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Old 03-27-2021, 05:29 PM   #1 (permalink)
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In the 17th and 18th centuries, counterpoint and learned polyphony were believed to be earthly manifestations of a heavenly order. Going back to the days of Ptolemy and earlier to Pythagoras, there was a belief in the West of a divine or cosmic music. Pythagoras noted that the movements of the celestial bodies in mathematical relation to one another produced various pure intervals. By Ptolemy’s time, the belief was that the planetary bodies slid along the rims of infinitely fine crystalline spheres creating a vibration that produced the purest of tones somewhat similar to a glass harmonica except these crystalline spheres were nestled inside one another something like a Chinese puzzlebox. The idea of a heavenly music evolved by perhaps a couple of centuries prior to Bach’s birth into an angelic choir that sang in the sweetest of voices in the sweetest of melodies and the sweetest of harmonies which earthly musicians and composers tried to approximate. Hence the importance of producing the highest artistic musical expression possible and, by that time, counterpoint and learned polyphony were considered the highest of the musical expressions that employed the hidden secrets of harmony. Even the more scientifically inclined astronomers as Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) believed fervently in a celestial musical order.

Most people today are unaware just what an influence the idea of a heavenly music had on the baroque composers including Bach and which informs classical music to the present day. One of the most important works in this regard is Antonio Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico from 1711. Christopher Hogwood states that the title defies translation. I have seen it translated as The Harmonic Fancy, The Musical Flush and The Harmonic Inspiration. Perhaps the lattermost translation is the best. But what is the inspiration? The orchestra is being inspired by what? Why, the heavenly music of the angels, of course. Vivaldi, a Venetian priest, worked with orphaned girls in the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pietà. A great many of his pieces were first performed in public by his girls. Charles de Brosses wrote, upon seeing a performance: “They are brought up at the expense of the State, and they are trained only to excel in music. They sing like angels and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, the bassoon…” His praise that the girls sing like angels refers to the heavenly music. Today, we take it as simple praise perhaps a bit overblown but, in those days, such praise had a specific meaning. Paintings of angels playing instruments became a very popular theme during the Renaissance. Our modern idea of haloed angels playing harps descends from those paintings.







CD cover Pieter Dirksen’s version of the Goldberg Variations on the Etcetera label shows the heavenly choir and orchestra playing the Secrets of Harmony inherent in this masterpiece of counterpoint.



L’Estro Armonico especially Opus 3 was a huge inspiration on baroque music and defined the structure of the concerto. Bach was greatly influenced by it and structured his Brandenburg Concertos on this great work of Vivaldi’s. We know of six keyboard transcriptions Bach had made from Opus 3. We discussed Bach’s predilection for the number 6 and how many of his pieces contained six concertos or suites; Vivaldi had a predilection for the number 12. Opus 3 consists of 12 concertos as does Opus 7, Opus 8 and Opus 9. Opus 1 consists of 12 trio sonatas.

Vivaldi’s predilection for the number 12 may be because there are 12 months in a year, 12 numbers on a clockface, 12 major and 12 minor scales. The number 12 also appears in the bible a great many times—12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples of Jesus, Jesus found preaching in a temple at age 12, 12 gates to the celestial city, etc. It is also a number of unity since the numeral 12 is composed 1 and 2 where 1 symbolizes singularity and 2 symbolizes plurality. Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism were also popular among the educated classes of Europe and so Vivaldi was almost certainly familiar with the concept that if one bisects a square with an area of 1 square unit diagonally, a square with an area of 2 square units is formed from that diagonal and each side is the square root of two (√2) units in length. So √2 was the intermediary between the heaven (1) and earth (2) or God and man in one—the Logos—and this was Christ—the Logos Made Flesh, according to John. Since √2 was irrational and went on forever, it demonstrates the infinity and eternity of heaven and the divine nature of Christ. It was the link between harmony and proportion. Vivaldi being a priest probably knew this and so perhaps chose 12 to symbolize this. This kind of knowledge would be found among the esoteric principles of counterpoint and polyphony. Exactly why Vivaldi relied so much on 12 may never be fully known but we must conclude it held a mystical and/or spiritual significance to him.

One of Bach’s fellow members of the Society of Musical Sciences, Georg Venzky, put it thus: “God is a harmonic being. All harmony originates from his wise order and organization. […] Where there is no conformity, there is also no order, no beauty, and no perfection. For beauty and perfection consists in the conformity of diversity.” Exactly how much stock Bach put in all this is certainly open to question. He was a model Lutheran but also musically a pragmatist. His top priority was that the music had to sound good and if the secrets of harmony helped him to achieve that then great. If not, then Bach wasn’t going to waste a second trying to incorporate them.



The frontispiece from Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650), a book known to every musical theoretician of the 17th and 18th centuries, showing the heavens resounding to counterpoint. Bach was definitely familiar with it. Double counterpoint and canon were seen as a manifestation of the “order of God”—an actual manifestation and not simply as metaphor. Perpetual canon was seen as a symbol of God’s creation of the universe and the eternal harmonies of heaven. Heinrich Bokemeyer, a contemporary of Bach, wrote of the contrapuntist: “There he finds the beginning and end bound together and has discovered the perpetual canon in order to remind himself of the eternal unending origins, as well as the harmony, of all eternity as a rule of nature of the most perfect example of his work.” These beliefs of the secrets of harmony spoken by Bokemeyer were passed to him from his teacher, Georg Osterreich, who learned from his teacher, Johann Thiele, who learned it from his teacher, Dietrich Buxtehude. Every composer made use of it: Heinrich Schutz, Johann Pachelbel (who gave Bach his first keyboard lessons), Johann Froberger, Handel, Praetorius, Telemann, etc. This esoteric belief system permeated the musical intelligentsia of that day.

