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Music in Alchemy 

Since ancient times, people have sung and made music, for different purposes. Folk songs were to entertain, singing was used in rituals to enter ecstasy, and both music and singing were used in religious contexts to open the mind to spiritual experiences. Music and spirituality have always been united since antiquity, from primitive ceremonial music to sacred music of monasteries and churches.

Alchemists studied ancient books of philosophy, especially Arab and Greek, and a lot of their beliefs are based on these ancient sources. In ancient Greece, the creation of the soul mirrors has the mathematical proportions of the octave and its seven tones within. Simultaneously, these parts correspond to the movement of the planets in their journey around a fixed point. In alchemical iconography we often see the depiction of the seven planetary symbols, and they are sometimes associated with the seven tone scale represented by seven stringed instruments. With this music,  with these tones, comes the aspect of universal harmony.

In hermetic alchemy we see references to seeking a divine revelation from the spiritual worlds, or directly from God. Although alchemists of various kinds were familiar with and listened to the music at hand, there are only a few references to music in alchemical works. Below you will find a few manuscripts that display musical instruments in their emblems.

One work by Michael Maier in the 16th century, Atalanta Fugiens, contains songs with each emblem. In the Preface to the Reader, Maier tells us that the combination of the visual emblems and the singing or hearing of the songs, combined with understanding, will lead to a much better experience of the alchemical quest:

"Music is an honest and pleasant recreation most proper for generous wits: that therefore we might have these three objects of the more spiritual senses, namely seeing and hearing, as also the understanding itself, as it were in one view and embrace, and insinuate all at once into men's minds for the better understanding thereof, behold we have joined the Optic together with Music, and sense with the understanding, that is, things rare to be seen and heard of with Chymical emblems, which are peculiar to this Science."

More about Atalanta Fugiens below.

Even before Maier, the 15th century Thomas Norton wrote in his Ordinall of Alchymy (1477), one of the earliest alchemical books in English, to work with the alchemical elements as with musical proportions:

Joyne your Elements Musically,
For two causes , one is for Melody:
Which there accords will make to your mind,
The trewe effect when that ye shall finde.
And also for like as Diapason,
With Diapente and with Diatesseron,
With ypate ypaton, and Lecanos muse ,
With other accords which in Musick be,
With their proporcions causen Harmony,
Much like proportions be in Alkimy,
As for the great Numbers Actuall:
But for the secreate Numbers Intellectuall;
Ye must seeche them as I said before,...

One may ask "What has alchemy to do with music?" Maybe we should look at it from the alchemists point of view. They saw music embodied in the alchemical process. Music is based on numbers and proportions, balance and harmony. Alchemists talked about the movement of creation out of chaos towards order, and applied this to the creation process in the alchemical Great Work. God, after all, is the Great Mathematician, who creates and maintains order through numbers and sound that translate into music. Alchemists talked about the Universal Harmony, which is not only an expression of balance and order, but also a musical expression.

I haven't found any alchemical paintings that contain musical instruments. Below you will find a few engravings, and the unique combination of music with alchemical emblems in Atalanta Fugiens. I have also added a few alchemical songs.

Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, by Heinrich Khunrath

 Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae  

edition probably from 1600

  Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, detail

The Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, or Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom, is Khunrath's most famous work, and deals with the mystical aspects of alchemy. Heinrich Khunrath was a theosophist, cabalist, and a hermetic mystic. This work illustrates the many-staged and intricate path to spiritual perfection.

This engraving is well-known because of the image of an alchemist kneeling and spreading out his arms in the hope of receiving divine revelation, and the many texts written all over his laboratory/prayer room.

Khunrath was of the opinion that both verbal oratory and manual laboratory are both necessary to be able to experience the divine harmony. The table is with musical instruments  in the middle of the room between the oratory and the laboratory. Music is the means by which the harmony between the two is maintained. Therefore there is also a scale on the table.

On the table cloth is written: Musica Sancta tristitia spirituumg malignorum fuga: quiaa spiritus יהוה libenter psallit in corde gaudio pio perfuso. (Holy music is the sadness and flight of the evil spirits: because the spirit of YYVH willingly sings in a heart filled with pious joy.)

