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When the Theorists are Silent: Mattheson, Bach and the Development of Historically Informed Analytical Techniques
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Musicology and Performance Studies. Musikvetenskap.
2007 (English)In: What kind of theory is music theory?: Epistemological Exercises in Music Theory and Analysis, Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis , 2007, 203-216 p.Chapter in book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

The mathematical nature of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works has entered popular myth. Comments about the supposed numerical bases of his compositions date back to his lifetime and were perpetuated in the obituary and later biographies. Theorists contemporary with Bach strongly imply that numerical ordering, or at least the use of proportions, was very important. The much-published Johann Mattheson frequently praises the virtues of the well-balanced composition, and goes so far as to encourage the composer to plan the proportions of a whole work before composing.

[The composer] should outline his complete project on a sheet, sketch it roughly and arrange it in an orderly manner before he proceeds to the elaboration. In my humble opinion this is the best way of all to ensure that each part will demonstrate a specific proportion (Verhältniβ), uniformity (Gleichförmigkeit) and agreement (Übereinstimmung): for nothing in the world is more pleasing to the ear.

But how should the composer obey Mattheson’s exhortation without more detailed directions? Was there a well-tried and tested numerical method underlying these general guidelines? Did Bach use proportions to organise his works? And if so would it be possible to find them in his scores? Conventional analytical methods would not answer these questions. What should the analyst do when the treatises are silent? Was it foolhardy to try to make the composer and his scores speak on subjects only alluded to in a treatise?

This paper describes a long-term search for a historically-consistent theory of mathematical procedures in Bach’s works. Working from historical sources and autograph scores the initial negative results were overturned by an unexpected breakthrough which led to an unlooked-for conclusion

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis , 2007. 203-216 p.
Stockholm studies in musicology, 1
Keyword [en]
Bach, compositional procedure, theoretical method
National Category
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-19665OAI: diva2:186189
Available from: 2007-11-18 Created: 2007-11-18 Last updated: 2010-07-01Bibliographically approved

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