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

Music, Machines and Theology (II)

Mersenne’s organ: Theory, experiment and artisanal knowledge revealed

To Mersenne the organ was simply one of the most admirable pneumatic machines ever invented. And strictly that. Not once in the treatise on organ was he tempted by the art of allegory, portraying the organ as a symbol of God’s creation, for instance, as Athanasius Kircher did in his 1650 Musurgia universalis. Yet any reader could tell the organ represented more than a musical instrument. Even browsing Mersenne’s description of the

God playing on his celestial organ, giving birth to the world. From Kircher's Musurgia universalis

God playing on his celestial organ, giving birth to the world. From Kircher's Musurgia universalis

organ gives incredible insights into the practice of natural philosophy, which in addition to a thorough knowledge of music theory, now involved experimental data gathering and hands-on savoir-faire from the mechanical arts. Actually making the organ, nonetheless, had less importance to Mersenne than the rigorous account entailing its construction. The organ’s comprehensive description, as we will see, reified the practices of the mechanical philosophy into an admired and altogether Christian material entity. The organ was thus not only a powerful religious symbol to Mersenne: it epitomized and materialized the role that theory, experiment, and the mechanical arts played in the overall notion of harmonie universelle.

Length of organ pipes, and how they sound, from Mersenne's Harmonie universelle.

Length of organ pipes, and how they sound, from Mersenne's Harmonie universelle.

Mersenne’s experimental research with organ pipes is traceable to the early 1620s. In correspondance with Rouen honnêtes hommes like Robert Cornier, and in situ, Mersenne sought to have experiments with organ pipes done by other parties in order to confirm his own results. Mersenne was chiefly interested in the standardization of organ-pipe making. Mersenne, for instance, discovered in a series of experiments that if one used small diameter pipes, say of three lines (roughly 6 mm) and a base length of half a foot, Pythagoras’s explanation of consonances was approximately verified-i.e. if you double the length of this small pipe, it will sound an almost perfect octave lower. But what Mersenne discovered, and Vincenzo Galilei before him, was that with bigger sounding pipes this scheme did not stand anymore. In a series of numerical examples, Mersenne demonstrated that doubling the length of a pipe while at the same time keeping its cross-section constant did not produce the required octave; the sound was off by half a tone, a tone, or even more. Similarly, the Minim was able to report numerous experimental results proving that keeping the length of organ pipes constant while varying their cross-section did not produce either the required consonances. Here he used five half-foot pipes of diameters ranging from three lines to four inches, always doubling in size following the geometrical series. The experiments showed that it was virtually impossible to reach an octave when keeping the pipes’ length constant while modifying the cross-section. Mersenne wrote that to reach a sound an octave lower, one would have to add two inches in diameter and two feet in length to the biggest pipe. Mersenne’s description of the pipes’ dimension was precise to make sure that if “one encounters other intervals in pipes larger or smaller, he will have occasion for seeking the reason.”

From such experiments Mersenne was able to generate a universal table of organ-pipe making, containing he said “all that can be reasonably desired on the subject [the division of the octave], aside from which there is nothing for the makers to know.” In this full-page table, Mersenne combined knowledge acquired from experiments, artisanal practices and the theory of mathematical proportions. This table — drawn to scale, the height being one foot (pied de roy) — contains eleven columns showing the precise length and cross-section of organ pipes corresponding to several divisions of the diapason. This table, however, did not solve all there was to know about the production of sound in organ pipes. Why, for example, did organ pipes sing different intervals when air pressure varied? What was the relationship between air pressure, musical intervals and the material components of pipes? For Mersenne the “manufacturers can help out Philosophy by preparing a catalogue of the pipes which rise only a semitone, or a third, or a fourth, or a fifth, etc., for it will be easier to find the reason when one understands the qualities of the pipes which cause the difference of these pitches…” Musical instrument makers were truly central to Mersenne’s work. Because they were actually making these pneumatic machines, which involved all kinds of matter, object and craftsmanship, they were the best providers of raw data regarding the nature of sound production. Finally, as Mersenne reminded his readers, due to the great and multifaceted complexity of the organ “whatever one may say and whatever figures one can give to explain everything that concerns the construction of the organ, it is very difficult to have it understood when one has not seen one made, or has not considered the pieces in the large as well as in detail.” To fully understand how an organ worked, one had to watch and scrutinize in situ how it was put together. If natural philosophers were serious in their quest to become lord and master of nature, they had to tackle head-on the mechanical arts. The novel experimental practice, in other words, went hand-in-hand with the traditional artisanal practices.

Twenty-seven-key organ clavier invented by Mersenne, depicted in the Harmonie universelle.

Twenty-seven-key organ clavier invented by Mersenne, depicted in the Harmonie universelle.

As convinced as Mersenne was of the utility of artisanal knowledge and experimental practices, he likewise believed the mathematical foundation of music could greatly improve the practice of organ playing. This he showed by studying the “science of organ claviers.” In fact, Mersenne explained that “[Gioseffo] Zarlino would not have taken so much pains in explaining the syntone of Ptolemy, which misses many degrees, if he had had an understanding of the keyboards that I propose in the treatise on the spinet and the organ.” Mersenne, in brief, tried to relocate the complete knowledge of musical genres into a mechanical device-the organ clavier. Since experiments and mechanical knowledge showed how best to build organ pipes, a keyboard based on the theory of music now had to match their perfect diapason, so that theory and practice could ultimately work in unison.

