Templum Musicum: The Musical Synopsis of Johann Heinrich Alsted

John Birchensha
Saturday, May 1st 2021
May/Jun 2021

Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588–1638) was a professor of philosophy and theology at Herborn and, late in his life, at the University of Weissenburg. He was also a deputy to the Synod of Dort. More a compiler and codifier, his writings range very widely, including a philosophical encyclopedia and large theological treatises, but also writings engaging astrology, alchemy, and Lullism. In 1620, Alsted published his Cursus philosophici encyclopaedia, which went through two subsequent revisions (1630 and 1649). The following is a transcription of a portion of book XX of that work, which was translated by John Birchensha under the title Templum Musicum. [1] The portions transcribed here come from the first three chapters of Birchensha’s 1664 translation, and page references refer to the same. Some minor spelling and grammatical updates have been implemented in order to assist in the reading of the text.

Templum Musicum, or, The musical synopsis of the

learned and famous Johannes Henricus Alstedius . . .

Faithfully translated out of the Latin by John Birchensha

London, Printed by Will. Godbid for Peter Dring . . . 1664

Chapter 1. Of the Subject of Music [page 3]

3. The subject of operation [2] in music are things sacred and liberal, by which it appears that the usefulness of it is very great.

Things sacred, as the Psalms and Songs in the Bible, and of other things wholly Divine.

Things liberal, as pathetical [3] matters in things Philosophical, and which doth altogether concern the common life of man. For music doth penetrate [p. 4] the interiors of the mind, it moves [the] affections, promotes contemplation, expels sorrow, dissolves bad humours, exhilarates the animal spirits: and so is beneficial to the life of men in general, to the pious for devotion, to the contemplative life for science, to the solitary for recreation, to the domestic and public life for moderation of mind, to the healt[hy for] [4] the temperament of their Body, and to the [ ] [5] for delight, as excellently says that famous Musician Lippius in his Musical Synopsis. [6]

Hence it is that the Devil hates music liberal, and on the contrary is delighted with filthy music and illiberal, which he uses as his vehicle, by which he slides himself into the minds of men, who take pleasure in such diabolical music. On the contrary, the holy angels are delighted with music liberal, not because corporal harmony doth affect them, but because all harmony, especially that which is conjoined with the affection of a pious will, is grateful to those chaste spirits. Hence it is, that the heroes, holy men, and lovers of virtue of all times, have magnified music: as appears by these Scriptures: Exod. 15. Judg. 5.1. 1 Sam. 16.23. 2 Sam. 6 5. 2 Kings 3.15. 1 Chron. 23.5. Judith 16.1, 2, & c. Syrach 23.5, 6, & 39.20. & 44.5. Matth. 26.30. Luke 1.46. & 2.13. Eph. 5.18, 19. Col. 3.16. Apoc. 5.9. & 14.2.

Chapter 2: Of the Principles of Cognition in Music [page 6]

2. The theoretical Principles which Music uses, or is built upon, are either remote or proximate.

The remote are such as are taken from the Metaphysics and Physics.[7] And indeed from the Metaphysics, there are taken principles of unity, goodness, pulchritude [beauty], perfection, order, opposition, quantity, quality, and the like. And from the Physics, those that treat of the quantity, quality, motion, place, and time of a natural Body: also of air, and sound, and of its propagation, multiplication, differences, and perception: and lastly of affections, as love, joy, sorrow, and the like.

The proximate principles are axioms, assumptions, questions, theorems, problems, and consectaries mathematical;[8] and those partly arithmetical, partly geometrical: but chiefly arithmetical; especially those which concern the proprieties [p. 7] of simple numbers, and also their proportion; viz. dupla, tripla, sesquialtera, and the like. . . . [9]

3. Practical Principles which Music uses are chiefly taken from the Ethics, Economics, Politics, and Poetics.

From the Ethics are taken principles of virtue and moral beatitude; from the Economics [are taken principles] of actions [p. 9] domestic; from Politics principles of virtue and civil beatitude; and from Poetics principles concerning rhyme and verse, which have such affinity with music, that by some music is divided into harmonical, rhythmical, and metrical.

Chapter 3. Of the Efficient and End of an Harmonical Song [page 10]

1. God is the author and maintainer of all harmony.

[H]armony is order and tends to unity; for God is the author and maintainer of all order, and the greatest unity. Furthermore, God is the chief and unspeakable joy, therefore they who rightly rejoice come nigher unto God. Hence the Rabbins say, the Holy Ghost doth sing by reason of joy. And Philosophers say, that the soul of a wise man doth always rejoice; for joy as it is pure harmony cannot but be excited and maintained by musical harmony [p. 10].

2. The exemplary cause of harmonical music is that music which is called mundane.

This is discerned in the order, disposition, and admirable proportion which doth occur in the celestial, and subcelestial region; partly among the stars, partly among the elements, partly among all things compounded of the elements; and lastly, among all those things which are compared one with another: of which music and harmony we have spoken in our Physics.[10] This harmony being such and so great, when ancient men did diligently consider it, they supposed that there was the like proportion not only in numbers and lines, but also in the voice; especially when they did discern that proportion in the various sound of various bodies.

3. Music receives his greatest perfection from the end.

That perfection not only depends upon matter and form, but also upon the end we have formerly shown in our Metaphysics and Logics.[11] In music certainly this is most manifest: for unless it be referred to the glory of God, and the pious recreation of man, it cannot but equivocally be called music. Hence it is apparent that those simple men who abuse vocal and instrumental music to [p. 11] nourish the pleasures of this world, whilst they sing songs highly obscene, are nothing less than musicians.[12] For although the form of a song occur there, yet the end which perfects the instrument,[13] is not there discerned. Therefore, in such music there is the first perfection but not the ultimate; which necessarily is required in an instrument, because the virtue thereof is placed in the use.

1. See Christopher D. S. Field and Benjamin Wardhaugh, eds., John Birchensha: Writings on Music (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 75–84.
2. Alsted earlier said that the “subject of operation” of music is “the matter to which harmonical music may be applied.” That is, Alsted in this section is speaking of the various uses of music.
3. That is, matters that pertain to the affections, or we might say roughly, the emotional drives of human beings.
4. The text is corrupted here.
5. The text is corrupted here.
6. Johannes Lippius, Synopsis Musicae novae (Argentoratum, 1612). Translated as Synopsis of New Music, trans. Benito V. Rivera (Colorado Springs: Colorado Music Press, 1977).
7. Here and in the following references made in point “3,” Alsted is referring to these as sciences, or academic disciplines. Because this treatment of music was originally an entry in a philosophical encyclopedia, Cursus philosophici encyclopaedia, mentioning these sciences would point readers to look up their respective entries.
8. That is, mathematical consequences.
9. The remainder of this section consists of Alsted enumerating various kinds of proportions, which he lays down as “axioms.” His main purpose in listing these various notions of mathematical proportions is to demonstrate that music can be understood because it is ordered. In coming to know music as a science, then, one is able to map that order by means of mathematic principles.
10. In the entry on “physics” found in this Cursus philosophici encyclopaedia.
11. Again, in the entry on “metaphysics” and “logics” found in this Cursus philosophici encyclopaedia.
12. Alsted’s point here, which comes across contrariwise in this translation, is that those who abuse music in order to “nourish the pleasures of this world,” and do not direct it toward the ultimate end of glorifying God, are not true musicians in the fullest sense. Much the same as a good work, when not done for the glory of God, is not good in the fullest sense.
13. Alsted is not here speaking of a musical instrument, but of a human agent.
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