Project title

Wallis and Music

Music imageJohn Wallis’s interest in music theory led him to produce translations into Latin of three ancient Greek texts – those of Ptolemy, Porphyry and Bryennius – and involved him in discussions with various individuals in the musical and scientific worlds and, particularly, in a series of letters to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society as his ideas developed. The texts which will appear in our edition cover the relationship of ancient and modern tuning theory, the building of organs, the musical phenomenon of ‘beats’ (which Wallis was among the first to report), and other musical topics.

Wallis’s musical work has many features of interest. One is the detailed attention which he devoted to the scholarly recovery, editing and translation of ancient texts: musical humanism,as it has sometimes been called. The largest item in our edition will be the ‘Appendix’ he provided for his edition of Ptolemy, in which he compared ancient and modern models of musical tuning and theory. Another is the links which can be made between Wallis’s musical work and the other subjects he studied, such as language and speech, links which our edition will bring out through detailed cross-reference to the other edited volumes to appear under the aegis of the Wallis Project.

A third feature of interest is the close relationship which is evident between the work of Wallis and of Thomas Salmon (1647–1706). Salmon, a country clergyman with some notoriety as a theorist of music, seems to have acted to some extent as the public face for Wallis’s explorations of novel ideas in musical tuning, and although Salmon contributed a great deal of his own to the musical writings which bear his name there is an important sense in which Wallis both stood as guarantor for his intellectual credibility and prompted him on occasion with some of the technical and mathematical details of his proposals. Wallis’s own musical publications were limited to fairly concise statements on particular musical subjects during the period of his association with Salmon, leaving Salmon to promote an ambitious scheme of musical experiment and reform. The publication of Wallis’s musical writings in the same Ashgate series as the forthcoming two-volume edition of Salmon’s will facilitate a detailed elucidation of this relationship.

The value of our edition of Wallis’s musical writings will thus lie both in the placing side-by-side of a series of texts which take on new meaning together, and in its ability to take the discussion of their contents in new intellectual directions. It will build on the ongoing research on and publication of Wallis’s correspondence, in which many references to musical topics (and very many to related subjects) are to be found, and in which the epistolary and intellectual relationships outlined above are clearly manifested. At the same time, it will make available for scholarly study a collection of texts of real importance for the construction of an intellectual history for music.

Samples illustrations from Wallis's work on music:

Letter from Wallis to Pepys (pdf)

On ancient and modern music (pdf)