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12 January 2013


Glasgow University Library:
The book is one of the seminal works of musicology and was hugely influential in the development of Western music – in particular on J.S. Bach and Beethoven.

Its author [Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher] lived and worked at the Collegio Romano in Rome for most of his life and his position at the hub of a huge international organisation – the 40000 or so strong Society of Jesus - had two very important effects: first of all he received thousands of letters from Jesuits and others in places as far apart and little-known as China and Mexico, giving him access to unparalleled sources of knowledge mostly unknown to the western world.

The second effect was the converse of this: Kircher’s books were printed in large numbers – there were 1500 copies printed in 1650 of the Musurgia Universalis alone – and widely distributed through Jesuit channels. In 1652, for example, more than 300 Jesuits came to Rome from all over the world to elect a new Superior General: every one of them took back one of these sumptuous volumes, which explains the astonishing diaspora of these books even today.

The Musurgia Universalis then is hugely famous and has been since it appeared in 1650. Its most famous image is probably that of the birds with their songs written out in musical notation beside their pictures... The nightingale's song is given first, followed by those of the cock, the hen laying eggs and calling her chicks, the cuckoo, quail and parrot; the latter says Hello in Greek. The cockerel's music has the familiar portamento at the end of each phrase; as usual the cuckoo's call is notated as a falling minor third.

The rest of the content of the book, however, is much less well-known... The German publishing house of Olm produced a facsimile edition of it in 1990 but it is already out of print. Perhaps most strangely of all, apart from a nineteenth century translation of the work into German, there are no translations of the book, which is written in rather ponderous Latin with occasional excursions into Greek and Hebrew. Some of the musical scores printed in the book are found in no other form, despite the fame of some of the composers.

The frontispiece to the first volume was engraved by Baronius of Rome after a drawing by John Paul Schor. It makes reference to similar pages in some of Kircher's other volumes, particularly the triangle and globe symbols...

The triangle at the top is the symbol of the Holy Trinity and sheds its rays over the whole of the top of the picture. Kircher held to the mediaeval idea that music is a reflection of the essential mathematics and proportions inherent in all Creation... Under the Trinity we find the nine angelic, four-voice choirs, singing a 36-part canon by Romano Micheli. The canon is properly described as canoni sopra le vocali di piu parole (on the vowels of a few words) although in the present case the words ascribed are those of the angelic choirs in the Trishagion, Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus, as described in Revelation. The strip of text reads: Angelic choir of 36 voices [then the Sanctus music notated in staff notation] distributed in 9 choirs.

The middle section is dominated by a globe of the World, on which is seated Musica, holding the lyre of Apollo and the panpipes of Marsyas. The globe is encircled by the Zodiac, and Musica holds also a streamer bearing the legend Of Athanasius Kircher of the Society of Jesus, Universal Musicmaking or the Art... [being the beginning of the full title of the work]. Round the last part of the streamer is displayed the dedication To His Serene Highness Leopold William, Archduke of Austria. Other symbols in this section include rings of dancing mermaids on the shore, a shepherd trying out the echo and the winged horse of the Muses, Pegasus.

The lowest part of the picture shows blacksmiths in a cave: the sound of blacksmiths hammering had led Pythagoras to important conclusions about the nature of pitch and the blacksmiths are acknowledged in the picture by being pointed out by Pythagoras, who also holds an illustration of his theorem, also using triangles, and hence referring obliquely once again to the top of the picture. The muse on the right may be Polymnia who appears in standard pose surrounded by musical instruments of various kinds.

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