Exactly where Bach learned the Secrets is not precisely known but he was close to Johann Gottfried Walther (they were second cousins, after all) who corresponded at length with Bokemeyer over the Secrets of Harmony. Bach also studied briefly under Buxtehude when he went to Lübeck to see the organist play and then stayed for three months instead returning to his job in Arnstadt as he had promised his supervisors (In fact, Handel and Bach were offered studies with Buxtehude at St. Mary’s in Lübeck except each was told he would have to marry Buxtehude’s daughter as part of the deal which both declined and promptly fled the city). So, Bach had ample opportunity to learn the Secrets and apply them.
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Old 03-27-2021, 05:33 PM   #2 (permalink)
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This does not mean that all the composers and theoreticians were in agreement. Lutheran composers differed greatly over the destination of the soul. None argued the existence of the soul (that I know of, at least) but they argued over its nature and what happened to the soul after death. This was due to the intermingling of the thoughts of various theologians upon the nature of the soul and of heaven. Due to this intrusion of the theological, the arguments often became ridiculous as we will see.

Luther held that the soul departed the body upon death but did not enter heaven, did not experience rapture. Rather, the soul remained in a state of suspended animation until the Last Day. Only then was its destination determined. By the 17th century, the prevalent belief was that the soul left the body upon death and went immediately to its destination. Lutheran theologians, however, believed that the grave was a place of rest, of sleep. While the soul departed the body and the latter then rotted into a skeleton, on the Last Day, the body and soul would be reunited and the body transformed into an eternally youthful, healthy one. Luther referred to Paul’s writings about the spiritual transformation after death writing: “It [life] is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Luther’s exegesis was promising a new life transcending sin and infirmity after death.

The ontological and epistemological ramifications of the heavenly music doctrine was highly important to composers and theorists as Bach. The reason is that music provided the clearest example of what heaven was like. A 17th century theorist named J. A. Herbst wrote that the heavenly music “will be performed in the angelic, heavenly choir, with the highest perfection…in all eternity to the praise and glory of God.” This was a topic among which the clergy and the theologians wrote and sermonized on often. Bach’s contemporary, theorist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) of Hamburg, agreed with Herbst and asserted that he represented the mainstream that the music of heaven was composed of “the most perfect harmony.” Heinrich Müller, whose books are found in Bach’s personal library, wrote that the heavenly music gives us not only a glimpse into heaven and its workings but it also allows us to embrace death rather than fear it. Moreover, Müller said, the music of heaven and the learned polyphony and counterpoint provide a parallel to earth and heaven. Müller and Mattheson both felt that music provided the clue to eternal life and there was a “heavenly concert” which we would someday join in.

In matters as these, the absurdities begin to surface sooner or later. If there is a concert going on in heaven, some asked, then do the “musicians” have to tune the instruments, would intervals have to be tempered? The answer was no. These were earthly concerns and of no consequence in heaven. How would a non-physical body play an instrument? Mattheson said a transfigured body would play a transfigured instrument. Therefore, someone who played an instrument in their earthly life would have no problem playing an instrument in heaven. Moreover, if a young boy had a musical gift but had died young, he would go to heaven (provided he was saved, of course) and play to his heart’s content. In heaven, his talent would not be squandered. This was important for aging Mattheson because he had been a musician and composer forced to give up playing music earlier in life because of his progressive deafness. In heaven, his hearing would not only be restored, it would be utterly perfect.

This belief of the transfiguration of the body after death was called ars moriendi or "the art of dying." Bach apparently believed in something similar. In the Calov commentary found in his library Bach had underscored a passage that read: “Afflict to the limit these old bodies of ours so long as may obtain others not sinful, as these not given to iniquity and disobedience; bodies that can never know illness, persecution or death; bodies delivered from all physical and spiritual distress and made like unto Thine own glorified body, dear Lord Jesus Christ.”

The prevailing belief that in heaven, everything was better than on earth had glitch in it which the skeptics took advantage of. If there is a heavenly choir and orchestra, they said, would not there have to be air in heaven? Without air, music cannot be heard. While the miracle of the brain turning air vibrations into sound was (and still largely is) mysterious, the way the brain picked up the vibrations was not. It was purely mechanical. The tiny bones or ossicles moved to the air pressure. Without that air pressure, the brain could not perform its miraculous operation. Hence, if heaven was different from earth, why would it have air? Singing was especially problematic for the believers of ars moriendi. It would require the singer to have lungs, a larynx, vocal cords, diaphragm, etc. The singer would have to draw air into lungs and so she is essentially breathing. The same with a heavenly trumpet-player. He would have to draw air into the lungs to blow through the trumpet’s tubing. If there is air in heaven, it would make more sense to say it is there both to transmit sound and also to breathe rather than just one or the other. If one must breathe in heaven then it is perfectly reasonable to assume one must eat in heaven and one must sleep in heaven and one must bathe in heaven, etc. So how would heaven be any different than earth?

