The Pythagorean and Chinese
Approaches to Music
In the Life of Pythagoras
Thomas Taylor quotes from lamblichus, a neo-Platonist and theurgist, who gave a vivid picture of Pythagoras's musical activities at Crotona:
Conceiving however that the first attention which should be paid to men is that which takes place through the senses, as when someone perceives beautiful figures and forms or hears beautiful rhythms and melodies, he established that to be the first erudition which subsists through music, and also through certain melodies and rhythms, from which the remedies of human manners and passions are obtained, together with those harmonies of the powers of the soul which it possessed from the first . . . For Pythagoras was of the opinion that music contributed greatly to health, if it was used in an appropriate manner. He was accustomed to employ a purification of this kind, but not in a careless way. And he called the medicine which is obtained through music by the name of purification. He likewise devised medicines calculated to repress and expel the diseases both of bodies and of souls . . .
[He] arranged and adapted for his disciples what are called apparatus and contrectations, divinely contriving mixtures of certain diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic melodies, through which he easily transferred and circularly led the passions of the soul into a contrary direction when they had recently and in an irrational and clandestine manner been formed; such as sorrow, rage, pity, appetites, pride, supineness and vehemence. For he corrected each of these by the rule of virtue, tempering them through appropriate melodies, as through certain salutary medicines.
In the evening, likewise, when his disciples were retiring to sleep, he liberated them by certain odes and peculiar songs from diurnal perturbations and tumults, and purified their intellective power from the influxive and effluxive waves of a corporeal nature, rendered their sleep quiet, and their dreams pleasing and prophetic. But when they again rose from their beds he freed them from nocturnal heaviness, relaxation and torpor, through certain peculiar songs and modulations produced either by simply striking the lyre or employing the voice.
Pythagoras, however, did not procure for himself a thing of this kind through instruments or the voice, but, employing a certain ineffable divinity which it is difficult to apprehend, he extended his ears and fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres and the stars that are moved through them and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds. This melody also was the result of dissimilar and variously differing sounds, celerities, magnitudes and intervals arranged with reference to each other in a certain most musical ratio, and thus producing a most gentle and at the same time variously beautiful motion and convolution. Being therefore irrigated, as it were, with this melody, having the reason of his intellect well arranged through it and, as I may say, exercised, he determined to exhibit certain images of these things to his disciples as much as possible, especially producing an imitation of them through instruments and through the mere voice alone.
Sometimes also, by musical sounds alone, unaccompanied with words, they [the Pythagoreans] healed the passions of the soul and certain diseases, enchanting, as they say, in reality. And it is probable that from hence this name epode, i.e., enchantment, came to be generally used.
The therapeutic and morally transforming character of music was stressed not only in Greek music, but in China, where the study of music was featured in the training of scholars and future rulers, as the same principles of organization were believed to control music, the sky (the motion of stars and planets), the biological functions of the body, and the ordered relationships between the different levels and offices of "the state" (that is, of the integrated socio-political organism).
The following quotations are taken from a French translation of The Historical Memoirs of Su-Ma-Tsien
(or Chou Ma Tchien) who flourished about 100 B.C. The Memoirs
contains a long section devoted to music, others to the great rites, the calendar, astrology, and historical events. Yet strangely the work is hardly ever mentioned in more recent books on Chinese music. The quotations are from the French translation of the sinologist Edouard Chavannes. I am responsible for the English translation.
Correct teachings find all their principles in musical tones. When the tones are correct, men's conduct is correct. Sounds and music are what agitates and stirs arteries and veins; what circulates through the life-essences and gives to the heart harmony and rectitude. Thus the note kong moves the spleen and brings man in harmony with perfect holiness; the note chang moves the lungs and brings man in harmony with perfect justice; the note kio moves the liver and brings man in harmony with perfect goodness; the note tche moves the heart and brings man in harmony with perfect rites; the note yu moves the kidneys and brings man in harmony with perfect wisdom.
Music is therefore that which, within, sustains the perfected heart; that which, without, establishes distinctions between the noble and the vile. Above, it is used in the ancestral temple for the sacrifices; below, it is used towards the regeneration of the people.
All tones have their origin in the heart of man; the emotions of the human heart are the generative causes of these tones. When the heart affected by objective realities is moved, it gives a form to its emotions by means of sounds. Sounds answering the ones to the others, produce variations [for magnetic changes?]; when the variations have been produced, that is precisely what we call musical tones. By harmonizing the tones so as to perform them [on musical instruments] and by adding to them shields and axes, feathers and ox-tails [all ritualistic attributes to dancing] one obtains what is called Music.
Music was born from tones. Its source rests within the human heart while it is being moved by objective realities. Thus where the heart experiences an emotion of sadness, the sound it emits is contracted and soon loses its intensity; when the heart experiences an emotion of pleasure, the sound it emits is easy and flaccid; when the heart experiences an emotion of joy, the sound it emits is high and freely released; if the heart experiences an emotion of anger, the sound it emits is harsh and violent; if the heart experiences an emotion of respect, the sound it emits is open and modest; if the heart experiences an emotion of love, the sound it emits is harmonious and soft. Those six manifestations are not mere natural functions of the heart; it is only after having been affected by objective realities that the heart is moved. Wherefore, the ancient kings watched over the objective causes of the heart's affections.
