New Music: The Seventy-Two Names of God

May 21, 2008 08:54

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was one of the foremost Jesuit scholars of his day—so much so that the Vatican ordered him to Rome and relieved him of all ecclesiastical duties so he could devote himself to study, writing and teaching. His range of interests was encyclopedic: he taught a half-dozen languages and mathematics; wrote extensively on optics, magnetism, volcanoes, automata (early robots) and music; his was the first recorded attempt to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics—to name just a few! And he founded perhaps the greatest museum of his day—scholars and explorers contributed to his collection from all over the world. J.S.Bach and his contemporaries would have been acquainted with Kircher's massive treatise on music: Musurgia universalis. And, he discussed the wet-finger-around-the-wine-glass phenomenon in his Phonurgia Nova (1673), so he has a place in the history of the musical glasses and glass armonica.

Glasses from Kircher's Phonurgia Nova (1673)

Kircher believed that all the religions of the world (including Catholicism, and religions from the Far East—about which he was very keen to learn) shared a common origin—much like the Biblical idea that our common origin can be traced back to Adam & Eve. What an ecumenical vision! And this—while war was raging between Catholics vs. Protestants throughout Europe in Kircher's own day. Indeed, in his autobiography Kircher recounts how, as a young man, he was captured and almost lynched by Protestants—he was on the horse with the noose around his neck when they changed their minds and set him free.

Kircher's Seventy-two Names of God

from his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1655)


In his book Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1655) we find a chart of the '72 Names of God'. Each name is assigned to a different country or region of the world; for example he has 'GOTT' for Germany. Many of these "countries" are recognizable ('Syria'). Others not so much ('Zaflaneles'), and don't appear in any of my Latin lexicons (including my Oxford Latin Dictionary, Glare and my Medieval Latin Dictionary, Niermeyer)—perhaps these regions have simply passed out of memory.

I've had the idea of writing a piece based on Kircher's Seventy-Two Names for many years, and when I Cantori di Carmel approached me about composing a piece for chorus and glass armonica for them, Dr. Sal Ferrantelli (the director) was very excited about the idea.

Dr. Ferrantelli & William Zeitler playing the glass armonica "four-hands"

And so this piece came to be. It was performed at the Carmel Mission Basilica in Carmel, CA on December 8 & 9, 2007. My thanks to Dr. Ferrantelli and to the chorus members and orchestra for the superb performance they gave!

My own imagination about this piece is that each nation of the world has its own name for God—each name is precious to its own people. Hence the piece as a whole has a passionate—and deliberately non-intellectual—cast to it. And it leans heavily towards homophony (vs. polyphony) to really emphasize that these 72 Names belong together in a Great Celestial Song. After the opening glass armonica solo, the chorus opens the piece with a text from the Latin Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible used in the Catholic Church since the 5th century (!) until the present day)—to introduce the 72 names which will follow:

Laudabo nomen Dei cum canticum

Praise the name of God with a song

(Ps.69:30, or Ps.68:31 in the Vulgate)

Then follow the 72 names, each sung exactly once (we must be fair about this—no favoritism!):





5. ThONT





10. SURI

11. DEUS

12. ThEOS

13. BOOG

14. DIOS

15. IDIO

16. DIEU

17. GOTT

18. BOOG

19. BOGI

20. TIOS

21. BUEG

22. GOOD

23. DIEH

24. ESAR

25. ORSY

26. AGDI

27. ThEOS

28. ADAD

29. ZIMI

30. TURA

31. TELI

32. ANOT

33. AGAD

34. ANEB

35. ANUP

36. ALLA

37. ABDA

38. AGLA

39. GOOT

40. GOED

41. GUDI

42. BIUB

43. SOLU

44. BOSA

45. HOBA

46. PIUR

47. HANA

48. ZACA

49. MORA

50. POLA

51. PILA

52. ABAG

53. OBRA

54. BORA

55. ALAI

56. ILLI

57. POPA

58. PARA

59. ELLA

60. GENA

61. SIIA

62. SUNA

63. MIRI

64. ALLI

65. TARA

66. PORA

67. BOGO

68. DEOS

69. DEeOS

70. ARIS

71. ZEUT

72. KALO

The piece repeats the opening Latin text, closes with an 'amen', and the glass armonica has the last word.



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