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As a physical object, Michael Maier’s captivating Atalanta fugiens is of modest dimensions. It is difficult to imagine how three singers could ever have gathered around a copy of the book to sing its canons. Nor is there evidence that anyone attempted it. But Maier’s curious integration of music into his enigmatic creation opened it wide indeed, to playfulness of cosmic significance.

Maier included fifty three-voice contrapuntal pieces in Atalanta fugiens and structured a subsequent treatise, Cantilenae intellectuales (Intellectual songs; 1622), around the literary conceit of poetic “counterpoint” for three voices. Yet he left just a few scattered comments on music and nothing remotely resembling a thorough statement of musical philosophy. My task, then, lies in stitching together disparate threads, searching for meaningful coherence within the fabric of Maier’s work and against the larger tapestry of his world.

The tapestry I weave differs significantly from earlier accounts. I place less emphasis upon alchemy (especially in its occult formulations), which several fine scholars have already explored.1 Moreover, Maier was more than an (occult) alchemist, and the spacious category of musica offered him and his contemporaries a fuller range of possibilities than that label implies. To imagine those possibilities requires descending a bit from the realm of cosmic ideas in which Maier is usually placed and entering into the quotidian conditions of early modern social and professional life. I locate Maier’s musical world among people, texts, and sounds he is likely to have encountered. These range from the gentlemen and scholars who divined and calculated a silent harmony of the heavens to the humbler artisans who honed the techniques of counterpoint and text painting that transformed lofty words and ideas into physical sound. At times, musica manifested itself in contradictory, even inimical forms; Maier partook of them all. I therefore aim to suggest multiple ways that Atalanta fugiens could have signified in the wide but coherent constellation of cultures — social and professional, aesthetic and scientific, metaphysical and theological — from which musical and chymical subcultures took their coordinates.

Missing Histories

It is impossible to write the history of music and alchemy. Both pursuits encompassed a variety of cultural practices, of which the Atalanta-object materializes just a narrow selection. And, as we will see, both were shaped by common epistemological and social assumptions, according to which garden-variety practitioners were mere “mechanics.”2 The learned and privileged held them in low regard and considered them to have little intellectual life worth recording. Thus, whole realms of cultural production have left behind relatively few evidentiary traces. This is especially true at the nexus of chymistry and music. The scarcity of sources has led, on the one hand, to overinterpretation of those few that exist. In the case of Atalanta fugiens, one scholar describes the canons as “incantations,” evidence that alchemists commonly “incorporated some type of [secret] musical practice in their ritual.”3 At the same time, other scholars have dismissed the occasional testimony of a musician’s alchemical activities, as in the correspondence of Maier’s contemporary Claudio Monteverdi. The editor of a recent edition of the composer’s letters assures readers that
the real attraction of [the pseudo-science] lay not so much in its scientific aspect as in its symbolism and its pretence towards a search for perfection. . . . Monteverdi’s involvement could not have been all that deep, and perhaps . . . in the nature of a pastime . . . part and parcel of an amusing diversion.4

That conclusion is possible, given Monteverdi’s light touch in these letters; it certainly helps to safeguard the prescient intelligence one expects from a canonic genius, and especially from the supposed “creator of modern music.”5 Yet to assume that Monteverdi’s epistolary playfulness amounts to mere irony or mere insincerity would underestimate the complexity of seventeenth-century wit. (Monteverdi, after all, chose his Scherzi musicali [Musical jests, 1607] as the forum for his lengthiest, most defensive statement of musical principles.) This world delighted in profound wit and serious jest, as Maier’s titles Lusus serius (1616) and Jocus severus (1617) testify. Metaphors and conceits could signify at multiple levels of reality, rendering it difficult for modern scholars to draw firm boundaries between underinterpretation and overkill.

In Maier’s case, recent research makes that boundary more ambiguous still. Loren Ludwig’s extraordinary discovery — that Maier lifted the bulk of the canons in Atalanta fugiens from John Farmer’s Divers & Sundry Waies (1591) — complicates any simple notions about Maier’s beliefs and his claims to authorship. As new documents continue to emerge, so does a new, less — idealized Maier: a flesh-and-blood rascal, not just a mind consumed with cosmic thoughts. Perhaps the presence of music in this alchemical emblem book records less about the author’s musical-metaphysical convictions than about his pressing need to attract a patron by demonstrating a unique gift.6 (Sadly, the expense of printing Atalanta fugiens exacerbated, rather than improved, his dire financial straits.)7 Whatever Maier’s beliefs and motivations, that is to say, he engineered an object capable of provoking conversation and reflection far beyond the printed page. To understand the world for which it was designed, we begin by reconstructing the musical milieu that Maier himself might have inhabited.

Medicus, Magus, Musicus

If we take Maier at his word, he had a firm “grasp [of] both the theory and practice of music.”8 But we know little about his musical life and — in light of his musical borrowings — it appears that we knew even less than we’d thought. Nevertheless, using the autobiographical account in Maier’s recently rediscovered De medicina regia & verè heroica, Coelidonia (On Coelidonia, that regal and truly heroic medicine; 1609), I attempt to fill out the picture by placing him among figures whom he is likely to have known or whose education and career likely resembled his.9

As for his intellectual formation, Maier recalled his boyhood studies of the trivium and music at the local school.10 But it isn’t clear whether this instruction was theoretical, practical, or both. Paul Raasveld plausibly suggests that Maier was familiar with Johannes Lippius’s Synopsis novae musicae (Synopsis of new music; 1612).11 Yet I find it altogether more likely that Maier’s musical thought was shaped by an important teacher and by a fellow student during his years at the University of Rostock (1587–91). In Rostock he almost certainly would have studied medicine and quadrivial subjects under the distinguished physician and mathematician Heinrich Brucaeus. Brucaeus published widely in both fields, and Maier later cited his writings.12 To fulfill his polymathic ambition, Brucaeus pursued music in his scholarship and pedagogy, as revealed in Musica theorica (Music theory), published posthumously in 1609. The short treatise presents Brucaeus’s exegeses of Euclidian texts. In fact, since Musica theorica consists of lecture materials (possibly in a student’s transcription), it may offer a direct glimpse into Maier’s musical education at University: resolutely mathematical, focused upon ratios of pitch, rooted in classical sources, without immediate application to practice.13 The editor of Musica theorica, Joachim Burmeister, expressed surprise that Brucaeus should write so discerningly about musical science despite lacking even rudimentary musical ability.14 However, the world of the theorist was rarely coterminous with that of the practitioner, as we will see.

