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The BACH Theme

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Musicians have a way of writing down music. Each note is given a letter to denote its pitch. These go:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G and then back to A.

In fact, it is more normal to start with C, as this gives the normal major scale:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then back to C.

(These notes are also known by the names do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.)

Not all the gaps between the notes are the same size, although this may not be immediately obvious to the listener. It can be seen easily, however, on a piano keyboard, where the named notes are the white keys, and there is room between some of them for extra notes on the black keys. One such black note is the one between A and B. It is normally known as B flat and there is a special symbol which looks like a 'b' with a pointed base to denote 'flat'.

At least, that's the way we write the notes in English. In Germany, they do it differently. Instead of calling the note B flat, the Germans call this note B. Our B flat is their B.

So what do the Germans call our B? They call it H! The major scale in Germany goes:

C, D, E, F, G, A, H, and then back to C.

It also means that we can spell out the name B-A-C-H as a 4-note musical theme.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer who specialised in counterpoint. This is an elaborate style where different instruments or voices play or sing different tunes. The trick is to make it sound good and interesting. One technique is to use a short musical phrase known as a theme, and to get each voice to sing the theme in turn, possibly at different pitches, while the other voices weave other themes around it. Bach wrote hundreds and hundreds of works and each of these would have had many of these themes. A good theme should be musical but slightly 'spiky' - it should take a few unexpected turns. These make it more interesting for the listener and more fun for the composer, as great ingenuity may be required to get all the different themes to match up and sound well together.

The spikiness of the theme can be likened to the mustard in a ham sandwich or the pickle in a burger - it spices up the tune and stops it being bland. One of the spikiest and strangest of themes ever written is the one consisting of the four notes B-A-C-H. If you have a piano, try playing the notes, and remember that B is what's normally called B flat in English, while H represents what we call B. It's a strange theme, isn't it? It's a tricky one to sing, too. This is just the sort of thing that Bach loved. So it is surprising that he never did a full treatment of this theme based on his own name in his works. He certainly used it in passing, but never as the main theme.

Why not? Bach wrote his music for the glory of God. Perhaps he felt that using his own name in the music would be the sin of pride, and he would be punished. Perhaps he was proved right.

Bach uses BACH

The temptation was too much - in 1750, when Bach was old and respectable, he finally decided to use the BACH theme in a piece of music he was writing - The Art of Fugue. We still have the manuscript he was writing. As usual, it is a counterpoint piece, in this case a fugue for four voices. On one particular page, we see that the third voice sings the notes B, A, C and H slowly and deliberately. About two bars later the music stops suddenly. What happened next is told to us by Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who wrote on the manuscript:

While working on this fugue, where the name B.A.C.H. appears in the countersubject, the composer died.

In fact it was not as sudden as that. Bach left off writing the fugue because he felt very unwell, but did continue composing for a few days, working on a choral prelude. Then he became so ill that he could not work at all and about ten days later he died. So the BACH theme was almost the last thing he wrote. Divine retribution for the sin of pride? Probably not, but it makes a good story.

The BACH theme is a peculiar little oddity. There's hardly enough of it to be called a tune, and it is unmusical enough that it would take an experienced composer to attempt to make something musical out of it. And experienced composers tend to be old ones. Bach was old and grey before he tried it. We must hope that it was just old age that finished him off.

Others use BACH

Years later, many other composers used the BACH theme as a tribute to Bach himself. Probably most notable is Liszt's Prelude and Fugue on the B-A-C-H Theme. Other composers to use the theme include Chopin, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nielsen, Webern and Pärt. All these composers survived the experience, although with the exception of Pärt, they're dead now anyway.

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