skip to content

Restoring Lost Songs: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy


Discussion of Boethius and music usually brings to mind the De institutione musica, written in his early 20s as part of an ambitious project to summarize ancient knowledge of the four mathematical sciences or quadrivium.  Less well known is that singing is integral to his last and most widely read book, the De consolatione philosophiae, written while he was imprisoned at Pavia in the 520s on trumped-up charges of conspiracy against Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, then ruler of Italy.

On the Consolation of Philosophy may be described as a primer in medieval philosophy, a classic of prison literature, and (somewhat irreverently) as a self-help manual.  Over the course of five books, Boethius gradually reconciles himself to his fate through dialogue with a personified figure of Philosophia, who restores him to his rightful mind to by means of a ‘talking cure’.  But it is not all talk: prose alternates with poetry, most of which is sung in the narrative by the fictional Boethius, mainly reflecting on the themes of the preceding discussion.

Introduction to the Consolation of Philosophy, Melvyn Bragg, ‘In Our Time’, with A. C. Grayling, Roger Scruton and Melissa Lane

Musical notations for lyric portions of the De consolatione philsophiae survive in manuscripts copied from the ninth through to the late eleventh century CE. Few of these notations can be reconstructed with confidence since their mnemonic form captured melodic outline but relied on a now lost oral tradition to supply information about precise pitches. One notation can be reconstructed fully as it survives in alaphabetic notation (the melody for Bella bis quinis, the seventh metrum in book IV). A few others can be reconstructed with a degree of confidence since they are recorded in neumes that convey much information, chiefly through their heighting and significative letters, as well as specific signs used to identify the semitone step within the mode. For the vast majority, pitches cannot be securely recovered, but what can be identified are principles underlying the melodic settings.

Research conducted at Cambridge has identified a range of recitational techniques and song modes that lie behind the neumatic notations. In particular, it has become clear that established ways of reciting poetic and prose texts were employed within a culture whose engagement with Latin song extended from school learning through to liturgical ceremony. There is also evidence that medieval musicians associated certain lyric metres used in the Consolation of Philosophy with similar poetic structures used in contemporaneous songs, seeking to apply characteristic melodic patterns from these repertories to Boethius’ poetry.

Scholarly detective work enables much melodic information to be recovered about individual songs, but the final leap into sound requires experimentation. Collaboration over a two-year period with members of Sequentia established working methods for reconstruction, drawing on their expertise with early medieval song repertories derived from decades of reconstruction, oral memorization and performance. This project lead to a first performance focused on the six notated poems in the Cambridge Songs leaf and to a recording that expanded to ten songs associated with eleventh-century Canterbury. The task remains to reconstruct the remaining notated repertory, as well as potentially improving upon the melodies restored jointly with Sequentia.