Of course, the believers had all manner of replies to these questions. The prevailing belief was that heaven had an orchestra and choir who sang and played in etherically beautiful harmonies in learned counterpoint. People believed that earthly counterpoint and polyphony was an approximation of the music of heaven that provided a glimpse of heaven and eternity. People believed the body of matter was transfigured into a spiritual body possessing eternal youth and health. People believed that one joined the heavenly choir or orchestra upon entering heaven and became as angels. In addition to this, numerology, astrology and alchemy were also relied on quite heavily among composers and musicians. Where was Bach’s place in all this?
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Old 03-27-2021, 05:37 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Canon emerged from the medieval period having acquired all sorts of magical and occult associations ranging from alchemy to the magic of the 13th century Spanish philosopher and mystic Ramon Lull, the 14th century work of the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, 15th century kabbalists as Mirandola and Reuchlin and especially the 16th century magician, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa. Hermetic works as the Emerald Tablet and the Corpus Hermeticum were also appealed to as well as Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy. By the 17th and 18th centuries, people as Mattheson were longing to rid Europe’s music of canon and counterpoint in favor of more “popular” forms of music.

Mattheson felt, perhaps with some justification, that music theory needed to be demystified. In this, he found an opponent in Heinrich Bokemeyer. They waged a public debate each arguing the merits of his position. Bokemeyer stated that canon was the highest form of music. That compositional skills were at their peak when composing canon. Mastering canon was the highest of musical disciplines. Mattheson, on the other hand, felt that while canon should be continued to be practiced, it should not be over-emphasized because free-flowing melody is more important now than stuffy, old canon which is obsolete and a hindrance to musical progress. In the end, Mattheson won the day. Bokemeyer threw in the towel and admitted Mattheson presented a superior argument to his own and that he no longer believed in the centrality of canon in music. The real problem for Bokemeyer was that Mattheson rallied many a respected composer to advocate for him including Telemann one of the most respected composers in all of baroque music. Bokemeyer was having trouble in that area. Many composers simply saw no reason to enshrine a musical form so encrusted with medieval magical and hermetic detritus. It seemed to serve no purpose and they were ready to move to more lucrative ventures with free-flowing melody. Mattheson’s attack was too relentless and overwhelming for Bokemeyer to withstand.

However, the fact Mattheson had to repeatedly resort to this attack on occult canonism in the first place indicated just how prevalent and entrenched it was in European society. This was, of course, a different age. These Europeans, barely out of the medieval era, still harbored a belief in magic, demonology and alchemy. While they may have outwardly proclaimed their praise of the Enlightenment, they still had a private, inner fear that the devil was real and that demons, spells and curses could be cast upon them by witches and magicians practicing the Black Arts. Of these ancient disciplines, alchemy was the most respectable and the one containing the most truth. We tend today to look upon alchemy as a silly pseudoscience pushed by hucksters claiming they could turn lead into gold and there is truth in this characterization. Many alchemists were scammers taking advantage of one sovereign or other in exchange for patronage. This sovereign would believe these alchemists could make gold because they enough tricks with chemistry to produce reactions that seemed to make gold appear but this only proves that alchemists did know a good deal about chemistry.

Alchemy in the West appears to have started about the 2nd century really began to catch on in about the 14th century with the works of Nicholas Flamel but alchemy is known in many forms the world over. Alchemy entered and flourished in Europe contemporary with the Kabalah. The term “alchemy” is obscure. A possible derivation comes from kam or kême or “black earth,” a reference to Egypt (the Egyptians called themselves “kamites”). Indeed, the oldest known alchemical drawings are on Egyptian papyrus. From this, came the Arabic al-kimiya which, in turn, gave rise to the Greek alchemia. There is also a possible derivation from the Greek chyma or “smelting” as some of the earliest forms of alchemy were really metallurgy. Indeed, alchemy in the West would be known for its attempts to transmute “base metals” into gold, an endeavor long sought as the story of King Midas and the golden touch would demonstrate.

The intertwining of Greek, Arabic and Egyptian traditions in alchemy are not due only to the name. The Corpus Hermeticum became the virtual scripture of alchemy. Its Platonic mode of thought and language strongly suggests its Greek origins. And since it claims to be the body of work of Hermes Trismegistus, scholars and occultists alike believe that the aforementioned Emerald Tablet was originally a part of Corpus Hermeticum even though the oldest existing translations are Arabic and Latin.

While alchemy was primarily concerned with transformations, the art itself represented a transformation from magic to science. Alchemy did indeed give birth to modern chemistry which partly derives its name from the earlier tradition and, like the earlier tradition, is primarily concerned with transformation. Yet much of the language of alchemy read like spells taken from a magician’s black book. Alchemy represents one of the earliest and more successful attempts to use magic on a practical and analytical level. Its many failures only served as guideposts to the practitioner of how operations must be performed in order to achieve results. Once results were achieved, others became involved who had no interest in the magical aspects but were intrigued by the various chemical reactions and sought to understand and explain them and this led directly to founding of Western chemistry.

Alchemy was based on the ancient principle of unchanging, divine unity underlying all changing phenomena. The alchemists applied this principle to matter. Adopting the theory of the four elements, they posited a “primal matter” that was devoid of all characteristics and attributes which they called the prima materia. Adopting the Gnostic concept of a demiurge or lesser god, the alchemists believed that this god either found or made the prima materia and “animated” to form the four elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. Each of the four elements combines two characteristics of the other so that fire would be hot and dry, air would be hot and moist, water would be cold and moist, and earth would be cold and dry. By varying these characteristics, all matter is composed of these four basic elements. They further believed that any form of matter could have all its attributes stripped off to reveal the materia prima underlying it and that different attributes could be added in order to transmute it into another form of matter. So earth could have its cold characteristic removed and replaced with hot to form the element of fire as smoke. Water could have its wet characteristic replaced with dry to form the element of air as vapor. And so on. This belief formed the very foundation of alchemy.



