Thursday, October 6, 2016

Concert Review: Synthesis in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach

By André Duvall

Johann Sebastian Bach’s legacy as one of the greatest composers of all time is firmly rooted in both the depth and the breadth of his work and musical influence. His ability to synthesize aspects of multifarious musical styles across Europe – with incredible mastery and imaginative development of musical counterpoint, harmony, and musical ideas – has continued to inspire and teach composers and musicians across centuries of changing styles and musical tastes. The vast treasure of documented examples of his mastery more than suffices to justify his widespread veneration, yet there are other aspects of Bach’s compositional mind and soul that further demonstrate the genius of this incredible artist.
    A category of these aspects is the apparent numerology and hidden symbols/references in his music. Many instances have been researched. Perhaps one of the most obvious and famous examples includes Bach’s use of his own name at the end of the Art of Fugue: B (in German musical nomenclature, B is B-flat) – A – C – H (in German, H is B-natural). However, many examples are not so self-evident, and numeric connections have gradually been discovered – or at least speculated on – over the years. For instance, Bach incorporated instances of the numbers 14 and 41 in musical works (such as the number of measures in a piece of music). The numbers 14 and 41 can be derived from the addition of the numerical values of the letters in the name BACH and JS BACH (where A = 1, B = 2, etc.). These two examples barely scratch the surface of the speculation and solid investigation/documentation of hidden elements in Bach’s music.

Through the fairly recent research efforts of Helga Thoene1 and Irene Stroh2, another fascinating discovery of Bach’s genius has been brought to light. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004, is a suite of movements that concludes with the famous Chaconne (Ciaccona). In the Baroque period, the chaconne referred to a set of variations on a harmonic progression, often featuring a ground bass (repeated bass line), and was cultivated by many composers. Bach’s chaconne is widely considered one of his supreme masterpieces for its range of musical and emotional content and structural mastery.
    Bach embedded segments of melodies from eleven chorales throughout the solo violin writing in the chaconne. As a church musician, Bach worked with chorales on a regular basis, and was intimately familiar with their textual implications and musical characteristics, often using them as inspiration for all sorts of musical works, from short organ preludes to entire cantatas. Thoene’s and Stroh’s research has made it possible for a new type of performance of the chaconne, in which a trio of singers (a soprano, an alto, and a tenor) sing the various segments of the hidden chorales during the violin’s performance, thus superimposing the melodic fragments onto Bach’s actual score. I had the good fortune to hear such a performance this past month.

Violinst Gregory Maytan performed the D minor violin partita on September 23 as part of the Friends of Music at Calvary concert series, held in the fine acoustical space of Calvary Episcopal Church’s sanctuary in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. The Partita was preceded by performances of the brilliant Caprice No. 24 by Niccolo Paganini, and the beautiful Passacaglia in G minor by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber.
    Maytan performed each of the first four movements of the partita on a different music stand, systematically making his way across the front of the sanctuary from stage right to the center of the room, finally meeting up for the fifth and final movement with the trio of singers, who sat silently waiting near the middle of the stage. Maytan’s movement across the stage was meant to symbolize the synthesis of Bach’s violin writing with the chorale melodies (as I interpreted from comments given at the start of the concert). In between each of the first four movements, organist Kristin Lensch performed a verse of a Bach chorale on the organ.
    I found on YouTube this short recording of part of another performance to let you hear a bit of what I’m talking about:

The Maytan concert was haunting, beautiful, and well-executed. In many cases, if one were to superimpose fragments of pieces that influenced a composer onto the composer’s work, it would not work, because of how the composer has altered the music from the original source. The superimposition of melodic fragments onto the violin score in this particular realization, however, created wonderful and mysterious musical sounds. Because the chorales are in fragments (and also because the average listener is likely not intimately familiar with all or even some of these chorale melodies), one may not always be able to follow the melodies from entrance to entrance. The musicians included with the concert program a detailed chart that showed specially which chorales Bach used, and where they appeared within the chaconne. Given adequate time beforehand, it is feasible for a listener to prepare to hear some of Bach’s hidden connections performed: Study the chart and the individual chorale melodies ahead of time, and then, with the chart and scores handy, listen to the performance.
    It is not always necessary to have an understanding of the mechanisms of the numerology behind a piece of music in order to enjoy the music as it is being performed. Sometimes, the actual numerical part cannot be “heard” or easily detected (such as the idea of 41 measures in a piece of music). In other cases, it can be realized and heard, as in this performance, if one is familiar with the chorale melodies. These discoveries and investigations of hidden content can serve to heighten our appreciation of an already revered musical work, and increase our fascination while listening, both with the compositional craft, and with the composer who produced it.

  1. Helga Thoene: “Johann Sebastian Bach Ciaconna. Tanz oder Tombeau (Dance or Tombeau),” Oschersleben: dr.Ziethen Verlag, 2009. 
  2. Irene Stroh: “Bach Ciacocona for Solo Violin: Hidden Chorales and Messages,” Ball State University, May 2011.

Copyright © 2016 by André Duvall


  1. Oh, André, your concert review is wonderful! I love to imagine music lovers reading it and delighting in what you have written.

  2. I enjoyed reading your review even if I know nothing about music. However, I do love the idea of a mystery hidden in it.

  3. While familiar with examples of numerology in Bach's music,this is the first I had heard of the hidden chorales in the Chaconne. The Maytan performance with a trio of singers sounds like a wonderful musical adventure!