Sei sulla pagina 1di 11

Riemenschneider Bach Institute

A Neglected Guide to Bach's Use of Number Symbolism — Part I Author(s): Randolph N. Currie Source: Bach, Vol. 5, No. 1 (JANUARY, 1974), pp. 23-32 Published by: Riemenschneider Bach Institute Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41639913 Accessed: 22-10-2015 13:51 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/ info/about/policies/terms.jsp

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Notizbuch

für Studenten

BACH'S "Notebook for Students"will publish selectedstudentarticles on Baroque musicas well as short papersof particular interestto music students.BACH welcomes queriesconcerningpublicationof suchmaterials.

A Neglected

Guide

to Bach's

-

Symbolism

Use

I

Part

of Number

By Randolph N. Currie Ohio State University, Newark

The Controversy

One of themost intriguing,yetcontroversial,developments in Bach researchoverthe past few years has beentherevelationof Bach'suse of number symbolism in some of his compositions. Reactionto advance reports ofthis phenomenon has ranged from outrightskepticism to enthu- siastic acceptance. The attitudeofmost scholars,however, hasbeena sort of polite reserve. ("Now isn'tthat interesting; butlet'swaitandsee

Admittedly, the published studiesdevotedto Bach'suse of number symbolism have been somewhat haphazard, and someof the arguments

tenuous, to say theleast. On theother hand, the difficulty of detecting

and interpreting number symbolism is notoriousand by no meanslimited

totheworksof J. S. Bach. In thewordsofAlister Fowler, a

in thefieldof Englishliterature, "numerical composition was an essen-

tially arcane practice

unveiledauthorial exposition."1Therefore, it shouldcomeas no surprise thatthe usually reticentcantorof Leipzig maintainedabsolutesilenceon

the subject.

We do havea kindof "hearsay"evidence,by way of a debunking

leadingfigure

;

thelast thing we should expect to findis an

remark by Matthesonto theeffectthatC. L. Mizler

conversation) had claimedto have learnedsome"mathematicalbasesof composition"directly fromBach.2Even Mizler, whosemathematicalinter- est is well known, seemsneverto havewrittena wordaboutnumerical composition. Nor did he publish a rebuttalto Mattheson'ssnide remarks, thus contributing toour impression of secrecy andesotericism surrounding

the subject.Perhaps thisis to be expected,since, as Christopher Butler

pointsout,

numberhadbeen

Copernicus to showthatsuch mysteries wererevealed "only to initiates

(perhaps in private

"From

Pythagorasonwards,knowledge of the properties of regarded as a secret mystery."3 Butler goes on to quote

by wordof mouth."4 Thus, it

open to

and friends, and thennot in writing but

standsto reasonthatmost attempts at numerical analysis are

23

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

charges thatthecriticis trying to find symbolicmeaning wherenonewas intended.Even when the same patterns occur repeatedly,skeptics can claimthatsuchrecurrenceis simply a coincidence.

Bach's Overt Gesture

In viewofthese circumstances, eventhe slighest indicationthatBach

consciouslyengaged in highlysignificant. It is

suchan overt gesture whenhe wrotethenumber"84" at theend of the

the opinion of thiswriterthatBach made just

numerical composition shouldbe regarded as

Patremmovementof theB-MinorMass (see PlateI at theend of this article).

autographscore,

assuresus thatthe

has observedthat"84" represents thenumberof measuresin the move-

mentandthatitis the product ofthe important"holy numbers"7 and 12. 6

Unfortunately, he did notchooseto pursue thematter any further.Had

he subjected themovementto thekindof detailednumerical analysis he

usedin his

aspect

of a numerical labyrinth of monumental proportions. It is the authors

sincere hope thatthe

ways containedwithinthisedifice.

