New Music: The Seventy-Two Names of God
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.
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.
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.
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
Then follow the 72 names, each sung exactly once (we must be fair about this—no favoritism!):
The piece repeats the opening Latin text, closes with an 'amen', and the glass armonica has the last word.