Voices soared in haunting melody, echoes from a candlelit age when the line between science and alchemy blurred.
The music is from Atalanta Fugiens, a nearly 400-year-old book of alchemy that hid its meaning in pages of illustration, verse, and music. The singers, Les Canards Chantants, are a Philadelphia group that performs as a form of research, said Graham Bier, who directs the group with his wife, Robin, and who is a lecturer at Bryn Athyn College.
"It's the context of it being less removed from its original intent," Bier said.
The singers joined a workshop at the city's Chemical Heritage Foundation over the weekend to explore the book. Along with hearing the music, attendees were treated to original copies of the text.
About the size of a mini-iPad, the pages bear Latin epigrams, music written in archaic notation, and intricate mythology-themed engravings heavy in symbolism that would be meaningful to alchemists of the day.
The experience of touching the book and hearing the music was revelatory to some at the event.
"There's the eerie moment when suddenly there's a connection across history," said Lawrence Principe, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University.
The workshop's guest list was eclectic. Scholars hailed from as far away as Britain and the Netherlands, with specialties including linguistics, classics, mathematics, and musicology.
Their diverse knowledge was needed. Modern academics specialize, but when German physician and alchemist Michael Maier published Atalanta Fugiens in 1617, it was breadth of knowledge, not specialization, that signaled an education.
The book featured intellectual showmanship its author hoped would impress potential patrons, said Donna Bilak, a historian and postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University who organized the workshop.
"It blends Christian Kabbalah, iconography, music, mathematics, alchemy all together," Bilak said.
The book retells the myth of Atalanta, a Flo-Jo of the ancient world who challenged suitors to race. If they won, she would marry them. If they lost, they died.
Atalanta never lost.
Only Hippomenes realized that, although he could not outrun the speedy beauty, he might outsmart her. He tossed golden apples into her path during the race, distracting her long enough to snag the win and her hand.
Success was only a prelude to sorrow, though, and the lusty couple made the mistake of having sex in a temple. They were turned into lions for their sacrilege.
The story is used in the book as an allegory for the recipe for the philosopher's stone, a substance that was supposed to have the power to return humans to a state of Edenic bliss. This was no fantasy to the people of 17th-century Germany. It was considered a quest akin to today's search for a cancer cure, and the wealthy spent fortunes on men like Maier, whom they hoped could extend their lives.
Scholars at the conference see alchemy as the forerunner of modern chemistry. Amid dreams of turning lead into gold, Bilak said, serious men aiming for the impossible instead found practical applications in metallurgy, textiles, and for brewing beer.
Bilak presented Saturday a theory on another layer of meaning in the book. She believes she has found a mathematical game Maier hid within the text. She proposed that rearranging the book's images created a magic square, a mathematical puzzle box in which rows and columns of numbers all add up to the same sum.
"It has more secrets to yield," she said of the book during her presentation.
Amid the games and mystery, the book also offers clues to how people lived 400 years ago, when education was meant for the elite. Maier embedded the secrets of the philosopher's stone in song and pictures because people then believed knowledge should be shared only among the worthy, Bilak said.
"It's meant to be a puzzle," Bier said. "It was something people would get together and try to figure out."
The Biers also felt the small book was meant to be shared. They imagined families or friends in parlors crowding over copies of the books to sing the canon-like musical pieces, which were written for three voices.
It's the kind of insight, Robin Bier said, "that can only be reached through the actual process of singing the music and hearing it and performing from the manuscript."