Leading on from parts one and two

Hasler intends to open his exploration of existing ‘repertoires’ of speculative music with alchemy, before progressing to astrology and then cabala. Whether unconsciously intended or not, this scheme recalls Agrippa’s division of both the universe and his magnum opus into three realms: natural, celestial/mathematical and divine/intellectual.

However, Hasler quickly runs into a problem with considering alchemy as a single discipline: it cannot be divorced from the symbolism and practice of astrology. Alchemy is, as John Dee called it, astronomia inferior, of which “celestial astronomy is the source and guide.” Or to put it in terms of a well-worn Hermetic rubric: “As above, so below.”

An engraving of “The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus”, cornerstone of alchemical and Hermetic philosophy.

Although I did suggest in an earlier post that, considering the breadth of practices falling under the head of ‘alchemy’, alchemists could have conceivably auditioned the harmonies suggested by the ratios of elements used in their formulae and their astrological elections: thus confirming their mathematics by ear. A practice like this is, however, still very much in the area of traditional speculative music: music as a tool for speculation and learning about the world. The more realistic explanation is that presence of instruments in alchemical imagery are simply symbols of this type of Boethian speculative music, indicating not the practical sounding of tones, but simply the need to understand harmonic and mathematical laws in order to arrive at fortuitous astrological elections and so on.

Hasler’s discussion of alchemy draws heavily on the spagyric (plant alchemy) work of Manfred M Junius (1979, PDF). It’s rather a shame that Hasler does not discuss music in the historical alchemical tradition, aside from mentioning Atalanta Fugiens when defining his typology of speculative music in the first chapter.

On the subject of alchemical music, there is, for example, the work of Peter Forshaw on music in the work of the alchemist Heinrich Khunrath. This was published in 2010, however, when Hasler would no doubt have been deep into the compositional side of his PhD. As Forshaw points out, alchemical songs are fairly rare, but do exist: one of the better known being En Pulcher Lapis Noster, a chant in the Phrygian mode from about 1400.

En Pulcher Lapis Noster, an alchemical antiphon.

A chant such as En Pulcher suggests interesting relationships between religion, liturgical music and the spiritual side of the alchemist’s work: the alchemist is instructed to both work and pray – the alchemical laboratorium was also an oratorium.

The eight ‘modes’ of medieval liturgical music were (in allusion to Classical authorities) often associated with various moral and emotional ‘ethoi’, and – by those of a Hermetic mind – planets. Since we have indicated that alchemy cannot be divorced from astrology, the use of liturgical modes and their planetary associations to set alchemical texts, such as Cibenisis’ Alchemical Mass, would seem to suggest itself as one possibility for composing alchemical music. As to whether such a composition would fall into the ‘symbolic’ or ‘speculative’ levels of Hasler’s proposed typology would have to remain to be seen!

Hasler recognises himself that alchemy and astrology travel together, citing Paracelsus’ opinion that “every physician should simultaneously be an alchemist and an astrologer,” (p.57) and closes the section with the statement that he has “tried to lay the bases for future work here, through astrological work.” (p.63) So, although Hasler’s search for speculative music in the alchemical tradition did not bear fruit, we find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches when we turn our eyes to the heavens!

Let’s finish with some music to prepare for the next part: a journey through the planetary spheres and astrological houses. Having dwelt in the past for most of this post, here are three pieces of 20th century music with celestial themes.