Carrière et vie professionnelle

Music, Machines and Theology (I)


(Talk given on 3 November 2007 at the HSS Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C. Session organized by Heidi Voskuhl, also with Matthew Jones and Myles Jackson)

Mersenne's "orgue positif," from the Harmonie universelle

Mersenne's "orgue positif," from the Harmonie universelle

Renaissance and early modern machines are usually epitomized by the works of such luminaries as Leonardo, Jacques Besson, Agostino Ramelli, Vittorio Zonca and Salomon de Caus, to name but a few. Except for Leonardo-and scores of other engineer-minded savants, whose work remained in manuscript form-all of the aforementioned individuals printed expensive in-folio Theaters of Machines, in which contraptions of various complexity were depicted. Military bridges and hurling engines, cranes, water-raising devices, grain and saw mills, and machinery for textile industries: some machines were merely fantastic inventions, others were actually built and useful. But as intricate as these early modern machines may have appeared to a contemporary reader, they were relatively simple and symbolically weak in comparison to the king of musical instruments: the pneumatic organ.

My talk centers around the musical organ not only because it was one of the most complex pieces of machinery built in early modern Europe, but because it likewise symbolized the material culture of faith within the Christian Church. Putting together these two apparently distinct attributes-the mechanical and the divine-I will demonstrate that in the hands of the well-known Parisian Minim Marin Mersenne, the mechanical complexities of the pneumatic organ became the best material and Christian representations of natural philosophy. In effect, the organ illustrated better than most machines why natural philosophical knowledge had to be established on theory, experiments and artisanal knowledge. Moreover, the fact that the organ was a valuable asset to the liturgy of Catholics and most Reformists in a time of religious uncertainty, helped strengthening the claim that Mersenne’s universal harmony was a truly ecumenical Christian science.

The organ as a powerful symbol of Christianity

To a polymath like Cardano, the organ was the organum organorum, the “most simple of simple instruments and the most elaborate of the elaborate.” As he explains, “Although all instruments are called organs in Greek, this one alone has retained the name through its superiority…” It was, in other words, “the most perfect, pleasant, melodious, noble and excellent instrument.” The mechanical structure of and the melody coming from an organ, according to Pierre Trichet, a contemporary of Mersenne, let any listener wonder whether such an invention was actually divine rather than secular. Such was the common tropes regarding the majestic musical instrument, found at royal courts and especially in churches. During the Middle Ages, the organ gained a definite religious status that no other musical instrument came close to reach in Europe. It became the only musical instrument sanctioned by the Church to play during Mass. For that reason alone they achieved a unique status in the academic, royal, and social-cultural environments of early modern Europe, often celebrated in poems and scholarly works. The organ, in brief, was not only the most complex machine built in early modern Europe. It turned into one of the dominant symbols — icons — of Christianity.

Evidence show, however, that instruments other than the organ were infiltrating sixteenth-century churches. In Northern Europe, Erasmus and Martin Luther complained in numerous writings about the cacophonic presence of musical instruments during mass. Erasmus, in his Declarationes ad censuras (1532) criticized what he called the booming sounds of instruments, “the almost warlike din of organs, straight trumpets, curved trumpets, horns and also bombards, since these too are admitted in divine worship.” After a mass in which a bass-voiced sacristan, who accompanied himself with a lute, sang the Kyrie and Patrem Luther wrote ironically that “I could hardly refrain from laughing because I was not accustomed to such organ playing…”  Even Montaigne, a few decades later, was likewise dumbfounded to hear violins accompanying the organ during a Mass he attended in Verona.

But what Erasmus, Luther, and the majority of Reformists and Catholic Counter-Reformists fought against was not the organ per say, but the kind of music performed during Mass. Dances and frivolous chansons were improvised on the sacred instrument and played in churches-what Erasmus called shameful love songs (amatoria fœdæque cantilenæ). The habit became so generalized that the Council of Sens (1528) reminded all organists to abstain from playing lascivious and immodest popular music in churches. The Council of Cologne (1536) and the Council of Trent (1562) maintained similar positions on the subject. Yet the regulation was so badly ignored that it had to be reiterated in the Councils of Reims (1564), Cambrai (1565) and Bordeaux (1583): “vitetur lasciva musica … moderetur organorum usus.

