Johann Sebastian Bach: Composer, Numerologist, Theologian

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Is Bach's fascination with numerology too complex?(Photo: Unknown)
Is Bach's fascination with numerology too complex?(Photo: Unknown)

Boyce Lancaster talks with Maestro Albert-George Schram, former staff conductor of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, about Johann Sebastian Bach, whose fascination with numerology and theology led to extraordinarily complex music at times.

Just how complex is too complex?

It is quite possible that the Baroque composer made use of such effects in different ways in the St. Matthew Passion. Each movement in the choral Wozu Dienet has 11 beats, and the word Amen is used 11 times – could this be a symbol of the 11 disciples of Jesus? The word Herr is found 11 times in the choral Herr, bin ich’s – perhaps another symbol for the 11 apprentices? Or alternatively perhaps a tool used to demonstrate that the twelfth disciple, Judas, remained silent, thereby constituting a dramatic and realistic move rather than a symbolic one? – Music is also mathematics: Noralv Pedersen

[audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2006/Bach.mp3"]

Highlights From This Interview:

Boyce: “I had a friend of mine call me one morning; it was about 6:15. I had just finished playing, I don’t know if it was the Toccata and Fugue by Bach or what. And she said, ‘I would ask you please not to play Bach before 7:30 in the morning, because it’s just too complicated for me to listen to when I’m half-asleep.’”

Albert-George: “Bach’s numerology is pervasive in his works. And every time I conduct some Bach of substance, I have to learn again about it. It is really not that important to a performance to know his 12 times 12, or his combination of all the sacred numbers: 7 x 7 x 12, or the certain number of bars that the Matthew’s Passion has. They’re just really good compositions.”

Albert-George: “(Bach) is a normal guy, a man who was an organist who just happened to create all these masterpieces. I love that we can know that and make his music. What a gift he gave us.”

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