Although not mentioned in previous studies of Atalanta fugiens, Burmeister himself should be a figure of considerable interest. A music theorist who later held the post of cantor in Rostock, he worked as a musician in two of the city’s principal churches and studied with Brucaeus during Maier’s time at the University.15 Burmeister’s Hypomnematum musicae poeticae (Notes on a synopsis of musical poetics; 1599) linked incipient notions of triadic harmony to the Trinitarian thought that exercised a profound influence upon Maier’s musical metaphysics. It is not far-fetched to imagine young Michael Maier engaging Burmeister and Brucaeus in erudite musical conversation.

What of Maier’s experiences with sounding music? Here, too, evidence is slender. The aviary conceit of his Jocus severus might suggest a sensitivity to birdsong.16 (On the other hand, birds provided conventional Decknamen, code names, for chymical volatiles.) He mentions having heard the hydraulic organ at the Medicean Villa Pratolino.17 He must have heard contemporary music in Italy, Prague, and London. His London sojourn was crucial for Atalanta fugiens, since it was almost certainly there that he encountered Farmer’s canons.18 On the basis of internal evidence, I suspect that he also encountered William Bathe’s A Briefe Introduction to the Skill of Song (c. 1596).19 Bathe’s humble treatise, which offered rough guidance in composing two-voice canons above a plainsong cantus firmus, could have come in handy when Maier filled out the blank spaces in Atalanta fugiens (see table 1 below). In 1611, Maier presented James I with an elaborate poetic greeting, complete with a four-voice canon above an ostinato.20 Simon Smith speculates that this canon, and perhaps others destined for Atalanta fugiens, may have been used in a performance of Shakespeare’s alchemically resonant The Winter’s Tale, given at court in 1612–13 to celebrate the union of James’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick V. Maier was certainly on the scene, having been listed among Frederick’s “gentlemen” at the funeral of James’s son Henry in November 1612.21 Yet it seems somewhat improbable that he — rather than one of the fine musicians associated with the English court — would have been entrusted with such a task.22

Was Maier sufficiently skilled to have composed canons — even bad ones? In Coelidonia, he claims that his mother paid two years’ tuition to an unnamed, “more celebrated school” than that at which he studied music and the trivium.23 I would suggest the Gymnasium of Bordesholm, just outside Kiel. Although this Fürstenschule served the sons of the aristocracy, students also hailed from working-class families, especially those (like Maier’s) that served the Holstein court. One such student was Erasmus Sartorius, a choirboy at court. Princely support enabled him to attend Bordesholm in the early 1590s, where he also served as organist. Bordesholm prepared him for Rostock which, in turn, prepared him for a career resembling Burmeister’s: an important municipal cantorate and the publication of music treatises that displayed his authorial skill with the sort of rich, allusive Latin prose and poetry at which Maier also excelled. It was common in Lutheran lands, well into the eighteenth century, for such students to defray tuition by singing in the liturgy. If Maier did so, he would have learned, at minimum, to sing melodies from musical notation. Instruction often extended to singing polyphony and, in some cases, to the rudiments of contrapuntal composition.

Maier claimed that the fugues in Atalanta fugiens were given “by my Muse” (dat mea Musa fugas) and that he himself carefully “wrote and proofed” them (fugas illas musicales . . . summâ diligentiâ scripsi & revidi).24 The unacknowledged presence of Farmer’s entire opus within Atalanta fugiens tells a rather different story. Maier’s “Muse” was likely no more celestial than a bookstall; in hindsight, we might even take scripsi here to mean “copied down” rather than “wrote.” The choice of Farmer’s obscure print could suggest that he hoped to escape detection. The same held for Maier’s friend Johannes Staricius, a poet laureate, chymist, and organist. Portions of Staricius’s Newer teutscher weltlicher Lieder (New German secular songs; 1609) are neither new nor German but rather consist of unacknowledged borrowings from Thomas Morley’s madrigals and ballets, published in the 1590s by the same London firm that printed Bathe’s and Farmer’s work.25 Nor can we simply assume that Maier composed the remaining ten pieces; possibly, he commissioned them from some as yet unknown musician. Since canon was closely associated with recondite learning, contrapuntal “borrowing” (with varying degrees of attribution) was a common strategy for authors to present themselves as more skillful and erudite than they actually were.26

Maier used all forty of Farmer’s waies, but that still left him ten fugues short. Two flights of fugues, 21–30 and 31–40, preserve Farmer’s sequence fairly accurately. This could point to an earlier, differently ordered incarnation of Atalanta fugiens. Of the book’s first twenty fugues, Maier took only the even-numbered from Farmer. He still needed ten fugues to fill in the odd-numbered slots. As it turns out, these ten “mystery fugues” are a virtuoso display of incompetence. For instance, before Fugue 11 completes the first poetic line, it has already charged through a briar of improbable dissonances and parallel perfect intervals — including one instance where all voices move simultaneously in forbidden parallels. The Burmeisters of the era devoted countless pages to warning against such solecisms of musical grammar and syntax.27 Even allowing for Maier’s choice of an archaic idiom in which open intervals are acceptable, it is still a feat to violate so many sacrosanct theoretical precepts in so short a space. Fugue 11 certainly merits its epigram: Tear up the books!

