Considering Athanasius Kircher at AMS Philadelphia

2009 November 8

Representing Magnificat, I will be attending the annual conference of the American Musicological Society in Philadelphia this later this week. It has been several years since I’ve had the opportunity to attend the AMS conference and I am looking forward to meeting old colleagues, making new friends and listening to the wide range of presentations on current work being done in musicology. The conference program is available for download (PDF) and the abstracts for papers can be downloaded here (PDF). Over the week I will be highlighting some of the sessions relevant to the music and culture of the 17th Century and posting abstracts from the scheduled papers.

Kircher - guido's Hand

Guido's Hand from Kircher, Musurgia universalis (1650)

A particularly interesting short session on the fascinating figure Athanasius Kircher scheduled for the opening afternoon of the conference. I encountered Kircher while preparing the first program on the very first Magnificat series concert in 1992, which included Carissimi’s magnificent oratorio Jephte. In his monumental Musurgia universalis (1650) Kircher mentions Jephte and also reproduced the music for the final chorus, Plorate filii Israel, citing it as an example of excellent rhetorical style and providing musicologists with a convenient terminus ante quem for the dating of Carissimi’s masterpiece. Since then, details of Kircher’s fantastic and curious engravings have occasionally  made their way into Magnificat’s programs, websites, and brochures, including his representation of Guido’s hand.

Recent scholarly interest in Kircher has resulted in a wealth of resources on the web. Stanford University hosts a website project devoted to Kircher, with a wealth of information and selection of images from works by and related to Athanasius Kircher present in the collections of Stanford University Libraries. Fr. Edward W. Schmidt, SJ has published an excellent book Athansius Kircher: The Last Renaissance Man, the website for which includes many of Kircher’s engravings. The useful website Kircherianum Virtuale provides links to a many sites devoted to the Kircher.

As for the AMS session on Kircher, David Crook of the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes in his overview of the session:

The past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), a Jesuit polymath and one of the leading intellectual figures of the seventeenth century. Because of his penchant for exaggeration and his tendency to include everything he could find on a given topic—“no matter how strange or dubious”—Kircher’s reputation had already begun to wane by the late seventeenth century. Recent research by historians of science and linguistics, however, demonstrates that Kircher’s work was of critical importance to the scholarly community of his time. In addition to publishing at least forty volumes on magnetism, optics, geology, medicine, linguistics, Egyptology, and early medicine, Kircher corresponded with hundreds of scholars in more than twenty languages. Situated at the leading Jesuit college in Rome, he had unparalleled access to a global network of missionaries and researchers. A 2001 conference devoted to Kircher drew scholars from over a dozen disciplines, including luminaries such as Stephen Jay Gould and Anthony Grafton, in an attempt to comprehend his massive output. Many institutions and libraries have followed with conferences, seminars, and special events on Kircher.

While Kircher has recently begun to excite the interest of a few German and Italian music scholars, music scholarship has not been at the center of the current Kircher revival. This is all the more surprising given that music is one of the few disciplines that continued to be influenced by Kircher’s writings well after his death. Kircher devoted two of his most successful publications entirely to music, including the giant 1,200-page treatise Musurgia universalis (Rome, 1650), an encyclopedia of music and music theory. He also timed the publication of Musurgia (one of his longest works) to coincide with the Jubilee Year of 1650, thus ensuring wide exposure. Hundreds of copies were distributed around the globe, making it the most widely-distributed and influential music treatise of the seventeenth century, a treatise that continued to be used as a primary source by musicians and scholars for over 150 years.

Two papers will be read. The first will be “Father Kircher ’s Singing Sloth (And Other Wonders of the New World)” by Eric Bianchi a Pd.D candidate at Yale University and recipient of a 2008-2009 Rome Prize. From the abstract:

Athanasius Kircher crammed his mammoth music treatise Musurgia Universalis (Rome, 1650) full with, apparently, everything he had ever heard about music. Courtesy of a fellow Jesuit priest stationed in South America, he brought readers face to face with a marvel from the New World: a sloth that sang—perfectly—the Guidonian hexachord. This account has subsequently been discussed as an example of Kircher’s credulity, as well as his unparalleled ability to amaze early modern readers with the strange, the exotic, and the novel. The sloth was strange and exotic, but it was not novel—not even in 1650. Beginning in the 1520s, the animal was discussed, depicted, and dissected in dozens of printed sources. Not only musicians, but also mathematicians, clerics, explorers, and natural historians weighed in on this remarkable creature. Their accounts formed the basis of Kircher’s, despite his claims to the contrary. Few of Father Kircher’s words were actually his own.

