Labyrinths

“A Little Harmonic Labyrinth” Bach? Heinichen? Bacon?

Fugue on “B A C H” J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

Gavotte in Gm G.F.Handel (1685-1757)

A new feature here at our church is our labyrinth: in a ‘labyrinth’ you don’t have any choices — there’s only one path, whereas in a ‘maze’ you have choices along the way. Mythology tells us that King Minos of Crete built the first labyrinth to keep the dreaded Minotaur trapped (so it would have had to be a maze), and by the fifth century BCE labyrinths were popular on coins and as tiled Roman floors. The full flowering of the medieval labyrinth occurred during the twelfth through fourteenth centuries with the grand pavement labyrinths of the gothic cathedrals, notably Chartres, Reims and Amiens. The labyrinth symbolized our arduous path to God, to be traversed meditatively (perhaps on your knees) with appropriate prayers and devotions.

(Interestingly, inside the labyrinth it may look like a twisty mess, but from “God’s” point of view above it’s simply a circle: inside our lives our path may look like a twisty mess, but from God’s point of view it’s another story?)

“The Little Harmonic Labyrinth” is ascribed to Bach with uncertainty — some scholars say it was written by J.D.Heinichen (1683-1729), but although to my ears it doesn’t sound like Bach, it sounds even less like Heinchen. Meanwhile I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t written by Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626, whom some argue is the true author of Shakespeare’s plays). The piece is a ‘musical labyrinth’ because of the way it changes keys at a stomach-churning pace — a 20th century composer like Schoenberg might be a more plausible author.

Most of the Western world names the music notes ‘A’ through ‘G’, but in northern Germany and parts northeast they use ‘A’ through ‘H’: their ‘B’ is our ‘B-flat’ and their ‘H’ is our ‘B-natural’. By happy historical accident this region includes the 200-mile-diameter circle (labyrinth?) which circumscribed Bach’s entire life, so he was able to spell his name using musical notes. He didn’t use his name in his sacred music (not appropriate), but his secular music is another story. For example, there was something like a “Musical Elk’s Club” in Leipzig for which you had to submit a sample of your composing to qualify, so Bach submitted a set of ‘canonical variations’: it’s beautiful music — no it’s a musical Sudoku puzzle — no it’s BOTH! — with his name woven into the music. They let him join.

Bach’s name is also woven into the “Little Musical Labyrinth” — both forwards (BACH) and backwards (HCAB), so you’d think that settles the question of its author and you’d would be wrong: various composers after Bach wrote their own music on his name as ‘homage to Johann’: e.g. Robert Schumann in the 19th century wrote a set of fugues on the name BACH for pedal piano (a piano with organ-style pedals — sadly extinct).

And so the authorship of the “Harmonic Labyrinth” is itself a maze with no end of dead ends.

Bach also used his name in his Art of Fugue. In Bach’s day folks generally didn’t make it to 70. In his 60’s he had just completed his massive Mass in B-minor (a two hour musical statement of faith). We know his eyesight and health were failing — we can see his previously strong clear handwriting becoming increasingly weak and shaky. He turned his attention to his other great passion: teaching. The Art of Fugue is an astonishing textbook of ways to treat the same fugue subject, and one of the pieces is a “quadruple fugue” — four fugues that fit together (imagine Bobby Fischer playing four world-class chess masters at the same time) — and yet music with deep feeling. Some of the feelings Bach expresses are rather otherworldly — how could they not when your own mortality is all too immediate?

Bach’s eyesight finally failed. Quack eye surgery finished off his health (yikes! pre-anesthetics and antiseptics!) and he died shortly after at 65.

So for the offertory I’m starting in the middle of his unprecedented quadruple fugue, beginning with the third one based on “BACH”. We know from his son his overall plan to complete the piece. Instead, you’ll hear it end mid-thought. Ah, Mortali…