Until now, scholarly consensus has held that Michael Maier composed the fifty alchemical “fugues” that serve as
one of Atalanta fugiens’ (1618) most distinctive features.1
Maier’s authorship of the design, text, and music of each emblem has been central to the critical reception of
Atalanta fugiens since, at least, Helen Joy Sleeper’s groundbreaking study of the book in 1938, which
sought an organic unity of conception both within each emblem and across the progression of the collection’s
fifty emblems. This essay will detail my recent discovery that the lion’s share of Atalanta fugiens’
fugues were not composed by Michael Maier. Rather, forty of the collection’s fifty fugues had been published in
1591 in London by the composer John Farmer as Diuers & sundry waies of two parts in one. Only ten of
the fifty fugues formerly ascribed to Maier were likely composed by the German alchemist, whose command of the
complexities of canonic composition appears not quite equal to his facility with Latin poetics and mastery of
the alchemical corpus. Where and how did Maier encounter Farmer’s obscure book of canons? And why did he choose
to adapt an old-fashioned and esoteric English musical idiom to his erudite emblem book? As we will explore in
subsequent pages, the discovery of the true authorship of Maier’s fugues raises numerous historical and
interpretive questions that have the potential to reframe how we read (and sing and hear) Atalanta
fugiens’ alchemical music.
In Atalanta fugiens’ opening pages, Maier explains how the fifty alchemical fugues support the
collection’s complex and multivalent alchemical program:
Canon(Maier’s fuga) (literally
A polyphonic musical form in which an initial melody is imitated at a specified time interval by
one or more parts, either at the unison (i.e., the same pitch) or at some other pitch. A round is a
type of canon, but in a round each voice, when it finishes, can start at the beginning again so that
the piece can go “round and round,” as with “Frère Jacques” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
Note that the Italian term fuga, as used by Maier, is not interchangeable with the
modern term “fugue.” Rather, fuga, borrowed from Renaissance music theorist and composer Gioseffo
Zarlino, was the preferred term for “canon” in German-speaking lands.
In order to convey the most striking representations of this race,
My Muse gives me fugues in three-fold voice.
One simple voice remains and lingers to represent the apple,
While the second voice is fleeing, and the third dutifully follows.
The Emblems presents themselves to your eyes, as the fugue does to your ears,
But let your Reason strive for the arcane interpretations.2
The personification of Atalanta, Hippomenes and the golden apples (Pomum morans) as, respectively, the
leading voice, the following voice and the cantus firmus of each fugue is enlisted by Maier to evoke
the three key elements of transmutational alchemy (mercury, sulfur, and salt), as well as three stages of the
alchemical process (nigredo, albedo, and rubedo).3 By the early seventeenth century the
alchemical corpus had thoroughly digested both an allegorical conception of the holy Trinity and a parallel
Hermetic narrative that traced alchemy’s deep roots in three-fold assemblages to Hermes Trismegistus, literally
“thrice-greatest” Hermes. Had Maier been aware of the identity of the cantus firmus—the second phrase
of the Kyrie trope Cunctipotens genitor Deus (All-Powerful Creator)—on which John Farmer based the
canons that Maier transformed into Atalanta fugiens’ fugues, Maier might have appreciated the resonance
between the fugues as they appeared in Atalanta fugiens and the Kyrie itself (with its threefold
repetition of its three statements).4
Over the course of the last century, numerous scholars have sought to explain Maier’s nuanced vision of music’s
role in alchemical gnosis. Though historians have identified several points of contact between surviving
writings on alchemy and early modern musical sources, Atalanta fugiens’ fifty fugues represent a unique
and unparalleled confluence. The central concerns of previous scholarship on Atalanta fugiens’ music
have been the role of music in Maier’s cosmography—especially in relation to classical sources on music such as
Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Boethius—and the identification of potential musical antecedents of the fugues (such
as the origin of the ubiquitous cantus firmus melody, and contemporaneous theoretical writings on music by, for
example, Johannes Lippius and Sethus Calvisius). Hildemarie Streich’s voluminous prefatory essay in Joscelyn
Godwin’s 1989 translation of Atalanta fugiens’ offers, as do several earlier treatments, close readings
of various fugues seeking to map specific musical features to particular emblems’ programs, as well as to the
trajectory of the book as a whole. In nearly all cases, scholars have stumbled over obvious inconsistencies in
the quality of the collection’s fifty compositions.
Cantus Firmus(or Plainsong)
A slow moving voice in a polyphonic musical texture, often comprised of a preexistent liturgical melody
to which a composer has added newly-composed voices.
