Athanasius Kircher SJ – ‘Musurgia Universalis’, 1650

Just yesterday we quoted an Athanasius Kircher‘s excerpt from his Musurgia Universalis (Rome: 1650).
This seminal works of musicology in two volumes seem to have been hugely influential on the works of J.S.Bach (1685-1750) and Beethoven (1770-1827)

Written in a transition point between sacred renaissance polyphony and secular Baroque music, this survey fosters the idealization of music as a human emotion. An accurate notation works, reproductions and trascriptions of ancient scores, extensive analysis of instrumentation, anatomy of voice and hearing, an acoustic theory entitled ‘Magia Phonocamptica, sive de Echo‘ appear in this vast treaty.

“Kircher professes the Boethian concept of musical harmonies’ mathematical correspondences within the body, the heavens, and the natural world, and concludes with a discussion of the unheard music of the nine angelic choirs and the Holy Trinity. Kircher’s research in music and acoustics led to many innovations and inventions, particularly in the area of amplification and sound design, which he would expand upon in his Phonurgia nova (Kempten 1673). Other devices created the illusion of talking statuary, hydraulically powered mechanical music-playing automata, the aeolian harp (which was revived and venerated by the English romantic poets as a model of divine inspiration), the hearing aid, and the arca musarithmica: a primitive mechanical computer that would compose simple random compositions, as well as write messages in cipher, calculate the date of Easter in any year, and design fortifications.” Source

Through Jesuit channels (40000 individuals living all over the world), the author, a well known 17th century German scholar, (erudite in an enormous range of interests, notably in the fields of oriental studies, geology, and medicine) had access to unparalleled sources of knowledge mostly unknown to the western world.

The Musurgia Universalis was printed in large numbers (about 1500 copies printed in 1650) and was widely distributed to a curious anecdote: in 1652 300 Jesuit came to Rome to elect a new Superior General and each came back with a copy of this work.






































































































Further readings:

Glasgow University Library Book of the Month exhibition site
Bibliodissey: Musurgia Universalis
Ptak Science Books: Found Sound: Kircher, Pythagoras, Blacksmiths & Earbones
The University of Reading Library Special Collections Featured Item.
‘Know It All’ by Professor Larry Wolff, IN: Boston College Magazine (Spring 2007 feature).
Italian: Essays on ‘Musurgica Universalis’ by Carlo Mario Chierotti.
‘The Scale and the Spectrum’ by James Peel in Cabinet Magazine, 2006.
Arca Musurgica.
Athanasius Kircher in Bibliodissey.


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