Research in Music Series: A Talk by André Redwood (UMass)
Combinatorics, Composition, Copia: Mersenne’s Mathematics and the Erasmian Impulse
Free & open to the public, Old Chapel Conference Room
Marin Mersenne, best known in our discipline as the author of the Harmonie universelle (1636-37), has long been recognized for his obsessive interest in mathematical permutation, combination, and calculation. His passion for combinatorics seems to account for one of the Harmonie universelle’s most famous passages, in which he systematically writes out all 720 possible permutations of the Guidonian hexachord—twice. This paper argues that Mersenne’s reasons for such apparent excess were not primarily mathematical, nor even musical, but rhetorical. I contend that these exercises in hexachord permutation are part of a broader strategy of persuasion, one based on techniques of accumulation. Further, I propose that his strategy reflects a rhetorical approach encapsulated in the notion of copia, most famously theorized by Erasmus in his popular De Copia (1512).