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 Musician (2000).
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 historical process.
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
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