Symbolic Associations of "84"

presentstudy willcharta fewof the largerpassage-

doubt, havediscoveredthatthetotalnumberofmeasuresis just one

Friedrich Smend, whodiscoveredthenumberin the

figures are in Bach's handwriting.5Elsewhere, Smend

study ofBach's "Triplex Canon" ( BWV , 1076), he would, no

Before proceeding withan analysis of themovement itself, it seems advisableto takeintoaccountthenumerical properties of 84, a number

particularly richin

considerthe relationship betweenthe generating 7

numberswere closelyrelated,

above. To the medievalmindthesetwo

sincebothare theresultof combining 3 and4:

symbolic associations.As a point of departure, letus

and 12 mentioned

3

3

4 =

+ X 4 =

7

12

(Threesymbolized the things of heaven;

four represented the things ofthe earth.)

Thus, as VincentFoster Hopperstated, "fromthetriune principle of

produced theuniversal sym-

temporal,produces

firstnumberwhich impliestotality.'7 From

signifies the universe,being a

spiritual 3."8

"

It is

factorem coeli

(See discussionof text below.)

God and the quadrupleprinciple ofmanare

bols, 7 and 12. The additionof 3 and 4, spiritual and

7, which is, therefore, the

Hugh of St. Victor, we learnthat"12

multiple of the corporeal 4 of theelementsand the

noteworthy in this regard thatthetextincludesthe phrase

et terrae."

To Bach, it was perhapsequallysignificant that84 was the product

24

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

of 14 X 6. It is surely wellknown by nowthat14 standsforBACH by

meansof gematria.9 The number"6" is also

interesting sinceit represents

thenumberof days of Creation (another referenceto God as "makerof heaven and earth"?) and is also a perfect number. (A perfect numberis

any number equal to thesumof its aliquotparts. Thus6=1

thenextthree perfect numbersare 28,496, and 8,128. Interestin perfect numbersdatesback to Old Testament times; the concept is usually in-

cludedin anythorough-going discussionof Christiannumber symbolism.

While84 is an "abundant"ratherthana perfectnumber, thesumof its aliquotparts is particularlyinteresting:

+

2 +

3;

1+2+3+4+6+7+12+14+21+28+42

=

140 (10 X 14)

It will be noticedthattheseriesof divisorsincludesthemostim-

portant "sacred"numbers (1, 3, 7, and 12),

perfect numbers (6 and 28), and, of course, thenumber14. The sumof

the parts, in additionto

law and completion), is also thesumof thefirstseven perfectsquares.10

An evenmore strikingproperty of 84 is thefactthatits prime factors =

total14 (2X2X3X7 only tensuch numbers).

along

withthe firsttwo

being the product of 14 and 10 (the numberof

84; 2 +

2 +

3 +

7=

14 - thereare

digits

which comprise thisnumber.It canbe seenthatboth8 and4 are powers

of two, as is their product(8X4 = 32), a factwhichBach seemsto

acknowledgeduring thecourseof themovement (see below). Even the quotient and the differencebetweenthe numbersare powers of two

As a final consideration, it

might be instructivetoexaminethe

(8 -ť-4 =

2; 8 -

4 =

4).

And

finally, thesumof the digits(8 + 4

= 12) brings us back to one of the "universal"numberswithwhich

thisdiscussion began.

The Central Position of the Word factorem

Fromthe

precedingdiscussion, we candeduce that, fromBach's point

of view, 84 mightvery well be a dynamicsymbol with manyimportant associations.If thatis the case, he could hardly have picked a morerele- vanttextthanone whichrefersto God as the omnipotent creatorof all

things.

problem, sinceBach choseto includethewordsCredoin unum Deum,

which had, of course, beensetto musicin the preceding movement.11 By

incorporating these words,however, Bach brings thetotalnumberofwords

up to 14. A closerexaminationof theLatinrevealstherather astonishing factthatthetextcontains exactly 84 letters.The following charttabulates

thelettersand syllablesalong withthe gematria(and cumulative totals) forthe segment of theCredousedin themovement:

The actualwordsused in thePatremmovement pose a bit of a

25

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Table I: Numerical Analysis ofthe Text Used by Bach in the Patrem Section ofthe B-Minor Mass

#LETTERS#SYLLABLESGEMATRIA TEXTURAL

WORD

(TOTAL)

1. Credo

5

-

2. 2

in

(7)

3. unum

Deum

4.

