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The mystical music of Jean Gerson*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2008

Joyce L. Irwin
Colgate University


With some justification musicologists have virtually ignored the group of writings by the Parisian chancellor Jean Gerson (1363–1429) entitled De canticis. The title notwithstanding, these three treatises, written between 1423 and 1426, provide much more commentary on the affects of the soul than on the effects of the vocal cords. Gerson, a reform-minded mystical theologian active at the Council of Constance, had no intention of becoming a music theorist; at times in these treatises he explicitly precludes any explanation of technical musical terms. Though many such terms are used, the reader is presumed to understand their literal meaning. It is the allegorical meaning that Gerson purports to explicate. Indeed the allegorical level is the most appropriate one for treating musical instruments, for the organ is virtually the only instrument from biblical times that was still used in late-medieval churches. Yet by the fifteenth century the treatment of instruments as symbols of states of the soul had long been commonplace, and Gerson fails to arouse new interest. Even less attractive to the modern reader is the spiritualisation of Guido's hexachord. By deleting one of the As (by changing fa to mi in mutation from soft to hard hexachords), the six syllables ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la can be reduced to the five vowels A, E, I, O, U, which in turn signify the five primary affections or emotions: joy, hope, compassion, fear, sorrow.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1981

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1 These were published as Plures tractatus de canticis, Joannis Gerson opera omnia, ed. du Pin, Ellies (Antwerp, 1706), iii, cols. 619–84Google Scholar. The treatises are entitled De canticorum originali ratione (cols. 621–43), De canticordo (cols. 643–72) and De canticis (cols. 673–84). In this paper the entire work is referred to as De canticis.

2 De canticordo was written in 1423, the other treatises probably in 1424, and in any case by 1426 (see Oeuvres complètes de Jean Gerson, ed. Glorieux, P. (Paris, 1960–), i, pp. 135–6Google Scholar; the treatises themselves have not yet appeared in this edition). Although I refer to Gerson as chancellor of the University of Paris, he was at this point in exile in Lyons because of the political turbulence of the period.

3 For an explanation of Gerson's reasoning on this question, see Machabey, A., ‘Remarques sur le lexique musical du De canticis de Gerson’, Romania, 79 (1958), pp. 179–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 For further discussion, see Pietzsch, G., Die Klassifikation der Musik von Boetius bis Ugolino von Orvieto (Halle, 1929), esp. pp. 3944Google Scholar.

5 Hammerstein, R., Die Musik der Engel (Munich, 1962), p. 116Google Scholar.

6 Bukofzer, M. F., ‘Speculative Thinking in Mediaeval Music’, Speculum, 17 (04 1942), p. 166CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a discussion of these ideas in their influence on English poetry, see Hollander, J., The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton, 1961)Google Scholar.

7 Such as Roger Bacon, Johannes de Grocheo, Walter Odington (see Bukofzer, op. cit.).

8 ‘At vero sicut auris transsumptive dicitur in Deo, dicitur in Angelis, ad omnem denique transferretur intellectus cognitionem, ut ibi: Qui habet aures audiendi: audiat, Matthew 11.15. cum similibus multis. Non aliter vox et sonus, ut in proposito nostro per metaphorem accipiatur necesse est.’ De canticis, col. 631. (Here and elsewhere English translations of biblical passages are made direct from Gerson's Latin.)

9 ‘Metaphysicalis demum ratio concludit totum istud universum recte dici monochordium divinae sapientiae.’ De canticis, col. 631.

10 For a discussion of Gerson's understanding of the various parts and activities of the soul, see Ozment, S. E., Homo spiritualis (Leiden, 1969), pp. 5971Google Scholar. Ozment gives the following outline of Gerson's schema:

11 Bauer, M., Die Erkenntnislehre und der Conceptus Entis nach vier Spätschriften des Johannes Gerson (Meisenheim am Glan, 1973), pp. 417fGoogle Scholar.

12 De canticis, col. 636. Connolly, James L., in John Gerson: Reformer and Mystic (Louvain, 1928)Google Scholar, argues that Gerson tempered his nominalism with realism and that his mysticism was founded on realism rather than nominalism (pp. 305f, 354).

13 Abert, H., Die Musikanschauung des Mittelalters und ihre Grundlagen (Halle, 1905), p. 145Google Scholar; Gérold, T., Les pères de l'Église et la musique (Paris, 1931), pp. 104, 168Google Scholar.

14 Hammerstein, , Die Musik der Engel, pp. 129–44Google Scholar.

15 ‘Gerade die Musik der Engel spielt auch im 15. Jahrhundert mit der steigernden Be-deutung der musikalischen Praxis als deren Überhöhung eine grosse Rolle.’ Hammerstein, op. cit., p. 143.

16 According to the Legenda aurea, Mary Magdalene was taken into heaven daily at the seven Office Hours in order to hear the songs of the angels. From this spiritual food she was so refreshed that she had no need of bodily nourishment. (See Hammerstein, op. cit., p. 231 and pl. 84.) St Vincent of Saragossa, victim of the persecution of Dacian in 304, was said to have been comforted by singing angels while in prison after his torture.

