Universal Music-Making: Athanasius Kircher and Musical Thought in the Seventeenth Century

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Universal Music-Making: Athanasius Kircher and Musical Thought in the Seventeenth Century

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Title: Universal Music-Making: Athanasius Kircher and Musical Thought in the Seventeenth Century
Author: McKay, John Zachary
Citation: McKay, John Zachary. 2012. Universal Music-Making: Athanasius Kircher and Musical Thought in the Seventeenth Century. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia universalis (1650) was one of the largest and most widely circulated works of music theory in the seventeenth century. Although his reputation has waned over the centuries, Kircher was a leading intellectual figure of his day, authoring dozens of treatises on a multitude of topics and corresponding with scholars from around the world. Kircher’s central place within the world of learning resulted in a unique perspective on music theory and musical practice within the seventeenth century. The present study investigates a number of topics from Kircher’s music treatise and provides context from within the intellectual discourse of the time. The first chapter explores the seventeenth-century conception of encyclopedias, as well as the possible meanings associated with an encyclopedia musica, a novel term Kircher uses in his preface to describe Musurgia. Kircher’s attempt to describe all that was known about music, from highly speculative theories to the most utilitarian compositional tools, results in a complex blend of philosophical and practical elements. The middle chapters disentangle a few strands from this web of ideas, tracing the development of Pythagorean traditions and speculative music theory, as well as changing attitudes regarding empirical and occult methodologies in the early modern period. The final chapter concerns Kircher’s central goal for Musurgia, an algorithmic method based on the ars combinatoria and the emerging mathematical field of combinatorics that would allow anyone to compose musical settings, including the setting of texts in any poetic meter and in any language. Kircher’s arca musurgica—a device that contained tables to generate music—was in effect a distillation of the rules of harmony and counterpoint in the seventeenth century. Its underlying syntax of standard four-part progressions stands at the juncture between old and new ideologies of music theory and composition.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10382782
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