Thread: The Occult Bach
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Old 03-27-2021, 07:00 PM   #5 (permalink)
Indrid Cold
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Bach’s conduit into the Secret of Harmony using canon and double counterpoint came though his second cousin, Johann Gottfried Walther, a man he would work closely with for more than 30 years. As a musician and theoretician, Walther had few peers. He was appointed court organist at Weimar at the Stadtkirche which he held until his death 40 years later. His transcriptions of other composers’ works were the model by which Bach did his transcriptions of Vivaldi, Telemann and others. He wrote his work, Praecepta der musicalischen Composition in 1748 for his student, Prince Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar. The last couple of chapters in the book are dedicated to canon and double counterpoint and contained many imaginative and very complex examples. Walther was the author of Musicalisches Lexicon, a huge compendium of over 3000 musical terms as well as biographical details of composers up to the early half of the 18th century (its main contributor being Mattheson). This was the first German language book of musical terms. Walther also composed 132 organ preludes based on Lutheran hymns. The man was no slouch. He knew his music. Anyone who influenced Bach had to know his music.

Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748).

While Bach began submitting musical puzzles to periodicals as well as to the Society of Musical Sciences in the last decade of his life, Walther had been doing it for years. Walther amassed an impressive library over the years and Bach availed himself to it and this is almost certainly where Bach encountered learned counterpoint esoterica. Bach and Walther were the first organists to treat a cantus firmus in chorale preludes. During this time, Bach wrote what appears to be his earliest speculative canon, Canon a 4 Voc. Perpetuus (BWV 1073). Bach’s first musical puzzle appeared in a 1728 Hamburg bi-weekly music periodical called Der getreue Music-Meister edited by none other than Georg Philipp Telemann (godfather of C.P.E. Bach).

Many theorists and music students began trying to solve the so-called Houdemann Canon (BWV 1074). Johann Mattheson showed it to his students and urged them to work on it. So many Germans were fascinated by the canon that it was, without a doubt, Bach’s most famous piece at that time. Two of Mattheson’s students came up with the same solution which he published 12 years later:

There are, of course, other solutions to the canon. Bokemeyer also submitted one he received from one “Doctor Syrbio” in Jena. Bokemeyer had been sent the canon by Walther who also had Bach’s own solution. Bach never published it. He would only allow close colleagues to see it. It was, otherwise, a guarded secret of the composer’s inner thoughts.

The reverence for canon which, in Bach’s time, was an ancient music (last century) was still regarded, despite Mattheson’s efforts, considered the pinnacle of music and a beautiful art. Thus begin the comparisons with alchemy. Bokemeyer had quite an interest in alchemy and the Hermetic arts and wrote to Walther about them. Walther confessed to not knowing much about them although he had read quite a bit on the subject and considered it valid. He wrote:

“…just as you [went] though the ciphers 1 through 7 of occult philosophy, so have I come to understand, through the contemplation of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, the instruction on canon so extensively discussed by Zarlino, of which the aforementioned author proclaims that (with respect to judgment) canon is the highest level of composition.”

So alchemy and canon were each seen as being preeminent in their respective arts. The correspondence between Bokemeyer and Walther indicates that the former was, in fact, an adept of alchemy, had an extensive library of alchemical and hermetic works and performed a great many experiments. The defeat of Bokemeyer at the hands of Mattheson, however, concerning the exaltation of canon and counterpoint in music started a slow but steady decline in the use of such outside church music. Composers began to publicly express either ridicule for “the excessive cult of counterpoint” or to make guarded statements of the use of such wanting to be seen as being aware of Bokemeyer’s defeat. Some of the more vociferous as Mattheson and Johann David Heinichen likened the mystique of counterpoint and canon as undeserved, superstitious and, ironically, witchcraft. However, they were not, as some composers, urging musicians and composers to avoid canon and counterpoint altogether but rather its exalted status should be revoked and the occultism surrounding it done away with. They still encouraged composers to learn canon and counterpoint and work with it.