This statement about dispelling evil spirits is interesting, because on the table is also a bell. It looks unassuming, but this might well be an alchemical-magical bell made out of Electrum magicum. Electrum magicum was an alloy made out of the seven planetary metals. Such a bell was used to attract or dispel planetary or other spirits or angels.


Basilica chymica, by Oswald Croll, 1609

Basilica chymica, by Oswald Croll, 1609   Basilica chymica, detail

An intricate frontispiece, with the portraits of six alchemists. At the top we have the light of the divine trinity, represented by a triangle surrounded by the names of the different orders of archangels. The Hebrew YHVH, or Yahweh, the name for God, is in the center of the triangle.

The bottom displays the composition of the created world..Too the upper left of this circle, we have the alchemist, in his oratory, on his knees praying, and beholding the divine light breaking through. In the center of the light is the Hebrew  to the upper left of this circle, and we have the alchemist, in his oratory, on his knees praying, and beholding the divine light breaking through. In the center of the light is the Hebrew YHShVH, or Yahshuah, the Hebrew name for Jesus. Underneath the alchemist is an athanor with distilling flask, representing the physical laboratory work, with laboratory equipment to the right. Above that are shelves with flasks containing various chemicals, and another shelf with books. Underneath is a lute, prominently displayed to emphasize the importance of music.


Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier

 Atalanta Fugiens

Atalanta Fugiens, 1718 edition

Michael Maier (1568–1622) was a German an alchemist, physician, and a hermetic philosopher and was affiliated with the Rosicrucians. Maier was the author of numerous alchemical and Rosicrucian works, many illustrated with symbolic engravings of great beauty. He was a contemporary and an associate of many famous hermetic philosophers and alchemists such as Robert Fludd.

Maier's Atalanta Fugiens was first published in 1617, one to two decades after Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, by Heinrich Khunrath. So, Maier might have already picked up the idea of music in regards to alchemical practices.

The frontispiece contains a scene of the myth of Atalanta. Atalanta represents philosophical mercury and Hippomenes's philosophical sulfur, Maier explains. These are the two elemental qualities of matter that the alchemist must combine in order to produce the philosophers’ stone. The alchemist must bring Atalanta and Hippomenes’s together and transform them into lions, the process  to obtain the philosophers’ stone. The book guides the reader through the entire story.

On the frontispiece we find the title, Atalanta Fugiens, with the subtext: New chemical emblems on the secrets of Nature, and a subtext that reads:  Adapted partly for the eyes and intellect in figures engraved on copper, with legends, Epigrams and notes attached, partly for the ears and the soul’s recreation with about 50 musical fugues in three voices […] to be looked at, read, meditated, understood, weighed, sung and listened to, not without a certain pleasure.

So, right from the beginning Maier draws your attention to accompanying music, and to sing and listen to it. This helps to engage with and meditate on the emblems and text, and to transform the self.

Atalanta Fugiens is a manuscript composed of 50 emblems with text and music. Each image has an accompanying fugue and textual inscription and discourse. Not only is this text unique in its structure, but its wealth of alchemical knowledge and artwork have given it great accord in the corpus of alchemical literature. It is the only emblem book of its kind that includes musical scores along with the emblems. Atalanta Fugiens is a complex book. Only a reader equipped with a deep knowledge of classical myth, alchemy, natural history, music, mathematics, steganography, and medicine (not to mention the ability to read musical notation, German, and Latin) would have been up to the challenge of grasping the full significance of Maier’s clever text in 1618.

Maier went to Prague in 1609 and entered the service of Rudolf II as his physician and imperial counselor. Prague was a meeting place for many alchemists, physicians, scientists and scholars. It is quite feasible that Maier went to such meeting with like-minded people, and would show an emblem, with accompanying poem told, sing the verses and discuss the meanings of the alchemical and esoteric texts. The music might have enlivened an otherwise dry discussion.

