Monday, October 17, 2016

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

The expression, "ars longa, vita brevis," is a Latin translation of the first two lines of the Aphorismi (Aphorisms) by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who is perhaps most famous for the Hippocratic Oath. It translates as, "art is long, life is short."

Interestingly, the order of those two lines was reversed in the originally-published aphorism (I am using the Latin translation, because I know no Greek, except "papoútsia" which means "shoes;" I had to look this up when my shoes were stolen on an overnight train in Greece 40 years ago… end of digression):

Aphorism 1, Section 1, Hippocrates
Vita brevis,
ars longa,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.
Life is short,
Art is long,
Opportunity is fleeting,
Experimentation is perilous,
(good) Judgement is difficult.

What does it mean?

  1. Well, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, it apparently does not mean what most of us think it means. According to one source, it means that "it takes a long time to acquire and perfect one's expertise (in, say, medicine) and one has but a short time in which to do it". The Wikipedia entry suggests that it "most commonly it refers to how time limits our accomplishments in life."
  2. The meaning that I suspect most people take from this aphorism is, "life is short, art eternal." •Today's post will explore both meanings, as they apply to music.

1. The clock is ticking.

We tend to have sporadic awareness of our impending demise; we know it's going to happen, but we just don't usually know when. The clock is indeed ticking for us all, which can be a little unsettling if you think about it too much. This is presumably why most of us do not think about it very much, even if we have experienced the death of a loved one. The first meaning above is not a suggestion that we obsess over our impending demise; quite the opposite, in fact!

Here is my composer-specific take-away from meaning #1: It takes a long time for a composer to develop a mastery of our craft, and, given that life has a finite time limit, it would be good to put whatever time we have to good use mastering these skills. Compose lots of music! Try to make each piece better than the previous one!

If Schubert (dead at 31) and Mozart (dead at 35) had been more casual about their desire to be great composers, they would not have achieved greatness. Ditto for Bizet (age 37), Gershwin (age 38), Chopin (age 39), and Mussorgsky (age 41).

The clock is ticking… Get busy!

2. Art is eternal. Or is it?

Some art has had impressive lasting power, sustained over hundreds or oven thousands of years. That's very cool!

Then there's music…

Unlike visual art or architecture, which produced works capable of lasting a long time, music was not notated for most of human history. The Seikilos epitaph is the oldest surviving complete, notated musical composition from anywhere in the world. It is thought to date from the first century AD, making it about 2,000 years old. That means there is no record of notated music for the previous 198,000 years of human existence on this planet.

For how many of the roughly 200,000 years of human existence have our ancestors been making music? To borrow a common "click-bait" phrase, the answer may surprise you! Archeologists have discovered ancient flutes from approximately 43,000 years ago, which suggests that (a) music was being made 43,000 years ago, and (b) it was probably being made before that as well, since the first forms of musical expression probably involved the human voice and percussion instruments.

There is no record of the actual music made for most of human history, for at least one very simple reason: Then, as now in most cases, music was ephemeral; it was there when people played it, and not there when they didn't; there appears to have been no desire to make it "eternal" (or at least, "long lasting") by writing it down, until the Seikilos epitaph.

Not only that, but, to my knowledge, the Seikilos epitaph did not signal a vanguard in the new practice of notating music; the following 1,000 years or so produced very little notated music. According to Wikipedia, the founder of what is now considered the standard music stave was Guido d'Arezzo, an Italian Benedictine monk who lived from about 991 until after 1033.

In the centuries following Guido d'Arezzo's life, notation became more commonplace, especially so when music became more complex, because the increasing complexity required a system of notation in order to be performed accurately.

Nowadays, despite the1,000+ year history of notated music, most of the "old" music that is performed or recorded was written since the late renaissance, meaning it comes from the past 500 (or so) years.

So, while it is entirely possible that some of the musical art from the recent past will be long-lasting, the inherently-ephemeral nature of music is such that most music, even in this day of easy digital recording, will only last for as long as we retain its memory in our minds, because most music is not recorded. I play guitar practically every day, but I doubt that I have recorded more than about 100 minutes of guitar music over 45 years of playing guitar.