Excerpt from Fugue 11

image/svg+xml Engraved by Verovio 2.1.0 Dissonance treatment Parallel fifths Parallel octaves Parallel fifths and octaves Hippom. sequens. Atalanta fugiens. Pomum morans. La La to nae La to to nae so bo bo lem nae so bo lem non non no vit lem non no vit ne ne mo no vit engraved with

Musica: The Noble Science

In any event, compositional competence was somewhat beside the point. As commentators long ago pointed out, the vast symbolic ambition behind Atalanta fugiens far outweighs technical finesse.28 Maier did not necessarily need to demonstrate complete mastery of the craft but only a basic fitness of musical and literary conceits. His final flight of borrowings, Fugues 41–50, does so imaginatively.29 Moreover, musical finesse and competence, and the technical study required to attain them, once held a very different status. They were the domain of the craftsman; the cult of the “Musical Genius” was centuries away. Maier distanced himself from craft at the outset of Atalanta fugiens. His imposing self-presentation as “count, knight, and doctor of medicine” bespeaks status far above that of professional musicians (fig. 1). In a single glance it communicates power, erudition, wealth, lineage, renown. It is a facade for his literary performance, as expected in an era when the theatrical stage provided the dominant metaphor for public life: theatrum mundi (the great theater of the world). It exudes a confident sophistication that belies a hungrier reality. Maier had been ennobled but was not of the nobility. He was a gold embroiderer’s son and, in 1617, the ink on his escutcheon was scarcely dry. The escutcheon suggests a storied lineage but was in fact one of Maier’s ingenious concoctions. Figala, Neumann, and others have recently unearthed archival documents that allow a peek behind the mask.30 Maier spent his university career fleeing debt and scandal, his mature career chasing patrons. That he dedicated Atlanta fugiens, his intricate jewelbox, to the Mühlhausen town council cannot be taken as a sign of high status, either financial, professional, or social.

Table 1
Maier Atalanta fugiens Farmer Sundry Waies
1 View in digital edition
2 View in digital edition 2
3 View in digital edition
4 View in digital edition 23
5 View in digital edition
6 View in digital edition 25
7 View in digital edition
8 View in digital edition 27
9 View in digital edition
10 View in digital edition 15
11 View in digital edition
12 View in digital edition 14
13 View in digital edition
14 View in digital edition 18
15 View in digital edition
16 View in digital edition 17
17 View in digital edition
18 View in digital edition 11
19 View in digital edition
20 View in digital edition 20
21 View in digital edition 1
22 View in digital edition 3
23 View in digital edition 4
24 View in digital edition 5
25 View in digital edition 6
26 View in digital edition 7
27 View in digital edition 8
28 View in digital edition 9
29 View in digital edition 10
30 View in digital edition 12
31 View in digital edition 16
32 View in digital edition 22
33 View in digital edition 24
34 View in digital edition 26
35 View in digital edition 28
36 View in digital edition 29
37 View in digital edition 30
38 View in digital edition 31
39 View in digital edition 32
40 View in digital edition 33
41 View in digital edition 21
42 View in digital edition 19a
43 View in digital edition 19b
44 View in digital edition 13
45 View in digital edition 35
46 View in digital edition 38
47 View in digital edition 39
48 View in digital edition 36
49 View in digital edition 37
50 View in digital edition 34
An etching that depicts the author of Atalanta fugiens seated, wearing elaborate clothing, and holding a book next to a coat of arms.
Figure 1

Seventeenth-century scientific literature often features images that seamlessly connect various branches of knowledge. Within many of those enterprises, including music and chymistry, fissures ran between theorists and practitioners that tracked neatly with those of social rank. Take the emblem of musico-chymical harmony devised by Jacques de Senlecque for Basil Valentine’s Révélation des mystères (Revelation of mysteries; 1646) (fig. 2).31 Senlecque intones parallel scales between treatises of seven alchemical authors and seven alchemical preparations that result from operations of Paracelsian spagyria. He fills out that sonority with another parallel scale for the discipline of music. The scale of a seven-piped organ corresponds to the seven celestial bodies, which were in turn associated with the traditional seven metals. The celestial bodies, therefore, establish the link between chymistry and music, and between both and the macrocosm. The heavenly organum, metaphor for the greater organon, stands as Christian substitute for Apollo’s seven-stringed lyre and Pan’s seven pipes.32 It is the warrant for musica instrumentalis, in the form of a seven-stringed, seven-fretted viol.33 The visual-verbal pun between the “viol” of music and the “vial” (phial) of chymistry exemplifies “profound wit.” The similarity of words that name dissimilar objects is a sign that both draw upon the same concealed powers to effect human healing.

The frontispiece for Revelation des mysteres (Revelation of Mysteries) depicts a split image. On the left-hand side: a robed figure presides over various materials; in the background there are numerous vessels, books, symbols, and a small vignette of mythical creatures. On the right-hand side: A heavily cloaked man in a hat is surrounded by various instruments and experiments in progress.
Figure 2

Read more assertively, Senlecque’s image forcefully attempts to harmonize what were actually dissonant socio-professional relationships in both musical and chymical cultures. While all three scales move in smooth parallel motion, they sing in different registers. Chymical theoria appears above, and separated from, practica. Likewise, the celestial organ is a disembodied rank of pipes in a realm above the viol, whose bow indicates the physical activity of music-making.

Early seventeenth-century erudites did not dignify physical labor; they dissociated themselves from its taint. One of Maier’s readers exemplifies enduring tensions between theory and practice, musical and chymical. At mid-century, Athanasius Kircher touted his numerical system of “automatic” music as more rational than — and superior to — the act of composition; likewise, he reported that in the chymical laboratory, he gave the orders that menials executed.34 It is increasingly clear that Maier carried out substantial laboratory work — to the dismay of his neighbors — and that he was capable of writing about chymistry in straightforward, technical prose. Thus it is significant that he located Atalanta fugiens somewhat far “from the world of laboratory practice,” as Lawrence Principe observes.35 The printed page offered a more visible forum than the laboratory, making it all the more important for Maier to use print as a vehicle to distinguish himself from what Tara Nummedal calls “entrepreneurial chemists.”36 It would have been useful for him to have publicly discredited rank-and-file practitioners as betrüger (frauds), and he devoted a treatise to doing just that: Examen fucorum pseudo-chymicorum (Swarm of pseudo-chymical drones; 1617).
Of everything that must be understood about the Theoretical part of this Philosophy, the Pseudo-chymist has an insufficient or superficial acquaintance, and therefore is here as if deprived of an eye. And I fear that, because he would not see much with the other ([as it] is turned toward practice), he is thus blinder than a mole. For, in practice, which operations can he execute? Certainly not the Philosophical ones, but [instead only] deceptive ones, and those that pertain to this art no more than do straw and chaff to wheat.37

In Maier’s distinctive formulation of chemistry, of which Atalanta fugiens is an intense distillation, preoccupation with social status is the volatile. The true chymist, he argues, is versed in astronomy, physics, geometry, arithmetic, grammar, rhetoric, poetics, philology, logic, medicine.38 These terrifying job requirements are really just the university education that remained the prerogative of the privileged.

