Athanasius Kircher on Music

The most interesting writer in 17th century Italy on the nature of music was Athanasius Kircher (1601 – 1680), a German born scholar who spent most of his adult life in Rome.  Kircher began his theological studies in 1625 in Mainz and was ordained a priest in 1628.   He obtained the chair of ethics and mathematics at the University of Wurzburg, which included responsibility for giving instructions in the Syrian and Hebrew languages.  However, the disorders of the Thirty Years War caused him to move to Lyons, in France, and later to Avignon.

The discovery of some hieroglyphic characters in the library at Speyer led Kircher to make his first attempt to solve the problem of hieroglyphical writing, which still baffled all scholars.  An important collector with influence in Rome arranged for Kircher to go to Rome to work in this field.  On his way, however, he was shipwrecked near Cività Vecchia.  Eventually he arrived in Rome, where he would remain for the rest of his life. 

After six years of successful teaching in the Roman College, where he lectured on physics, mathematics, and Oriental languages, he was released from these duties that he might have freedom in his studies and might devote himself to formal scientific research, especially in Southern Italy and Sicily. He took advantage of a trip to Malta to explore thoroughly the various volcanoes which exist between Naples and that island. He studied especially in 1638 the Strait of Messina, where, besides the noise of the surf, a dull subterranean rumble attracted his attention to such mysterious phenomena as the frightful eruption of Vesuvius in 1630.

When Kircher left Messina in 1638 to return to Naples, a terrible earthquake occurred which destroyed the city of Euphemia.  Like Pliny before him (AD 79), Kircher wished to study at close range this powerful convulsion of nature. On reaching Naples he at once climbed Vesuvius, and had himself lowered by means of a rope into the crater of the volcanic mountain and with the help of his pantometer ascertained exactly the different dimensions of the crater and its inner structure.

His great work on music was the Musurgia Universalis (Rome, 1650), a virtual encyclopedia of music.  While he appears to have been widely read himself, he also cites a number of scholars in Rome with whom he consulted in the preparation of his work.  He also acknowledged, in his preface, his indebtedness to Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle, although he says the latter was more addressed to the philosopher than the practical musician. 

Some critics had apparently questioned his authority to write on the subject of music, as Kircher admits in his preface.

I hear, among other things, that this objection is made to me: “How can the author have the audacity, since he is not a musician by profession, to undertake to correct and emend masters in the art, brought up in it almost from the cradle, and what is uppermost, to place himself as master over them, with more audacity than modesty?”  To these I answer that I am certainly not and have never been a musician by profession, since it is a calling not appropriate to my religion….[1]

Kircher continues, somewhat sarcastically, saying that what his critics mean, when they say he is not a professional musician, is that he has not taught music to boys in school, conducted a church choir or been a mercenary by writing for money.  On the other hand, he notes,

From an early age I have devoted my attention not only to more distinguished arts and sciences, but also to the practice of music, with the most thorough study and steadfast labor; and let [the critics] have no doubt that I have not been concerned with musical speculation only, since various compositions printed in Germany, but under the name of others, are passed around to the greatest pleasure of listeners and held in esteem…. 

Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis is divided into ten books, the first of which he entitles, “Anatomical.”   The earliest Greek philosophers, indeed philosophy as we know it, began with attempts to explain the physical world.  They soon fixed four basic elements (air, water, fire and earth) and four qualities (hot, cold, moist and dry).  Attempts to relate man to the physical world resulted in the theory of the four “humors,” sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic, the balance of which determined a person’s disposition, character and life style.  Athanasius Kircher believed the humors indigenous to a person explained his preferences in music.

Melancholy people like grave, solid, and sad harmony; sanguine person prefer the hyporchematic style (dance music) because it agitates the blood; choleric people like agitated harmonies because of the vehemence of their swollen gall; martially inclined men are partial to trumpets and drums and reject all delicate and pure music; phlegmatic persons lean toward women’s voices because their high pitched voice has a benevolent effect on phlegmatic humour.[2]

Since it had long been assumed that these humors, and thus the person, could be affected by external influences, many philosophers also assumed that it was here that the power of music on the listener was found.  Some 17th century philosophers attempted to explain the influence of music on the affections, but, because language can explain neither music nor the emotions, their writings were largely unheeded by practical musicians.

