Musurgia universalis.

Rome, Francisci Corbelletri, 1650.


FIRST EDITION. Two volumes in one. pp. (xliv) 690; (iv) 462 (xix, lacking final blank). Roman and Italic letter, occasional Hebrew, woodcut historiated initials, head- and tail-pieces, full-page engraved frontispiece in both volumes, full-page engraving of Archduke Leopold, printed music, woodcuts of musical instruments, anatomical and mathematical diagrams throughout, four fold-out engraved plates (volume II). Biographical manuscript note on Kircher on fly in Dutch, in contemporary hand, contemporary manuscript ex libris in Greek at bottom of first title page, later ex libris “T. Kythk” signature in pink ink. Slight age browning, a good, well-margined copy in contemporary Dutch vellum over boards, covers with double blind-ruled panels, central blind-stamped lozenge, title in brown ink on spine.

FIRST EDITION of Kircher’s encyclopaedia of music, tracing the 16th-century Renaissance vogue for polyphonic chants, motets, and liturgies, to the minimalist Baroque style that followed, stripping down arrangements into solo-voice pieces accompanied by a single instrument. With the expansiveness typical of “The Last Man Who Knew Everything” (cit infr.) Kircher branches out to include anatomical descriptions of the ear, and takes a crack at theorizing the science of sound in the opening pages of the book. As prominent polymath, his survey of musical instruments is paired with short descriptions of the typical styles of music they played: including Ancient Greek and Hebrew examples, and a meditation on King David’s probable musical style.

The bulk of the book is taken up by geometric and mathematical descriptions of musical theory, after the example of Pythagoras, who allegedly determined the mathematical basis for music, and developed a system of notation, after hearing the varying sounds produced by different-sized hammers in a blacksmith’s shop. The book concludes with descriptions of the latest experiments in music technology including the arca musa arithmica (“composing computer”), singing automatons (which he collected) and the megaphone (which he invented), with diagrams to visualise further systems of sound amplification he had dreamed up.

The book was a popular resource for experts and interested amateurs alike: in his diary entry of 22 February 1688 Pepys wrote: “Up, and by coach through ducke lane; and there did buy Kircher’s Musurgia, cost me 35s, a book I am mighty glad of, expecting to find some great satisfaction in it.” “Some forty-four books and more than 2,000 extant letters and manuscripts attest to the extraordinary variety of his interests and to his intellectual endowments. His studies cover practically all fields both in the humanities and the sciences. […] It is not surprising that Kircher recorded the first – though imperfect – description of a speaking trumpet. He also reported on remarkable echoes and on the sound of a bell in a vacuum campana ringed by a magnet but did not reach a genuine interpretation of the phenomenon.” Athenasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (ed. Paula Findlen, Routledge, 2004).

BM STC It. C17th p. 462.  Honeyman V 1816. Brunet III 668. Caillet II 363. DSB 7-8, p. 374-6. Grove IV p 761-2 “His great work…contains, among much rubbish, valuable matter on the nature of sound and the theory of composition, with interesting examples from the instrumental music of Frescobaldi, Froberger, and other composers of the 17th century.”


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