Take Maier’s rant, replace pseudo-chymist with pseudo-musicus, and you’ve got yourself a good seventeenth-century music treatise. Here, too, privileged theorists denounced common practitioners: the latter had debased the ideal of “living musically” to a synonym for gross sensuality. In their sensuality, they relied on the fallacious judgment of the ears rather than the intellect. In their utter ignorance of arithmetic, geometry, Greek, Latin, and poetics, they maimed musica at every turn. Many theorists of this stamp were nobles and aristocrats, or intellectuals in their midst. Among the few composers to win their unalloyed acclaim was Don Carlo Gesualdo, the dark prince of Venosa.39 Gesualdo’s music went beyond expressing texts; it intensified them through harmonic progressions so unusual as to nearly defeat performers. It epitomizes a true musica reservata that “nobly” flouted the economy of everyday utility to which the professional was bound. Such attitudes explain the defensive statements in many publications devoted to musica practica (such as Bathe’s and Farmer’s) about the “nobility” of the craft.40

Nowadays, this theory-practice rift can seem a bit counterintuitive because the categories of “theory” and “practice” have shifted. The modern music theory curriculum progressively manipulates intervals to develop such skills as improvisation and composition. To the seventeenth-century intellectual, those lay closer to “mere” musica practica. True musica theorica or speculativa considered the same intervals, but rather as mathematical abstractions and manifestations of a deeper order. Individual compositions amounted to epiphenomena, more or less pleasing in their way but of a far lower order than the objects of musica speculativa.41

“Sounding number” (numerus sonorus), as Maier’s contemporaries understood that concept, traced back to the mathematical thought of Pythagoras. Tradition credited him with discovering that musical intervals could be expressed as numerical proportions. The fourth, fifth, and octave formed the tetraktys, an interlocking series of ratios (4:3:2:1), whose terms yield the divine number, ten. This discovery, at once scientific and metaphysical, formed the basis for the central Pythagorean teaching “All is number.” According to this doctrine, musical proportion not only governed musical sound; it was the organizing principle of the heavenly spheres.

Early modern thinkers were often deeply syncretic. Because they accounted for Greek learning as deriving from Moses and the Biblical Hebrews, they easily folded Pythagorean thought into scriptural exegesis. Writers in mathematical disciplines (including Maier) often invoked Wisdom 11:21, which states that God ordered the universe by “number, weight, and measure.”42 This verse conditioned the interpretation of two other passages. Genesis 4:21–22 tersely describes Jubal as “father of them that play upon the harp and the organs” and his brother Tubalcain as “hammerer and artificer in every work of brass and iron.” These verses from Genesis offered proof that God had revealed musical science to antediluvian Hebrews. The mention of metallic artifice led many to discern a divine revelation of alchemy, the mention of “hammering” to conclude that the frequently conflated Jubal-Tubal actually referred to Pythagoras and his musical discovery in the ring of blacksmiths’ hammers.43 Maier’s genealogies of prisca sapientia (pristine or ancient wisdom) sometimes credited Pythagoras with discovering intervals, at others times with transmitting the intervals that Hermes discovered (“since all things exist according to weight, number, and measure”).44 In either case, it was no stretch to interpret a third verse, Job 38:37 (“Who can make the harmony of heaven to sleep?”), as proof of a silent Pythagorean musica mundana (music of the spheres) in the Christian cosmos.

Pythagorean musical philosophy, in Boethius’s late antique formulation, persisted in early modern university curricula. Like the Pythagoreans, Boethius drew from musical mathematics broad and somewhat surprising consequences. Here again, we find that basic terms such as “music” and “musician” were once defined quite differently. Boethius divided music into three classes along a hierarchical continuum. The music of the spheres (musica mundana) took pride of place, followed by a music of the human body and soul (musica humana), fashioned by God according to harmonious proportions. What we today call “music” (musica instrumentalis) occupied the very lowest rung. It appeared most real; in fact, it was the most illusory. For Boethius, true musica was a science of mathematical speculation, not the irrational craft of music-making. It did not necessarily imply audibility or sound. It was a silent principle of cosmic order.

Epistemological distinctions mapped onto those of social class. The true musicus was an aristocratic philosopher like Boethius or Maier. The cantor — our “musician” — was a literal and figurative slave, a brute bound to the physical production of sensible sound. Notably, given the musical conceit of Atalanta fugiens, Maier used Boethian rhetoric to attack pseudo-chymists: they were “asses [attempting] the lyre — that is, utterly remote from all good learning and intention.”45 By contrast, Maier recommends the soundless songs of Cantilenae intellectuales to a deep interior reflection (“profundâ mente”) drawn from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.46 Maier envisioned a musical experience far richer than mere reading:
A sort of three-voice musical echo will result within [the reader], affecting and sweetening not so much the ears with sound, but rather the mind by an internal sense in the manner of Aspendius, who was said to sing within himself. For just as ardent prayers poured forth to God are considered to be cried out (albeit silently and without noise), so also are the harmonies of [these] songs to be perceived in the silence of the intellect.47

If Maier found it difficult to explain the phenomenon precisely, it will be no easier for us four centuries later. Still, it suggests another way to understand the music of Cantilenae intellectuales, Hymnosophia, Atalanta fugiens, and, potentially, a great deal more: not quite sounding, not quite silent, but somewhere between. Early moderns read poetry with a deep awareness of meter. The quantitative meters of Latin verse were trained intensively in the early years of their education, reinforced over a lifetime of liturgical hymnody. A musical conceit — even the bare layout of poetry on a page — could stimulate deeply inculcated patterns. As the eye moved silently across the pages of Cantilenae intellectuales, the reader musicked the poetry, the mind’s ear supplying the rhythms of anacreontic meter and perhaps even the melody used to memorize it.48