Where Bach fell into this debate is difficult to say. He had to know about the debate between Mattheson and Bokemeyer. One has to conclude, however, that Bach was more sympathetic to Bokemeyer than to Mattheson simply by dint of his dedication to canon and counterpoint not to mention his obvious penchant for creating canon and counterpoint puzzles for others to resolve either publicly or privately. His most famous piece in that time was just one such puzzle—the aforementioned Houdemann’s Canon.

Bach does indeed appear to stand opposed to Mattheson’s attempts at demystifying canon and counterpoint. For instance, Fa Mi, et Mi Fa est tota Musica (BWV 1074) refers to the argument not that the semitone (Mi-Fa) is the foundation of music as is often assumed but rather that the semitone should be referred to by these medieval solmization syllables. Bach was making clear that he thought of solmization syllables as tota musica (all music). Bach wasn’t letting anyone declare Mi-Fa dead.

Then there is Bach’s canon, Concordia discors (BWV 1086), which is the reverse of Mattheson’s motto Discordia Concors. Bach’s title means “discordant harmony” while Mattheson’s motto means “In harmony with discord.” By reversing Mattheson’s motto, Bach was showing how to make counterpoint in retrograde. Yet, there were other instances where Bach seemed to be more practical and rational and without much use for magic and occultism but we have no hard examples to draw firm conclusions.

As far as alchemy, a great many still believed in it in Bach’s day. Even scholars as Leibniz and Newton believed in the efficacy of alchemy. Everyone wanted the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone so they could have that endless supply of gold or silver. Many others had given up on the idea having spent years in a futile search.

Bach had an interest in precious metals in the form of coins and medallions. Quite a number are listed in his estate. In his Calov bible, Bach wrote in the margin of a page of Exodus concerning weights and measures of metals used to build the Tabernacle: “The sum of the freewill offering amounts to almost eight tons of gold.” Bach made this calculation using another book from his library, De monetis et mensuris sacrae scripturae by Heinrich Bünting, a book written for and used by alchemists.

Bokemeyer added a title page to a treatise written by Johann Thiele, a student of Buxtehude and a great proponent of the Secrets of Music, called Gründlicher Unterricht von den gedoppelten Contrapuncten (Thorough Instruction of the Double Counterpoint), in which he wrote:

“This treatise on counterpoint is to be treasured as worth more than a great deal of gold. Therefore one must not throw such things before swine so that the secrets of music become common and therefore a thing of disdain.”

This statement gets to the heart of the alchemic art. Here, Bokemeyer states that counterpoint is worth more than gold. As we know, alchemists were always trying to make gold via the Philosopher’s Stone which none were able to find. The reason is that the Philosopher’s Stone was not a material thing. Its ability to transmute lead into gold referred to the purification of the human spirit, enlightenment, if you will. The 1582 alchemical treatise Splendor Solis attributed to Salomon Trismosin even states: “Hence it is clearly to be understood that the Gold of the Philosophers is something other than the common gold.”

One of 22 illustrations from Splendor Solis.

While making actual material gold for kings is just service to greed, the divine gold of counterpoint was not done for money. Counterpoint was not a popular form of music and therefore not lucrative. This was one of the criticisms that Mattheson leveled against it but to Bokemeyer was one of counterpoint’s strengths. The alchemist’s goal should not be to attain wealth but to advance the knowledge and consciousness of the human race. Of course, not a lot of composers were willing to take things that far. After all, they needed to make a comfortable living. Probably none of them were real alchemists as Bokemeyer was. Enough of them sided with Mattheson that it eventually forced Bokemeyer’s capitulation.