Kircher began by determining that there are eight basic emotions which music can affect: love, grief or pain, joy, exultancy, rage or indignation, compassion or tears, fear or distress, presumption or audacity and admiration or astonishment.[3]   The philosophers in Germany tried to equate such emotions with specific elements of music, which was an effort doomed to failure since individual elements, such as intervals, for example, express little in comparison with how they are used by the composer.  Very much to the dismay of those who demand more scientific sounding concepts, Kircher attempted to identify the power of music at work through descriptive, and even subjective, language.  For the first emotion, love [paradigma affectus amoris] he finds in a madrigal by Gesualdo intervals which languish and syncopations which express “the syncope of the languishing heart.”  The second emotion, grief or pain [paradigma affectus dolorosi] he illustrates by describing the lament of Jephtha’s daughter in an oratorio by Carissimi.

Giacomo Carissimi, a very excellent and famous composer…through his genius and the felicity of his compositions, surpasses all others in moving the minds of listeners to whatever affection he wishes. 

 Here he also deals with the nature of the production of vocal sounds, including those by animals, birds and insects, presenting in many cases their calls in musical notation. 

Book Two, “Philological,” consists of studies of music in the ancient civilizations, in particular Hebrew and Greek.

Book Three, “Arithmetical,” concerns traditional music theory as it was developed by Church philosophers during the Middle Ages.  Here he also presents a system of “musical arithmetic,” through which the rules of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of intervals are represented by special characters.

Book Four, “Geometrical,” deals with the monochord, with geometric and algebraic systems for determining the intervals.

Book Five, “Symphonurgic,” consists of rules for composing music in the old church style [stile antico].

Book Six, “Organic music,” the medieval term for instrumental music, discusses as well geometry and acoustics.  Here Kircher deals with the physical characteristics of the family of instruments, but, unfortunately, includes little information on performance practice or of aesthetic considerations.  He makes the inaccurate assumption that string instruments must be the most ancient,[4] partly because of their prominence in the Old Testament, but also because he assumes man always had available cords (potential musical strings) to tie things with.[5]

It is somewhat unexpected that Kircher tells us that the cornett was missing in mid 17th century Rome, since it was a common instrument at the end of the 16th century.

Since the cornetts attain a remarkable power in music, I certainly wonder that our Roman musicians take no interest in them, since nothing could be more suited to church music, especially if three, four, or five cornetts are accompanied by a bassoon.  I certainly would think that ensembles of this sort, from time to time, would be much preferred to string ensembles for major solemnities and festivities….[6]

We like a comment by Kircher made as part of his explanation of the distribution of the natural tones of the trumpet:

You see, therefore, how much nature abhors dissonances, so that the trumpet would rather burst than allow them.[7]

He also makes a brief reference to improvisation in the highest trumpet part, a subject relatively little discussed during the 17th century.  This is due in part to the rather secretive nature of the trumpet guilds and their repertoire of memorized, and rarely notated, music.


[1] Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia universalis (1650), trans., Frederick Crane (unpublished dissertation, State University of Iowa, 1956), xix.

[2] Athanasius Kircher (1602 – 1680), Musurgia Universalis, quoted in Paul Henry Lang, “Musical Thought of the Baroque: The Doctrine of Temperaments and Affections,” in William Hays, ed., Twentieth-Century Views of Music History (New York: Scribner’s, 1972), 195.

[3] Musurgia Universalis, I, Bk. I, iii, 6.

[4] Logic would suggest instruments made of natural objects, such as flutes from bones, percussion instruments from turtle shells and trumpets from sea shells, must be older than string instruments which require a relatively advanced technology to make.

[5] Kircher, Musurgia universalis, trans., Crane, Op. cit., 1.

[6] Ibid., 91.

[7] Ibid., 94.

 David Whitwell

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