But due to suspicion of the physical in both Greek and Christian traditions, Maier’s contemporaries harbored ambivalent attitudes toward sounding music. It emanated a sensual presence capable of corrupting souls and an alchemical power capable of ennobling them. Despite the risk, Maier claimed, alchemy and music were worthy of liberales — well-educated, well-heeled gentlemen.49

In Lutheran Germany, the requirements of the liturgy somewhat narrowed the rift between musicus and cantor. Since women were bound to “keep silent in churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34), the local lateinschule (Latin school) or university provided a steady stream of boy trebles for a city’s principal churches. This meant that a relatively high proportion of well-educated Lutherans had effectively spent their formative years as semiprofessional musicians. Moreover, the municipal liturgical machine was overseen by the Kantor, an organist-composer whose post frequently required him to teach Latin at the school. The latter obligation resulted in a cantorate that was formally educated to a degree sufficient to master the trivium (but not necessarily the advanced disciplines that comprised the quadrivium, physics, and metaphysics).50 Nevertheless, Maier positioned himself not among cantors, but rather among the privileged intellectuals who devoted Latin treatises to musical metaphysics and mathematics. His London and Prague sojourns brought him into the spheres of the two most prominent and controversial: Robert Fludd and Johannes Kepler.51

Musica’s Universal Resonance

Soon after Atalanta fugiens appeared, Fludd and Kepler entered a dispute about cosmic harmony that would have far-reaching consequences for the conceptualization of music. Both affirmed a universe structured by music, but they disagreed about the means to demonstrate it: philosophical speculation and occult correspondences (Fludd, fig. 3a) or calculation founded upon empirical observation (Kepler, fig. 3b).

A diagram presents an elaborate instrument known as the Cosmic Monochord that features a string attached to a single slab. A hand extends from a cloud radiating light to tighten the device. Along the length of the device are symbols and letters with explanatory notes in Latin.
Figure 3a
A table presents evidence of planetary harmonies.
Figure 3b

For our purposes, it is notable that Kepler and his partisans, in attacking Fludd’s work, drew attention to its alchemical resonances. Kepler contrasted Fludd’s methodology (concealing Nature’s secrets “in shadowy enigmas” after the manner of “chymists, hermetics, Paracelsians”) with his own (using mathematics to bring “matters shrouded in darkness into the light of understanding”).52 Pierre Gassendi mocked Fludd for finding hints of “any old consonance” in chymical practices and expressed surprise that he “took pains to express these things on paper.”53 Marin Mersenne approved of Kepler’s method as mathematical, deriving results from “the compass,” whereas Fludd’s was “chymical,” using “furnaces and fire.”54

Nevertheless, scholars overemphasize Fludd and Kepler’s differences at the expense of their significant common ground. They shared with each other, and with Maier, fundamental assumptions: that music was a numerical science and that it pervaded the cosmic and metaphysical order. “If therefore we sing [in Atalanta fugiens], it is not inappropriate,” Maier wrote, “since the Angels sing (as Sacred Writ shows), the heavens sing, as Pythagoras maintained, & they tell out the glory of God, as the Psalmist says.”55 Considered in this context, the combination of alchemy, music, and metaphysics in Atalanta fugiens doesn’t seem so idiosyncratic. Still, it is difficult to articulate a coherent musical metaphysics from this single work. Clues are scattered across the corpus of Maier’s writings, most of which appeared in the narrow span of six years, 1616–22.

The first emblem in Atalanta fugiens bears a cryptic motto from the Tabula smaragdina (Emerald tablet), purportedly the work of Hermes Trismegistus: “The [North] Wind bore it in his belly.” Through emblem and epigram (fig. 4), Maier explicates the two fundamental substances of Jabirian theory; here, the fetus (sulfur) is borne by Boreas (mercury). Maier alludes not only to the material substances from which all elements derive but also — since Boreas gestates a human form — to the continuity and interrelation of operations divine and human, spiritual and material, celestial and terrestrial.56 The discourse extends the continuity to embrace various branches of knowledge and intellectual inquiry.
Now the question is; who he is, that ought to be carried by wind? I answer, Chymically, it is Sulphur, which is carried in Argent vive, as Lully in his book, Chapt 32 attests, and all the rest; physically, it is an infant, which ought in a little time to be born into the world: I say also Arithmetically, that it is the root of a Cube; Musically, that it is the Disdiapason [double octave]; Geometrically, that it is a punctum the beginning of a running line; Astronomically, the center of the planets, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. 57

A page from Atalanta fugiens presents Emblem 1 and its epigram. In the emblem, a bearded nude man, identified as Boreas, with wind gusts extending from his head and arms, has a fetus inside his stomach. He is standing amongst bushes with a river and cityscape in the background.
Figure 4 add add Add to Collection

This commentary bears comparison to a passage in Thomas Norton’s Ordinall of alchimy, which Maier published in Latin translation the same year as Atalanta fugiens. Norton wrote that the chymist should combine physical substances according to the rules of artistic and scientific disciplines including arithmetic and music.58 Among the musical proportions “very like” those of chymistry are the octave, fifth, and fourth; combined, they yield the double octave, which is both the interval of Maier’s discourse and the first harmonic sonority of the corresponding fugue.

More important than the specific interval (to which we shall return) is the unity of knowledge that Maier’s comments presuppose. This presumed unity was especially intimate among the quadrivial disciplines, speaking as they did a single language of number. Seventeenth-century intellectual culture witnessed the apex of the polymathic ideal: the mastery of universal rather than specialist knowledge. This enabled music to serve as a category of analysis in a variety of disciplines. For this reason, mathematicians and astronomers (such as Kepler, Kircher, and Mersenne) were also the prominent music theorists. Also for this reason, medics and chymists (such as Fludd and Maier) incorporated music into their work. Music, chymistry, and medicine all aimed to channel great and sometimes mysterious forces toward transformations. The venerable concept of musica humana therefore warranted explorations of iatromusica, music applied to medicine. Maier falls into a long tradition of thinkers who mapped the mathematics of pitch onto the body and healing practices.59 In his memorably titled Civitas corporis humani, a tyrannide arthritica vindicata (City of the human body liberated from arthritic tyranny; 1621), Maier compared body parts to polyphonic voices. “Just as in music sweet-sounding harmony arises from various notes [together] and not just a single one,” he wrote, “so also in [this] city.”60 This pleasing metaphor stated a higher reality that had anatomical manifestations and practical medical applications.