Under Luther and the Lutherans singing and organ playing, if done right, were an important part of the Reformist liturgy. Other radical Reformist movements, however, condemned some or all liturgical music. Karlstadt, during Luther’s exile from Wittenberg, came to accept singing during Mass but banished organ playing, dubbing the instrument a “celestial bagpipe.” In Zürich, Zwingli not only muted the organs but censured singing, “this barbarous mumbling” he called it. In Geneva, Calvin accepted singing in his Articles of 1537 since “we know from experience that song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.” Organs, conversely, did not fare well under Calvinism. More often than not they were destroyed, as in Lausanne, Biberach, Frankfurt, Schönthal and Ulm, where horses were brought into the church to break and remove the largest pipes. Calvinists and Huguenots alike treated the organ as they did any other type of religious iconography. The organ became in this context more than a mechanical contraption: it became a genuine icon of the old papist ways.

Organs received a harsh treatment as well in Puritan England. As early as 1536, the Lower House of Convocation included music and organ playing among the eighty-four faults and abuses of religion. In 1567, a tract entitled “The Praise of Music” mentioned that “not so few as one hundred organs were taken down and the pipes sold to make pewter dishes.” Just a few years later, some Puritans reaffirmed that “concerning singing of psalms, we allow of the people’s joining with one voice in a plain tune, but not of tossing the psalms from one side to the other with intermingly of organs.” And in 1586, radicals asked that “all cathedral churches [were] put down where the service of God is grievously abused by piping with organs…” At the start of the English civil war in 1642, soldiers waged a battle against the organ at Canterbury while organ pipes from Westminster Abbey were carried away and bartered for beer. The Chichester organ was put down with poleaxes and soldiers marched in the street of Exeter blowing into organ pipes newly removed. It is in the midst of this conflict, moreover, that organs were included into the category of “superstitious monuments,” thus sealing their fate in England for roughly half a century.

An anonymous work, “Printed in the yeer of Discord 1642,” is revealing of the hostility and ill feeling surrounding the pneumatic machine. Written in the form of a nasty yet somewhat comical dialogue between Purple and Orange-Tawny, the text exposes more than a religious rift between the supporters and opponents of the organ. Orange-Tawny, after a series of fitting insults in reply to Purple’s, goes straight to the point: “I will hold no disputation with thee, but jog on in my holy violence to erect a religious battery against (those pipes of Popery & Superstition) the Organs.” Purple, puzzled by Orange-Tawny’s “extravagant zeal,” received this other categorical statement:

O[range-Tawny]. I tell thee, they [the organs] be the timbrels of Satan, and entice the eares of the religious to fancy sounds of vanity, whilest the smock apparelled Singing men fill the ears of our select Brethren with crotchers.

Yet what comes out forcefully from this small work is the deep social division created by the playing of church organs in England. The split is clear-cut: those who loathed the organ were craftsmen; those who valued the sacred instrument were gentlemen, as the long humorous lists attest.[i] Organs were indeed very much admired by the English elite throughout the seventeenth century. Its music was heard outside of churches and composers actually improved on past harmonies. Though John Milton, for instance, compared the organ in Paradise Lost to the House of Demons, or Pandaemonium, he was a great lover (and player) of organ music. Despite that fact, organs were muted during Mass — if not completely destroyed. It was only toward the end of the century that new church organs were built and their liturgical value defended with renewed vigor.

The organ was thus charged with an unmistakable religious aura, impossible to miss or misinterpret in early modern Europe. This is perhaps what makes Mersenne’s writing about the organ such a tour de force. On the surface, he was able to strip the organ’s religious aura down to the fundamental mechanical nature of the instrument. In reality, however, he relocated the aura, from a matter of faith to one of epistemology. In Mersenne’s writing, the organ was no longer the epitome of church music, but the embodiment of musica scientia, the natural philosophy of music. (to be continued…)


[i] Compare the list of characters and notice the humor provided by both protagonists:

O[ange-Tawny]. In the first place here is Ananias Slie Glazier, Hotofernes Holy-Hanke Pewterer, John Judas Serjeant, Michael Meddle-much Pin-maker, Nehemiah Needlesse Tobacco-pipe-maker, Marmaduke Marre-all Gunsmith, Stephen Stare Spectacle-maker, Ralph Round-scull Button-maker, Simon Schisme Felt-maker, Richard Riot Lock-Smith, Aminadad Mercilesse Butcher, and Edmond End-all Dyer; these are the names of the men, the rest consisteth in the allowance of women and apprentices, which you shall at large heare named.

P[urple]. Indeed I will not sir; you have been too tedious already; if your men be no better, I guesse what your women and apprentices are: I will now name you onely fix that shall oppose your twelve, and they are these. Thomas True-heart Gentleman, Lawrence Loyall Esquire, Francis Well-borne Gentleman, Richard Royall-thought Esquire, Constantin Tryall-proofe Gentleman, Charles Good-cause Esquire, with many more as well borne, and of as noble natures, which you are not worthy to heare named, since not capable to understand…


March 16, 2009 Posted by | Epistemology, Instrument | , , , , , | 1 Comment