17 De canticis, col. 668.

18 Ibid., col. 668.

19 Ibid., col. 658.

20 Ibid., col. 626.

21 ‘Sic inter ceteras artes comparata est magno plausu Musica, & ad divinas res atque ceremonias tandem adhibita.’ Ibid., col. 623.

22 See Abert, , Die Musikanschauung des Mittelalters, p. 118Google Scholar, on the symbolic use of the number three in medieval music theory. Gerson's tripartite divisions are particularly evident in his third treatise.

23 De canticis, col. 624.

24 Abert, op. cit., pp. 215–20; Gérold, , Les pères de l'Église et la musique, pp. 125–30Google Scholar.

25 De canticis, cols. 626–7. On the difficulty of identifying precisely the kind of cithara Gerson had in mind, see Machabey, ‘Remarques sur le lexique musical’, pp. 196–7.

26 Machabey, op. cit., p. 176.

27 De canticis, col. 628.

28 Ibid., col. 624.

29 ‘Quibus in omnibus nostri possunt interiores affectus erudiri, simul & impelli, qualiter experiebatur ille, cuius animus commotus acriter, elevatus, dilatatus; quando fiebat hujusmodi resonantia Celebris jubilabat totus in se, recolens illud seraphicum de Deo: Pleni sunt coeli & terra gloria tua.’ De canticis, col. 628.

30 ‘Formaverat itaque Dei sapientia ad similitudinem majoris mundi corporalis corpus hominis, in cujus medio posuit cor, instar solis in coelo. Composuerat illud tanquam instrumentum vel organum musicum temperatissime concordatum, in quo & per quod spiritus humanus, tunc utique psallendi peritissimus, utpote plenus verbo Dei, cantabat jocundissima cantica Sion coelestis Hierusalem; nec erat dissonum quicquam; sed in pulcherrimam omnia consonabant melodiam, quoniam nihil erat, ut hic & nunc, obvium rationi.’ De canticis, col. 645.

31 ‘Quam felix illa civitas in qua solemnitas! ubi una vox laetantium & unus ardor cordium, quae plena modulis in laude & canore jubilo vacat, videt, amat, cantat in aeternum pleno corde, toto ore.’ De canticis, cols. 644—5.

32 Paraphrased from De canticis, cols. 645–7.

33 ‘Stabit igitur, quod simile Canticum sit in ore unius novum & in altero vetus, immo sunt in eodem ore, tempore & corde mutatis.’ De canticis, col. 648.

34 De canticis, col. 648.

35 Ibid., col. 648.

36 ‘Videbimus quod nulla penitus operatio in universo, quantumcunque naturalis habeatur, quin relata ad primum principium dicatur, & sit libera, tanquam ab eo liberrime producta. Et ita quaelibet operatio laudabilis est & collaudanda.’ De canticis, col. 649.

37 ‘quia sunt saltem mediate a libero arbitrio imperata’, De canticis, col. 649.

38 ‘Nam evenit, ibi esse plus affectionis, ubi minus cognitionis naturalis positum est. Patet in animalibus & feminis.’ De canticis, col. 650. See also Jean Gerson, Selections from A Deo exivit, Contra curiositatem studentium and De mystica theologia speculative, ed. and trans. Ozment, S. E. (Leiden, 1969), esp. pp. 65, 69Google Scholar.

39 De canticis, col. 650.

40 ‘Si canticum cordis sufficit apud Deum, cur addita sunt tot Cantica oris quae corpus atterant sui multiplicatione, & mentem divertunt a sua devotione, & non nisi fastidium frequenter sua repetitione nauseanti causant?’ De canticis, col. 650.

41 De canticis, col. 652.

42 Ibid., col. 652.

43 Ibid., col. 654.

44 Ibid., cols. 653f.

45 Fellerer, K. G., ‘Kirchenmusikalische Vorschriften im Mittelalter’, Kirchenmusikalisches Jahrbuch, 40 (1956), p. 10Google Scholar.

46 Contra curiositatem studentium, Jean Gerson, Selections, ed. Ozment, , pp. 2645Google Scholar.

47 ‘Cum Maria fuerit per gratiam sublimata, nedum super mulieres & homines; sed super omnes Angelorum choros, quis ab ea musicalem in summo notitiam negaverit? Nolumus idcirco suadere devotis quibus loquimur, ut se tradant musicalibus artibus saeculi cogno-scendis: curiositas enim culpabilis haec esset in multis; sed si obvenerit cognitio, vel ex studio juventutis, vel aliunde faciliter sine detrimento exercitii sanctioris, non abiiciant donum Dei; sed ex opibus Gentilium & AEgyptiorum ditati serviant ex illis Deo, & ad laudem suam omnia gloriamque convertant.’ De canticis, col. 661. Gerson views music as having entered the Church from without during the conversion of the Gentiles (De canticis, col. 653).

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