Atalanta fugiens opened with the idea, central also to Fludd’s writings, that “man is a compendium of the universe.”61 Emblem 21 (fig. 5) joins a woman to the traditional Vitruvian man. Hermes Trismegistus inscribes them within a circle (for the soul’s divine nature) and a square (for the body’s material nature). They are further inscribed by a triangle and a circle, all of which have chymical significance.62 Hermes works with square, compass, and quadrant, the traditional tools of geometer, architect, and astronomer. Man, then, is a “compendium of the universe” precisely by virtue of musical proportions: they shape our bodies and bewitch our souls. (In Lusus serius [A serious jest], Maier places this Platonic idea in the mouth of a sheep.)63 Music is everywhere in this emblem, even if Maier doesn’t show it.

The second page of emblem 21 from Atalanta fugiens, which shows the motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the image, a bearded man in eastern clothing, represented as Hermes Trismegistus, is holding a compass and pointing to a brick wall with a t-square and quadrant at his feet. On the brick wall there is a drawing of a nude man and woman inside a circle inside a square inside a triangle inside a circle.
Figure 5 add add Add to Collection

As usual, the specific details are tougher to work out and require gathering fragments scattered across his other writings. In Cantilenae intellectuales he posits a specific macro-microcosmic relationship between planets and bodily organs. A major third, perfect fifth, and octave result from the proportional distances from Earth to Moon, Sun, and fixed stars, and from feet to liver, heart, and brain.64 The ratios extend the tetraktys by one term (5:4:3:2:1); the intervals form the harmonic triad that would hold such significance for Maier. He explains these relationships more fully in an unlikely place, Verum inventum, hoc est munera Germaniae (The true discovery, or the gifts of Germany; 1619). Here he praises German contributions to civilization, especially Charlemagne’s brilliant establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and its governance by seven electors. The electors didn’t always see eye to eye, so Maier turned to planetary motions to explain a musica politica in which occasional dissonances between individual voices contribute to overall harmony.65 Music functions similarly in heaven and in cities literal and arthritic. The triadic harmony from Cantilenae intellectuales fits precisely within the planetary ratios of Verum inventum. Both, moreover, correspond exactly to the middle portion of Fludd’s celestial monochord (fig. 3b). Furthermore, Maier described his ratios as “measured not so much arithmetically or geometrically as physically [i.e., qualitatively],” which is essentially the explanation Fludd offered for his own work in Veritatis proscenium (The stage of truth; 1621).66 In retrospect, the double-octave ambitus of Fludd’s cosmic monochord offers insight into Maier’s chymical double octave. This is not to say that Maier took his ideas from Fludd’s work, although he certainly came to know it.67 But it does suggest that his scattered observations on musical mathematics were, to some degree, coherently integrated with his ideas on medicine, chymistry, and astronomy.

Transformative Powers: Canons and Enigmas

If musica instrumentalis was the lowest form of musica, it nonetheless existed on a continuum with higher forms. The final sections of this essay harmonize high and low, silent and sounding, through two specific musical techniques used in the Atalanta fugiens: canon and text painting.

As I have said, canon justly carried strong associations with recondite learning. First, there is the sheer difficulty of writing good imitative counterpoint: success requires foreseeing the potentials and pitfalls implicit in a canonic subject so that polyphony grows “automatically” from a thematic seed, according to a grammar of consonance, dissonance, and harmonic progression. It’s useful to reiterate — if only because models of musical listening have changed since then — that every element of musical grammar could be represented as numerical proportion. When Maier’s contemporaries defined music as sounding number, this is what they meant. Listened to in this way, music has little to do with subjective self-expression. It is an artful dance of fixed ratios.

Second, throughout its long history, composers invested canon with symbolic significance. Resolutions and even subjects might be encrypted in allusive emblems, oracular mottos, shadowy enigmas, and other so-called hieroglyphs. Thus, canon cast an aura of the venerable and erudite. At the same time, it offered a socially exclusive forum for wit and play, which Laurie Stras describes as unfolding in “an almost ritualistic display of knowledge, wit, and rhetorical skill.”68 The musical object, therefore, receded in importance before the external actions it provoked.

The simultaneity of hermeneutic ambiguity and ambition reminds us that Maier borrowed a musical technique whose true significance might lie somewhere other than its sounding surface. It suited his quest for things “august, sublime, sacred, rare, and concealed.”69 Its “secrets” were to be pondered orally, aurally, visually, and intellectually, holding out the promise of passing from sonic pleasure to intellectual enlightenment.70 Yet Maier may have also suspected that his readers would not appreciate too much subtlety. He solved for them the riddles of canonic resolution: he presented all vocal parts on a single page, stated explicitly the canonic procedures, and translated the epigrams into the vernacular.

The three vocal lines themselves may harbor “sacred, sublime” theological meaning in addition to their personification of mythical figures. As we have seen, Maier posited harmonic triads in the macro- and microcosm. The triad was only just then being theorized as an independent musical object. Even so, several writers had already discerned great significance in a single consonant sonority arising from three simultaneous pitches. Burmeister heard it as a sort of musical hypostasis:
The harmonic art is both divine and a divine gift . . . its most hidden mysteries flow from the venerable Trinity, whence music takes its origin . . . Of the things that concern this art, all consist of the ternary number, are constituted by it, fulfill their ends through it.71

Trinitarian symbolism looms large in Maier’s collections of poetic “songs.” He dedicated Hymnosophia to the “one and triune God.” His Cantilenae intellectuales consists of three “triads” of three songs (cantilenae) for three voices: Venus (high), Pisces (middle), and Leo (low). (Elsewhere, Maier credits Hermes himself with establishing this tripartite division of voices.72) In the final triad, which addresses the Trinity, the bass (Leo) sings of eternal joys such as “the ear has not heard / and have evaded all senses.”73 And so, Maier must abandon entirely the realm of musica instrumentalis, which had embellished Atalanta fugiens. The Cantilenae intellectuales include no musical notation; they are a silent music “not so much for the audible voice, as for deep reflection.”74