As Jacques Rebotier has documented, Maier’s published corpus reveals something of a fixation on music in
triparte constructions, a fact that has not eluded music historians seeking early sources on the musical
Maier’s Symbola aureae mensae (Symbols of the Golden Table, 1617), Jocus severus (A Severe
Joke, 1617), and Cantilenae intellectuales (Intellectual Songs, 1622) all contain passages on music,
though no comprehensive scholarly treatment of music in Maier’s substantial corpus currently exists. Unlike the
highly figurative Cantilenae intellectuales, in which a different poetic text is assigned to each of
the three musical “voices” (acuta, media, and gravis) of each “song,” Atalanta
fugiens’ fugues are notated music that could certainly have been sung.6
Maier’s instructions in Atalanta fugiens’ title specify that he intended the volume’s contents “be
seen, read, meditated, Understood, distinguished, Sung and Heard,” and in most (though not all) cases the layout
of canonic material on the page allows for real-time performance.7
On the other hand, Maier’s association in Cantilenae intellectuales of a constellation of references to
the “silence” of musica speculativa with “the (alchemical) micro-world, comprising, as it does, three
natures expressed as three voices (high-pitched, medium and bass)” suggests that a sensitive reader of
Atalanta fugiens might hear quite a lot in the silent contemplation of Maier’s musical notation.8
In general terms, Atalanta fugiens’ fugues support the book’s alchemical program in at least two
important ways. First, the fugues provide a musical representation of Atalanta’s race with Hippomenes, the
book’s master trope that Maier freights with layers of alchemical allegory.9
Second, vocal chamber music serves as a figure for the sociality Maier sought to cultivate with his alchemical
emblem book. Assuming that the fugues were actually sung (an assumption I examine in more detail below), they
would have required the presence of at least three singers, a quorum of participants that evokes the sociality
of alchemical practices in courts, artisanal workshops, and chymical clubs. Relatedly, if Maier intended
Atalanta fugiens as a showpiece of erudition designed to secure him a new patron, his inclusion of
accessible but sophisticated vocal chamber music was a wise—if ultimately unsuccessful—stratagem.
The Waies Tradition and John Farmer
John Farmer (b. ca. 1570; fl. 1591–1601) is known to scholars of English Renaissance music from his numerous
four-part settings in Thomas East’s psalter of 1592, his First Set of English Madrigals (1600), and his
contribution to the very popular madrigal anthology dedicated to Elizabeth I, the Triumphs of Oriana
(1601). Less well known is Farmer’s first publication, Diuers & sundry waies of two parts in one, to
the number of fortie, vppon one playnsong (henceforth Sundry waies), published “in youth” in 1591 and
dedicated to Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, in whose household Farmer may have lived for
several years (fig. 1).10
John Farmer of Leicester and a “generous family” matriculated at Oxford’s Merton College on March 27, 1584, aged
Farmer next appears as an organist and master of choristers at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, a position he
began on February 1, 1595 and held until, likely, 1599 when he returned to London.12
Plainsong canons, or waies (as they appear in Farmer’s title), were central to the musical culture that
surrounded John Farmer during the final decades of the sixteenth century. Thomas Morley’s discussion of waies in
his Plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke (1597) stretches to ten full pages with
numerous musical examples, including waies by Morley himself, William Byrd, and Osbert Parsley.13
Morley’s treatise, dedicated to “the most excellent musitian maister William Byrde,” synthesizes much
sixteenth-century musical learning from across Europe and remains a touchstone of music theory and compositional
practice of the period.14
Morley, who graduated BMus from Oxford in 1588, was one of a circle musicians who composed and improvised waies
(and almost certainly used them in their teaching) during the 1580s and 90s when the idiom was something of a
fad among a community of Catholic composers that included Byrd, John Bull, William Bathe, Elway Bevin, and
Alfonso Ferrabosco I.15
Surviving sources of waies share an impressive breadth of canonic technique, including a systematic display of
canons at different temporal and musical intervals. They also rely on a surprisingly small number of plainsong
cantus firmi, the most popular by far being the Miserere mihi.16
Surviving Waies Sources
John FarmerLondon Diverse and sundrie waies of two parts in one (1591)
40 canonsall on Cuncitpotens genitor
William BatheLondon Introduction to the Skill of Song (ca. 1596)
10 canonsall on unknown plainsongs
Thomas MorleyLondon A Plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke (1597)
approximately 15 canonsplainsong identity unknown
Elway BevinLondon A brief and short introduction (1631)
approximately 100 canonson various plainsongs
'W. B.'London BL Add. 31391 late 16th c.
29 canons19 on Miserere
Elway BevinA brief and short introduction (London, 1631)
approximately 100 canonson various plainsongs
'Tho. Woodson'London BL Add. 29996 late 16th c.
40 canonsall on Miserere
Elway BevinLondon BL RM 24.c.14 17th c.
approximately 300 canonsmost on Miserere
18 by John Bull, 4 by G. Messaus, 1 by Clemens non Papa, 1 anon.London BL RM 24.f.25 18th-c. copy
24 canons13 on Miserere
John BullVienna 17771 17th c.