In the above diagram, the prima materia has a dual nature bound through a mysterious union of opposites. The Greeks held that prima materia was composed of hyle and chaos, matter and energy. These opposites divided into Celestial Salt and Celestial Niter. When alchemy talks of salts or mercury or niter, these should not be taken literally as today’s chemical elements or compounds but rather as properties possessed by various elements and compounds. Celestial Salt was so named because salts were seen as passive, magnetic, stable, fixed. It is called celestial because it is of a higher more refined quality than any salt found on earth. Likewise, niter was seen as active, electrical, unstable, volatile. The fixed quality produced to earthly elements of earth and water while the volatile quality produced the earthly elements of air and fire. The two former elements are more solid while the latter two are gaseous and ephemeral. Earth represents all solids, water represents are liquids, air represents all gases and fire represents the temperature required for transformation. From these four elements, three principles are derived. Earth and water form the principle of salt, air and fire from the principle of sulphur and the combination of water and air produces the principle of mercury. Again, these are the actual chemical elements of sulfur and mercury but rather describes an essence. The mercuric principle is easy to deduce because it partakes of two opposites—one fixed and one volatile, i.e. one female and one male, respectively. Through this chart, all chemical reactions are described.

To the alchemist, all matter was composed of spirit and body. A piece of wood could be burned, for example, to produce smoke and ash. The rising smoke was the spirit while the inert ash was the body. Likewise, was man’s spirit released from the body upon death. While spirit means “breath” and the breath certainly leaves the body upon death, the alchemist did not intend for such a materialist interpretation. For them, the spirit was akin to the breath, that is, they bore some of the same characteristics. To the alchemist, the spirit was the Gnostic/Manichean/Zoroastrian conception of a “light seed” or “luminous self” or “pneuma” that inhabited living matter put there either unconsciously by the demiurge or deliberately hidden there by the powers of darkness.

The pneuma was believed to move through the cosmos as per the Stoic conception of wave motion. The spirit traveled as a wave travels over water. The water in this case was matter and the spirit animated it by using it as the medium in which it waves but otherwise has no body. The waves have varying frequencies which determine the characteristics of each type of living creature.

Alchemy called this spirit mercury and applied it to all matter not just living creatures. Mercury was the spirit of matter whether it be a metaphysical principle, breath, vapor, or smoke. Mercury is a metal that is silvery in appearance. Silver to the alchemist represents the rational intellect which reflects the divine intellect the way the silvery moon reflects the light of the sun. Since mercury is also liquid as life-giving matter is—rainwater, semen, blood, the ocean, amniotic fluid, and so on—it was seen as a “living” silver or quicksilver. Spirit was called the “philosopher’s mercury” and the element of mercury merely approximated it in nature because it shared some of its characteristics.

Because the element of mercury is a metal that does not wet a surface upon which it sits despite its liquid nature, mercury was seen as a unity the opposites and was termed the Spirit of God because all things are unified in God. Alchemists represented mercury as the conjoining of man and woman. Mercury partook of Hermes’ male nature and Aphrodite’s female nature and so was called the Hermaphrodite. The astrological sign of the planet Mercury depicts the circle surmounting the cross, Venus’s symbol, topped with a pair of horns which are phallic in nature. The alchemists depicted Mercury as half-man half-woman called the Androgyne (Greek for “man-woman”).
Alchemy did not spring into the world complete but, like any other discipline, grew over the centuries from the early work of Arabs such as Geber and Rhazes to Europeans as Lull and Flamel some centuries later. Alchemy continued to develop in the 16th century under Paracelsus (1493-1541). Paracelsus developed the principle of matter containing a trinity. He wrote: “The world is as God created it. In the beginning He made it into a body, which consists of four elements. He founded this primordial body on the trinity of mercury, sulphur and salt, and these are the substances of which the complete body consists. For they form everything that lies in the four elements, they bear in them all the forces and faculties of perishable things. In them are day and night, warmth and coldness, stone and fruit, and everything else still unformed.” Hidden in the statement is the Pythagorean tetraktys. The 4 elements occupied by 3 principles that unite 2 opposite natures into the divine 1. 4321 is also a sacred number in the Hindu system which expresses it as 4320 since 0 and 1 are the same in this case. Hindu cycles of time are measure in yugas of 4000, 3000, 2000 and 1000 years respectively. The last is known as the Kali Yuga and we supposedly are living in it now. Hinduism also has cycles of time that are 432,000 years long and part of a 4,320,000-year cycle.

Whether we are talking the tetraktys or alchemy or Hindu time cycles, we are ultimately dealing with purification, a calming of passions and a recovery of the light seed from within, that is, a sprouting of God within man. God was symbolized by the element of gold. Gold shone yellow like the sun and so represented the Divine Intellect. As a metal, gold also did not rust representing the incorruptible spirit. Alchemists believed that the Platonic gold permeated all matter and could be found in even the most raw, corrupted substances. The corrupt characteristics could be stripped away to the prima materia and replaced with the characteristics of gold. Man could likewise be purified into a God. To prove it, alchemists sought way to turn a base substance into gold. The golden nature underlying all matter was called the Philosopher’s Stone—Stone here meaning the One. The discovery of the Stone would later become the famous search for the Holy Grail or Saint Graal.

