The 50 Fugues of Atalanta Fugiens – Michael Maier – CR5468


“It is beautiful and strange, and it must be full of meaning, for such labor and learning to have gone into its making. But what is that meaning”?

“I think it is a very significant recording – it certainly opened my ears to what was happening 100 years before the birth of JS Bach”


Michael Maier’s emblem book Atalanta Fugiens (The Fugitive Atalanta) is best known for its engravings, reproduced time and again to delight amateurs of alchemy and the occult arts, as well as connoisseurs of proto-surrealism. Less well known are the fifty fugues that accompany the emblems, their cryptic titles and Latin poems, and the fifty essays or ‘discourses’ on alchemical themes. This multi-media work appeared in 1617 from the Oppenheim publisher, Johann Theodor de Bry, with the fifty emblems, title-page, and portrait of Maier engraved by de Bry’s son-in-law Matthaeus Merian (1593-1650). Maier himself had recently returned from a five-year sojourn in England, and it was perhaps there that he had prepared this and the nine other books published in 1616-1618.

Atalanta Fugiens exudes the air of its time: the steam and stench of the alchemist’s laboratory, the echoes of Renaissance choirs, the absorbed attention of the engraver to his copper plate. It is beautiful and strange, and it must be full of meaning, for such labor and learning to have gone into its making. But what is that meaning? The question was a teasing one even to Maier’s contemporaries, and four hundred years of ‘progress’ have not brought us any closer to answering it. Yet one can enjoy and love a work without being able fully to understand it. Art, and that includes Maier’s chosen art of alchemy, does not have to be rational in order to give satisfaction.

It is sufficient for it to arouse the sense of wonder, the sense of something coming from another level of existence or another order of being. That, after all, is what music regularly does. Although Maier calls his pieces ‘fugues’ in conformity with the nomenclature of his time (and to echo the book’s title), they should not be confused with the fugal form of J. S. Bach and his successors. Today we would define Maier’s compositions as two-part canons over a cantus firmus. The form was dictated by the symbolism of the classical myth that inspired him. Briefly stated, it is the tale of the beautiful princess Atalanta, who refused to marry any man who could not outrun her. Many suitors tried and were not only beaten in the athletic sense, but executed. The canny Hippomenes, however, sought the advice of the goddess Aphrodite, who gave him three golden apples. Each time Atalanta drew ahead of him in the race, he rolled one of the apples before her. She could not resist stopping to pick them up, and this enabled Hippomenes to win the race, keep his head, and marry her. However, they did not live happily ever after, because after desecrating the Temple of Cybele by making love therein, the goddess turned them, as punishment, into a pair of lions. Maier read alchemical symbolism into every detail of the story, as he did into all Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology. In this case, he specifies that the leading part in each fugue represents the fugitive Atalanta, the following one Hippomenes. These two parts are in canon, at all possible intervals from unison to octave. The invariable cantus firmus part, sung in slower, even notes, represents the Apple. Its melody is a well-known plainsong Christe eleison, bearing witness to Maier’s Lutheran faith. The three parts shift up and down in relation to one another, covering a wide vocal range and making combinations that require four singers, although only three sing at any time. The music of each fugue is sung three times to different words. The pattern remains constant, giving the work a quasi-liturgical or incantatory quality, until fugues 41-49, which blossom into canonic ingenuities involving diminutions, inversions, and retrogrades. Maier was a physician, courtier, and diplomat by profes sion, not a musician. The symbolic form of Atlanta Fugiens embroiled him in difficulties which only a very experienced composer could have overcome while remaining obedient to the laws of late Renaissance counterpoint. Maier’s fugues abound in forbidden parallels, unresolved dissonances, and capricious accidentals that are not necessitated by canonic imitation. The modern editor has to make some difficult decisions about how far to allow these in performance, and how far to censor Maier’s errors and the printer’s many misprints (not always distinguishable from one another). In the present edition (published by Magnum Opus Hermetic Source works in 1987 and subsequently by Phanes Press), the censorship has been light out of respect for Maier’s inspired amateurism. The result is a music that is absolutely unique, and as close to timelessness as any music can be. Listeners familiar with music history will hear unexpected resonances: passages that seem to come from an Ars Antiqua motet of the thirteenth century; echoes of Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay. At other times one seems to be hearing a later style altogether, perhaps a passage from Stravinsky or Hindemith, so unpredictable are the discords and even some of the melodies. Once the novelty has worn off, both innocent and experienced listeners can join in appreciation of the expressive qualities of the music, and Maier’s surprising wealth of melodic invention.