Maier was clear that he wanted music to be a part of a multi-mediation experience which also employed engraving and music, and to be a holistic experience. But he changed the norms of musical composition, probably because he wanted it to be in line with the emblem and text. Leaving the established norms behind, it might also be a message that old structures need to give way if a new, spiritual birth is wanted. Alchemists were experimenters, and they would always try something new in order to make new discoveries. It was his intent that the music would enhance the visual representation of the emblems. Music also liberates, and resolves psychic blockages. Music, together with the poetry of the emblems can become a vehicle to express the universal harmony or order of the cosmos we live in.

We don't know if Maier was able to create some interest in his new way of exploring alchemical subjects. He might have been ahead of his time.

When Georg Heinrich Oehrling republished Maier’s masterpiece in 1687, he did so without the music at all, keeping only the images with their associated Latin mottos and epigrams and even editing out the references to music from Maier’s preface. This is a move in a climate that slowly pulled away from the sacred, and reduced alchemy to a mere intellectual exercise that eventually would be regarded as nothing more than chemistry.

Here is an example from the original version of the book:

Atalanta Fugiens, emblem 14

With each illustration we find three things on the right-hand page. For this 14th emblem, we find first the number of the Emblema, followed by De Secretis Naturae. Below it is a phrase in Latin giving a short explanation of the general meaning of the engraving.  Here it is Hic est Draco caudam suam devorans, the phrase for emblem 14, meaning "this is the Dragon devouring its tail".

Below this motto one sees the engraving, and under it the epigram or poetic sextet, also in Latin, which expands on the symbolism of the engraving.

On the left-hand pages the reader will see the same number applied to the emblem, but with the heading fuga and a technical explanation on how it has been composed, which specifically mentions the interval employed (here it is in 8 infra). Below this is a German translation (in the Gothic type of the era) of the Latin phrase on the opposite page, above the engraving. Below this translation one sees the ‘fugue’, or rather a canon, written out in three separate parts (not as a score) with the headings Atalanta fugiens (the fleeing Atalanta) for the first part, Hippomenes sequens (Hippomenes or the voice which follows) for the second part, and Pomum morans (the apple which is tossed, or the voice which lags behind) in the third part. As can be easily deduced, all of these refer to the myth of Atalanta and how her suitor Hippomenes was able to beat her in the race told by the story. In these three-part canons, the parts of Atalanta and Hippomanes imitate each other in close succession, while the part of the apples is a slow descending cantus firmus which recurs over and over again as a basso ostinato in the 50 canons. Thus the design and format of the music reinforce the legend on which the book is based, and the text which is sung is a verbatim version of the Latin epigram below the engraving on the right-hand page of the book.

Below the music one finds the Epigrammatis Latini versio Germanica or German translation of the epigram of the right-hand page, below the emblem. This would make the book more accessible to common people.

Révelation des mystères des teintures essentielles des sept métaux, by Basil Valentine, 1646

Révelation des mystères des teintures essentielles des sept métaux, by Basil Valentine   Révelation des mystères des teintures essentielles des sept métaux, by Basil Valentine

Basilius Valentinus, or by his English name Basil Valentine, was a 15th century alchemist in Germany. It probably was not his real but an assumed name. He was a practical alchemist with extensive chemical knowledge.

On the title page of his Revelation of the mysteries of the essential tinctures of the seven metals, is an interesting engraving. It contains two panels that are the two sides of the alchemical work that go together.

On the left we have the author in his laboratory; this is the practical side of alchemy. Next to him is written F. Basilius Valentinus Occidentalis Phil. (Frater Basilius Valentinus the Western philosopher).

On the right side we have Hermes Trismegistus, the founder of alchemy and hermetic wisdom, representing the spiritual side of alchemy. In one hand Hermes is holding a distilling apparatus, that also is a symbol for spiritual purification. At the right is written Hermes Trismegistus orientalis Phil. (Hermes Trismegistus, the Eastern philosopher).

The scene is strongly emphasizing the musical aspects, and the harmony that goes with it. In the right hand he holds a celestial sphere, and above it we see seven pipes of an organ, each pipe associated with one of the seven planets.