5.

6. omnipotentem 12 (33)

7. factorem 8 (41)

4 (11)

4(15)

6JŤT)

Patrem

8.

coeli

5 (46)

9.

et

2 (48)

10. terrae

6 (54)

11. visibilium

10 (64)

12. omnium

6 (70)

13. et

2 (72)

14

invisibilium

12 (84)

(TOTAL)

2

1

2

2

(7)

2

5

3 (17)

(14)

2

1

2 (22)

5

3

1

6 (37)

(TOTAL) REPETITIONS

43

22

(65)

65 (130)

41(171)

69 (240)

150 (390)

77 (467)

42 (5Õ9)

24 (533)

64 (597)

119 (716)

80 (796)

24 (820)

141 (961)

12

9

9

9

10

32

33

34

34

22

22

24

25 (285)

Therearealso many cluestobe gleaned fromBachs treatmentofthe text.A cursory lookat thefullscoreis sufficienttomakeus awareof his special interestin theword factorem. Not only doesBach repeat theword frequently, he also exhibitsa considerable variety in setting it to music, ranging froma simplesyllabic treatmentto ratherextensivemelismas. Referring to thetextural analysis above (Table I), we findthat this, the

seventh word, resultsin a totalof 41 lettersfromthe

sentence.Since41 is

in thewordis quite understandable.Notice also thatwhen41 is sub-

tractedfrom 84, theremainderis 43

equation 41 + 43 = 84 becomesa dominantmotivebothin thestructure

andin many subordinatedetailsofthemovement.The

is clear:the

One otherdetail supports a

by the composer. Gematriaforthewordis 77, a numberwhose digits add

to

The central position of thiswordin Bach's thinking can alsobe seen in thestructureof themaintheme. (See Example 1 at theend of this article.) This perfectlysymmetricalmelody canbe analyzed as follows:

Words

No. ofNotes

beginning of the

interest

"

J. S. BACH" in gematria, the composer s

(gematria for Credo). In fact, the

symbolicmeaning

believe."

composerproclaims his faith,saying "I (J. S. Bach)

personalinterpretation of theword factorem

14 (the thirdsuch number, theothertwo being 59 and 68).

Patrem omnipotentem factorem coelietterrae

7

3

7

26

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

In

the courseof its 17 notes, Bach manages to incorporate all 11

diatonic pitches(in A

wide-rangingsubject. The three repeated notesat theoutsetseemto refer

to thetriune God,12 whilethe shape of thefinal segmentsuggests a

callyBaroque visualizationof thetextat that point. The completion of

theword meaning "earth"on thelowest pitch contrasts sharply withthe wordfor "creator," which begins withthe highestnote,reading down- wardwitha triadicmotivewhich is, in all probability,symbolic. It is withsome difficulty thatwe recallthatthis melody, in a slightly different form, wasonceassociatedwiththewords Gott, wie dein Name, so istauch deinRuhmbisan der Welt Ende, thetextof the opening chorusof Can-

tata171.13 (See Example2.)

major) whichfallwithinthe range ofhis unusually

typi-

A detailed analysis of Bach's deployment of this pivotal wordis of-

feredbelow (see Table II):

Table II: Repetitions ofthe wordFACTOREM in the Patrem Section ofthe B-Minor Mass

MEAS. NO.OF NOTES

MEAS. NO.OF NOTES

1.

3

3

2.

6

3

3.

8-10

7

4.

9

3

5.

12-14

7

6.

13

3

7.

16

3

8.

18-20

7

9.

19

3

10.

22-23

7

11.

22-24

11

12.

22-24

7

13.

23

3

14.

