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(To make words live)

During the Renaissance there is a quasi obsessional search to find again the psychic power of Greek music, legendary because it was able to modulate the listener’s affects with the efficiency of a psychotrope power. Obviously Greek music is long dead and gone: the very day of its birth it started to evaporates on the marmor of ancient theaters. But its « soul », its intellectual dimension, psychic or mathematical, survives to its remains, flying unharmed over twenty centuries of music theory.


Let’s be honest, its blood had stopped pulsating, coagulated as a relic by the very abstract mathematical constructivism of a certain type of polyphony. But as soon as 1550, it starts to boil again thanks to the cure of a new generation of nervous, melancholic and inspired composers, who increase tenfold the efficients virtues of all the ingredients of music writing, by a new musical pharmacopoeia: dissonances, distorted modulations, false relations and chromatic vertigos of all sorts.


Anything is possible in the name of text expression. Admittedly the soul of Greek music comes back to life in a sound receptacle which doesn’t have anything in common with ancient music. But as far as its affects are concerned, the madrigal speaks the same language of its ancient form, the same « Greek language » that both music and medicine learned together in their youth.


Nowadays it is hard to imagine how far Renaissance brought this parallelism. Its common denominator was the theory of universal harmony, i.e. the idea of a relationship of consonance, affinity or convenientia, established by this doctrine between the balance of the four humors and the mixture of high and low in the body of the melody. The equation is reciprocal: the Renaissance can travel in both directions, attributing qualities of musical harmony to the temperament and qualities of temperament to musical harmony. In this way, the theoreticians of counterpoint will be able to embody affects in the writing elements and the adherents to Galen medicine will be able to calculate the musical proportion of temperament. Therefore an « elementary » conception of writing was developed.


The counterpoint has a four humors matter. The bass corresponds to the black bile and melancholy, the tenor to the phlegm, the alto to the blood and the soprano to the fire. Everybody agrees on that, Ficino and Galilei, but also Glarean, Zarlino, Artusi and even Monteverdi. The modes are high or low, sad or cheerful. And the composers will define as many affects as the written elements to be mixed up in the madrigal, as the ingredients of a medicine: moderated or extreme affects, simple or composite, consonants, dissonants, high (fury, anger) or low and relaxed (melancholy).


The real genius consist in the art of proportions dictated by instinct, as in the culinary art.   


Sibylla Samia

Sto core mio

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