Meditations on Bach #7: Aristotle and Bach

by Peter Saint-Andre


On pp. 169-174 of his book Bach: The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff describes the genesis of Bach's musical thinking. Of particular interest to me is his recounting of some insights from Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who founded the field of musicology and wrote the first biography of Bach in 1802. Wolff writes as follows.

Forkel elaborates on the idea of musical thinking by emphasizing that "order, coherence, and proportion" - or better, order/organization, coherence/connection/continuity, and proportion/relation/correlation (the original German terms Ordnung, Zusammenhang, and Verhältnis are not easily rendered by single words) - must be brought to bear on musical ideas.

This is extremely intriguing. As I explained in my most recent journal entry, in the Metaphysics Aristotle analyzed three key sources of beauty in these very terms (using the Greek words τὸ ὡρισμένον, τάξις, and συμμετρία).

Was Forkel's elaboration his own conception or did Bach himself think about music in terms of Ordnung, Zusammenhang, and Verhältnis (Aristotle's τὸ ὡρισμένον, τάξις, and συμμετρία)? It's not farfetched that Bach acquired this habit of mind from his many interactions with scholarly colleagues in Leipzig, several of whom were well versed in ancient rhetoric and philosophy. Because Forkel communicated extensively with Bach's children C.P.E. Bach and W.F. Bach - both of whom were musicians, composers, and students of their father - one might hope that his information about J.S. Bach's musical thinking was accurate. Further research is required, but this is a fascinating if tentative connection between my favorite philosopher and my favorite composer.


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