26-28

12

15.

26-28

9

16.

30-33

16

(Total)

17.

30

3

6

18.

30-32

7

19.

31-32

6

120

16

20.

41

3

123

21.

44-46

7

26

22.

45

3

133

29

23.

48-50

7

24.

48-50

7

39

25.

49

3

150

26.

52-54

6

27.

53

3

159

28.

59-61

8

67

29.

59-62

10

177

30.

65-66

3

88

31.

65-67

7

32.

66

3

190

Note simultaneousor overlapping statements. Cumulativetotalsare given attheendofeach group.

27

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

The preponderance of 3 s and 7 s is arresting,particularly in viewof the symbolic associationsofthosenumbers.Evenmore striking is thefact thatthereare exactly 14 statementswith3 notes each,14 whilethe7-note

statementsoccur10 times (7 X Ю = 70 == 14 X

seemsto "count"thenumberof statementsat times, as in thecase of the

eleventhand sixteenth statements, whichhave 11 and 16 notes respec- tively.16 Even the 32 wordsrenderedin gematria(32 X 77) yields 16 as thesumof the digits(2, 4 6 4).

5). 15 Bach even

Bachmarksthe midpoint in the repetitions of factorem witha par-

ticularly intricate design. Not only are there16 notesin the sixteenth

statement, but we also finda totalof 16

presentations(17, 18, and 19 in Table II). The resulting 32 notesare

bisected by the barlinewhich begins the thirty-second measureof the

movement.Witha senseof wonder, we discoverthatthe16-note factorem

is the32ndwordin thealto part! To cap it off, Bachconstructeda bril-

liant16-note canopy in the

overthe long altostatement.

notesin the 3 accompanying

portion of the hightrumpetpart whichlies

As a final touch, the composer introducedthe only two sixteenth- notesin theentiremovementat this very moment ( trumpetpart, measure 32; see Example 3 at theendof this article). As notedabovein thedis-

cussionof the properties of 84, 32 is the product of the2 digits,and, like

16, itis a power of2.

Lookingfurther, we findthatBachwasas

thorough

in hisuse ofnumbersas he was in other aspects of

instrumental parts in the segment delineated by this

statements, we arriveat a totalof 119 notes.That numberwouldseem to imply thattheMakerof theUniverseis visible everywhere in creation.

This interpretation is supportedby two facts: first,119 is gematria for

visibilium; and second, thatwordis

part whiletheothervoices singfactorem(see Ex. 3). Alsonoticethatin

the 3 lower parts, the 32 noteson factorem are augmentedby

hisart. Counting the

group of factorem

the onlycomplete wordin the soprano

9 notes

(bass and tenor, m. 32-33),bringing thetotalin those parts to 41 notes.17

If thereaderhas

begun

to

suspectmultiplemeanings fortheword

"Maker," he might findtheevidence presentedby thetwentieth repetition

illuminating.Here, in measure 41, theword factoremappears in isolation

in the

to 123 (41 X 3). This occurs just prior to the

Credoin unumDeum in measure42. In fact, theabsenceof theother voice parts afterthefirstnotein measure40 servesto throwthe soprano

textinto sharp relief: - potentemfactorem. Once again, the pattern of

notesin theother parts is charttabulatesthenotesin

sopranopart,bringing thetotalnumberof noteson thatword up

recapitulation of the

highlysignificant(see

Ex.

4).

The following

eachofthefour soundingparts:

28

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Table III: Tabulation of Notes in Each Notated Part

Part

Trombai

Ob I & ViolinI18

Soprano I andII

Continuo

No. of Notes

12

(3x4)

Total:

14-

6

6

7 -

33

21

(3x7)

(3x11)

Interpretation

(

<

(

BACH

days of creation;

perfection

the spiritual( 3)

-f the

physical(4)

Christ

(or HolySpirit?)

The totalof 33 is underscoredas an important and intentionalnum-

ber, since factorem is the thirty-third wordin the soprano at that point.

