Meditations on Bach #9: Musical Monadology

2021-12-26

In meditation #7 of this series, I took note of some similarities between the aesthetics of Aristotle and the music of Bach. Another intriguing influence might be the monadology of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who directly influenced philosophers and musical theorists in the Bach's orbit: for instance, Bach's student Lorenz Mizler (1711-1778) was a follower of the Leibniz scholar Christian Wolff (1679-1754). In chapter 5 of his book Music in the Culture of the Renassiance and Other Essays, Edward Lowinsky makes the following observations:

The surging melody conceals the motivic form of the substructure. This motivic form is one of the essential aspects of Bach's musical organism. The prototype of Bach's music, the fugue, reveals the relationship between the part and whole, the fugal subject and the fugal form.... [E]ven in the free form of the prelude, the closest relationship exists between the smallest part and the whole.... But we might be closest to the truth if we say that the whole and the parts, including the smallest elements, the motives, are inseparable and are in constant musical influence upon each other. Bach's music may be viewed as a perfect symbol of the universe as seen by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a universe formed by Monads, which are defined as simple, individuated, energetic substances in a constant flx of activity and change, related to other Monads through a preestablished harmony. In this picture of the universe the Monad stands for the motive, the preestablished harmony for the vision of the whole. A Bach motive can indeed be defined in terms of a Leibniz Monad, whose main attribute is force and energy; it is constantly active and variable, but in the nature of its action and change it follows its own inner principle; the Monad is a mirror of the whole, even as the whole consists of the Monads. Yet, each Monad mirrors the whole, the universe, in its own individual fashion, so that the immense order and harmony of the universe is accompanied by infinite variety. In a Bach fugue we find the most perfect order together with the greatest possible variety. The fugal subject is as once identical throughout and variable throughout. It appears in constantly varying pitches, keys, shapes, time forms, and directions. Yet, it never loses its identity.

This notion of unity in variety is what Bach and his followers called musical perfection. It is well summarized by John Butt in his paper "'A mind unconscious that it is calculating?' Bach and the rationalist philosophy of Wolff, Leibniz, and Spinoza", published in The Cambridge Companion to Bach, p. 64:

The formula he [Leibniz] offers in the Monadology (1714) for God's creative strategy may well work as an ideal summary of Bach's approach to composition: "[the differing] perspectives of a single universe in accordance with the different points of view of each monad ... is the means of obtaining as much variety as possible; that is to say, it is the means of obtaining as much perfection as possible" (Monadology, paragraphs 57-8).

As far as I can see (or hear!) this is not idle speculation, since it plays out in every measure of Bach's music. Laurence Dreyfus plumbs the depths of these matters, albeit at a purely musical level (leaving aside all philosophical speculation), in his book Bach and the Patterns of Invention. In future meditations I'll have more to say about those patterns of invention specifically within the Bach Cello Suites.

P.S. It might not be accidental that this is post #1685 in my online journal, since Bach was born in the year 1685...

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