A secret Bach Code?

Free Be-a-Maestro Newsletter 48 - 31 December 2015 - Be a maestro!

by Reinier Maliepaard

Bach's 'Orgelbüchlein' ('Little Organ Book') contains a number of short, highly expressive pieces. These are called choral preludes, i.e. preludes based on a choral melody, a hymn, sung by a congregation in a church service. The sorrowful and melancholic prelude BWV 614 is based on text and melody of the choral 'Das alte Jahr vergangen ist':

Das alte Jahr vergangen ist,
wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ,
dass du uns in so grosser G'fahr
so gnädiglich behält dies Jahr,

The old year now hath passed away;
We thank Thee, O our God, today
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near. (1)

As a (German) baroque composer, Bach surely looked for key words in the text that would tickle his fancy and would define his way of composing (2). Bach's sorrowful interpretation of the text of 'Das alte Jahr vergangen ist' puzzles me: thankfullness for the preservation during the last passed year is in my opinion the central idea. When we analyze Bach's musical ingredients from baroque perspective, we have to conclude that Bach's interpretation of the text is mournful. Characteristics of Bach's choral prelude are: These musical ideas are in the baroque language associated with trouble, sorrow and pain. But why? Is there any evidence for painful events in Bach's personal life - in the year that 'hath passed away'? And which year did Bach mean? We can not be sure. But let's explore the facts.

We know that Bach composed this piece in the year 1712 or 1713. About Bach's year 1712 we do not have any biographical information, but we know that in 1713 a tragedy happened. On 23 February 1713 Bach's twins Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia were born. Johann Christoph lived no longer than a few hours after his birth, his sister died a few weeks later and was buried on the 13 March 1713. So can Bach's 'old year' in his choral prelude refer to the year 1713, a very painful and sorrowful year due to the loss of his twins? We do not know and we can only speculate (5). Nevertheless, Bach's prelude is a masterpiece with amazing elaborations in the upper voice, an ingenious counterpoint with chromatic ascending and descending lines in the other voices. The result is an intriguing harmony, that will have been quite shocking for baroque listeners (6).

For readers who like a number game (well known in Bach's world), I have a few suggestions (7): The old year could have been associated with number 12. But is the year 1713 represented by Bach? It could be, because the sum of the numbers of the year 1713 is 12 (1+7+1+3 = 12)...
The chromatic fourth motive in its ascending form sounds 9 times. The number of notes involved is 54. The 54th day in the year 1713 is 23 February, the day that Bach's twins were born...

Last but not least, the prelude has two middle voices, alto and tenor. Bar 1 shows for the first time the ascending chromatic fourth motive A-Bb-B-C-C#-D, in the upper middle part (alto). This motive is only literally copied in three other bars: in bar 2 in the lower middle part (tenor), in bar 3 in the upper middle part and in bar 8 in the lower middle part. The measure numbers 1238 are a permutation of the name of Bach. Bach = 2138, with B the 2nd letter, A the 1st letter, C the 3rd and H the 8th of the Latin alphabet (9)!

I can tell you, there is more secret Bach Code! Try yourself (10) and I bet your research will make your heart beat faster!

Happy New Year!

Listen on YouTube to Bach's Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 614: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRpFScfi_wc

(1) English translation by Catherine Winkworth, Chorale Book for England, 1863
(2) In fact a retorical principle ('locus topicus') that was decribed by e.g. Johann Andres Herbst in 1643. Herbst discerns e.g. a category of key words for joy and for grieve. One way to express the first 'Affekt' (Gemütsbewegung, emotion) is using major key and major triads. The 'Affekt' of grieve can be made clear by using chromaticism, often in descending or ascending lines.
(3) To be played with the right hand.
(4) Mainly in the accompaniment and to be played with left hand and feet.
(5) On 8 March 1714 -a year later after the twins' death- Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was born.
(6) The 19th century composer and organist Felix Mendelssohn did not play 'Das alte Jahr' for a dilletante audience -we can conclude from a letter of Felix to his sister Fanny. Reason could be the complex chromaticism that leads to a dissonant harmony and a melancholic character.
(7) Use only Bach's autograph for study: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Autograph-Manuscript-BWV614.jpg
(8) More chromatic figures are used. But the chromatic fourth has 6 notes within the ambitus of a perfect fourth.
(9) Those who say that 1238 is unequal to 2138 should think about the relation between music and time.
(10) Send me your results: bestmusicteacher.com@gmail.com