126 canonsmost on Miserere
George WaterhouseCambridge Dd.iv.60 c.1600
1163 canonsall on Miserere
John Farmer (published 1591)London BL RM 24.d.7 18th-c. copy
40 canonsall on Cunctipotens genitor
'Orlandus Lassus Belga' Anonymous 'Don Ferdinandi' [ = Fernando de las Infantas]London BL RM 24.d.12 18th-c. copy
12 non-canonic bicinia9 short unison canons99 canons on Laudate Dominum
Farmer’s use of the second phrase of Kyrie IV (Cunctipotens genitor Deus) as the basis of all
of the canons in Sundry waies is striking because the melody was better known on the continent and had a much
less conspicuous history in England (fig. 2). The particular version of the plainsong used by
Farmer is a near perfect match with the Kyrie IV melody as it was first printed in the Sarum graduale
during the middle of the fifteenth century.17
In her 1938 article, Sleeper identified Kyrie IV as the source of the Pomum morans melody in
Atalanta fugiens’ fugues, though her assumption (shared by subsequent scholars) that Maier was their
composer introduced some confusion about how that particular melody might have found its way onto the pages of
Maier’s book.18 In the 1573 edition of the
Istitutioni (first edition 1558), perhaps the most influential composition treatise across late
sixteenth-century Europe, Gioseffo Zarlino provides a plainsong canon that uses the first phrase of Kyrie IV,
and in Melopoeia (1592), the German theorist Sethus Calvisius introduced the second phrase of Kyrie IV
(the same melody that appears in Farmer and subsequently in Maier) in his discussion of canon.19
Whether Maier initially encountered Kyrie IV in Zarlino or in Calvisius (who is widely credited with
transmitting Zarlino’s ideas to German lands), or perhaps somewhere else, remains a matter of speculation. As
Giuseppe Gerbino has documented, there was some continental interest during the early seventeenth century in
plainsong canon, which Gerbino refers to, following Zarlino, as contrappunto obbligato.20 For our purposes,
though, given that Maier chose to appropriate an English composer’s waies built on an English variant of Kyrie
IV, I will focus my discussion on waies in the English context.21
The popularity of waies among English musicians during the late sixteenth century has remained something of a
mystery. A miniature form seemingly designed to showcase abstruse contrapuntal machinations, waies
proliferated at a moment when the text-driven expressivity and larger forms of the seconda prattica
were ascendant in England. With a few notable exceptions, forthright, largely homophonic psalm and hymn
settings were displacing centuries of complex polyphony as the musical vehicle for the (now Protestant)
liturgy. Waies typically feature two parts in canon accompanied by (or accompanying) a liturgical chant
excerpt used as a pfundnote cantus firmus, a slow-moving melody in long notes of unvarying length.
Waies typically feature two parts in canon accompanied by (or accompanying) a liturgical chant excerpt used as a
pfundnote cantus firmus, a slow-moving melody in long notes of unvarying length. The tradition of
sacralizing a liturgical melody by garlanding it with polyphonic accompaniment had been central to European
composition for hundreds of years. However, the wholesale, violent reorganization of the liturgy by English
Reformers meant that the melodies and associated Latin texts of the Sarum Rite—the dominant rite in Southern
England prior to the Reformation—were no longer in common use. The appearance of Sarum chant melodies in waies
published during some of the most intensely anti-Catholic years of Elizabeth I’s reign suggests that their use
as cantus firmi was more than incidental. At the very least, the use of such melodies as the
Miserere mihi and Cunctipotens genitor Deus by waies composers gestured to an earlier musical
era when musical canon was strongly associated with ritual symbolism, a tradition that persisted in various
forms through at least the early seventeenth century.22
However, the use of Sarum melodies as cantus firmi in the waies corpus suggests that composers of waies
were interested not just in the tradition of polyphony as a ritual enhancement of the musical Word as expressed
in now-outlawed Sarum chant melodies, but in the particular Catholic associations of the melodies themselves.
Yet even if we accept the notion that waies composition was partly motivated by an attraction to Sarum chant,
myriad questions remain. Why were these collections published? Who was their intended audience, and how did
their authors envision their use? And how and why was the Lutheran Maier drawn to the waies idiom as a source
for Atalanta fugiens’ music?
The contrapuntal virtuosity that characterizes the waies corpus, with its encyclopedic treatments of canonic
possibility, suggests that the display of compositional skill was at least a factor in the circulation and
publication of waies.23
Yet the most ostentatious feature of the waies corpus—its stubborn reliance on bits of plainchant associated
with a forbidden ritual practice—is incidental to its displays of compositional complexity. After all, composers
eager to display contrapuntal cunning could just as easily have composed canons not on a plainsong, or
could have chosen popular melodies or scalar patterns as the basis of their waies. Eamon Duffy famously
documented the crisis of the sudden proscription of familiar rites following several waves of violent religious
reform, the extent to which “the Reformation was a stripping away of familiar and beloved observances, the
destruction of a vast and resonant world of symbols.”24 Despite strenuous official
efforts to purge the country of Catholic ritual artefacts—missals, books of hours, vestments, rood screens,
“idolatrous” images, etc.—a surprising number of such ritual items were saved by enterprising clergy and
parishioners. Many such items, as Duffy chronicles, either retained their ritual significance as part of the
surreptitious and piecemeal practice of those who resisted Reformers’ efforts, or they were stripped of some or
all of their former ritual power to become incorporated into the new structures of belief and practice. One such
ritual vestige of the old religion to survive the Reformation in various, not altogether unrecognizable forms
was a selection of plainchant melodies of the Sarum Rite, a formerly enormous corpus that had served as the core
of the musical liturgy for centuries.25
Stripped of their incriminating Latin texts, these melodies appear frequently in Elizabethan music, often in
self-consciously antiquated musical forms, such as the In nomine for ensembles of viols, that harken
back to a sacralizing pre-Reformation musical sensibility. It is perhaps no coincidence that a preponderance of
the Elizabethan polyphony that makes use of plainchant melodies (in both their texted and untexted forms) was
composed by musicians who had chosen to maintain ties—often at great personal and professional expense—to the
old religion. The waies idiom emerged out of a community of just such composers, musicians who managed—using
varied strategies and with varying degrees of success—to preserve professional identities as composers in a
virulently anti-Catholic culture while creating music that gestured in a range of ways towards their
Considered as an adjunct to the education of choristers, waies publications—including Farmer’s Sundry
waies—would have offered flexible teaching materials and variously coded gestures to venerated musical
and liturgical traditions that had only been papered over by the new psalters and prayer book. There is no
evidence that Farmer harbored Catholic sympathies, yet as a musician with many connections to the liturgy he
would have been aware of the persistent ritual and musical absences of the new official religion as well as,
most likely, the extent to which proscribed practices lay everywhere beneath the surface.26
Singing Farmer’s waies, for example, would have quickly lodged in the memory the excerpt of the Cunctipotens
genitor Deus chant melody on which Farmer based his canons and that appears at the top of each page of
Sundry waies. Singing and memorizing chant had been the principal occupation of choristers for
centuries, and though Farmer’s collection is purportedly focused on canonic composition, that fact is that
accessing its lessons requires a repetition and memorization of a Sarum chant melody that would have offered
Elizabethan musicians multiple registers of continuity with the past.