Révelation des mystères des teintures essentielles des sept métaux, detail

The signs above the organ pipes is Plato's order of the planets: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. The order of the planets, associated with musical tones, appears one to two centuries before the publication of Révelation des mystères des teintures essentielles des sept métaux, in Boethius' De Institutione de musica (1491-1492), and attributed to an Anonymous of the Twelfth Century.

There is a concord of planets similar to that of notes.

From Earth to Heaven a divine order ascends.

Tully thus enumerates them, rising from the bottom:

Moon, Hermes, Venus and Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

In similar order you should sing your notes:

Give the Moon’s first, which is proximate to Earth,

Then observe how much higher Mercury is;

This interval in the musical system amounts to one tone. Venus, following, certainly marks off an interval worth a leimma;

Then a tone to the Sun fills out the fourth.

And bellicose Mars with another tone completes a fifth.

Jupiter of the white locks sings his brief leimma,

And lofty Saturn, for his part, joins a tone to these...”

[from Godwin, Joscelyn in his Harmony of the spheres: a sourcebook of the Pythagorean tradition in music (1993, page 123-125)]

Above the organ pipes is the text Psallite Domino in Chordis et Organo (Sing to the Lord in Chords and Organs). This is a direct reference to the participation in singing and making or listening to music as a means for spiritual development and to create celestial harmony in one's life.

Prominently displayed is a viol, with seven string, also a representation of the seven planets. Underneath is written HARMONIA Sancta, Spiritum malignorum fuga, seu Saturn intemperivi Medicina est (HARMONY Holy Spirit, the flight of the malignant, or  ♄ Saturn is the remedy for the untempered )

Basil valentine clearly shows us that he considers music and harmony as a necessary component for elevating one's spirit. It is all part of the alchemical work.

This engraving was also used for the publication of the alchemical book Traité de l'eau de vie ou anatomie théorique et pratique du vin, by Jean Brouaut, 1646. He also mentions, although briefly, the importance of music and celestial harmony.

Traité de l'eau de vie ou anatomie théorique et pratique du vin, by Jean Brouaut

At the last page of the book is the following emblem:

Traité de l'eau de vie ou anatomie théorique et pratique du vin, by Jean Brouaut, last page

Aside from the well-known alchemical symbols, we find at the bottom books with musical scores, the organ pipes and viol, with the number 7. This is a kind of a repeat from the front page. Maybe the author wanted draw attention again that music (theory) lies at the basis of the alchemical process.

 Physica Subterranea by Johann Becher

Frontispiece of Johann Becher’s Physica Subterranea  Frontispiece of Johann Becher’s Physica Subterranea, detail

Frontispiece of Johann Becher’s Physica Subterranea, 1738 edition

Johann Becher (1635-1682) was an economic advisor to German and Austrian courts. He was an early modern scientist, but he also held on to the alchemical ideas. His Physica Subterranea, published in 1669 is a mundane work of scientific metallurgy which simply lists the geographic distribution of various metals throughout Europe. However the frontispiece of his book displays typical alchemical beliefs.

The original frontispiece of the 1669 first edition (see below) is different than the later editions. It is a similar image with some changes, among which is the addition of the harp and the isosceles triangle. Whoever decides to change the frontispiece thought it was important to display a musical instrument.

Here again, music is considered important in alchemy as the expression of Universal Harmony, as on the harp is written HARMONIA.

The triangle stands for Symmetry (SYMETRIA). Around the figure with the Sun as head are the traditional planetary/metals symbols. His body contains the three realms: the animal (the fetus), the vegetal (corn stalks, grapes and flower), the mineral (the intestines with various symbols for alchemical mineral substances. The two hands bear the words Ratio (Reason) and Experientia (Experience). At the top of the image is written Circulus aeterni motus (the sphere of eternal cause).

The bottom Greek words, το συμπαν, mean The Universe.

