The Music Theory of Harald Vallerius: Three Dissertations from Seventeenth-Century Sweden

By Jenkins, Chadwick | Seventeenth-Century News, Fall-Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Music Theory of Harald Vallerius: Three Dissertations from Seventeenth-Century Sweden


Jenkins, Chadwick, Seventeenth-Century News


The Music Theory of Harald Vallerius: Three Dissertations from Seventeenth-Century Sweden. By Peter Sjokvist. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2012. 426 pages. Peter Sjokvist's The Music Theory of Harald Vallerius is far more than a mere translation of three music theoretical dissertations connected with Vallerius, a professor in physics and mathematics at Uppsala University from 1684 to 1712. The three dissertations--De sono (On Sound), De modis (On the Modes), and De tactu (On the Tactus)--are beautifully translated and presented with the original Neo-Latin on facing pages with the translation. In addition to this, however, Sjokvist accomplishes three astounding achievements: 1) he provides a richly textured discussion of academia in seventeenth-century Sweden and the position and value of the dissertation as a project; 2) he discusses in great detail the language and style of this particular brand of Neo-Latin, offering the reader a keen insight into the relationships among classical Latin, medieval Latin, and Neo-Latin as well as the impact genre has on the language; and 3) he thoughtfully comments on the texts themselves with respect to authorship, some elements of interpretive detail, and the many subtleties of the language itself. In this review, I touch briefly on these three aspects of Sjokvist's work and then close by examining some aspects of the dissertations themselves.

Roughly the first third of the Introduction is given over to an investigation into the status of music theory at Uppsala University in general, Vallerius's career in particular, and the role the dissertation played in the education and qualifications of the students. Sjokvist shows that music theory had fallen into a great decline at Uppsala in the decades preceding Vallerius's De sono (1674). Although music theory was part of the curriculum (within the quadrivial studies that stem back to Boethius) at the time of the university's founding in 1477, it had fallen by the wayside in 1645, when the revised statutes removed music as a responsibility of the faculty. Thus when Vallerius's dissertation appeared, it marked the return of music as an object of academic study to the university after an extended absence. Sjokvist provides letters of recommendation in support of Vallerius from his professors that confirm the sense that Vallerius had picked a subject that had not been studied at Uppsala for some time and was considered something of a novelty. Moreover, as Sjokvist shows, Vallerius brought the most up-to-date scientific and philosophical models to bear upon his work, building on the writings of such figures as Rene Descartes and Marin Mersenne. Certainly, with Vallerius's De sono, Uppsala University took a great stride forward in the study of music theory.

The most fascinating part of the Introduction is undoubtedly Sjokvist's handling of the value and role of the dissertation in university culture of the time. One must not read these works with the anachronistic expectation that they will conform to current standards of dissertation writing. Written dissertations in Vallerius's day were a mere platform on which the respondent (the person defending the dissertation) could build the oral disputation. The main purpose of the printed dissertation was to announce the theses that would be defended orally. Indeed, perhaps to add to the rhetorical flair of the event, some dissertations (including De sono) ended with a "Corollary" that introduced theses (entirely unrelated to the main topic) that were patently absurd and indefensible so that the respondent could entertainingly demonstrate rhetorical skill by "proving" that which is false! De sono's "Corollary" culminates in the assertion that "In every rectilinear triangle all angles considered together are not equivalent to two right ones" (177).

Since the primary concern was the demonstration of oral argumentative skill, the matter of who actually wrote the printed dissertation was of less concern. …

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