That the waies corpus may have been a vehicle for educating choristers about how to sing—as opposed to
compose—liturgical polyphony is further suggested by the nearly complete absence in any treatise (aside from
Morley’s) of the sort of nuts-and-bolts compositional strategies that we see in, for example, Zarlino’s
Istitutioni. Virtually all the known composers of waies served as masters of choristers (Farmer held
such a position in Ireland after he graduated from Oxford and published Sundry waies), whose
responsibilities included training students to sing the high-pitched “treble” and “mean” vocal parts essential
to the musical liturgy. A master of choristers needed musical exercises to train his charges, exercises that
could serve the mix of vocal ranges and skill levels possessed by a motley group of choristers ranging in age
from six or seven years old to the late teenage years.
Farmer’s collection of canons would have offered a valuable set of exercises in singing and playing notated
polyphony as well as graded models for aspiring composers. Sundry waies is organized by clef grouping
(fig. 3), providing a collection of pieces that fairly evenly distribute the plainsong and the
leading and following canonic voices through all possible vocal and instrumental ranges. Of the collection’s
forty canons, there are examples that would comfortably fit the vocal ranges of any possible combination of
three singers, from the highest treble to the lowest bass possessed by an older boy who had not yet found a
place as an adult singing man. Alternately, students playing any combination of the three traditional sizes of
viol could have found a canon to practice reading different clefs and performing simple polyphony
In one scenario, the teacher might have used the leading voice of a particular waie to model solmization and
style while students performed the following voice and supported the proceedings with the cantus
firmus. Alternatively, two advanced students or groups of students might have sung the canonic voices
while the teacher reinforced good rhythm and intonation through his performance of the accompanying plainsong.
Farmer’s Sundry waies could also have served as a veritable encyclopedia of canonic techniques for
advanced students learning to compose imitative polyphony or improvise counterpoint against a cantus
firmus. Waies’ conventional absence of texts would have facilitated the use of the hexachordal
syllables—ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la—by young singers developing their solmization skills. Music of known
pedagogical intent from the same period and publisher features both texted and untexted exercises in a similar
bid for maximal flexibility.28
A compositional technique forming the basis of Western musical practice in which multiple voices are
composed so as to control the consonance and dissonance of the intervals between their individual
A musical texture characterized by multiple, simultaneous, independent musical voices.
The surviving waies corpus (see Table 1, “waies sources”)
testifies to a brief but intense fascination with this esoteric idiom. The purported educational value of waies
as an aid to teaching composition and/or performance does not seem adequate to explain the seemingly obsessive
generation of dozens or hundreds of short canons to just a couple short snippets of ancient plainsong. The
Catholic sympathies of nearly all the known composers of waies (Farmer notwithstanding), as well as the
conspicuous choice of cantus firmi drawn from a proscribed rite, suggest that the idiom may have served
retrospective or symbolic—alongside musical—purposes to its small community of enthusiasts. The combinatory
fervor evident in what appear to have been somewhat systematic attempts to present all the possible canons
against a given cantus firmus may have been an English take on similarly ideologically charged
combinatory efforts by various Jesuit thinkers (among them Cristoph Clavius and, later, Athanasius Kircher) on
What is certainly true is that the English waies corpus brought people together to sing, play, or compose, to
learn, practice, or worship, in moments of collaborative musical intimacy.