Alchemy united several disciplines in one. Gnosticism/Manicheanism, astrology, Hermetica, Pythagoreanism, and shamanism to name a few. It was also combined with tarot and Kabbalah. We remember that shamans of a very early time climbed the ladder from earth to sky and beyond. The ladder appears in the Hebrew Bible as what was envisioned by Jacob while in what might be called a shamanic trance. The ladder appears in alchemy via Hermetica as the one formed by the orbits of the seven celestial bodies of the geocentric universe of Ptolemy. The alchemists viewed each body as a different temporal mode of the Divine Intellect cycling through its twelve zodiacal archetypes as it descends to earth to animate all matter. The alchemist sought to scale the planetary rungs of the ladder to reach the communion with the One. This they called “The Ascent of the Soul throught the spheres.”

All metals were born from the earth under the influence of the various planets. Each celestial body then was assigned the metal it influenced: Luna with silver, Mercury with quicksilver, Venus with copper, Sol with gold, Mars with iron, Jupiter with tin, and Saturn with lead.

The planetary signs although accepted utterly by astrology are really alchemical and consist of three symbols of cross, circle and crescent. The circle represents gold and purity but also completion—a full orbit. The cross represents the four elements, the equinoctial cross and corruption. The crescent represents silver but also incompletion—a half-orbit. Venus, for example, is a cross surmounted by a circle. Her metal is copper. Copper has the same outward appearance as gold but internally it is not the same and can rust. So her sign tells us that the circle on top means outwardly gold but the cross beneath signifies internal corruption. We explained in the opening chapter that Saturn’s metal is lead and is shown as a crescent surmounted by a cross, that is, silver at the lowest level of the elemental balance. Jupiter’s metal is tin and is depicted as a cross with a crescent attached the left arm. This represents silver in the middle of the elemental balance or halfway between lead and silver. There is no sign of a cross surmounted by a crescent, for that is the same as a crescent by itself which is the moon—silver. So lead and silver are opposites and in the geocentric scheme this is true as well: the moon is closest to earth while Saturn is farthest away.

While there is much more to alchemy than this, needless to say, I don’t wish to dwell on the subject for too long. I simply wish the give the reader some familiarity with the principles and tenets of occultism. Suffice it to say that alchemy was far more than some pseudo-scientific bumpkins trying to make an elixir to turn lead into gold. While they did seek out such a process, it was to verify the divine nature of homo sapiens.

Robert Boyle may have been the first true chemist. He began to do away with a lot of the occultic ideas of alchemy (while still retaining some) about 20-25 years before Bach’s birth. Early scientists they were. Let us give them their due. Laboratory techniques as emulsion and distillation were invented by alchemists as are good deal of the laboratory equipment still in use. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) was the first to describe the chemical composition of cinnabar, ceruse and minium as well as making the first known caustic potash. The aforementioned Ramon Lull (Raymond Lully) (1235-1315) prepared the first known bicarbonate of potassium. Paracelsus was the first to discover and describe the element of zinc and introduced the idea that diseases could be controlled or cured by the introduction of chemical compounds into the body. Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604-1668) discovered the salts that now bear his name—Glauber salts or sodium sulfate (which he erroneously thought to be the Philosopher’s Stone). Phosphorus, sulfuric acid, tin oxide, porcelain, calamine, turpentine, quicklime, sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, ammonium chloride, potassium nitrate and benzoic acid to name a very few were all discovered by alchemists. The Chinese were also superb alchemists (probably invented alchemy) and let us not forget one of their greatest discoveries that changed the world: gun powder. Alchemy also planted the seeds for medical science, metallurgy, porcelain, dye-making and glass-working. For a pseudoscience, alchemy spawned a lot of science.
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Old 03-27-2021, 05:45 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Indrid Cold View Post
[heavenly order story]
this is cool; I'm currently reading in a book which explains how this same idea of mathematical order being divine is one of the main principles behind Gothic architecture, and I immediately thought of Bach. I'm not religious at all, but I have always instinctively associated his music with both mathematics and divine perfection

I have many questions though:
- who u?
- what are you writing? An essay about the link between Bach and the occult?
- what brought you to our obscure little forum?
- what is your favourite dinosaur?
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Old 03-27-2021, 06:00 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Bach’s conduit into the Secret of Harmony using canon and double counterpoint came though his second cousin, Johann Gottfried Walther, a man he would work closely with for more than 30 years. As a musician and theoretician, Walther had few peers. He was appointed court organist at Weimar at the Stadtkirche which he held until his death 40 years later. His transcriptions of other composers’ works were the model by which Bach did his transcriptions of Vivaldi, Telemann and others. He wrote his work, Praecepta der musicalischen Composition in 1748 for his student, Prince Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar. The last couple of chapters in the book are dedicated to canon and double counterpoint and contained many imaginative and very complex examples. Walther was the author of Musicalisches Lexicon, a huge compendium of over 3000 musical terms as well as biographical details of composers up to the early half of the 18th century (its main contributor being Mattheson). This was the first German language book of musical terms. Walther also composed 132 organ preludes based on Lutheran hymns. The man was no slouch. He knew his music. Anyone who influenced Bach had to know his music.


Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748).

While Bach began submitting musical puzzles to periodicals as well as to the Society of Musical Sciences in the last decade of his life, Walther had been doing it for years. Walther amassed an impressive library over the years and Bach availed himself to it and this is almost certainly where Bach encountered learned counterpoint esoterica. Bach and Walther were the first organists to treat a cantus firmus in chorale preludes. During this time, Bach wrote what appears to be his earliest speculative canon, Canon a 4 Voc. Perpetuus (BWV 1073). Bach’s first musical puzzle appeared in a 1728 Hamburg bi-weekly music periodical called Der getreue Music-Meister edited by none other than Georg Philipp Telemann (godfather of C.P.E. Bach).



Many theorists and music students began trying to solve the so-called Houdemann Canon (BWV 1074). Johann Mattheson showed it to his students and urged them to work on it. So many Germans were fascinated by the canon that it was, without a doubt, Bach’s most famous piece at that time. Two of Mattheson’s students came up with the same solution which he published 12 years later:



There are, of course, other solutions to the canon. Bokemeyer also submitted one he received from one “Doctor Syrbio” in Jena. Bokemeyer had been sent the canon by Walther who also had Bach’s own solution. Bach never published it. He would only allow close colleagues to see it. It was, otherwise, a guarded secret of the composer’s inner thoughts.

The reverence for canon which, in Bach’s time, was an ancient music (last century) was still regarded, despite Mattheson’s efforts, considered the pinnacle of music and a beautiful art. Thus begin the comparisons with alchemy. Bokemeyer had quite an interest in alchemy and the Hermetic arts and wrote to Walther about them. Walther confessed to not knowing much about them although he had read quite a bit on the subject and considered it valid. He wrote:

“…just as you [went] though the ciphers 1 through 7 of occult philosophy, so have I come to understand, through the contemplation of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, the instruction on canon so extensively discussed by Zarlino, of which the aforementioned author proclaims that (with respect to judgment) canon is the highest level of composition.”

So alchemy and canon were each seen as being preeminent in their respective arts. The correspondence between Bokemeyer and Walther indicates that the former was, in fact, an adept of alchemy, had an extensive library of alchemical and hermetic works and performed a great many experiments. The defeat of Bokemeyer at the hands of Mattheson, however, concerning the exaltation of canon and counterpoint in music started a slow but steady decline in the use of such outside church music. Composers began to publicly express either ridicule for “the excessive cult of counterpoint” or to make guarded statements of the use of such wanting to be seen as being aware of Bokemeyer’s defeat. Some of the more vociferous as Mattheson and Johann David Heinichen likened the mystique of counterpoint and canon as undeserved, superstitious and, ironically, witchcraft. However, they were not, as some composers, urging musicians and composers to avoid canon and counterpoint altogether but rather its exalted status should be revoked and the occultism surrounding it done away with. They still encouraged composers to learn canon and counterpoint and work with it.

Where Bach fell into this debate is difficult to say. He had to know about the debate between Mattheson and Bokemeyer. One has to conclude, however, that Bach was more sympathetic to Bokemeyer than to Mattheson simply by dint of his dedication to canon and counterpoint not to mention his obvious penchant for creating canon and counterpoint puzzles for others to resolve either publicly or privately. His most famous piece in that time was just one such puzzle—the aforementioned Houdemann’s Canon.

Bach does indeed appear to stand opposed to Mattheson’s attempts at demystifying canon and counterpoint. For instance, Fa Mi, et Mi Fa est tota Musica (BWV 1074) refers to the argument not that the semitone (Mi-Fa) is the foundation of music as is often assumed but rather that the semitone should be referred to by these medieval solmization syllables. Bach was making clear that he thought of solmization syllables as tota musica (all music). Bach wasn’t letting anyone declare Mi-Fa dead.

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Then there is Bach’s canon, Concordia discors (BWV 1086), which is the reverse of Mattheson’s motto Discordia Concors. Bach’s title means “discordant harmony” while Mattheson’s motto means “In harmony with discord.” By reversing Mattheson’s motto, Bach was showing how to make counterpoint in retrograde. Yet, there were other instances where Bach seemed to be more practical and rational and without much use for magic and occultism but we have no hard examples to draw firm conclusions.

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As far as alchemy, a great many still believed in it in Bach’s day. Even scholars as Leibniz and Newton believed in the efficacy of alchemy. Everyone wanted the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone so they could have that endless supply of gold or silver. Many others had given up on the idea having spent years in a futile search.

Bach had an interest in precious metals in the form of coins and medallions. Quite a number are listed in his estate. In his Calov bible, Bach wrote in the margin of a page of Exodus concerning weights and measures of metals used to build the Tabernacle: “The sum of the freewill offering amounts to almost eight tons of gold.” Bach made this calculation using another book from his library, De monetis et mensuris sacrae scripturae by Heinrich Bünting, a book written for and used by alchemists.

Bokemeyer added a title page to a treatise written by Johann Thiele, a student of Buxtehude and a great proponent of the Secrets of Music, called Gründlicher Unterricht von den gedoppelten Contrapuncten (Thorough Instruction of the Double Counterpoint), in which he wrote:

“This treatise on counterpoint is to be treasured as worth more than a great deal of gold. Therefore one must not throw such things before swine so that the secrets of music become common and therefore a thing of disdain.”

