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Welcome to the Rare Books and Manuscripts of NYPL’s Music Division

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Welcome to the blog of the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts of the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It’s my intention for this blog to serve as a way to make the Music Division (and The Library in general) a more accessible and welcoming place by featuring some of the treasures and unusual items we have. I encourage feedback and dialogue on any of the topics I present. So what better to open a blog that with the frontispiece from a famous book: Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis, published in Rome (by Corbelletti) in 1650.

The Special Collections Department of Glasgow University Library possesses a unique hand-colored copy of Musurgia Universalis, and they’ve provided a nice but brief description on their website. Although slightly tangential to his subject, Edward E. Lowinsky provided a more thorough discussion of this page in his article “Ockeghem’s Canon for Thirty-six Voices: An Essay in Musical Iconography” (in Essays in musicology : in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday, edited by Gustave Reese and Robert J. Snow, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, c1969 - ISBN 0822910985, 155-80), of which the following is taken. There’s an enormous amount of imagery here–a Renaissance-influenced combination of religious and mythological symbols. Its energy reminds me of a sanitized version of some of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. At the foreground left, Pythagoras leans on an explanation of his theorem as well as Zarlino’s senario, while the lady holding the cornet on the right side is Music. Both figures have musical instruments at their feet (ancient and modern), while the men inside the opening in the center represent the earthly “musical instrumentalis” and are working on new musical creations. Above them in the distance of the beach are nine satyrs and eight sea-gods. Slightly off to the right, a shepherd speaks to a cliffside with a quote from Virgil “Pascite ut ante Boves” (”graze, cattle, as before…”) which, by means of a dotted line, bounces back as an echo “…oves” - no doubt signifying Kircher’s extensive interest in acoustics. Further to the right of that cliff, a long stone staircase leads to a landing on which is perched Pegasus, ready to take flight in service to the muses.

The central sphere contains signs of the zodiac and, in addition to the author, title and publication information, is emblazoned with a quote from Job “Quis concentum coeli dormire faciet?” (i.e. “Who shall still the harmony of the spheres?”), while Apollo sits on top carrying a kithara in his right hand and panpies in his left. Like rush hour on a New York City subway, it’s a very amusing and hyperactive artwork. But what interests me most is the musical quotation on this frontispiece. It’s a 36-part canon by Romano Micheli (the Latin indicates that the solution to the canon can be found on page 587). The 36 parts are broken down into 4 groups of 9 voices (i.e. 3 x 3), an hommage to the significance of the three-fold divinity, as well as to the nine muses. More significantly, this canon pays hommage to a famous “lost” work, a 36-voice canon by a master of mensuration, Johannes (or Jean) Ockeghem. Though Lowinsky was convinced he had uncovered the piece (Deo gratia), most scholars agree that the work is lost, and some acknowledge that there is little evidence proving that Ockeghem ever composed such a work.

Nevertheless, when seen in context of the entire book, Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis stands as a historical testament, an exhaustive and fascinating effort by one of the last polymaths to encompass the universe of musical knowledge. The Music Division holds two copies of Musurgia Universalis (call numbers Drexel 2670-2672), both part of the Drexel Collection (a founding collection of The New York Public Library), while a third copy is held by the Rare Books Division.