Thus rites were used to guide the will of man; music to harmonize the sounds he emits; laws to unify his actions; chastisements to prevent his perversity. Rites, music, chastisements and laws have one and the same aim. By them the hearts of the people become as one; in them originates the method of right government.
All tones are born from the heart of man. Sentiment being stirred within manifests without as sound; when the sounds have become beautiful, they become musical tones. Therefore, the tones of a well-governed period are peaceful and joyful and the government is based on harmony. The tones of a troubled epoch are full of hatred and irritation, and the government is opposed to reason. The tones of a kingdom falling into ruins are sad and anxious, and the people mournful. Sounds and musical tones are in conformity with the government.
Music is related to classes and attributions. Thus those who perceive sounds, but ignore musical notes, are animals. He who perceives musical notes but does not understand music is an ordinary man. The Sage alone can understand music.
Therefore, one studies sounds in order to understand musical notes; one studies notes in order to understand music; one studies music in order to understand government; thus is acquired the method of right leadership. As a result, it is impossible to explain the notes to him who does not understand the notes; but he who understands music is near to the correct perception of the rites. Once rites and music are fully known and realized, virtue is possessed; virtue being the full realization of all things.
This indicates why the noblest music is not composed of exquisite tones; the rite of food-offering to the ancestors does not allow exquisite savours. When the ancient kings made their ordinances concerning rites and music, they did not seek to satisfy to the utmost the cravings of mouth and belly, of ears and eyes; they wished to teach the people to be just in their loves and hatreds, and to bring them back to the straight path of human behavior.
Man, at his birth, is in a state of rest; such is his celestial nature. When external objects rouse in him emotions, he becomes agitated; thus are produced the desires appropriate to his own personal nature. As external objects come before his vision, he experiences them, and as a result attractions and repulsions find no ruling principle within, and when man is drawn out of his own sphere by his contacts, he can no longer master himself and his celestial nature becomes destroyed.
Now the objects of human affection being infinite in number, the result is that, if those attractions and repulsions obey no rule, man, at every contact with external objects, will mold himself upon those objects. This means the extinction of the celestial principle within and man given up completely to his passions . . . Therefore the ancient kings have undertaken to establish moderating agencies for the use of men. Rites regulate the hearts of the people; music harmonizes the sounds of the people; the government orders their actions; chastisement restrains them.
Music is what unifies; rites what differentiates. By means of the unifying process, mutual respect is born. To unite the feelings and beautify the forms: such is the task of rites and music. Music comes from within; the rites are established from without. The music coming from within produces calm, the rites civility. Music is the harmony of Sky and Earth; the rite's are the hierarchy produced by Sky and Earth. By means of harmony the various beings come into existence; by means of hierarchy the various beings are distinguished.
Music makes the people imitate the virtue of the King; rites repress excesses. The greatest music is always simple; the greatest rites always moderate.
Music concerns that which in the inner feelings is permanent; rites, that which in the external order cannot be modified. To penetrate into the depth of the human heart and to know the variations which take place therein is the essence of music.
Music is the favorable occupation of the Holy Man. It has the power to perfect the hearts of men. As it moves men deeply, as it produces changes in customs and popular behavior, the ancient kings took it as a subject of teaching; they were careful to see that it remained conformed to measures and numbers.
Virtue is the principle of human nature. Music is the flowering of virtue. Poetry expresses ideas; singing modulates sounds; dancing creates attitudes in motion; these three terms have their principle in the heart of men, and musical inspiration follows (synthesizes?] them. [Music includes all three.] The Holy Man possesses in himself perfect conformity to the Rule. For him there exists no difficulty.
Music produces joy. When one is joyful one cannot fail to express it by means of sounds and gestures. Man cannot fail to experience joy, and then to manifest it. But if manifesting joy he obeys no rule, disorder occurs. The ancient kings hated such a disorder. Thus they determined a rule, so that the sounds be sufficient to create pleasure without allowing laxity.
All those who instituted music had as [their] aim to moderate joy.
The first European treatise on Chinese music probably was written in 1775 by Father Amiot (De la Musique Chinoise
). The author unquestioningly accepted the Chinese idea that the Greeks had borrowed the principles of their music from the Chinese, who had used a system of twelve bamboo pipes based on reducing a series of twelve perfect fifths to an octave. It now appears more likely, however, that the Chinese system of twelve lyus (giving the twelve notes of our nontempered chromatic scale), which is reported to have come from a Western region, was influenced by the Greek-Pythagorean model. This would have occurred after the conquests of Alexander around the third century B.C., which generally brought Greek (and therefore Pythagorean) ideas and art-forms to Western Asia.
The third century B.C. was a period of great change in China, ending with the wholesale destruction of books and scholars. According to Maurice Courant's long essay on Chinese music in the remarkable Encyclopédie de la Musique
edited by Albert Lavignac (Paris, 1913), it seems probable that before that time (the beginning of the Han dynasty) the standard musical tones were produced by bells rather than by bamboo tubes. The length and width of the tubes could be measured, and the pitch of their tones could therefore be more easily measured. I tend to believe, however, that Chaldea was the most ancient source of the musical revolution initiated in Greece by Pythagoras (who undoubtedly was initiated into Chaldean Mysteries) and that it probably occurred later in China under an Hellenistic wave of influence. But what exactly is to be understood by the term Chaldean
, which during Roman rule acquired quite an unfavorable meaning, is still unanswered.
By permission of Leyla Rudhyar Hill
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