.10: Aesthetics – part I

July 25, 2015

Pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent. (Things are considered beautiful when their perception gives pleasure.)

– Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Summa Theologica

Aesthetic beauty is a term we frequently use to describe music and informed interpretive choices.  While aesthetic beauty is part and parcel of an artist’s training, its meaning is not so clear-cut when applied to something as temporally subjective as musical sound.  Musicians are typically left to their own devices to discover beauty in music, which really must be defined on an individual basis.  This is particularly true today, given that the world has been reduced to what may be seen on one’s phone and accessed with one’s thumbs: What was once described as objective beauty is now cynically considered trite.  But for those willing to put down their plastic screens for a moment, a quick peek at the past will at least lay the groundwork.

While the term “aesthetics” was first used by the 18th-century German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, the concepts were described much earlier. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas proposed three objective features that may describe a thing that is beautiful; integritas (perfect wholeness), proportio (proportion), and claritas (splendor), elements that Umberto Eco defines as “formal criteria” of the beautiful. St. Thomas described harmony or proportion as best realized in music, and is credited with having written the hymns and prayers of the Office for Corpus Christi, including Pange Lingua, from which is drawn the well-known Tantum Ergo :

“Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Eco’s “formal criteria” of the beautiful may be readily applied to the physical appearance of the lute, with its elegant proportions and design based on geometric principles.  But the same criteria may be found in the compositional structure of historical music as well as the form and meter of poetry.  Extending the conceptual framework, larger works such as Francesco Petrarca’s Rime sparse were conceived with an overarching formal structure in mind, as were his classical models including Horace’s Odes, and Virgil’s Eclogues.

This formal structural design is likewise found in collections of musical works, for example, John Dowland’s Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares figvred in Seaven Passionate Pauans (c. 1605).  When the music is broken into bits that are easily digestible as snack food by those with short attention spans, the formal structure that was designed with such care is undermined and rendered meaningless.

More to come.

  1. geoffgaherty permalink

    I’ve noticed a tendency recently of classical radio stations to play indivual movements of 18th and 19th century symphonies and concerti, ignoring the overall structure of the work. I guess that they are figuring what you describe: modern listeners with short attention spans can’t comprehend a piece of music lasting 40 or 50 minutes.

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