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Saturday morning quotes 6.11: Judgement

July 30, 2016

Old Queen LizAs much as one would like to remain immersed in music and literature of the past and ignore the news of the moment, the world is literally being bombarded with hyperbole about the historic occasion of a rather mature woman dressed in white being nominated for president of the US. Yes, we all know that the US is behind the rest of the developed world in many respects that have to do with equality, justice, stewardship and humanitarian issues.  But there are today and historically have been many exemplary women in leadership roles—and some of them even possessed the character, wisdom and judgement that can only be developed through a deliberate and balanced education in the skill of music.

Queen Elizabeth I for example.  As we mentioned in one of our earliest posts, Elizabeth received a balanced education in the liberal arts taught by a tutor possessing enlightened views on the education of women.

…[H]e shall commend the perfect understanding of music, declaring how necessary it is for the better attaining the knowledge of a public weal, which as I before said, is made of an order of estates and degrees, and by reason thereof containeth in it a perfect harmony: which he shall afterward more perfectly understand, when he shall happen to read the books of Plato and Aristotle of public weals: wherein be written diverse examples of music and geometry.  In this form may a wise and circumspect tutor adapt the pleasant science of music to a necessary and laudable purpose.

– Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546)  The Boke named the Governour (1531)

Our quotations are drawn from the article by Katherine Butler, “By Instruments her Powers Appeare: Music and Authority in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I”, Renaissance Quarterly 65 (2012): 353-84.

“Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) had a reputation as a musical monarch.  She played the virginals, the lute, and similar plucked string instruments; she sang, danced, and on one occasion claimed to have composed dance music.  Yet while a musical education was typical for women of royal and noble birth, Elizabeth’s unusual position as a ruling queen allowed her music-making to develop a political role as part of her royal image.”

– Butler, p. 353

That’s right.  A woman who managed to reign for 45 years played the lute and used her skill in music as a subtle political tool.  We can only surmise what sort of high-level discourse goes on behind closed doors today.  But as we know from the famous Holbein painting, The Ambassadors, in Elizabeth’s time, it sometimes involved the heightened symbolism of music and of the lute.

“Performing on the lute was itself a means to fashion private space.  Lute performances were not public spectacles, but took place in private contexts, while the lyrics of lute songs were introspective and often enacted seemingly personal confessions, especially of melancholy or love.”

– Butler, p. 364

The implication is that the medium of intimate music fostered honesty and the better sort of human qualities in the context of important political negotiations.  But Elizabeth was operating in a man’s world, and found it necessary to employ her deep understanding of music as symbolic of intelligence, refinement and judgement.

“Portraits of mature men communicated experience, wisdom, and power, while those of aging women were positive only when showing a mother with her children.  Otherwise, old women were associated with sin, vice, decay, and even witchcraft, as opposed to the virtuous Virgin Mary, who was always depicted as young.  The atmosphere of love and attraction that Bacon suggested was an important aspect of Elizabeth’s style of government, relied on her remaining desirable. The reality of aging had to be disguised by pretence, and Elizabeth’s music-making played a part in this.”

“However, images of Elizabeth in her role as musical patroness moved away from the purely sensual, with its implications of frivolity and wantoness, and developed music’s potential connotations of intelligence, refinement, rationality, and harmony of mind.  When court musicians William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) and Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-85) dedicated their 1575 Cantiones Sacrae to Elizabeth, they praised “the refinement of [her] voice or the nimbleness of [her] fingers,” but they also claimed that her practical skill made her able to judge their work.”

– Butler, p. 366

Of course Byrd and Tallis were engaged in fawning sales talk, and we must avoid using such words to define historical fact.  But the idea of music as symbolic of intelligence and refinement is well-taken.

“Furthermore, musical judgment was more highly esteemed than practical skill in music because it involved reason and intellect.  In his De Institutione Musica, Boethius distinguished performers (with physical skill but little understanding of music) and composers (who compose song by natural instinct) from those with the ability to judge music, of whom he wrote: “This class is rightly reckoned as musical because it relies entirely upon reason and speculation.  And that person is a musician who possesses the faculty of judging.”  Tallis and Byrd therefore associated Elizabeth with the highest form of musicianship, where music is no longer merely sensual but responded to rationally and intellectually.”

– Butler, p. 366

To contextualize the translated words of Boethius, he assumed that judgement was the result of deep understanding gained through diligent study. There is a vast difference between refined judgement graciously expressed and based upon personal skill and deep understanding, and today’s unfortunate culture of unformed opinion based only upon overblown ego and easy access to media in which to express the same.  And by “class”, Boethius was not referring to a caste system, but rather to the equivalent of “sort” or “category”.

In a nutshell, a balanced education in the traditional liberal arts prepares the intellect for critical thinking and the moral temperament essential to developing the judgment necessary to make decisions for the greater good.  Music was defined as a science among the Seven Liberal Arts.  Training in music helps develop judgement by blending science with art, enabling the person to understand just how beauty and proportion can be tempered by reason and hard facts in order to arrive at thoughtful decisions.  This is opposed to the current system that for baffling reasons seems to honor an apparent success based upon deception, dishonesty, deflection and dirty tricks.  Could it be that the missing ingredient is an education in music?



One Comment
  1. I agree. Being a musician in Boethius’ sense would, by the way, also serve those people themselves. Introducing some humility and modesty into their lives, realizing that they are merely playing a role in a superior whole, would unburden their oversize egos and spare them and their audiences the ridiculously exaggerated show. Pretending to be oneself or even being one’s own caricature instead of being authentic can be a pretty energy-sapping job.

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