Maier’s Adaptation of Farmer’s Waies
Atalanta fugiens’ presentation of Farmer’s waies is legible as imitation, the strategic
concealing and revealing of different sources to different readers, all in the context of the broader problem of
publishing alchemical secrets while reserving core truths for the initiated reader. Maier’s close connection to
Jacobean England—his visits to the court during 1611–1616, his publication in London of the Arcana
arcanissima (Most Secret Secrets, 1614), Atalanta fugiens’ silent transmission of an English
musical form, etc.—contributes to an emerging reevaluation of the influence of English culture on the continent
during the first decades of the seventeenth century. Karin Figala and Ulrich Neumann have identified several
notable Englishmen to whom Maier wrote personal dedications in surviving copies of the Arcana
arcanissima. One, Sir William Paddy (1554–1634), personal physician to James I, is of interest as the
potential vector of Farmer’s Sundry waies to Maier. Paddy was an amateur musician associated throughout
his life with Oxford, having graduated from St. John’s College and later leaving his estate, including an organ
and £1800 “for the improvement of the choir,” to St. John’s.30
While John Farmer had matriculated to Merton College, a few blocks away, William Bathe, a Catholic composer of
waies who is quoted by Maier in Atalanta fugiens’ introduction, had been a student at St. John’s during
the 1580s and would have likely known both Farmer and Paddy. It is also possible that Maier encountered Farmer’s
Sundry waies on the continent; dances by Farmer appear in Thomas Simpson’s Opusculum neuwer
Pavanen, published in Heidelberg in 1610, so the composer was not entirely unknown in Maier’s Germany.
However Maier got his hands on Farmer’s collection of waies, he left a few breadcrumbs in Atalanta
fugiens that hint at the depth of his engagement with the English waies tradition. Atalanta
fugiens’ preface reveals unmistakable references both to Farmer’s preface in Sundry waies and to
the epigraph and preface (“To the Reader”) from William Bathe’s waies collection, A briefe introduction to
the skill of song (c. 1596). Additionally, one or more of Maier’s emblems (6 and 42, for example) may
slyly gesture towards his surreptitious repurposing of Farmer’s canons.31
A careful reading of Farmer’s prefatory essay “Philomusicis” alongside Maier’s praefatio
reveals multiple points of contact, from the parallel treatment—in roughly the same order—of the themes of
divine omniscience and the hierarchy of knowledge as represented by the seven liberal arts, to specific
citations and turns of phrase. Though some similarities are no doubt due to both authors’ employment of a richly
conventional tradition of prefatory address, specific references in both prefaces to the story of Themistocles,
for example, and his famed inability to play the lyre appear too specific to be easily explained by coincidence
or convention. This is true also of both Farmer’s and Maier’s distinctive rhetoric asserting that their
respective arts (Farmer’s music and Maier’s chymistry) are “not the last, if not the first,” (Farmer) or “not
the meanest, but next to . . . divine things, the principal and most precious of all,” (Maier) in the hierarchy
More surprising is Maier’s quotation of William Bathe’s treatise on waies, the aforementioned Briefe
introduction, written while the Irish Catholic Bathe was a student at Oxford during the mid-1580s
alongside Morley and Farmer. The title page of Bathe’s Briefe introduction features an epigram ascribed
to “Fabius”—presumably Marcus Fabius Quintilianus—whose writings on rhetoric and music were a standard part of
an English gentleman’s education in the liberal arts. Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (Institutes of
Oratory), in fact, is a likely source of the story about Themistocles cited by Farmer and Maier. Bathe’s
epigram, “music is an honest and agreeable recreation, most worthy of liberal and learned persons,” does not
appear in any of Quintilian’s known writings, nor was I able to find it in a fairly exhaustive search of
classical sources on music known in England during the sixteenth century.33
Where it does appear, however, similarly (and perhaps erroneously) ascribed to “Fabius,” is in Maier’s
praefatio, where it concludes Maier’s discussion of music as a key element in Atalanta
fugiens’ multi-modal conception. It would appear that Maier was familiar, therefore, not just with
Farmer’s collection of waies but also with Bathe’s, suggesting that Maier’s selection of Farmer’s canons was an
informed and considered choice.34
One extraordinary feature of Bathe’s Briefe introduction is the inclusion of a tabular algorithm for
the composition of waies—a sort of paint-by-number technique for composing canons “to the plainsong.” It is
possible that Maier used Bathe’s table to help him compose the ten fugues he likely contributed to Atalanta
fugiens, though it would be difficult to know for certain. It is more probable that Maier closely (though
imperfectly) imitated Farmer’s examples, which were likely not composed with the aid of Bathe’s
The paradigmatic alterations Maier made to Farmer’s canons can be expressed quite simply: Maier transposed all
of Farmer’s canons up a fourth, set to them the Latin epigrams that appear beneath as part of each emblem, and
scrambled the order in which Farmer had presented his canons in Sundry waies (see Table 2).36
In order to make the Latin words fit music for which they weren’t initially conceived, Maier freely broke long
notes into shorter values, particularly the semibreves that comprise the cantus firmus, or Pomum
morans in his Atalantan conception of the pieces. In all cases, only the first of the three verses of
each epigram underlays the music, which is printed—like Farmer’s canons—in choirbook format on one page.
