Pleasures Of Music

Music a Remedy

Frontispiece to the original 1621 edition
Frontispiece to the original 1621 edition

Note: One of the major documents of modern European civilization, Robert Burton’s astounding compendium, The Anatomy of Melancholy (complete title: Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is; with all the Kindes, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes and Several Cures of it: In Three Maine Partitions With Their Several Sections, Members, and Subsections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically Opened and Cut up), a survey of melancholy in all its myriad forms, has invited nothing but superlatives since its publication in 1621 (five subsequent volumes, incorporating Burton’s revisions and alterations, appeared in 1624, 1628, 1632, 1638 and 1651). Lewellyn Powys called it “the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing,” whereas the celebrated surgeon William Osler declared it the greatest of medical treatises. And Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure. Burton’s colloquial style is as individual as his matter. It is imaginative and eloquent, full of classical allusions and Latin tags that testify to his love of curious and out-of-the-way information as well as to his erudition. He is a master of lists and catalogs, but their sonorous roll is often broken by his humorous asides.

Robert Burton (1577-1640) was elected a student of Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1599 and took his B.D. in 1614. He served as a vicar in Oxford and then as the rector of Seagrave. The Anatomy of Melancholy appeared in five editions during the author’s lifetime and has been reprinted countless times since. In the following section, he offers a vigorous argument in favor of music as a cure-all for the melancholic disposition and buttresses his position with examples from classic literature and the Bible.


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any and sundry are the means which philosophers and physicians have prescribed to exhilarate a sorrowful heart, to divert those fixed and intent cares and meditations, which in this malady so much offend; but in my judgment none so present, none so powerful, none so apposite as a cup of strong drink, mirth, music, and merry company. … Musica est mentis medicina moestae, a roaring-meg against melancholy, to rear and revive the languishing soul; affecting not only the ears, but the very arteries, the vital and animal spirits, it erects the mind, and makes it nimble. This it will effect in the most dull, severe and sorrowful souls, expel grief with mirth, and if there be any clouds, dust, or dregs of cares yet lurking in our thoughts, most powerfully it wipes them all away, and that which is more, it will perform all this in an instant: Cheer up the countenance, expel austerity, bring in hilarity, inform our manners, mitigate anger; Athenaeus calleth it an infinite treasure to such as are endowed with it. Many other properties Cassiodorus reckons up of this our divine music, not only to expel the greatest griefs, but it doth extenuate fears and furies, appeaseth cruelty, abateth heaviness, and to such as are watchful it causeth quiet rest; it takes away spleen and hatred, be it instrumental, vocal, with strings, wind, Quae, a spiritu, sine manuum dexteritate gubernetur, &c. it cures all irksomeness and heaviness of the soul. Labouring men that sing to their work, can tell as much, and so can soldiers when they go to fight, whom terror of death cannot so much affright, as the sound of trumpet, drum, fife, and such like music animates; metus enim mortis, as Censorinus informeth us, musica depellitur. It makes a child quiet, the nurse’s song, and many times the sound of a trumpet on a sudden, bells ringing, a carman’s whistle, a boy singing some ballad tune early in the streets, alters, revives, recreates a restless patient that cannot sleep in the night. In a word, it is so powerful a thing that it ravisheth the soul, regina sensuum, the queen of the senses, by sweet pleasure (which is a happy cure), and corporal tunes pacify our incorporeal soul, sine ore loquens, dominatum in animam exercet, and carries it beyond itself, helps, elevates, extends it. Scaliger gives a reason of these effects, because the spirits about the heart take in that trembling and dancing air into the body, are moved together, and stirred up with it, or else the mind, as some suppose harmonically composed, is roused up at the tunes of music. And ’tis not only men that are so affected, but almost all other creatures. You know the tale of Hercules Gallus, Orpheus, and Amphion, felices animas Ovid calls them, that could saxa movere sono testudinis make stocks and stones, as well as beasts and other animals, dance after their pipes: the dog and hare, wolf and lamb as Philostratus describes it in his images, stood all gaping upon Orpheus; and trees pulled up by the roots came to hear him.



Arion made fishes follow him, which, as common experience evinceth, are much affected with music. All singing birds are much pleased with it, especially nightingales, if we may believe Calcagninus; and bees amongst the rest, though they be flying away, when they hear any tingling sound, will tarry behind. Harts, hinds, horses, dogs, bears, are exceedingly delighted with it. Elephants, Agrippa adds, and in Lydia in the midst of a lake there be certain floating islands (if ye will believe it), that, after music, will dance.

