Athanasius Kircher on Music -2

Kircher mentions the peasant bagpipe which, he says, is “the only solace of shepherds and peasants.”  The new bagpipe designed for use by the court in Paris, the musette, he finds is “marvelous to hear.”

Here at Rome I have seen an instrument of this sort not without a singular delight to my soul.[1]

He includes in the discussion of the bagpipe the other double reeds, hautbois and dulcian.

But among them the one that is called fagot in the vernacular especially stands out; nothing sweeter or more fitted for playing the bass can be imagined.[2] 

Following the wind instruments, Kircher discusses the organ and he is one of few writers who acknowledge the organ for what it really was in the Baroque: a surrogate wind band.

The organ is like a sort of epitome and compendium of all wind instruments, and thus is deservedly the most beautiful and perfect of all.[3]

In discussing the skins used for percussion instruments, Kircher relates a charming contemporary example of folklore about sheep.

Just one little sheep feeds us, clothes us, and entertains us with four types of musical instruments, with intestines for strings, with shinbones and horns for pipes, and finally the skin turning into a drum, so that consequently the Hebrews have declared of it not inelegantly that the live animal has one voice; dead, seven.[4] 

Finally, after discussing an instrument much like the modern xylophone, Kircher is reminded of a most curious anecdote — or should we say, tale!

Not so long ago, in order to dispel the melancholy of some great prince, a noted and ingenious actor constructed an instrument such as this.  He took live cats all of different sizes, and shut them up in a kind of box especially made for this business, so that their tails, stuck through the holes, were inserted tightly into certain channels.  Under these he put keys fitted with the sharpest points instead of mallets.  Then he arranged the cats tonally according to their different sizes, so that each key corresponded to the tail of one cat, and he put the instrument prepared for the relaxation of the prince in a suitable place.  Then when it was played, it produced such music as the voices of cats can produce.  For when the keys, depressed by the fingers of the organist, pricked the tails of the cats with their points, they, driven to a rage, with miserable voices, howling now low, now high, produced such music made of the voices of cats as would move men to laughter and even arouse shrews to dance.[5] 

Book Seven, “Diacritical,” contains additional material on the ancient civilizations, the development of music during the Middle Ages and discussions of the classification of styles.  Following the publication in 1643 of Marco Scacchi’s Cribrum musicum ad triticum Syferticum, several critics adopted his classification of music in three functional divisions: church, chamber and theater.  Kircher presented a much more extensive classification of music, discussing first what he called “individual styles” of music, ideas which based on the so-called “humors.”  His second classification had to do with “national styles.”  The third classification followed Scacchi’s concept of a function-based system, but Kircher’s is more extended, with eight categories.

Stylus ecclesiasticus, church style with or without chant.  This must be “full of majesty, miraculously transporting the heart to contemplation of the solemn and grave, imprinting on the

heart its own motion.”  Stylus motecticus is a sub-category, with more varied and florid style.

Stylus canonicus [canon], in which the “musical ability of a composer is shown at its most skillful.”

Stylus phantasticus [improvisation], which Kircher finds “an extremely free and uninhibited method of composition particularly suitable for instrumental music.”  He cites here

the toccata, ricercar, fantasias and sonatas.

Stylus madrigalecus, “Italian style par excellence, joyful, lively, full of sweetness and grace, lending itself easily to vocal diminutions, and eschewing slowness of movement, unless specifically required by the text.”  This style, he says, is suitable for the portrayal of love, affection and pain.

Stylus melismaticus, “particularly appropriate for measured verses and meters…sweetly sung without agitation or affected dissonance.”

Stylus hyporchematicus, for feasts and festivities and Stylus choraicus, for dance and ballet.  This style has the ability to “excite emotions of joy, exaltation, wantonness and licentiousness.”

Stylus symphoniacus, instrumental music.

Stylus dramaticus or Stylus recitativus, recitative style for the representation of any of the so-called affections, or for abrupt             changes of affection through sudden alternations in tonality, the so-called Stylus metabolicus.[1]

[1] Quoted in Ibid., 50.

Book Eight, “Miraculous Musicology,” concerns time, including the poetic meters in a number of languages and a system by which the “unskilled in music can attain a perfect knowledge of composing in a short time.”  Kircher includes in this book reproductions of a song composed by Louis XIII of France and a five-part madrigal by the emperor Ferdinand III.