In his Melopoeia of 1592, the German music theorist and astronomer Calvisius articulated a rationale
for adding text to textless music that calls to mind Maier’s exhortation to his readers that “The Emblems
presents themselves to your eyes, as the fugue does to your ears, But let your Reason strive for the arcane
interpretations.” Calvisius writes,
although a bare [textless] harmony such as is found in instrumental music, when intelligently and skillfully
wrought by an artist, may reach men’s minds by virtue of its numbers and proportions and exert great power in
arousing the affections, nevertheless, if one adds a human voice which at the same time sings a significant
idea portrayed in harmonic numbers, the melody will become much more elevated, more welcome both to the ears
and to the mind, because of the twofold delight which the harmony and the noble idea will engender.37
Maier was a gifted epigrammatist, and perhaps couldn’t resist “elevating” Farmer’s enticingly “bare harmony”
with the addition of “noble ideas.”
For those readers eager to identify connections among the elements of a given emblem (the fuga, engraving,
epigram, and discursus), comparing Farmer’s and Maier’s tables of contents may suggest which fugues are
most likely to reward close reading. Those series of emblems in which Maier scrambled Farmer’s order (in order
to align salient musical features with related themes in the accompanying engraving, epigram, or discursus) are
likely richer in intra-emblematic connections than those series where Maier simply reproduced Farmer’s canons in
their original order.
For example, for emblems 22–29 and 35–40, Maier used Farmer’s canons in the same order he encountered them in
Farmer’s collection. In contrast, Maier carefully selected the most complex and evocative of Farmer’s canons for
his final ten fugues. It is in these final ten fugues that musical details of a particular fugue can most easily
be interpreted to manifest the overarching themes of the emblem to which it belongs.
Emblem 46, for example, titled “Two Eagles come together, one from the East, the other from the West,” features
an engraving of Jupiter holding an eagle in each hand and is accompanied by this epigram (fig.
Great Jove two Eagles out of Delphi sent
To the East and Western parts, for this intent,
That he the middle of the earth might find;
Which, there returning, well resolved his mind.
But those two Eagles are two stones, which have
One from the East, the other from the West.38
Maier chose Farmer’s canon 38, a retrograde canon in which the canonic voices proceed, in Farmer’s words,
“ . . . backward and forward, the one part to begin at the beginning and so [to] the ende, and the other part to
begin at the ende, and so forward to the beginning, the plainsong likewise, is to be sung forward and
backward . . . ” The image of two eagles flying in opposite directions and then returning is echoed in (or
echoes) a performance of the fugue, in which the two canonic parts read the same line from opposite directions
and the cantus firmus is “out of Delphi sent,” and then returns to its starting point.
The first twenty fugues present another snapshot of Maier’s process of adapting Farmer’s canons to Atalanta
fugiens. Of the first twenty fugues, the odd-numbered ones (1–19) do not appear in Farmer’s Sundry
waies. Circumstantial evidence points to Maier as the composer of these pieces, which imitate Farmer’s
canons while exhibiting substantially less contrapuntal facility. A close look at the odd-numbered fugues 1–19
reveals myriad contrapuntal errors of numerous sorts. Fuga 1, the opening piece of the collection, for
example, is rife with infelicities that include parallel perfect intervals, improperly handled dissonances, and
melodic tritones. In their theoretical writings on the composition of waies back in England, both Morley and
Bathe described a method that entails first composing a canon in whole notes against the cantus firmus,
and then introducing diminutions in the canonic voices (fig. 5).39
Each of these two phases of the composition of waies entails its own set of skills to master and invites its own
distinctive errors. The fugues that originated as Farmer’s canons exhibit orthodox treatment of consonance and
dissonance, and inventive diminutions to create frequent suspensions, syncopations, and melodic interest through
the use of varying rhythmic values. The fugues I ascribe to Maier, on the other hand, include frequent
contrapuntal errors that originate at the structural, canonic level (fig. 6) as well as those
introduced in the diminutions.40
The fugues by Maier also reveal significant confusion about the use of musica ficta, the chromatic
alteration of melody in response to contrapuntal exigencies that was an essential skill for literate musicians.
Fugues 5, 9, and 11, for example, present numerous errors that are representative of Maier’s evident confusion
about the correct application of ficta.
Existing scholarship on the music in Atalanta fugiens has had to account for the curious inconsistency
of quality evident in the fugues. It is now clear the forty fugues that originated as canons by John Farmer meet
the period’s professional standards of composition, while the remaining ten fugues are evidently the work of an
ambitious amateur attempting to imitate Farmer’s well-wrought models. The only surviving composition that can
(somewhat) dependably be ascribed to Maier is a waie, featuring four canonic voices over a repeating cantus
firmus, that was included in a Christmas greeting presented to James I in 1611 while Maier was in England
acting as an ambassador for Frederick, Elector Palatine. Adam McLean, who discovered the letter in the Scottish
Records Office, noted that Maier’s Christmas greeting included a Rosicrucian-themed illustration paired with a
Latin poem and a piece of music, a combination that prefigures Atalanta fugiens’ emblems. Like the
fugues that would appear nearly a decade later, each voice of Maier’s canon for King James is matched to a
character: in this case, the four archangels and two shepherds described elsewhere in the letter are designated
to sing the four canonic voices and the cantus firmus, respectively. Also like the fugues not by Farmer
in Atalanta fugiens, Maier’s Christmas canon is rife with contrapuntal infelicities including
unprepared dissonances, melodic tritones, parallel fourths in exposed voices, and awkward voice leading. While
it is certainly possible that a different amateur composer completed the ten fugues in Atalanta fugiens
not composed by Farmer, the familiarity of the types of errors and Maier’s evident interest in composing waies
nearly a decade before the publication of his alchemical emblem book strongly suggest that Atalanta fugiens’
poorly executed examples were composed by Maier himself.