The richest but most elusive Trinitarian imagery may lie in the Golden Apple of Atalanta fugiens. The three-voice cantilenae, obviously, form numerous harmonic triads. The two canonic voices (Atalanta and Hippomenes) are always accompanied by a slow-moving fragment (Pomum) from an ancient Gregorian Kyrie. The Kyrie text, a tripartite invocation whose individual sections are uttered three times, had been used in chymical works that Maier knew.75

The Kyrie melody used in Atalanta fugiens, the Cunctipotens genitor Deus (All-powerful Creator), was also sung to a Trinitarian trope that addresses God as “creator of all things,” Christ as “healer” and manifestation of divine wisdom (Sophia), and the Holy Spirit as “advancing flame, fount of life, purifying force.” This theological imagery could easily take on medical and chymical significance. Both melody and text endured in Lutheran hymnody as O ewiger barmherziger Gott (O eternal, merciful God). Are these Trinitarian resonances among the “secrets” Maier promised? Was he even aware of them? If so, the amalgam of chymical and Trinitarian symbolism suggests that something more than simple convenience motivated Maier’s musical borrowings. But since neither he nor Farmer discussed the chant or text, it remains a mystery.

Hearing Symbols, Seeing Sound

With Atalanta fugiens, Maier engineered a multimedia object whose elements interact across the sensorium in complex ways. Textual and visual elements could, as we have seen, stimulate an internal sense of hearing. The fifty fugues, in turn, animated static images with dramatic temporality and, through the technique of text painting (or “madrigalisms”), made the visual audible.

Maier’s musical ingenuity apparently did not lie in compositional skill. It lay rather in his ability to convert Farmer’s untexted and somewhat abstract canons into a complex mythological and chymical allegory. To do so, he employed devices of musical mimesis whereby notes and pitches take up the visual burden of the emblem and poetry. The music imitates the text through the contour of vocal lines and general contrapuntal procedure rather than through harmony. On the printed page, Maier presented the music synoptically, following the format used by Farmer and Bathe. Unlike a modern score, this format does not enable the reader to “hear” the harmonic flow with the mind’s ear. Nevertheless, it allows her to see the music’s most important expressive features.

The strong visual component reveals the influence of musica poetica upon Maier. For theorists of musica poetica such as Burmeister, the composer was a rhetorician with the same aims as the preacher or poet. These can be summarized with three classical commonplaces. Docere, movere, delectare: the orator should simultaneously teach, move, and delight, according to Cicero and Augustine. Ut pictura poesis: writing should aspire to the vividness of painting for Horace, and even—sub oculos subiiciendis—seem to place the subject itself before the eyes, in Quintilian’s view.76

Maier employed text painting, an effective and obvious tool, at the level of individual word and overarching idea.77 At times, canonic procedure itself expresses simple textual ideas such as likeness (“imitare,” Fugue 3) and conjunction (“conjunge,” Fugue 4). At other times, it expresses more complex concepts. In Fugue 10, Hippomenes’s voice rising out of Atalanta’s gives a musical emblem for “mercury from mercury, fire from fire,” while the whole musical complex is a fit image for the great “machine of the world” (“machina . . . mundi”).78

Maier either tailored his poetry to the shape of the vocal lines or chose canons that fit poetry he had already written. Words signifying speed, flight, fire, and suddenness are often paired with rapid melismas. Motion by seconds suits binis in Fugue 15; the leaping subject of Fugue 27 misses the sense of luxuriat but captures the clumsy gait of the emblem’s footless man.

Excerpt from Fugue 27

Lu xu ri at, lu xu ri at So phi ae

The demands of strophic poetry complicated Maier’s task. Each fugue set only one or two lines of the six-line epigrams, requiring each piece to be sung several times to different words. In Epigram 7, Maier places images of flight and fall at roughly the same position in each couplet.79 As a result, each lands near a generically appropriate melisma. On the other hand, and especially in the earlier fugues, the expressive relation of text and music seems more neutral. Sometimes a single piece contains both congruities and incongruities. In Fugue 16, images of flight (“quae volat”) and immobility (“immotus”) are fitted to quick melismatic ascents. Such moments call interpretive criteria into question. Are we reading too deeply into this music, having already decided that it is a sphinx waiting to be decoded? Then again, Maier himself created that impression at the outset: since the fugues concealed “precious secrets,” they warranted “seeing, reading, meditation, understanding, and discerning” (and only then “singing and listening”).80 Thus he cleverly shifted the burden of meaning-making onto readers — contemporaneous and modern — who can solve riddles he never posed.

Excerpts from Fugue 16

Engraved by Verovio 2.1.0-dev-[undefined] Quae vo lat et se cum Engraved by Verovio 2.1.0-dev-[undefined] im mo tus stat

Nevertheless, the final ten fugues leave no doubt that an intricate musical allegory is present. Maier gathered together the most “artificial” (that is, artful) of Farmer’s waies to illustrate the dramatic climax of the Atalanta myth. They fully display Maier’s ingenuity, as Hildemarie Streich’s reading demonstrates.81 Through recherché contrapuntal devices such as retrograde motion, thematic inversion, and even a sort of prolation canon, we “see” Hippomenes catch up to fleet-footed Atalanta (Fugue 47), who hesitates before the golden apples he throws. Large-scale structural and procedural images are accented by subtler details. As Atalanta and Hippomenes speed and slacken by turns, the apple remains more or less constant, like gold itself; it bears a melody in Dorian, the mode associated with the Sun, from which gold takes its sign.