Despite its essentially-temporary nature, however, it is undeniable that some music has lasted an impressively-long time, possibly because it is thought to represent the pinnacle of musical artistic expression,  or possibly because a lot of people just like it (Vivaldi: 4 Seasons; Pachelbel: Canon in D); that gives all composers something to aspire to, should they wish to do so.

And even if our music does not make it into the pantheon of musical greatness, there is a realistic chance that at least some of it will last longer than we will, provided we unceasingly strive to write better music.

Anyway, tempus fugit! I need to get back to the piece I'm working on…

Postscript: Experimentation is Perilous?

Hippocrates was a doctor, so when he called experimentation "dangerous," he probably meant that experimenting on a patient could harm that patient. If you are an air-traffic controller, experimenting on the job could have disastrous results; ditto for a military strategist, or an operator of a nuclear power plant.

If you are a composer, however, there is no equivalent worst-case scenario that results from a failed musical experiment. Some may not like your experiment, or performers may call it unplayable, but, generally speaking, people are not physically harmed by compositional experimentation. I would suggest that some experimentation, as in trying new things, is essential for an artist.


Robert Humber said...

It is definitely easiest to take the quote from Hippocrates as meaning "our lives are short, but art is eternal." That is what I got from it, and I do think there is some truth to it especially in these modern times of recordings. While it's possible things will be forgotten completely, I can't see them being wiped from history, but who knows?? We won't care much, because, you know, we will be dead. Although it is nothing on the grand scheme of human history, I still find it quite incredible that I can go to the movie theatre and see a live stream performance from the MET, performing a piece written in 1787 (Don Giovanni). That's over 200 years ago! Isn't that kind of strange and miraculous??

By the way, Mozart wrote it when he was 30 or 31. So to go along with your point, I have a decade to write a Don Giovanni of my own, hahaha... we'll see about that.

Flutiano said...

When Hippocrates was alive, a lot of people died a lot younger than they do today. As a physician, he would have seen a lot of people die and my guess is that "life is short" might have had a more pressing meaning without the vaccinations, antibiotics, etcetera that we have now to prevent people from dying from certain illnesses.

Another idea on the point of thinking about the steady ticking of time until our inevitable demise is something I read in a blog post about procrastination last week: your life in weeks. It is described at and you can generate one for your own life at The basic idea is that it generates one box a week for the number of years that it calculates is your life expectancy, and then it colours in all of the weeks you still have to use. It's a very visual way of seeing approximately how far you are through your life, and how limited it is. Not that you will drop dead on the day that is your life expectancy, death could occur much earlier or significantly later, but it gives a general approximation.

Moving on from the death topic, and on to "art is long." I find that a strange statement and am not completely sure what to make of it, but I think the first meaning in this blog post is the most likely. Trying to think about the context of Hippcrates' day, it is hard to imagine what he would have been thinking. If it had been music specifically that he was referring to, I would be more confident in thinking that because music wasn't recorded in the way that it has been for the past couple hundred years, and thus the idea that it is eternal is harder to grasp.

That is, unless you think of it as being the art form that is eternal, in that it isn't specific pieces of art that last forever but the concepts and ideas of art. However, in that context the idea of life is also eternal, for although people die their offspring survive to have their own offspring and life continues. Also, life is necessary for art.

I take the entire passage to be connected to the first statement, that life is short. Art is long, and opportunity is fleeting, so you should use your life wisely and take your opportunities well so that you can progress towards mastery of your art. Especially if you think in vein of pursuing multiple arts, there is a very long process to go through in order to become a master artist.

In terms of experimentation is perilous and judgement is difficult, I think that in the context of a short life and a long art, experimentation in the arts could be dangerous because you could waste valuable time on something that does not help you reach your goal and it might be hard to judge what would be good experimentation (which would help your pursuit) or what would be bad experimentation (not useful). I don't think that this means that we shouldn't experiment, it is often possible to learn from mistakes and I think that since that all your risking is time and potentially some of those fleeting opportunities, the perilousness is not too serious (before modern technology, it could also mean using up expensive materials). Also, the experimentation could lead to finding short cuts and new opportunities!

However, that is ignoring the fact that the Hippocrates Oath was an oath taken by physicians, and the art of mending sick and injured people IS much different then the art of creating music or sculpture with the perilousness of working with people's lives . . .

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

On that note you can say that performers,composers and teachers have a very active and important role at preserving music. Especially nowadays, with technology evolving so fast and things becoming obsolete. Like since when do they sell laptops with no CD drive!!!! Anyways, I’m just saying we can’t only depend on the hard copies of our music to survive. I think the music and composers we mentioned above made a huge impact on people, which is why their music is ephemeral. If people didn’t care for the art it would never be performed or heard and perhaps quickly forgotten. I think it’s safe to say that as performers, teachers, composers we are essentially on the front-lines to continue to past down new and old music to younger generations. Very interesting read to put things into perspective!

Jack Etchegary said...

Very interesting to read about the entire historical perspective of music in this way. I for one definitely have not put much thought into the mediums in which music has existed in the past, and how in this day and age we have access to the most forms of experiencing music than ever before. Although music practicioners of the past may not have been documenting music onto paper, this doesn't necessarily mean that there was no desire to do so until the Seikilos Epitaph, yet may signify that the notion of writing down music in an organized way was perhaps irrelevant to them or simply not thought of.

It is also extremely eye-opening to think about the number of very famous composers who died at (relative to present time) such a young age, as well as the amount of music which is made which is never documented simply because it is mindless messing around or what have you. With this in mind, it in a way encourages me to visually or audibly document everything I play or think of, no matter how unconventional or mindless and/or terrible the musical idea my seem. I think that striving to go above and beyond to document music in various ways would definitely benefit in supporting the eternalness of music and art.

Emery van de Wiel said...

The thought of me not lasting forever has become more and more prominent in my work. Particularly, unrelated to music, this summer. I built some things this summer that I hope will last longer than I do. I hope to have left an impression after I am gone whether it's a musical one or not. In regards to music, I wholeheartedly agree that a good way to try to achieve "immunity" is to make something that that stands out. Of course, some are great simply for being great but many of the great composers are known for their differences, rather than their similarities, from the composers that came before them.

Kristin Wills said...

It is good to write as much as you can, because you don't know when your life will end, but I don't think it's really good to rush things, either. I often find myself thinking that I am "behind" in composition because of what other composers had accomplished by the time they were my age. Shostakovich, for example, had written his first symphony by the age of 19. Usually, I find this sort of discouraging and end up becoming less motivated to write music. It is more helpful for me to avoid comparing myself to other composers, especially very famous ones. Instead I just try to make each piece I write better than the last. As for experimentation, I think it is definitely helpful to try new ideas. I found that when I first tried to write something atonal, just using the harmonies I thought were interesting instead of using a scale, it was very liberating. I will certainly continue to experiment like this in the future.

Erika Penney said...

I have never really thought about this while writing any of my music, and I wish I had. It is very true that life is short, but art lasts forever. This is a great thought to have while writing because it will have an impact on how you write, hopefully writing to create a lasting impression. Especially with all our technology today, music can last such a long time, and to have something that will continue to remind people of what kind of composer you were after your gone, in my opinion is a gift. I agree with Kristin's comment to try and make every piece you write better than your last. As for experimentation, I believe it is crucial for a musician because there are so many ways to express ourselves, and without trying different ways of experimenting, we will not know how we express ourselves best.

Cleary Maddigan said...

Having read this and after thingking for a while, I have to agree that although we might like to think about art being eternal, it really is not. As Heraclitus, a greek philosopher who lived at the same time of Hippocrates, "one cannot step in to the same river twice". Everything is evovlving and changing. This can easily be seen with historical music. For until recently (within the last fifty years or so) people had lost performance practices of former eras because performance practices evolved over time. People used to play Bach like they would play Brahms. Is a performance of Bach in the style of Brahms really a performance of Bach? Is a historically informed performance of Bach really a performance of Bach? Because of the lack of recordings. Its really impossible to say. So although we have Bach musical compositions, We dont have his intentions. Considering that intentioms make up a large part of composition from the Baroque era, because composers often left out a lot of markings and instructions, and that those intentions are mostly lost, can we really say that the music that Bach wrote is eternal?