Starting from Kircher’s discussions of the singing sloth and the Guidonian hexachord, I reconstruct a largely forgotten world of seventeenth-century erudition, and suggest what place music scholarship had in it. With particular attention to visual images from early modern books, I suggest how and why Kircher fashioned his account and image as he did—and why they appeared in a music treatise at all. In that age of polymaths, music scholarship was not solely the domain of musicians, nor was it necessarily written for them. Even at his most extreme, the famously digressive Kircher (best known in his day as a mathematician, linguist, and Egyptologist) may be more representative than is generally supposed. Kircher was drawn to the sloth by more than his love for the exotic. As the self-anointed Christian Pliny, he saw himself continuing the comprehensive natural history that the pagan Roman had begun. As the most famous professor at the Catholic world’s leading educational institution (the Collegio Romano), he was expected to rehabilitate the image of Catholic scholarship and science in the wake of Galileo’s condemnation. He was fascinated by Guido of Arezzo, who emerges in Musurgia as a Catholic superhero: a devout cleric who devised the hexachord, invented polyphony, notation, and even keyboard instruments. Guido and his hexachord were the perfect emblems for Kircher’s larger intellectual project: a sacred science that demonstrated the unity of all things and the universality of the Catholic Church. But what had fascinated seventeenth-century readers seemed unscholarly and unscientific to music scholars of the eighteenth century, who responded to Musurgia with skepticism and derision.

The seesion will conclude with “Father Kircher ’s Miraculous Mechanical Music-Making Method” by John Z. McKay a Ph.D candidate at Harvard University and winner of the Ferdinand Gordon and Elizabeth Hunter Morrill Graduate Fellowship. Here’s the abstract:

Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia universalis (1650) is—as the title suggests—a treatise on “universal music-making.” Previous studies have emphasized the universal and musical aspects of Kircher’s writing, both within his specific discussions of the Harmony of the Spheres and as a reflection of the larger project of a 1200-page encyclopedia of seventeenth-century music. Few, however, have ventured into his detailed instructions on the making of music. This trend is in part the fault of a more accessible 1662 German translation, which left out over two-thirds of Kircher’s original Latin text. The translation retained brief discussions of philosophical and magical elements of music that bookend the treatise, but vast sections of practical theory and instructions for music-making that make up the bulk of the text were completely omitted. Among the missing portions is a 200-page description, located near the end of the treatise, of an automatic method for composition that Kircher identifies in his preface as the culmination of much of the work that precedes it. By considering the purpose, sources, and output of this compositional algorithm, my paper reevaluates Musurgia’s practical goals in the light of new evidence that challenges the accepted view of Kircher’s place within the world of seventeenth-century music and music theory.

Drawing on theoretical discussions of the ars combinatoria from Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle (1636), Kircher proposes a more workable method for generating musical settings. Dozens of complex tables provide the raw musical material for four-part settings in seventeenth-century counterpoint. Unlike later eighteenth-century dice games that usually limit themselves to short compositions with a preset number of measures, Kircher has a much grander vision of being able to set any text—of any length, in any language, in prose or any poetic meter—to music. Kircher even designed a “music-making ark,” a box containing wooden slats that can be arranged to produce counterpoint using his algorithm, which complemented and simplified his method for truly universal music-making. In addition to serving as one of Kircher’s many miraculous mechanical inventions to awe and amaze his patrons, the method behind this device could have been of great value to his three hundred Jesuit brethren around the globe who were given copies of the Musurgia, including missionaries who needed to create new hymns in native languages. After discussing the sources and rationale behind Kircher’s compositional method, I turn to its musical output and relationship to the Musurgia as a whole. Using my computerized version of the algorithm, millions of potential musical settings can easily be generated. A review of the structural trends derived from these aggregate “compositions” will demonstrate how Kircher’s practical compositional priorities draw on and diverge from the theoretical ones he describes earlier in his treatise, articulating once again Kircher’s true emphasis on the actual making of music.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS