“So You Want to Write a Fugue?” in Post-Rudolphine Times, or Michael Maier’s Warning to Musicians in Atalanta fugiens (1617)
In Michael Maier’s celebrated book of alchemical emblems, Atalanta fugiens, each one of the fifty emblems is associated with a musical fugue. The race between Atalanta and her lover Hippomenes, the victory of Hippomenes thanks to three golden apples provided by the goddess Venus, the punishment of the two lovers by the same Venus... are episodes of a narrative which seems omnipresent in each fugue, the three parts of which are named “Atalanta”, “Hippomenes” and “apples”. It has been, however, seldom remarked that the symbolic reading of the Greek myth, on the model of an “ascension, misconduct and fall” progression, enters into dissonance with the alchemical interpretation of the same narrative given by the author himself, conceived this time on the basis of a dynamics of “heat” leading to red incandescence and to the most successful completion of an alchemical experiment. The consequences of this dissonance between a moral and a performative interpretation can prove fruitful when applied to an actual musical rendition of the fugues, calling for a renewed approach to the book by musicians.
Keywords: Michael Maier; Atalanta fugiens; mythology; alchemical emblems; fugue