Proceeding methodically, Mersenne started with two thirteen-key claviers differently tempered, neither of which displaying perfect major and minor thirds and sixths. In order to produce all the just intoned consonances, these two claviers had to be combined into a seventeen-key clavier. Yet even this keyboard was insufficient to exhibit the just intonation of the complete diatonic genre, which needs at least eighteen tones (hence nineteen keys). The latter, although exhibiting the three musical genres, did not do so perfectly for the chromatic and enharmonic ones, yet would be the best-tempered nineteen-key organ keyboard one could imagine, matching the third column of the organ-pipe table presented previously. To fully render the perfect harmonic diapason, a clavier would need twenty-seven keys, the first row of keys for the diatonic genre, the second row for the chromatic and the last row for the enharmonic. The table that accompanies the clavier’s drawing was the real thing though, displaying at a glance (says Mersenne) the perfection of the harmonic diapason, such that one could straightforwardly extract from it this twenty-seven-key clavier.

Drawn from the most exact theory of music, Mersenne’s twenty-seven-key clavier had great advantages over the conventional ones, and because these claviers were so perfect, nothing should stop organists using them, even if it meant learning anew how to play the organ:

For it is of no importance that the difficulty of playing them is greater, inasmuch as it is not necessary to feel pity for the pains nor to avoid the work which leads to perfection. To this I add that they will be played as easily as the others when the hands become accustomed to them, because they follow the infallible rule of reason.

In this case, musicians and the mechanical arts had to meet the terms of the music theorist, for only through the latter’s science would a better musical instrument be designed and built-and consequently would music approach the long lost perfection of Antiquity.


Mersenne’s twenty-seven-key organ clavier became a true mechanical representation — an embodiment — of the most perfect musical harmony attainable by any of God’s creation. Yet without the precise craftsmanship of organ pipes, which was brought to light by experiments on the width and height of pipes, organ claviers were simply useless. Theory was thus no longer enough. Boethius’s rational musicus was replaced in the seventeenth-century by a perfect musician whose knowledge encompassed, besides the theory of numbers, physiology, philology, poetry, anatomy, metallurgy, the mechanical arts and even magic.

The organ epitomized better than any other musical instrument the strong relationship between religion and secular knowledge. In fact, the same way Lutherans and Catholics claimed organ music assisted the population in praising the Lord Almighty, Mersenne used the detailed description of the mechanical organ to help artisans and savants understand the production of natural philosophical knowledge. The ecumenical virtues of the church organ were transformed, in the secular and material world of natural philosophy, into epistemological virtues. By keeping the organ as mechanical as possible, without imposing on it any allegorical or religious connotation, Mersenne was able to use the organ as the most worthy secular object of knowledge, which could be studied by Christians of all faiths. The same piece of machinery, I would claim, symbolized both the best religious and secular practices. Organs were the reification of Mersenne’s universal harmony, an harmony juxtaposing the spiritual and the worldly, the music of pure consonances with the levers, gears and bellows of a mechanical device. To worship God while listening to the music of an organ or to discover God’s natural creations by means of the latter’s mechanical parts was not that incongruous to someone like Mersenne.

March 15, 2009 Posted by | Epistemology, Instrument | , , , , | 2 Comments

Dissertation Abstract

This dissertation examines the relationships between savants, artisans and machines in seventeenth-century France (1630-1690). I argue that French natural philosophy was not exclusively a matter of reason and rational thinking (Cartesianism), commonly distinguished from the experimentally-inclined England of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle or the Italy of Galileo Galilei. Generating scientific knowledge in early modern France involved rather a combination of intellectual and hands-on practical skills, usually aimed at the production of instruments and complex machines. I suggest throughout the dissertation that artisans and savants intersected in technological spaces, where they formulated epistemic dialogues anchored in the tools and machines created within those spaces. Looking in turn at Marin Mersenne, René Descartes, and Blaise Pascal, I show how their respective description and interpretation of the pneumatic organ, lens-grinding machine, and arithmetical machine depended not only upon their knowledge of music, optics and mathematics but most importantly upon their familiarity with the work of organ makers, opticians and clockmakers–with whom they were in regular contact. Within these machines was embedded a plurality of practices (theoretical, experimental and artisanal) that Mersenne, Descartes, and Pascal themselves understood and expounded in their writing. Such habits of knowledge, as I call them, though distinctive were not as unconnected and compartmentalized as they are usually represented in the literature. The association of theory and practice, in relation to the material culture of science, became a common trope in the seventeenth century, including in France. The chapter on Christiaan Huygens and the Académie des sciences shows best how academicians, savants, honnêtes hommes and artisans formed in the latter seventeenth century an extended network inside and outside the royal institution, where intellectual ideas, practical knowledge, and instrumental inventions were shared and fought over by everyone for privilege and authority. Lastly, by fully integrating instruments and machines into the intellectual and hands-on practices of knowledge-production in early modern France, I describe how the concepts of habitus (of the mind and the body) and organum (instrument) were understood and how historically fitting they are in order to understand the coordination and tuning of the mind and the body for the production of science ( scientia ).  [pdf version]

January 30, 2009 Posted by | Epistemology, Instrument | , , , , , | Comments Off on Dissertation Abstract