Of the several possible Trinitarian meanings of this number, the most likely seemsto be "God theSon"becauseof thenumerous33's associated withChristin theBible. Thus, even though Bachidentifieshimselfas the "powerful creator"ofthismusical work, he implies thathisfaithin Christ is theultimatesourceofhiscreative strength.Also,33 is thefirstnumber whose prime factorstotal14 (3 X 11 = 33; 3 + 11 = 14).

It wouldseemthatBachfeltthathe was following thetrue example

set by theMakerof all thingsbyincorporating numbersin hisowncrea-

tive

tenetthatGod "arranged all things in numberand measure" (Wisdom

Certainly Bach would easily have joinedCopernicus and Kepler

process. The composer seemsto have accepted without question the

mathematicallysatisfying

11:20).

in thinking that"theuniversewas orderedin a

way"

evenin theactof "signing" thisand otherworks byway of numerology,

Bachcouldhavefelthe was

Makerofall things, visibleand invisible."

and thatit "carried upon it the 'signature' of its creator."19 Thus,

following themodelofthe "AlmightyFather,

(Note: PartII of thisarticlewill discusssomeof the layers of 84's

wovenintothePatrem along

The authorwill explore someofthe

some opinions on the

withother examples of number symbolism.

implications ofhis findings andoffer

numbers.)

meaning ofBach'suseof

Footnotes

1 AlisterFowler,Spencer andtheNumbers of Time (London,1964),p. 238.
2

3

BachReader, rev.ed. (NewYork,1966),p. 440. The passage is quoted from

Mattheson'sEkrenforte(1740).

ChristopherButler,"NumerologicalThought" inSilent Poetry, ed.AlisterFowler

(London,1970),p.

16.

29

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

4

5

6

7

8

Ibid.The passage isfrom Copernicus'prefatory letterto

Friedrich

p. 333.

Smend, KirchenKantaten:Endedes Kirchenjahres(Berlin,1947),p.

VincentFoster Hopper, MedievalNumber Symbolism(NewYork,1938),p.

Pope Paul.

Smend, Kritischer

Bericht,

NBASer. II, Bd.1 (Kassel and Basel,1956),

14.

84

{sic.). Hopper is abstracting

(Civitas Dei). He cites manyexamples to support this interpretation of3

(pp.68-86).

fromseveral sources, most importantly,

20. The

St. Augustine

and4

Assummarizedin Butler,op.cit.,p.

indeeda

and timekeepingsystems(12 months,7 days,etc.).

specialsignificance of7 and12 is

seen bycomparing variouscalendrical

universal phenomenon as canbe

H =

2 +

l +

9B + A + C +

3 + 8=14.

Theword "gematria,"dating fromc.A.D. 200,

ing

Sincethewordis an acceptedEnglishterm, itwillbeusedin place ofthesome-

whatawkward phrase "letter-number system."

This property of140seemsrelatedtothefactthat14=

ofthemove-

referstothe practice of

"assign-

numericalvaluestothelettersofthe alphabet."(Hopper,op.cit.,p. 62 ) .

l2 -f- 22 + 32.

theresultofa reworking

Smend points out ( K.B. , p. 135),

canbe seenunderneath

changes in

phrase is strikingly

similar

thisauthor'sdiscussionofthat passage inBACH , Vol. IV, No. 2,p. 26.) In

enfolding 14 (7 + 7).

tremendous symbolicpotential.

God, evenso thypraise, untotheendsoftheearth."Thecantata

The

ofthemovementwasextensive;however,

thedetailsofthe parody tech-

10

11

12

Theinclusionofthesewordswas evidently

mentafteratleast part ofitwaswritten.As

vestiges ofthewordsPatrem omnipotentem

textinthe sopranopart, meas.1-3.

Thethree repeated tonesattheheadofa seven-note

tothebass melody attheoutsetofthechorale prelude Wachet auf(BWV, 645).

