Milton Mermikidesis reader in music at the University of Surrey, professor of jazz guitar at the Royal College of Music, and deputy director of the International Guitar Research Centre. He is also a composer, producer, electronic musician, illustrator and guitarist, and has collaborated with Tim Minchin, John Williams, Brian Eno and Sam Brown, among others. He lives in London.
Edited by Nigel Warburton
Look beneath the surface of Bach’s music and you will find a fascinating hidden world of numerology and cunning craft
Some 14 billion miles from here floats a 12-inch gold-plated record. This artefact was placed onboard the Voyager 1 space probe in 1977 (and another on the Voyager 2 sister vessel) and now, having long completed its scheduled planetary flybys, it hurtles at nearly 500 times the speed of sound into deep space. Created to communicate the story of human civilisation to any extraterrestrial who happens to encounter it, the Golden Record includes images, mathematical equations, astronomical coordinates and sounds. Its aim is to convey – in the absence of a common language – not just the facts of human existence, but also evidence of our intelligence.
One elegant method of how this might be possible is through the medium of music, which – aside from lyrical content – has the advantages of neither needing visual representation nor a lexicon of phonic objects. It speaks for itself through the common fabric of frequencies – amplitude over time – which can be etched directly and unfiltered into the surface of the disc. The importance of music to the project is clear: hand-etched on the record’s surface is the inscription ‘To the makers of music – all worlds, all times.’
When deciding which music could represent the pinnacle of human spirit and intelligence, Johann Sebastian Bach was inevitably suggested but – according to an unverified but irresistible anecdote – there was some dissent, because presenting music of such beauty and intelligence to any extraterrestrial listener would be ‘just showing off’.
Ultimately, among the commendably diverse 27 pieces of music included on the record, a full three are by Bach, suggesting perhaps that he alone represents more than 11 per cent of the value of our entire musical history. This vision of Bach’s music floating above the Earth as a symbol of musical perfection resonates with a prevailing perception of Bach’s art: somehow transcendent, timeless, and not of this world. His music represents the pinnacle of the Baroque era’s concerns with counterpoint but also can be readily adopted for a wide range of instrumentations, eras and styles, from ‘classical’ to jazz, pop and electronic. Bach’s music, it seems, is untroubled by the boundaries of instrument, style or era.
Musicians and music lovers rapidly run out of superlatives to describe his purported genius. To Beethoven, he was ‘the immortal god of harmony’; to Wagner ‘the most stupendous miracle in all music’; to Max Reger ‘the beginning and end of all music’. And Brahms declared, in a letter to Clara Schumann in reference to Bach’s Chaconne:
On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
Connections to the divine are never far off, as in Mauricio Kagel’s quip that no one believes in God anymore but everyone believes in Bach, or even – in the words of a contemporary atheist philosopher – that Bach is the best argument for the existence of God.
With his music’s reputation of some kind of ‘eternal truth’ and implications of their divine transcription, it can be easy to forget that such heavenly work was the result of earthly toils. By blind luck of technological history, we are left with the beautiful manuscripts, but minimal record of the real-world stress, training, limited time and inky mess of putting quill to page. If indeed Bach’s talent was God-given, then it was a gift that demanded a reimbursement of decades of constant study, poring over Vivaldi scores by candlelight with failing eyes, walking 280 miles just to watch one organist perform, the re-use of compositional material, adaptation to changing tastes, all amid a dizzying array of professional demands, awkward taskmasters, petulant critics, vain royalty and personal tragedies.
To appreciate the music of Bach (which I, like many others, find staggeringly beautiful), it can be instructive to understand both the mechanics and the mechanic: the musical systems, and the man himself – setting aside any received wisdom about his purported brilliance.
One can immediately learn something of Bach from his portraits, or in fact their scarcity – given his lack of time and reluctance to engage in self-aggrandisement. Artists complained that he never stayed still long enough to capture a likeness, and the few portraits we have of him say more about his music than about his appearance and character: he is a prop to hold up a fragment of a work, or to wear a hidden musical code on his clothing; it’s the music in the foreground, rather than the musician.
Above all, Bach was crafty both in his music and life, and he adored puzzles, games and general inventive mischief. His monogram on his wax seal and his goblet was his own design, and at first glance it looks like an ornate decorative symmetrical crest of interlocking swirls. It is in fact built up from his initials JSB overlaid and mirrored, which is apt, as his music uses mirror-like reversals, and is, like the monogram, something immediately beautiful but with hidden meaning. […]