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Beneath the surface of Bach’s music is a world of numerology and cunning craft (aeon.co)
56 points by Stratoscope 9 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

For those who are not up to reading music at Bach's level, Stephen Malinowski's Musical Animation videos are eye-opening, e.g., from the Musical Offering mentioned in the article: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYouXtuk0T8

Toccata and Fugue in Dmin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipzR9bhei_o

I was directed to Malinowski's work by Edward Tufte (you may be able to figure out why) and feel I should pass it on.

When I was doing my capstone for BSEE back in 1978, I was making an IC that would play music (ooohhh weee, ok it was a long time ago). But I had very limited die space for rom, but I was taking a Music Appreciation class (supposed easy A to fulfill the liberal arts requirement). So I told my Music prof about my project and explained I had very little memory on the chip and could he recommend something.

He got it immediately and he recommended I check into Bach especially Fugues, that's when I found our that scary music they played in movies was Bach Toccata Fugue in D minor. Fugues are perfect because everything repeats just in different keys or paces. So I was able to cram it into 256B of ROM (well enough of it for everyone to get what song it was).

That's when I first fell in love with Bach.

It's pretty crazy when you think about how many of Bach's fugue subjects are long, sprawling, compound lines.

Most counterpoint students would try as hard as possible to make their fugue subjects short, simple and constrained to a very small range. Otherwise they'd risk the overall texture getting too thick and the voices jumping around each other and accidentally creating an incoherent mess.

Meanwhile, Bach's fugue subjects-- like BWV 542-- are playing the lead while accompanying themselves. It's like van Halen's solo in Eruption, except Bach copy/pastes his solos on top of each other so that they help each other asplode together.

Bach is beyond sublime and I am not a poet, my words are insufficient to offer praise of suitable depth. And I wonder, there are so many good writers and poets among us so why, on earth, have we yet to have a blockbuster biography of his, or celebrated film or TV series? We have them all of Beethoven, Mozart, even Mahler and Chopin. Is it because he's just too big to tackle? Jan Swafford--you mastered the other two, where are you?

An absolutely fantastic scene about Bach was in the East-German/Hungarian co-production: Johann Sebastian Bach


In it he meets Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, then one of the world's superpowers.


I dunno - he was as far as I know (a medium amount but not a lot) a pretty normal person and...his personality comes much less to the fore in his work compared to later era composers. I've tried reading his letters - they're strictly business. He was in many ways a consummate professional of the pre-personality-cult era. Though there's something nice about that in and of itself.

These snippets from the article hint at some entertaining possibilities:

> Bach was crafty both in his music and life, and he adored puzzles, games and general inventive mischief.

> walking 280 miles just to watch one organist perform

> a dizzying array of professional demands, awkward taskmasters, petulant critics, vain royalty and personal tragedies.

Also worth noting "the violent, thuggish world of the young JS Bach": https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/sep/21/secret-bach-te...

This article is heartbreaking. I'm not sure I'll listen to his Passions again the same way.

It's not a blockbuster but I really do love "Music in the Castle of Heaven" by John Eliot Gardiner. Maybe a little academic - but the drama!

Thanks, I started reading this and it's fascinating and by someone whose conducting I am familiar with. Appreciate the recommendation

Check out "The Loser" by Thomas Bernhard. Not a biography, but an excellent novel inspired by Bach

Oh, "Der Untergeher". Read it in German, if you can. It's... memorable.

I suspect his personal life is just not colorful enough to make for interesting viewing.

Don't think that's the main reason. Hollywood has no compunction or lack of skill to embellish or dramatize a mundane life if they need to.

I suspect Bach's place at the top is received rather than recognized, which is not to say he doesn't deserve it. His skill lays in counterpoint and other facets of harmony. His music has structural elegance and ornamental beauty, not the full orchestral rabble rousing of Beethoven or delicate pianism of Chopin. Not exactly directly translatable to a poster or trailer.

I recall there was a teenage knife fight

Had to google that - with a bassoonist! That explains a lot...

I really love this analysis of a Bach prelude. It really brings home the complexity that Bach must have deliberately put into the piece.


Do people still read Godel, Escher, Bach?

I'm on page 159 and moving pretty slowly.

So far, learning about "canons" has been pretty impactful, along with the enjoyable storytelling.

Absolutely. Me and other teenagers interested in Math all attempt to get through it

My friend who studies music performance at University had this to say about Bach music, which I always found interesting:

"It's very hard to perceive counterpoint, and there is a limit to how much we can perceive at once. 2 voices is hard and takes practice, 3 voices is even harder, but you can have these flashes where you hear clearly voices playing off one another and its like getting a glimpse into the divine."

They mention how much time he spent on Vivaldi scores, which is really interesting when you listen to Vivaldi's violin sonatas as a Bach fan and hear where Bach added many homages back to Vivaldi in his work.

The Euler of music?

Bach is too funerally for me.

How much of his ouvre have you taken in? I could understand hearing something like Toccata and Fugue in D on an organ, and coming away with that impression.

My favorites are the small pieces in the Well Tempered Clavier I & II.* The Art of the Fugue is also worth checking out.

* see also Shostakovich's cycle of preludes & fugues that it inspired.

I'm no Bach expect, but this piece [0] is anything but funerally. Maybe you will appreciate it.

[0]: Keyboard Partita No.1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JF3YzTG7lU

Give the Brandenburg Concertos a try. You will probably change your mind.

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