Such techniques were part of the broader arsenal of musica poetica, for which several German commentators provided guidelines and copious examples.82 The lion’s share came from the music of Orlando Lassus, easily the most famous composer of Maier’s world. The physician Samuel Quickelberg praised Lassus’s ability to “express the Psalms so fittingly by adapting the music to the subject and text, drawing out the force of each affect, and by placing the subject before the eyes as if in real life.”83 In his famous Tristis est anima mea (My soul is sorrowful), a fuga “emblematizes” Christ’s prediction that his disciples will abandon him (“vos fugam capietur”). The descending profile of the subject makes each of the eleven imitative entries (Judas has already betrayed Christ) appear to fade into the distance. Lassus’s motets enjoyed great popularity in German-speaking lands; they were widely anthologized and frequently sung in Lutheran services.84 Theorists such as Burmeister and Sartorius cited his motets by the dozens, clearly expecting readers to have encountered them in choir.85 They are the only polyphonic music mentioned by Kepler, for whom (as D. P. Walker argues) the invention of polyphony was of epochal significance since it was founded in the same archetypes as the Harmony of the Spheres, “the geometric beauties coeternal with the Creator.”86 Indeed, Peter Pesic speculates that Kepler considered the semitones of Lassus’s In me transierunt (Thy wrath has passed over me) “a powerful treatment of the song of the Earth, embedding the earthly semitone in a rich constellation of sonorities that suggest the full universal harmony . . . [a sign] of terrestrial dissonance that can be reconciled in celestial harmony.”87 It is difficult to imagine that Maier, in his studies and in worship, would not have encountered Lassus’s music frequently.

Some contemporaneous critics, such as Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer), ridiculed text painting as ineffective; many contemporary scholars have even more difficulty accepting this somewhat remote means of expression. In the monumental Oxford History of Western Music (2005), Richard Taruskin, analyzing the extravagant plague-paintings of Handel’s Israel in Egypt (1739), concludes that the technique is a rather juvenile gimmick:
Tediously cataloguing the means by which such vivid effects are achieved has the same dampening effect as does the explanation of a joke. . . . [Yet] it may also serve a good purpose if it forces us to realize and confront, through our annoyance . . . that these marvelous and musically epochal illustrations are indeed, for the most part, no more (and no less) than jokes. . . . [T]hey depend on mechanisms of humor: puns . . . wit . . . caricature.88

It’s an understandable attitude. Since the nineteenth century, music has staked its special claim to aesthetic autonomy upon a capacity to bypass the explicit, verbal, and visual, and to generate abstract meaning from “pure” harmony and form.89 That was not the seventeenth-century view. Theirs was a logos culture, founded upon the Word, in which pure instrumental music had little value; full of sound, it might ultimately signify nothing.90 From this vantage, one might even conclude that, far from committing mercenary plagiarism, Maier improved Farmer’s music by discerning or even creating its latent meanings. The mechanisms of seventeenth-century wit implied more than humor, and mimesis provoked delight precisely because the text-music similitudes upon which it depended were grounded in deeper continuities. Explaining the devices of musica poetica, far from dulling delight, offered social occasions to refine it. Likewise, the “analogical harmonies” frequently posited between chymistry and theology, as Principe writes,
[were] much more than a metaphor, allegory, or rhetorical conceit . . . The connective analogy . . . functions as a proof, transmitting the sure existence of one to the sure existence of the other . . . [This] expresses a keen difference between modern and early modern understandings of metaphors and analogies. The modern world considers such metaphors and analogies to be creations of the human mind . . . [For early modern chymists] they are neither arbitrary nor products of human imagination — they exist independently as real connections in the fabric of the world itself. They lie there hidden, waiting to be discovered.91

Music served as the ur-metaphor for harmony itself, hence the widespread conviction that rationally organized, sounding number could have a necessary, rather than contingent, connection to the words and ideas that it accompanied. (Now we consider them merely to be “expressed.”) From Maier’s London comes a rare testimony as to how idea and word became incarnate sound. In the preface to his Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae [. . .] liber primus (First book of sacred songs and gradual motets; 1610), William Byrd reflected:
With Sacred words . . . nothing is suitable but a celestial harmony, insofar as we can attain to it. I have learned by experience, moreover, that a force most abstruse and recondite inheres in those very words such that, cogitating upon things divine, and diligently and seriously turning them over, by some means all the most fitting notes [numeri] hasten, as if of their own will, and freely offer themselves to a soul by no means inactive or unskilled.92

In a short space Byrd captures many of the ideas at which I have been grasping: words themselves possess inherent power. Fitting them to suitable music requires an act of cogitation in the recesses of mind and soul. Celestial harmony, though it ultimately evades musical sound, manifests itself as number. “Number” presumably refers not only to the proportions of individual intervals, but also to the extended expressive devices that Byrd used so beautifully. And yet he does not speak of himself as creator-composer. Having tuned mind and soul to heavenly harmony, he becomes the aeolian harp here below.

It’s a weighty load to lay on Maier’s rickety fugues. And it would require extraordinary transhistorical empathy to experience the music of Atalanta fugiens with ears so tuned. That world is gone. But we can still marvel at Maier’s books and the sheer possibility that Atalanta fugiens opened for readers. With an ambitious little print in hand, they could play musica in its many manifestations. Maier offered canons and cantilenas to tickle the ear, edify the educated mind, and fill the soul with harmonies surpassing mortal sense.

Acknowledgments: I thank Jens Hesselager, Christine Jeanneret, and Reka Forrai for providing me with images of two Maier unica: Coelidonia and Hymnosophia. I thank Loren Ludwig and Tara Nummedal for their insightful comments, and Donna Bilak for responding generously to my many requests.


  • Figure 1
    Portrait of Michael Maier, c. 1617, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 2
    Frontispiece for Valentine, Revelation des mysteres (1646). (Special Collections, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University)
  • Figure 3a
    The Cosmic Monochord from Fludd, Account of the Macro- and Microcosm (1617/8).
  • Figure 3b
    Two Planetary Harmonies from Kepler, Harmony of the World (1619), V.209. (© Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, 150 Quod 2f 1 Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License.)
  • Figure 4
    Emblem 1, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 5
    Emblem 21, Atalanta fugiens.

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Bianchi, Eric. “Weight, Number, Measure: The Musical Universe of Michael Maier.” Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier's “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.

Author Biography

Eric Bianchi is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Music at Fordham University in New York. He researches the intellectual and scientific worlds of music during the early modern period and, in particular, the writings of Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. He has held research fellowships at the American Academy in Rome, the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, and the Italian Academy of America at Columbia University.

The Emblem in the Landscape by Michael Gaudio
Michael Maier and Mythoalchemy by Peter J. Forshaw
Emblem collections

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