1792, alchemy, Allgemeine Litteratur der Musik, Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J. K. Rowling, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Jonathan Bingham, Leipzig, Nicolas Flamel, Philosopher's Stone, Schwickert
“I knew it! I knew it! ”
“Are we allowed to speak yet?” said Ron grumpily. Hermione ignored him.
“Nicolas Flamel,” she whispered dramatically, “is the only known maker of the Philosopher’s Stone!”
This didn’t have quite the effect she’d expected.
“The what?” said Harry and Ron.
“Oh, honestly, don’t you two read? Look — read that, there.”
― J.K. Rowling,
Allgemeine Litteratur der Musik; oder, Anleitung zur kenntniss musikalischer bu̇cher, welche von den ȧltesten bis auf die neusten zeiten…
Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749 – 1818)
Leipzig: Schwickert, 1792
It seems to me that a person either loves the Harry Potter series or hates it. Some people even refuse to read it despite the pleas of HP lovers close to them. As we fanatical fans know because our hearts tell us it is so, the abstainers would love it too if they would just finally read it. But for those of us who aren’t able to convince the last hold outs of our generation, at least we can experience the magic of sharing J. K. Rowling’s world with the children we are raising as they become old enough to join the Harry Potter fan club. It is in this light, that of needing to be the expert of all things Harry Potter in order to guide my nine year old son as he reads the series this summer, that I contemplate a recent important discovery.
I remember when I first entered the world of Harry Potter. It was the summer after my first year of college and I was looking for my summer fiction fix, an annual college ritual created by restricting myself from fiction during the school year in an effort to achieve better grades. In May 2003, as classes were ending, the release of the fifth book in the Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) was eagerly anticipated the next month (June). I had been hearing about the series for a couple of years and it was finally time to take the plunge. And I dove deep. I read the first four books in the series at a pace of about a book a week and was ready for the fifth installment of the series when it was released in June. Needless to say I, like so many millions of others, was hooked on HP from then on. I have to admit to having read the series in its entirety several times in the years since I joined the club.
And strangely, at no point in any of those readings did it occur to me that a certain important character in the first book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) is an actual historical figure. Every time I read about Professor Dumbledore’s association with Nicolas Flamel I assumed J. K. Rowling had created Flamel as a fictitious character. It wasn’t until this week and a chance encounter with Allgemeine Litteratur der Musik while conducting research on a separate topic that I discovered how all these years I had been missing something.
But let me back up and provide a little context. The plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [spoiler alert] follows Harry Potter, a young wizard who discovers his magical heritage on his eleventh birthday, when he receives a letter of acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry makes close friends and a few enemies during his first year at the school. With the help of his friends Ron and Hermione, Harry faces an attempted comeback by the dark wizard Lord Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents, but failed to kill Harry when he was just 15 months old.
During his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry the successful enterprise of preventing his nemesis’ return hinges on Hermione’s deductive reasoning in deducing what Professor Quirrell is after, and Professor Dumbledore is hiding, within the school. This artifact, the Philosopher’s Stone, is the creation of the alchemist Nicolas Flamel – an associate of Professor Dumbledore. And this is where Rowling’s fiction intersects with historical fact.
Nicolas Flamel (1340 – 1418) was a successful French scribe and manuscript seller. After his death, Flamel developed a reputation as an alchemist. Lore has it that he discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and achieved immortality. These legendary accounts first appeared in the 17th century. I had no idea that Nicolas Flamel was an actual person until I found him, completely by coincidence, in Forkel’s Allgemeine Litteratur der Musik (1792).
Johann Nikolaus Forkel was a German musician, musicologist, and music theorist. The son of a cobbler, he received early musical training (especially in keyboard playing) from Johann Heinrich Schulthesius, who was the local Kantor. In other aspects of his music education he was self-taught, especially in regards to theory. As a teenager he served as a singer in Lüneburg. He studied law for two years at the University of Göttingen, and then remained associated with the University for more than fifty years. There he held varied positions, including instructor of music theory, organist, keyboard teacher, and eventually director of all music at the university. Forkel is often regarded as the founder of Historical Musicology because through his vision the study of music history and theory became an academic discipline with rigorous standards of scholarship. He was an enthusiastic admirer of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music he did much to popularize. He also wrote the first biography of Bach (in 1802), which is of particular value today due to his decision to correspond directly with Bach’s sons Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (thereby obtaining valuable information that would otherwise have been lost). Forkel’s Allgemeine Litteratur der Musik (Dictionary of Musical Literature) is a survey of musical texts arranged by author’s last name in alphabetical order, with dictionary-style entries.
On page eleven is an entry for Nicolas Flamel. Loosely translated from the German, in part it reads, “A French poet, painter, philosopher, and mathematician in Paris at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries, born in Pontoise … He was especially known for alchemy…” Forkel’s description includes the texts written by Flamel (easily distinguished in this work because the Latin titles were printed in a Roman typeface rather than the Gothic) which relate in some way to music. He provides references to important passages in regards to music within Flamel’s texts as well.
In addition to being able to share this new insight with my nine year old son as he reads Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this experience has led me to conclude two things: there is more depth to the Harry Potter series than some people want to give it credit for and more importantly, the rare books collections are an incredible source of knowledge and insight. Irreplaceable is how I would describe them, actually. It wasn’t through the internet that I found out that a character in one of my favorite books is actually a historical figure. Rather, like Hermione with the information that allowed Harry to defeat Lord Voldemort and stop his return, I found it in an old book in the library.
~ Contributed by Jon Bingham, Rare Books Curator