Book Nine, “The Magic of Consonance and Dissonance,” in which “the secrets of all the science of music are brought into the light by countless experiments.”  Certainly one of the most interesting parts of his work, we find here many curious and interesting things. 

First, he is credited with being the person who originated the idea of playing music on drinking glasses, which was the result of his experimentation in observing the effects of the tones produced by glasses filled with wine, water, sea-water and oil, etc.  This led him to acoustics in general, in the course of which he concluded that the biblical account of the fall of the walls of Jericho was not due to the sound of the trumpets, but some other physical cause.

In this book Kircher also discusses the effects of music on the mind and the use of music therapy.  Here he discusses the use of music to cure the bite of the Tarantula spider, something widely mentioned in early literature.[7]   Kircher cites several histories of this phenomenon, including a girl who was bitten and was cured by the music of only a drum.  In another case, however, he reports a volunteer allowed himself to be bitten by two Tarantulas, of different colors.  As the bite of one responded to music and dance, but the bite of the other was made worse, the patient died.  Kircher’s technical explanation reads,

The poison is sharp, gnawing, and bilious and is received and incorporated into the medullary substances of the fibers.  The music has the power to rarefy the air to a certain harmonic pitch; the air thus rarefied, penetrating the pores of the patient’s body, affects the muscles, arteries, and minute fibers, and incites him to dance, which begets a perspiration, in which the poison evaporates.

Kircher also devotes considerable space in Book Nine to echoes, beginning with a lovely anecdote.

A certain friend of mine having set out on a journey, had a river to cross, and not knowing the stream, cried out Oh, to which an echo answered Oh; he imagining it to be a man, called out in Italian, Onde devo passar? it answered passa; and when he asked qui? it replied qui; but as the waters formed a deep whirlpool there, and made a great noise, he was terrified, and again asked Devo passar qui?  The echo returns passa qui.  He repeated the same question often, and still had the same answer.  Terrified with the fear of being obliged to swim in case he attempted to pass there, and it being a dark and tempestuous night, he concluded that his respondent was some evil spirit that wanted to entice him into the torrent….

In the course of this discussion, Kircher cites a building in Pavia which would return an echo 30 times.

In this book Kircher also mentions a number of curious mechanical musical instruments, including a Cymbalarian, a machine consisting of revolving bells, and a combination of a hurdy-gurdy and a harpsichord which produced the impression of a consort of viols.  One device of his own invention was a wooden box, strung with gut strings, which, when placed in a window, produced sounds generated by the wind.

The method of tuning it, which is not, as in other instruments, by thirds, fourths, fifths, or eighths, but all the chords are to be tuned by an unison, or in octaves.  It is very wonderful, and nearly paradoxical, that chords thus tuned should constitute different harmony.  This musical phenomenon has not as yet been observed by any one that I know of….

When it is thus disposed you will perceive an harmony in the room in proportion as the wind is weaker or stronger; for from time to time all the chords having a tremulous motion impressed upon them, produce a correspondent variety of sounds, resembling a consort of pipes or flutes, affecting the hearers with a strange pleasure.

Just before his death, Kicher published a book called Phonurgia Nova (Rome, 1673) in which he describes his invention of a Speaking Trumpet, an idea which he says he took from the new telescopes.  Among other demonstrations, he adapted it to a statue in an art gallery, shocking the viewers with “feigned and ludicrous consultations.”  He also claims he constructed one version on a mountain, where the sound traveled four miles and was taken by villagers as a voice from heaven telling them to climb the mountain to celebrate the feast of Pentecost.

Book Ten, “Decachord of Nature,” focuses on the organ; the music of the spheres; the harmony of minerals, plants and animals with the heavens; political music; musical metaphysics; the music of angels and the harmony of nature.


[1] Ibid., 99ff.

[2] Ibid., 100.

[3] Ibid., 102.

[4] Ibid., 161.

[5] Ibid., 138ff.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., 50.

[7] In another book, Magnes siue De arte magnetica opus tripartitum (Rome, 1641) Kircher also discusses “the magnetic power and faculties of music” and “the affections of the mind which music excites.”  Here again, of particular interest is a special science which he calls “Tarantism,” the study of the “magnetism and amazing sympathy with music” of the tarantula.


David Whitwell


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