Emblem 6, “Sow your gold in the white
foliated earth,” features an engraving depicting a farmer sowing gold coins in a freshly tilled field
(fig. 7), an alchemical adaptation of a conventional image that would be familiar to early modern readers as the "parable of the sower."41Atalanta's engraver, Matthäus Merian, would return to the iconography later in his career with the plate for his illustrated bible. The image in Atalanta's emblem 6, however, appears to owe a debt to the image by the Weirix family of engravers that appeared in devotional publications by the Jesuit Jerome Nadal from the 1580s. The Weirix image (fig. 8) features similarities in the posture and costume of the "farmer," as well as compositional resonances (such as the placement of the tree at the left of the frame and the centrally located church steeple) that likely cannot be explained solely by convention.
To a reader aware of Maier’s unacknowledged musical debt and sensitive to the technique of dispersio
information—the widespread strategy among alchemical writers of concealing key information by
strategically dispersing it throughout a work or corpus—an emblem featuring a “farmer” invites additional
scrutiny.42 Do the
field’s furrows look a bit like the lines on a musical staff, and do the gold coins sown by the farmer evoke the
sequences of whole notes of a plainsong? Perhaps. Emblem 6 treats the densely intertwined symbology of agriculture and alchemy,
a tradition with no shortage of precedent in the alchemical corpus that Maier expounds upon in the discursus.
Until, that is, the last several lines, in which Maier veers unexpectedly away from an erudite meditation on how
metals “grow” in the earth to a seemingly unrelated discussion of music.
For if Music adorned [Achilles], why may it not also make this our work more complete and acceptable: For the
Angels sing (as the sacred scriptures attest), the heavens sing, as Pythagoras affirms, and, as the Psalmist
says, declare the glory of God, the Muses and Apollo sing, as the Poets, men even infants sing, birds sing,
Sheep and geese sing in musical instruments, if therefore we also sing, there is reason for it.43
It seems unlikely that Maier expected his readers to draw a connection between Emblem 6 and an English composer little known in Germany.
Yet his abrupt peroration, in which he furnishes an answer to one of Atalanta fugiens’ most persistent
questions (“Why music?”) to conclude an otherwise entirely unmusical emblem, might give a reader pause to
consider Maier’s meta-commentary on his own work as an editor and compiler.
Though Atalanta fugiens’ printed fugues tell a story about Maier’s appropriation of an esoteric musical
idiom to his alchemical program, it’s important to remember that Maier would likely have encountered Farmer’s
waies as sounding music, as an audible trace of an interaction among three musicians crowded around a
copy of Sundry waies. As they were printed by East, in a choirbook format featuring the plainsong
across the top of the page with each of the canonic voices printed start to finish beneath it, Farmer’s canons
require one musician per part (three in total) to perform. They would be extremely difficult for even the most
skilled keyboard player to read at sight, and harder still for a musician to “audiate”—to hear in his/her
head—given how they appear on the page.44
By way of contrast, consider Morley’s waies (fig. 5), printed in score in his Plaine and
easie introduction in order to facilitate the study and performance of all three parts by one
The music is not the notation—Farmer’s waies are not (just) the three lines of music on each page of his
treatise or the abstract set of canonic relationships the notation specifies; rather, they are brief scripted
encounters that bring three individual musicians into a focused proximity, both physical (as they crowd around
the book) and musical (through imitation and a preponderance of closely voiced intervals). Maier almost
certainly would have discovered Farmer’s waies through his performance of them with—presumably—two friends in an
English music room, an experience he may have sought to offer to Atalanta fugiens’ readership.