But to leave all declamatory speeches in praise of divine music, I will confine myself to my proper subject: besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, it is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself. Canus, a Rhodian fiddler, in Philostratus, when Apollonius was inquisitive to know what he could do with his pipe, told him, That he would make a melancholy man merry, and him that was merry much merrier than before, a lover more enamoured, a religious man more devout. Chiron the centaur, is said to have cured this and many other diseases by music alone: as now they do those, saith Bodine, that are troubled with St. Vitus’s Bedlam dance. Timotheus, the musician, compelled Alexander to skip up and down, and leave his dinner (like the tale of the Friar and the Boy), whom Austin so much commends for it. Who hath not heard how David’s harmony drove away the evil spirits from king Saul, 1 Sam. xvi. and Elisha when he was much troubled by importunate kings, called for a minstrel, and when he played, the hand of the Lord came upon him, 2 Kings iii. Censorinus de natali reports how Asclepiades the physician helped many frantic persons by this means, phreneticorum mentes morbo turbatas—Jason Pratensis hath many examples, how Clinias and Empedocles cured some desperately melancholy, and some mad, by this our music. Which because it hath such excellent virtues, belike Homer brings in Phemius playing, and the Muses singing at the banquet of the gods. Aristotle, Plato highly approve it, and so do all politicians. The Greeks, Romans, have graced music, and made it one of the liberal sciences, though it be now become mercenary. All civil Commonwealths allow it: Cneius Manlius (as Livius relates) brought first out of Asia to Rome singing wenches, players, jesters, and all kinds of music to their feasts.

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1: Yuja Wang (piano) with Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall (7 September 2012)

Your princes, emperors, and persons of any quality, maintain it in their courts; no mirth without music. Sir Thomas More, in his absolute Utopian commonwealth, allows music as an appendix to every meal, and that throughout, to all sorts. Epictetus calls mensam mutam praesepe, a table without music a manger: for the concert of musicians at a banquet is a carbuncle set in gold; and as the signet of an emerald well trimmed with gold, so is the melody of music in a pleasant banquet. Louis the Eleventh, when he invited Edward the Fourth to come to Paris, told him that as a principal part of his entertainment, he should hear sweet voices of children, Ionic and Lydian tunes, exquisite music, he should have a —, and the cardinal of Bourbon to be his confessor, which he used as a most plausible argument: as to a sensual man indeed it is. Lucian in his book, de saltatione, is not ashamed to confess that he took infinite delight in singing, dancing, music, women’s company, and such like pleasures: and if thou (saith he) didst but hear them play and dance, I know thou wouldst be so well pleased with the object, that thou wouldst dance for company thyself, without doubt thou wilt be taken with it. So Scaliger ingenuously confesseth, I am beyond all measure affected with music, I do most willingly behold them dance, I am mightily detained and allured with that grace and comeliness of fair women, I am well pleased to be idle amongst them. And what young man is not? As it is acceptable and conducing to most, so especially to a melancholy man. Provided always, his disease proceed not originally from it, that he be not some light inamorato, some idle fantastic, who capers in conceit all the day long, and thinks of nothing else, but how to make jigs, sonnets, madrigals, in commendation of his mistress. In such cases music is most pernicious, as a spur to a free horse will make him run himself blind, or break his wind; Incitamentum enim amoris musica, for music enchants, as Menander holds, it will make such melancholy persons mad, and the sound of those jigs and hornpipes will not be removed out of the ears a week after. Plato for this reason forbids music and wine to all young men, because they are most part amorous, ne ignis addatur igni, lest one fire increase another. Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth; and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy: it expels cares, alters their grieved minds, and easeth in an instant. Otherwise, saith Plutarch, Musica magis dementat quam vinum; music makes some men mad as a tiger; like Astolphos’ horn in Ariosto; or Mercury’s golden wand in Homer, that made some wake, others sleep, it hath divers effects: and Theophrastus right well prophesied, that diseases were either procured by music, or mitigated.

‘Mirth and merry company may not be separated from Musik, both concerning and necessarily required in this business.’: from the original text of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy
‘Mirth and merry company may not be separated from Musik, both concerning and necessarily required in this business.’: from the original text of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy


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