Frontispiece of Johann Becher’s Physica Subterranea, original 1669 edition

1669 edition

A Philosophicall short songe of the incorporating of the Spirit of the Lord in Salt

Heinrich Khunrath, who wrote the Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (see above), also composed an alchemical song, Ein Philosophisch Lied, Von Saltz-LeibWerdung deß Geists des Herrn: So Gen: 1.2. auff dem Wasser schwebete. In the 17th century an English translation of this song was published under the title A Philosophicall short songe of the incorporating of the Spirit of the Lord in Salt. The text of the song is a blending of alchemical teachings and Christianity. Each of the seven stanzas ends with the liturgical refrain from the Mass Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy upon us). In this song Khunrath provides us with an alchemical interpretation of the Book of Genesis with the Spirit of the Lord as the Light of Nature. It is not unusual for alchemists to interpret the biblical creation of the world with the alchemical process that proceeds out of chaos towards order.

A Philosophicall short songe of the incorporating of the Spirit of the Lord in Salt

by Heinrich Khunrath
(English version by Anonymous)

Spirit Divine, blest be thy state,
That art in Salt incorporate
And in the Worlds true virgin wombe
A pure Quintessence art becomme.
Lord have mercy upon us.

Gods wondrous eternal power,
Man in this world may discover,
Who with the greate worlds flesh & blood
Clad itselfe for our Eternall good.
Lord have mercy upon us.

Who earst the whole world didst surround
Now in old Chaos seede art found
Soe art becomme a body small
Susteyning all things naturall.
Lord have mercy upon us.

This is the greate Light of Nature
That giving the world a new Lustre
And shining in ye darksome night
To make us true Children of Light
Lord have mercy upon us.

Thou Spirit of God true God art
Yet in the world a stranger wert
Which led us out from Errors place
And made us heyres of Natures grace.
Lord have mercy upon us.

On Earth he was in meane Consort
Us in great mercy to Comfort
And make us rich in true wisdome
That like new borne Babes we becomme.
Lord have mercy upon us.

All this on us good God bestow
Then Lord shall we thy greate workes shew
And wisdomes Babes their voyce shall raise
Singing to thy Eternall praise.
Lord have mercy upon us.

The Antiphona, or Enn pulcherlapiss

The earliest alchemical song is found in a manuscript from around 1400, written in Hufnagelschrift (literally Horseshoe nail script; an early musical notation) on parchment, containing several alchemical texts, both speculative and practical. It also contains a song, commonly called the Antiphona, written by Johannes de Teschen (or Johannes Tecenensis). You can find pictures of the pages with musical notations at the Yale University Library. This is the only surviving copy that also has the musical notation. Below is the first of the four pages.

Another copy is preserved in the Othmer Library of Chemical History, Philadelphia, which is the only of the three surviving copies that gives both the name of the author and the title of the song: "alchemical antiphon of Johannes de Teschen or Johannes Tecenensis". The third copy in the Biblioteca Riccardiana,  Firenze, Italy,  contains only the text of the song.

The Antiphona is also known as En pulcher lapis (the first three words of the song). The term antiphona is a term which actually refers to a psalm, or a verse, usually from Scripture, sung before or after a psalm verse, as a part of the liturgy with a musical arrangement like a Gregorian chant in the Phrygian mode.

The Antiphona concerns the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which is comparable to the alchemical Trinity (Salt, Sulfur and Mercury), but it bears no relation to liturgical hymns. It forms a blending of alchemical theory and Christian faith.

The text is of course in Latin, but Paul Ferguson translated it into English:

Behold our beautiful Stone, made strong by a threefold acuity, a most ingenious thing, a white, black and red flower, which the whole host of Philosophers praises for its uniqueness!