This statement gets to the heart of the alchemic art. Here, Bokemeyer states that counterpoint is worth more than gold. As we know, alchemists were always trying to make gold via the Philosopher’s Stone which none were able to find. The reason is that the Philosopher’s Stone was not a material thing. Its ability to transmute lead into gold referred to the purification of the human spirit, enlightenment, if you will. The 1582 alchemical treatise Splendor Solis attributed to Salomon Trismosin even states: “Hence it is clearly to be understood that the Gold of the Philosophers is something other than the common gold.”


One of 22 illustrations from Splendor Solis.

While making actual material gold for kings is just service to greed, the divine gold of counterpoint was not done for money. Counterpoint was not a popular form of music and therefore not lucrative. This was one of the criticisms that Mattheson leveled against it but to Bokemeyer was one of counterpoint’s strengths. The alchemist’s goal should not be to attain wealth but to advance the knowledge and consciousness of the human race. Of course, not a lot of composers were willing to take things that far. After all, they needed to make a comfortable living. Probably none of them were real alchemists as Bokemeyer was. Enough of them sided with Mattheson that it eventually forced Bokemeyer’s capitulation.

What was clear was that both Bokemeyer and Walther considered learned counterpoint to be the Philosopher’s Stone. They spoke of learned counterpoint in alchemical terms in order to convey this belief. Just as the Philosopher’s Stone was not a material that could be purchased and used to affect outcomes, learned counterpoint was not to be freely spread about because the secrets of counterpoint required, as in alchemy, a certain moral rectitude and expertise. As with the philosophical gold, learned counterpoint was powerful and had to be handled with care and was not for the wicked nor the stupid nor the greedy. The artifex (composer of learned counterpoint) must possess the technical knowledge required to toil long and hard on the “secret art” (learned counterpoint) must discover in his geheimes Kunst-Zimmer or secret laboratory all the inversions possible for each canon in order to not only produce profound harmonic results but to also advance spiritually. Bokemeyer and Walther were openly framing learned counterpoint as a form of alchemy—the art of transmutation. The word “artifex” is a title for an alchemist whose work must be done alone in his secret laboratory.


Drawing by Heinrich Khunrath showing the alchemist or artifex at work in his secret laboratory. Note the musical instruments on the table. He not only seeks the Philosopher’s Stone via chemical transmutation but also through musical composition.

Bokemeyer felt that canon was the basis of all music. The addition of learned counterpoint allows all the modern music that Mattheson advocated for. Canon was the “true essence” of all the various musical forms that ultimately derives from it. In this view, Bokemeyer borrowed from his advocate, the organist Johann Heinrich Buttstett (1666-1727), a pupil of Pachelbel and a teacher of Walther.

In the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, the second verse reads: “Also, as all things were made from One, by the help of One: So all things are made from One thing by Conjunction.” This “One” from which all things are made is the prima materia or primal matter from which the four elements of earth, water, air and fire are derived. From these four primal elements come all the various substances via one element lending certain of its properties to combine certain properties of another element. With the Philosopher’s Stone, any properties could be combined at will to transmute base metals into gold. Likewise, canon was musical prima materia from which all other music was derived. Even Mattheson’s free-flowing melodies. However, Bokemeyer introduced a new type of canon called canon naturalis which was derived from melody and from this natural canon was derived the canon artificialis. In this way, Bokemeyer hoped to bridge the most complex canon with the most natural melody. The best natural melodies, he said, yield good artificial canon. Alchemically, melodies can be transmuted into canons. The artifex, with great skill and knowledge of his secret art (learned counterpoint), further transmutes the canon naturalis into the canon artificialis—the most highest and most perfect musical expression. Hence, the artifex produces great refinement from raw nature.

So, nature must be guided to perfection by the alchemist. According J. A. Birnbaum, Bach believed this also in that “[m]any things are delivered to us by nature in the most misshapen states, which however, acquire the most beautiful appearance when they have been formed by art. Thus art lends nature a beauty it lacks, and increases the beauty it possesses. Now, the greater the art is—that is, the more industriously and painstakingly it works at the improvement of nature—the more brilliantly shines the beauty thus brought into being.”

A similar idea is expressed in Freemasonry via the emblem of the rough and perfect ashlar.


The rough and perfect ashlar show how nature gives us the basic material when then is shaped to perfection by the stonemason in the same way natural canon is shaped by the composer/artifex into artificial canon.

According Bach’s son, Emmanuel, Bach performed a similar operation when tuning the harpsichord. Bach was an expert tuner and used mathematics to tune each string. However, this was a crude adjustment to get the string to the desired pitch but Bach then fine-tuned using his ear. The mathematical tuning was by nature and the fine tuning was by the human tuner perfecting upon what is given by nature. One must, however, follow nature. As the rough ashlar gives us a shape roughly cubical, the stonemason simply refines the cube to perfection. Likewise, artificial canon must follow along the lines of the natural melody not rewrite it. The artist must follow nature.


This plate from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (1618) depicts the artifex/contrapuntist following nature. Of this image, Bokemeyer wrote: “Nature be your guide; whom you must follow from afar / Willingly, otherwise you err, where she does not lead you / Reason be your staff.”

Both alchemist and contrapuntist must follow the laws of nature. The role of both being equal and analogous to the other. While Mattheson stood opposed to all this occultism pervading canon and counterpoint, it would appear that Bach did not. We shall investigate a bit deeper and see what we can find.