What was clear was that both Bokemeyer and Walther considered learned counterpoint to be the Philosopher’s Stone. They spoke of learned counterpoint in alchemical terms in order to convey this belief. Just as the Philosopher’s Stone was not a material that could be purchased and used to affect outcomes, learned counterpoint was not to be freely spread about because the secrets of counterpoint required, as in alchemy, a certain moral rectitude and expertise. As with the philosophical gold, learned counterpoint was powerful and had to be handled with care and was not for the wicked nor the stupid nor the greedy. The artifex (composer of learned counterpoint) must possess the technical knowledge required to toil long and hard on the “secret art” (learned counterpoint) must discover in his geheimes Kunst-Zimmer or secret laboratory all the inversions possible for each canon in order to not only produce profound harmonic results but to also advance spiritually. Bokemeyer and Walther were openly framing learned counterpoint as a form of alchemy—the art of transmutation. The word “artifex” is a title for an alchemist whose work must be done alone in his secret laboratory.

Drawing by Heinrich Khunrath showing the alchemist or artifex at work in his secret laboratory. Note the musical instruments on the table. He not only seeks the Philosopher’s Stone via chemical transmutation but also through musical composition.

Bokemeyer felt that canon was the basis of all music. The addition of learned counterpoint allows all the modern music that Mattheson advocated for. Canon was the “true essence” of all the various musical forms that ultimately derives from it. In this view, Bokemeyer borrowed from his advocate, the organist Johann Heinrich Buttstett (1666-1727), a pupil of Pachelbel and a teacher of Walther.

In the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, the second verse reads: “Also, as all things were made from One, by the help of One: So all things are made from One thing by Conjunction.” This “One” from which all things are made is the prima materia or primal matter from which the four elements of earth, water, air and fire are derived. From these four primal elements come all the various substances via one element lending certain of its properties to combine certain properties of another element. With the Philosopher’s Stone, any properties could be combined at will to transmute base metals into gold. Likewise, canon was musical prima materia from which all other music was derived. Even Mattheson’s free-flowing melodies. However, Bokemeyer introduced a new type of canon called canon naturalis which was derived from melody and from this natural canon was derived the canon artificialis. In this way, Bokemeyer hoped to bridge the most complex canon with the most natural melody. The best natural melodies, he said, yield good artificial canon. Alchemically, melodies can be transmuted into canons. The artifex, with great skill and knowledge of his secret art (learned counterpoint), further transmutes the canon naturalis into the canon artificialis—the most highest and most perfect musical expression. Hence, the artifex produces great refinement from raw nature.

So, nature must be guided to perfection by the alchemist. According J. A. Birnbaum, Bach believed this also in that “[m]any things are delivered to us by nature in the most misshapen states, which however, acquire the most beautiful appearance when they have been formed by art. Thus art lends nature a beauty it lacks, and increases the beauty it possesses. Now, the greater the art is—that is, the more industriously and painstakingly it works at the improvement of nature—the more brilliantly shines the beauty thus brought into being.”

A similar idea is expressed in Freemasonry via the emblem of the rough and perfect ashlar.

The rough and perfect ashlar show how nature gives us the basic material when then is shaped to perfection by the stonemason in the same way natural canon is shaped by the composer/artifex into artificial canon.

According Bach’s son, Emmanuel, Bach performed a similar operation when tuning the harpsichord. Bach was an expert tuner and used mathematics to tune each string. However, this was a crude adjustment to get the string to the desired pitch but Bach then fine-tuned using his ear. The mathematical tuning was by nature and the fine tuning was by the human tuner perfecting upon what is given by nature. One must, however, follow nature. As the rough ashlar gives us a shape roughly cubical, the stonemason simply refines the cube to perfection. Likewise, artificial canon must follow along the lines of the natural melody not rewrite it. The artist must follow nature.

This plate from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (1618) depicts the artifex/contrapuntist following nature. Of this image, Bokemeyer wrote: “Nature be your guide; whom you must follow from afar / Willingly, otherwise you err, where she does not lead you / Reason be your staff.”

Both alchemist and contrapuntist must follow the laws of nature. The role of both being equal and analogous to the other. While Mattheson stood opposed to all this occultism pervading canon and counterpoint, it would appear that Bach did not. We shall investigate a bit deeper and see what we can find.

Last edited by Indrid Cold; 06-01-2021 at 07:09 PM.
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