(See

13

14

the presentexample, the Trinity liesattheheartofan

Thetotal17 ( 10 + 7 or14 + 3) holdsa

"As thyname, О

was probably first performed onNewYear's Day,1729.AsSmendhas observed,

the theologicalimplications ofbothtextsare quite similar (K.B.,p. 134).

reworking

nique lie beyond the scope ofthis study.

A

appears inits original form14timesandisvaried7 timesfora totalof21 state-

ments, whicharethenmirrored by the12 statementsof fuguesubject.(Seealso

thediscussionofEx.4 above, wheretheoutervoices totaling 21 notesenfoldthe

similar pattern occursinthe organPassacaglia(BWV,582), wherethetheme

12 notesofthemiddle parts.) Thenumberof repetitions oftheotherwordsin

the present workare doubtlesslysymbolic also:Credox 12;

Patrem omnipotentem x 10 (God

There may bea pun involvedwiththesecondet , sincethe24

the gematria forthatword.A curiousdetailofthetextin gematria relatesthese

"unimportant" wordsforBach:thecumulativetotalinbothcases (and no place

else)

inunumDeumx 9;

astheLawGiverand Judge?); andcoelix 33.

repetitions referto

isa multiple of41. (533 = 41 x 13; 820= 41 x 20).

ifithasa personalsignificance

addto 5,

15

Perhaps of equalimportance is thefactthat70

whose prime factorstotal14 (2 + 5 + 7). Thenumber"32"itselfis

ofa mystery;

is thethirdofthe10 numbers

something

forBach beyond thefactthatits

digits(like14,23,41, and 50)

16

thiswriterhasnotuncoveredit.There

another way in whichBach Notice,also, thatBachhas

is

signs hisname numerically, since"S.

useditelsewhere - e.g., inthe Goldberg Variations.

Noticethattheeleven presentations from11 to21 comprise 84 notes; alsonote

the way Bachhas"framed"thesevenstatementsfrom14to20 (m.41) withtwo

identical groups of67 notes:

the possibility,however, thatthe symbol "32"is

Bach"= 32.

Statement:

1-13

14-20

21-32

Notes:

67

56

67

NumericalProperty:

Prime

(6+7=13)

factorstotal 14x4;7x8

13(2+2+2+7)

Prime

6+7=13

17 Thetotalofallthenotesis 175 (119

foranotherbracketed56.) 175=

instrumental + 56

voice). (See note16

7x5x5; 7 + 5+ 5 = 17.

30

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

18

Theoboeandviolinare compressed

intoonelineinthe holograph atthis point

(p. 102), asarethe sopranopartsthroughout. Theentiremovementhasa some-

whatcrowded theformatofthescorefita appearance, which numericalscheme. may resultfromthe composer'sattempt tomake

19 Butler,op.cit.,p. 12.

PLATE I

ConcludingPage of Bach's Holograph, Patrem Movement, B-Minor (from Faksimile- Ausgabe[Leipzig, Insel Verlag,1924,p. 105]; re-

Mass

printed withthe permission of the publisher.)

withthe p e r m i s s i o n of the publisher.) 31 This

31

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Ex. 1. J. S. Bach, B-MinorMass Credo, Patrem section, bass part, meas.1-6

,

t i o n , b a s s p a r t , meas.1-6 ,

Ex.2. Bach, Cantata171 , OpeningChorus, tenor part, meas.1-6

Ex.2. Bach, Cantata171 , OpeningChorus, tenor part, meas.1-6 Ex.3. B a c h , B-Minor M

Ex.3. Bach, B-Minor Mass,Credo, Patrem section, meas.30-32

s e c t i o n , m e a s . 3 0 -

Ex.4. Bach, B-Minor Mass, Credo Patrem section, meas.40-41

,

s , Credo Patrem s e c t i o n , meas.40-41 , 32 This

32

This content downloaded from 128.151.244.181 on Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:51:54 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions