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|
|Life is short,|
Art is long,
Opportunity is fleeting,
Experimentation is perilous,
(good) Judgement is difficult.
What does it mean?
- 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."
- 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.