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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The B A C H motif

Long time I was convinced that the whole musical universe was speaking do-re-mi: I had learned in school about Guido d'Arrezo and his six-note ascending scale, based on the first syllables of the first stanza of Ut queant laxis, the ancient Catholic hymnal (in Latin, like any Catholic thing) honoring St. John the Baptist:

Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris,
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
Labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes.

Later Ut has been changed with Do (at the suggestion of Giovanni Battista Doni) and Si was added (taking the initials of the last line, Sancte Iohannes), thus Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si: as simple as that!

Well, much later I found that not all countries were speaking do-re-mi, and no others than the Germans were using a totally different notation, beginning with A for La, B for Si flat, H for Si, C for Do, D for Re, E for Mi, F for Fa, and G for Sol. It was kind of shocking for me to find out that Beethoven was pronouncing D where I had expected to hear Re, or that Bach's Toccata and Fugue in Re minor, BWV 565 was known in Germany as being in D minor.

I accepted that fact, as I couldn't do anything against, and it was after many years that I found out that in US the notation was slightly different from the German one, as B was replacing H, so I realized once for all that nobody's perfect was truly universal. To say nothing that Dutch (or Danish) guys differ also in details from Germans. Le diable est dans les détails, as the French saying goes.

I know that all this sounds a bit Chinese, but an image speaks a thousand words, so here you go:

no copyright infringement intended

Actually I found out about these different musical alphabets as I was trying to understand what the B A C H motif really was. I had read that Bach finished his Art of Fugue signing with his name on the last bar of the last fugue. That meant that Bach actually used the four letters of his name as musical notes! Or, his name was B A C H, rather than Si flat La Do Si! That forced me to search and to find the German musical notations, using letters instead of do-re-mi. And I must thank here a good friend, Florin, who gave me precious insight in all this.

So the B A C H motif is just that: B A C H

Let's go now within the Art of the Fugue, into the final fugue, to see the B A C H motif. This last fugue has the title Contrapunctus XIV. It is by the end that the third voice slowly sings the notes B A C H (or, if you like, Si flat La Do Si). Some more bars follow and the music stops suddenly: it's the Unfinished Fugue.

What would have been beyond the B A C H, were the composition to continue? Scholars and artists, composers, mathematicians, musicologists, organists, and conductors have tried since then the answer.

The manuscript has bellow some handwritten words. The opinions differ. Some believe the words were written by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Some others believe that they were written by Johann Sebastian Bach himself: his last autograph.

According to Carl Philipp Emanuel, his father died right after that, so the B A C H motif and the autograph were the output of his very last moments. It seems, however, that Johann Sebastian lived ten more days (and even worked on a choral prelude).

Was the way the son told, or the other way? Were the words at the end of the manuscript written by the father, or much later by the son? Was maybe a lost page, after the autograph, the famous fragment X, never found? Or had Bach discovered, long time before Gödel, the First Incompleteness Theorem?

Only one answer is certain, that once Bach put his name on the last bar of the manuscript, his life began to unfold under the eternal realm of legend.

Die Kunst der Fuge: Contrapunctus XIV mit Autograph von J. S. Bach
Emerson String Quartet

(video by mrsnooz1)

(Old Masters)



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