Bach House Eisenach, birthday, canon, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, counterpoint, Eisenach, Fibonacci series, Fourteen Canons, Goldberg Variations, Gregorian calendar, Jörg Hansen, Julian calendar, Lars von Trier, numerology, Nymphomaniac, Philip Oltermann, portrait, Strasbourg, The Guardian
The 329th birthday of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach may not strike most people as a very significant anniversary, but for Bach scholars, 21 March this year is a very special day. Some researchers claim that the Baroque composer had an obsession with the number fourteen, the sum of the numeric value of the letters in his surname (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14). The numbers 3, 2 and 9 also add up to 14 – and all this fourteen years into the twenty-first century. Coincidence?
To mark his birthday in 1685 – which is sometimes dated to the thirty-first of the month these days due to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in Germany in 1698 – the Bach museum in the composer’s hometown of Eisenach will take a closer look at his esoteric interest in number puzzles. Among the items on display from 21 March until 9 November 2014 will be a famous 1746 portrait in which the composer wears a waistcoat with fourteen buttons, a personalized drinking cup with a fourteen-point monogram, as well as Bach’s annotated score for the Fourteen Canons (BWV 1087) built on the baseline of his Goldberg Variations (BWV 988).
A series of films and interactive displays will explore and sometimes question the validity of the most common theories.
Until the discovery of the fourteen canons in Strasbourg in 1974, looking for numeric patterns in Bach’s work had been considered a niche activity, said Jörg Hansen, the curator of the exhibition. But these days “most scholars accept that Bach shared other baroque artists’ passion for gematria,” an ancient system of assigning numerical values to words or phrases.
“That’s not to say that music came second to number games,” said Hansen, who was sceptical about some of the wilder theories, such as that the composer mathematically predicted the date of his own death. In the late 90s, one Bach scholar developed a computer program just to show that any given number could be found to reoccur in Bach’s work once you started searching for it. The number thirteen, for example, occurred just as frequently as the number fourteen.
But in those days, Hansen said, there were few academics who denied that Bach had a playful mind, and the theory that he enjoyed encrypting his personal signature in the texture of his compositions was seen as less fanciful. “[Carl] Philipp Emanuel Bach was recorded as saying that his father ‘was not a fan of dry mathematical stuff.’ Increasingly, I think that statement should be read with an emphasis on ‘dry’ rather than ‘mathematical,'” Hansen said.
The curators of the Bach House in Eisenach are not alone in their renewed interest in Bach’s number puzzles. Danish director Lars von Trier‘s new film, Nymphomaniac, features a series of earnest conversations about Fibonacci numbers and Bach’s polyphonic theory.