© Joscelyn Godwin

The complete texts of the Fugues, with my English translation, can be found here:
**Texts Translation Website

Titles of the 50 Fugues

  1. The wind has carried it in his belly
  2. Its nurse is the earth
  3. Go to the woman washing sheets, and do thou likewise
  4. Join brother to sister and hand them the cup of love
  5. Put a toad to the breasts of a woman, and nurse it; the woman may die, but the toad grows big from the milk
  6. Sow your gold in the white foliated earth
  7. There is a chick, flying up from its nest, that falls back into the nest again
  8. Take the egg and pierce it with a fiery sword
  9. Lock the tree with the old man in a bedewed house, and by eating of its fruit he will become young
  10. Give fire to fire, Mercury to Mercury, and it is enough for you
  11. Make Latona white and tear up the books
  12. The stone that Saturn vomited up, after having devoured it in place of his son, Jupiter, has been placed on Helicon as a monument for mortals
  13. The Ore of the Philosophers is dropsical, and needs to be washed seven times in the river, just as the leper Naaman in the Jordan
  14. This is the dragon devouring its own tail
  15. Let the work of the potter, consisting of the dry and the wet, teach you
  16. This lion has no feathers; the other has
  17. A fourfold wheel rules this fiery work
  18. Fire loves to make fire, but not to make gold, as gold does
  19. If you kill one of the four, all will be dead immediately
  20. Nature teaches nature to overcome the fire
  21. Make a circle around man and woman, then a square, now a triangle; make a circle, and you will have the Philosophers’ Stone
  22. When you have the white lead, do the women’s work, that is, cook
  23. Gold rains down, as Pallas is born on Rhodes, and the Sun lies with Venus
  24. The wolf devoured the king, and when burned, it returned him to life.
  25. The dragon will not die, unless it be killed by its brother and sister, who areSol and Luna
  26. The fruit of human wisdom is the Tree of Life
  27. He who tries to enter the Philosophic Rose-garden without a key is like aman wanting to walk without feet.
  28. The king is bathed, sitting in a steam-bath, and is freed from black bile by Pharut
  29. Like the salamander, the stone lives in the fire
  30. The Sun needs the Moon, as the cock needs the hen

31. The king swims in the sea, crying with a loud voice: ‘He who rescues me shall have a mighty reward!’

Gramophone Review (October 14th 2008)

Very many thanks for the ‘Atalanta Fugiens’ CD, which I have just finished playing. It is first-class in every respect – an important album in its way, which I hope gets the very positive critical response it deserves. I assume you’ll be sending copies to our ‘old music’ enthusiasts.

I think it is a very significant CD – it certainly opened my ears to what was happening 100 years before the birth of JS Bach.

Bob Mathew-Walker.


17th century multimedia, precursor to punk Andrew Kettle

Gentle reader, I report that a most agreeable evening was enjoyed last month, 3 August 1617, in the Hermetic academy of Rudolph II’s court.

Michael Maier, Count of the Imperial Consistory, Doctor of Medicine, Knight Exemptus, formerly Imperial Physician, etc. aroused the more spiritual senses of intellect, sight and hearing with the presentation of his recently published work, Atalanta Fugiens, hoc est Emblemata nova de secretis Naturae Chymica, printed at the expense of the generous Oppenheim publisher, Johann Theodor de firy.

Just as Timotheus the Milesian inspired Alexander the Great to war with the Phryian mode, Maier has celebrated the pinnacle of the present alchemical age with a most intriguing work built of 50 emblems, epigrams and canons for entertainment and, importantly, for reflection upon the Great Work.

As any educated person could be expected to sing a line of music, as parties of three we put our senses to the task of a play similar to the rounds sung by children and a parole conversation game: each with an Atalanta Fugiens book in hand, the emblem was considered, the poem recited, the fugue sung by our merry group at which time the conversation erupted as to the significance

of the fugue, emblem and epigram. Presideni Jean d’Espagnet praised the work of being ample lucidity to reveal the most hidden secrets in the Great Work! Maier not only invites the participants to contemplate the entire alchemical pro cess but the infinite dynamics on Nature.

Or so the original impact and enjoyment of Atalanta Fugiens can be imagined …

Many years have passed; retrospectively the beloved Atalanta Fugiens was one of the first multimedia performances and remains trium pliant in the arena, having been challenged by few rivals. The 1998 Angel Magick by John Hai le or Mozart’s 1791 Masonic The Magic Flute spring to mind – however, they are opera.

Atalanta Fugiens is an obligatory inclusion at any alchemical musical recital, as witnessed at the 2006 International Conference on the His tory of Alchemy and Chymistry, Philadelphia. The conference commenced with a performance of the early music ensemble, Arcanum, whose programme included Henry Purcell, Jacques Hotteterre, Georg Friedrich, Handel’s incidental music, a unique performance of part of the 169I Théâtre italien play Les Souffleurs, ou La pierre philosophale d’Arlequin, and three canons from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens.

Until recently, few modern recordings of Atalanta Fugiens have been available. A 78 rpm recording was made in 1935 of a performance by Saint Andrew’s Choir, London, of fugues 2, 27, 18, and 45. In 1989 Phanes Press published a translation anew from Latin into English In Joscelyn Godwin as the Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourcework #22. This edition importantly included the transcribed modern notation sheet music.