Ascending Canon

Endlessly Ascending Canon     J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

"Jesus Shall Reign"


A ’canon’ is basically a round like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" — but on steroids. Whereas in a  ’round’ each group starts on the same note, in canons each group might start on a different note. Or the second group might sing the same melody as the first except ’inverted’: when the first group’s melody goes up a step, the second group goes down a step. Or the second group might sing the first group’s melody at half speed, or backwards!  Think of it as a kind of ’musical sudoku’. The challenge is to devise a melody that not only obeys all the rules, but when it’s all put together it's still a solid musical piece in its own right. 

In 1740 J.S. Bach’s son Karl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (1714-1788) — at the time one of the finest keyboard players in Europe — was appointed to the court of Frederick the Great (1712-1786). Frederick himself was an accomplished flautist, and wrote flute concertos for himself (they’re surprisingly good. Imagine a President of the United States capable of writing a solid flute concerto!) Apparently Karl bragged about dad, and by 1747 Frederick ’invited’ (summoned) J.S. to pay him a visit. By this point Bach’s health was beginning to fail, and the two day journey from Leipzig to Potsdam was no picnic on the roads of the day. (It would be his last journey.) Bach was particularly famous for his improvisations, and the King had a tricky ’fugue subject’ he himself had written with which to put Bach to the test. Eye (ear?) witnesses describe Bach’s improvisations as ’astonishing’.

In many ways the King and the composer could hardly be more opposite. Bach was a devout Lutheran who had fathered 20 children with two wives; one had left him a widower, the second  waiting for him at home. Frederick, a bisexual misanthrope in a childless, political marriage, was a lapsed Calvinist who held all religions in contempt. Bach wrote and spoke German, Frederick boasted that he had "never read a German book". Nowhere were they more different than in their attitudes toward music. Bach represented church music, especially the "learned counterpoint" of canon and fugue, a centuries-old craft that traced its lineage back to Pythagoras and the Music of the Spheres; Frederick and the generation of Bach’s sons were having none of that. They denigrated counterpoint as archaic, extolling instead the "natural and delightful" in music, by which they meant one ’easy listening’ melody with an undemanding accompaniment.

For Bach this new, so-called "galant" style was emptiness; composing and performing music was for him and his musical ancestors a deeply spiritual calling. In the Enlightenment the goal of music was simply to be "agreeable", an entertainment and pleasant diversion. Frederick despised music that, as he put it, "smells of the church". In short, Bach was a man of Faith at the very end of the Medieval aesthetic (think cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts) and Frederick of the Enlightenment.

So Bach returned to Leipzig and wrote a set of pieces on the King’s theme, had them engraved, and sent the set to the King. It included canons — which in Latin means ’law’ — 10 of them – hard not to think this is an allusion to the Ten Commandments. And there are other Biblical allusions, for example, "seek and ye shall find." He titled it the Musikalisches Opfer – usually translated "Musical Offering", but the "Musical Consecration" in the sense of consecrating  something to God might be a more accurate translation. In all, one can hardly think of music that would be more disagreeable to Frederick — akin to sending pork rinds to Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s hard not to wonder if Old Bach wasn’t thumbing his nose at King Fred.

In this morning’s canon, the ’round’ finds itself a whole step higher on each repetition. Thus, the piece continually spirals upward, forever ascending ever higher. Instead of forever ascending off the end of the organ keyboard and into stratospheric pitches too high for humans to hear, I’ll bring it to a halt after an octave.