Every fourth day the undivided entity is made ready by motion. It consists of a single involution and lacks the motility to fully complete the process of perfecting, a statement to which Aristotle lends his famous authority, while a multitude of other Sages also swear that this is the case.
But our most fruitful Earth is irrigated by water, by which it comes into existence, and which enables it to slake its thirst and then produce any fruit you care to name one-hundredfold.
By God's will the root stands firm amid the motility. With a voice of thunder it asks to be raised to the top of the Earth's pole, desiring - nay demanding - that form of motion that only wings can provide. And so the Wings of the Moon raise the clamouring root upwards.
The first wing is the mediator, the Son, Who vitalises and illuminates the dead Earth, while the second wing is the Holy Spirit, the interposed connection of both.
God then raises heavenwards the glorious acuity, which is threefold in essence and which contemplates the union and dwells lovingly upon the One created from the Three, formed on high by the providence of the Lord Creator.
For the root falls from on high into the valley, once more desiring that the Sign be made corporeal, since such a thing pours itself forth from the splendour of the Sun and casts things of joy onto all worldly goods.
The truly pious bring a sincere mind to their search for the gift of God, so that they can enjoy the fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven.
For ever and ever, world without end, Amen.

The Antiphone, the first page

Processus sub forma missae by Melchior Cibinensis

Processus sub forma missae, an alchemical mass, was written by Melchior Cibinensis, alchemical writer from Transylvania (Hungary), active in the first part of the 16th century. The mass dates from around 1525. It was published in the Theatrum Chemicum (a compendium of early alchemical writings) of 1602, and formed part of a celebrated later collection Symbola Aureae Mensae from 1617 of Michael Maier.

Processus sub forma missae was dedicated to Wladislas, King of Hungary and Bohemia. All the components of the Christian liturgy are in the text (Introitus Missae, Kyrie, Graduale, Versus, Offertorium, Secretum, etc..), but the text itself is interspersed with alchemical symbols.

Here is the text, taken from Theatrum Chemicum Vol III. 1602:

Introitus. Our Lord, fount of goodness, inspirer of the sacred art, from whom all good things come to your faithful, have mercy.

Christe. Christ, Holy one, blessed stone of the art of the science who for the salvation of the world hast inspired the light of the science, for the extirpation of the unbelievers, have mercy.

Kyrie. Our Lord, divine fire, help our hearts, that we may be able, to your praise, to expand the sacraments of the art, have mercy.

Graduale. He descends like rain upon the fleece, and as showers falling gently upon the earth. Allelujah. O blessed creator of the earth, whiter than snow, sweeter than sweetness, fragrant at the bottom of the vessel like balsam. O salutary medicine for men, that cureth every weakness of the body: O sublime fount whence gushes forth truly the true water of life into the garden of thy faithful.

Ave Maria. Hail beautiful lamp of heaven, shining light of the world! Here art thou united with the moon, here is made the band of Mars and the conjunction of Mercury. From these three is born through through the magistery of the art, in the river bed, the strong giant whom a thousand times a thousand seek, when these three shall have dissolved, not into rain water… but into mercurial water, into this our blessed gum which dissolves of itself and is named the Sperm of the Philosophers. Now he makes haste to bind and betroth himself to the virgin bride, and to get her with child in the bath over a moderate fire. But the Virgin will not become pregnant at once unless she be kissed in repeated embraces. Then she conceives in her body, and thus is begotten the child of good omen, in accordance with the order of nature. Then will appear in the bottom of the vessel the mighty Ethiopian, burned, calcined, discoloured, altogether dead and lifeless. He asks to be buried, to be sprinkled with his own moisture and slowly calcined till he shall arise in glowing form from the fierce fire… Behold a wondrous restoration and renewal of the Ethiopian! Because of the bath of rebirth he takes a new name, which the philosophers call the natural sulphur and their son, this being the stone of the philosophers. And behold it is one thing, one root, one essence with nothing extraneous added and from which much that was superfluous is taken away by the magistery of the art… It is the treasure of treasures, the supreme philosophical potion, the divine secret of the ancients. Blessed is he that finds such thing. One that has seen this thing writes and speaks openly, and I know that his testimony is true. Praise be to God for evermore.

If you want an in depth interpretation of the text, read this article by Matthew Charles Moran.

Gesang von der Materia Prima

In Tesaurinella Olympica aurea tripartita by Benedict Figulus, 1608, includes a song, Gesang von der Materia Prima, or Song on Primal Matter, dating from 1603. This would have first appeared as appeared the Canto de la Materia Prima by Georg Füeger de Schwarz, in Tyrol. I have found no further information about this.