The several centuries that separate modern scholarship from Maier and his readers have also seen a shift away
from oral performance—reading or singing aloud—towards silent, individual contemplation of the written word or
note. Maier’s poetics in the Cantilenae intellectuals about silence as “music, audible only to
philosophers” notwithstanding, Atalanta fugiens’ fugues were likely conceived of primarily as sounding
things, as short, ritual enactments of the same underlying universal order that the book’s chymistry was meant
to reveal.46 Like
the clockwork planetaria that Rudolf II collected in Prague castle (in 1609 Maier entered Rudolf’s court as
physician and counselor), the fugues offer the most to the senses when they are in motion, when the harmonious
relationships they dramatize play out in real time. As Maier states in Atalanta fugiens’
praefatio, “nothing is said to be in the understanding, which had not admission by some sense, the
understanding of a man new born being supposed as a smooth table, wherein nothing is as yet written, but
anything may be written by the help of sense, as a styl[us].”47
The “sound” of the fugues, as well as the accompanying sensory intensity of singing imitative polyphony as three
characters in an Ovidian drama, may well have been a “stylus” with which Maier sought to inscribe the “most
abstruse Chymical things, and lastly most rare Musical things to be enucleated by the understanding” on his
Farmer’s waies, though designed to serve in a very different musical milieu—the small-group pedagogy of
choristers in what remained of the choral institutions under Elizabeth I—were accessible only through
performance by multiple musicians. It may have been the close choreography of Farmer’s polyphony—its capacity to
stage a harmonious, intimate interaction among musical bodies—as much as its contrapuntal subtlety that drew
Maier to Farmer’s canons. Though not Catholic, Farmer was close enough to the dispossessed community of Catholic
musicians who created the waies idiom to have absorbed some of its ritual element—the quasi-liturgical unfolding
of imitative lines against a hypnotic, inexorable bit of plainchant. This ritual intensity may be part of what
Maier sought to import into Atalanta fugiens, transforming it to serve the book’s ludic, quasi-mystical
ends. The idea that Maier was drawn to the particular ritual intensity of waies (that he had perhaps experienced
in England when he first sang or played them) also helps explain the sometimes seemingly random distribution of
Farmer’s compositions in Atalanta fugiens. For if Maier included fugues in his alchemical emblem book
as a way of intensifying the sensory and social dimensions of reading through the ritual intimacy of polyphonic
music making, the exact mapping of a given fugue to the other elements of the emblem becomes a subsidiary
The fact that we now know that eighty percent of Atalanta fugiens’ fugues were conscripted from a
publication with a radically different program—that of training English choristers in the performance and
composition of counterpoint and promulgating a distinctively English retrospective musical mysticism—offers an
opportunity to reorient Atalanta fugiens’ music with regard to its relationships to the book’s other
elements. It also suggests critical vistas that include both the intratextuality of each emblem’s
different elements and the myriad relationships between Maier’s erudite multimedia project and the rich
circulation of sources and ideas across national and religious borders.
At stake in evaluating Maier’s musical abilities has been a determination of the appropriate interpretive and
critical responses to Atalanta fugiens’ multimedia emblems. Scholars (including Sleeper, Streich, and
Manfred Kelkel) who have been willing to overlook the curious and diverse errors that populate the fugues have
pursued a close reading of canonic procedure to elucidate the emblems’ alchemical programs. Such work
assumes—incorrectly, as we now know—that specific compositional choices are mappable to the textual and visual
details of a given emblem’s accompanying elements (the epigram, engraving, and discursus).49
Latent in this approach is a prioritizing of the textual and visual elements—the notion that the “essence” of a
given emblem lies primarily in its visual and textual elements (the epigram and discursus) and that the fugue,
like the accompanying engraving, serves to gloss and enrich it. The question of whether the fugues were intended
to be actually sung is circumscribed by this issue of priority: the meanings that might emerge from an act of
silent contemplation, or amidst the messy exigencies of crowding around the small book to sing, are inevitably
tied to beliefs about how the music drives or is driven by the meanings of an emblem’s other elements.
The modern embrace of Atalanta fugiens as a multimedia text has been complicated by uncertainties about
how involved Maier was in the conception and realization of the engravings, and by persistent doubts about his
ability as composer, to say nothing of the complexity and opacity of the book’s overarching alchemical program.
An alternative critical project might be to observe how Atalanta fugiens’ identity as a multimedia text
depends as much on the competition that emerges among its visual, textual, musical, and chymical
elements. The priorities of epigrammatic poetry, engraving, canonic counterpoint, and experimental chemistry
cannot always be aligned, and many of the ludic qualities of Maier’s unique collection of emblems might be seen
as epiphonema of the interpretive “noise” emitted by this competition. Such a reading would be attentive to the
idiomatic—and idiosyncratic—priorities of each separate element before attempting to domesticate their details
to their shared program or explain away the details that don’t seem to “fit.”
Recovering Maier’s intentions for how the various elements of each emblem combine to reveal the “treasures here
enclosed” may be beyond the reach of modern criticism, and attempting such a recovery may be beside the
Maier invited his readers, I believe, to seek their own meanings amid the rich and complex musical, textual,
visual, and chymical interpretations that emerge with the thoughtful engagement of each element within each
emblem and across the collection as a whole. Such engagement can take many forms, of course, from silent and
solitary reading to convivial—perhaps even raucous—group play. In this context, Maier’s sly inclusion of
Farmer’s canons cannot but underline the shared legacy of music and alchemy as social and embodied practices.
List of Illustrations
John Farmer, Title page, Diuers & sundry waies (1591).
Comparison of Kyrie IV melody and Farmer’s plainsong.
Farmer’s clef grouping.
Emblem 46, Atalanta fugiens.
Morley’s plaine and divided waie.
Maier fuga 5 parallel octaves.
Emblem 6, Atalanta fugiens.
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Loren Ludwig studied viola da gamba at Oberlin Conservatory and holds a Ph.D. in
Critical and Comparative Studies in Music from the University of Virginia. He has taught at the Peabody
Institute of Johns Hopkins University, Grinnell College, and the New Zealand School of Music. As a viol player,
Loren performs widely as a soloist and chamber musician. He is a co-founder of critically acclaimed ensembles
LeStrange Viols and ACRONYM. Current projects investigate the influences of Hermetic and Catholic esotericism in
the history of early modern music theory, and the confluence of music and alchemy in seventeenth-century
alchemical works by Michael Maier.