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Old 03-27-2021, 06:20 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Bokemeyer’s public defeat in his debates with Mattheson on the merits of occult canonism in 1725 was not the end of Bokemeyer’s occult endeavors. He continued to invest himself in alchemy. His defeat, as far as he was concerned, was not that the occultism in canon should be dropped on a personal level but only that canon should not occupy a central position in European music nor should the occultism be taught to student adepts but should be stripped of its occult trappings and taught to all students freely. On a personal level, Bokemeyer continued to study canon as a form of occultism. He wrote to Walther and told him he wanted a copy of a set of musical manuscripts in Walther’s library written by Johann Thiele under the collective title of Musicalisches Kunstbuch after Walther had mentioned them to Bokemeyer in a 1731 letter. Walther painstakingly copied the manuscripts over a three-year period (1735-8) and sending them to Bokemeyer in installments.

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Thiele had been a friend of Buxtehude and was the first kapellmeister of the Hamburg Opera. Walther had been something of an apostle of Thiele and so inherited many of his written works. Bokemeyer and his teacher, Georg Österreich, who had also taught Thiele, studied his treatises. Thiele was known as “the father of contrapuntists” and was known from Königsberg to Vienna where Emperor Leopold I studied his works on learned counterpoint. Thiele was a big advocate of the learned secrets of canon and counterpoint and the Kunstbuch was his magnum opus in that regard. Composed of 15 pieces ranging from canon to dance suites to vocal polyphony from the 1670s and 80s, the Kunstbuch is titled as an alchemical work since many works on hermeticism and, in particular, magic were called kunstbücher. Thiele’s title page states it outright: “Musicalisches Kunstbuch, in which 15 Kunst pieces and secrets, which spring from double counterpoint, are to be met.” These pieces were to be treated as powerful secrets from a mystical, magical, musical universe.

Each piece in the Kunstbuch was accompanied by a couplet spelling out a secret to the initiated who knew how to read it. Each had an emblem to go with it as well. This is exactly how alchemical treatises were written. Some of these emblems I’ve posted here already. In the second piece is written: “All of these can be transformed once more, / but one must also proceed very cleverly with them.” This puzzle has never been solved. In the fourth piece, for example, Thiele leaves off the bass part with the motto: “The bass has hidden himself somewhere within, / But a clever person will soon enough discover it.” Walther’s copy left the bass line blank. In the ninth piece, the couplet reads: “Although there is but one of me here, I appear two times. / Who can find what is hidden in me?” This riddle certainly seems to be referring to the use of learned counterpoint application. There is just one musical line, but through inversion or retrograde of that line and juxtaposed against the original line, we get two harmonious lines. To solve this, the artifex must apply the secret art and the Philosopher’s Stone will reward him beyond his wildest dreams. Even the simplest melodies could thereby produce endless possibilities of the highest artistic expression—spiritual gold.

This contrapuntal/alchemical transformation is demonstrated by Bach in his Canon a 2 perpetuus (BWV 1075):

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Here a simple eight-bar melody, through a knowledgeable application of the secret art, is transformed as if by magic into canon. The last four measures are simply an inversion of the first four bars. The last bar then circles back to the first in a seamless fashion which requires a good degree of skill to pull off. The last measure doesn’t simply hook up to the first but resolves to it even though the last is an inversion of the first. Yet, Bach does it without seeming effort and sounds like a two-bar canon. The operation is simple but the operation means nothing without the melody to start with. Bach not only has written a fine melody but whether played rectus or invertus, it retains that fineness. Whether in the original form, rectus form or invertus form, there is no dissonance to be found so when imposed over the original theme, the blend is always sweet. So, Bach composed sweet melody with sweet harmony and that’s where genius lies. Knowing the learned counterpoint is all fine and dandy but if the melody isn’t constructed correctly the result isn’t going to be much good. Bach shows amazing adeptness at both melody composition and learned counterpoint and that will put him a cut above anyone without that kind of command.

If Bach had read Musicalisches Kunstbuch, and he probably did while in Weimar since have had access to Walther’s library, he would have understood the title to be something related to occultism specifically hermeticism and magic. Knowing that the author was none other than the Father of the Contrapuntists, Johann Thiele, and this was his magnum opus of contrapuntal works, we can hypothesize Bach’s reaction encountering such esoteric concepts as the Harmony Tree:



Due to the efforts men as Mattheson and Heinichen, those students that came a generation after Bach learned counterpoint only as exercises in mechanics. All occult attachments had long been stripped away and in so doing went the understanding of how counterpoint and canon were perceived in Bach’s day.
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Old 03-27-2021, 06:32 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Old 03-27-2021, 06:51 PM   #8 (permalink)
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this is cool; I'm currently reading in a book which explains how this same idea of mathematical order being divine is one of the main principles behind Gothic architecture, and I immediately thought of Bach. I'm not religious at all, but I have always instinctively associated his music with both mathematics and divine perfection
Sacred geometry. That kind of thing was very popular among the aristocrats and nobles of Europe as was Freemasonry.

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I have many questions though:
- who u?
- what are you writing? An essay about the link between Bach and the occult?
- what brought you to our obscure little forum?
- what is your favourite dinosaur?
All things in due time.
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Old 03-27-2021, 06:55 PM   #9 (permalink)
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all right, keep on grooving. This is interesting
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Old 03-30-2021, 09:30 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Indeed.
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