George E. Atwood, Ph.D.
This essay describes a search for the soul of Johann Sebastian Bach, as it is expressed
and symbolized in his music. I want to thank two people who helped me. My dear
friend Patricia Price served as a muse for the project as a whole and made a number
of important contributions along the way. Benjamin Stolorow, who knows much
about Bach and his music, also provided indispensable ideas and helped me to
understand the structure of many of Bach’s creations. In what follows, I have drawn
on the biography by Christopher Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned
This exploration presents some fairly serious difficulties, in view of the immense
edifice that is Bach’s music. Beethoven famously remarked, on being asked what he
thought of Bach’s lifework, “Nicht Bach, sondern Meer sein!” Not a brook, but rather
an ocean! Albert Schweitzer regarded Bach as the product of decades and even
centuries of developments in European music, the objectivation, as he put it, of a vast
Bach was born more than 300 years ago, in Eisenach, Germany, into a culture, an
early Lutheran religious worldview, and a language very far removed from our own.
How can one hope to cross that great divide and actually find the individual, the
personality, the inner feelings that were his? He left us almost nothing written
describing his own emotional experiences. Some commentators have compared the
historical record of his life in this connection to that of Shakespeare, about whom we
also know very little.
I would ask, though, whether Bach’s music might itself be understood as a record of
his life as he lived it, one that is even vividly detailed, if only we can find the right
way to listen to it. This study has been one of searching for that way of listening.
The material develops in the form of a series of interconnected thought trains, with
some selections from Bach’s music recommended to be listened to along the way. I
want to encourage everyone who follows the presentation to join me in entertaining
the idea that Bach’s most central personal themes, his most essential life experiences,
are inscribed in his music.
I chose as my initial example the prelude and fugue in C Major in Book 1 of the
collection known as The Well-tempered Clavier. I have made this selection for two
reasons: first, the music is exceptionally beautiful; and second, the part that follows
the prelude - the fugue in C major - contains, numerologically encoded, Bach’s
presence itself. Most Bach scholars agree that he played with number symbolism in
his music, and that the number 14 was for him a representation of his own name.
When the letters B – A – C – H are replaced by their respective numerical positions