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A Masonic View of the "Musical Offering"

Japan
With courtesy of Janos Cegledy, P.M. (author)
Sinim Lodge, Tokyo
Research Lodge of the Grand Lodge of Japan

I shall start this lecture with a sheer speculation. In 1736, the aged Bach (1685-1750) visited the court of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), king of Prussia, at the repeated behest of the monarch. The king was not only one of the great heads of state but was also a fine composer and flutist and patron of the arts, more especially that of music. He was also a Mason and there are many stories about his Masonic charity, though most are probably spurious. In his service was Johann Sebastian's second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788), who at that time even outshone the fame of his illustrious father, particularly as a brilliant harpsichordist and composer of the modern school.

Bach arrived, together with his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedmann (1710-1784), in the evening during a concert in which Frederick himself was to play a flute concerto. Hearing of Bach's arrival he said "Gentlemen, old Bach has come!" The king was obviously excited. Not even allowing Bach time to change his traveling clothes, he requested him to try out the latest instruments, which included several of the new forte-pianos. Bach improvised and asked King Frederick to provide a theme on which he could extemporize some fugues and canons. This was the foundation on which Bach later composed one of his most remarkable compositions, which he dedicated to Frederick the Great and which became known as the "Musical Offering."

This story, as well as the composition is worth considering from a Masonic angle. Although the King had obviously high regard for Johann Sebastian, both as a musician and as father of Carl Philipp Emanuel, I always wondered if there was another tie, which might have united them besides the Muse of music. It was somewhat extraordinary that the monarch interrupted what he was doing to welcome a common subject. Of course this can be put down to the excitement of the encounter of such a great mind as Bach, though such courtesy was not generally common. We only have to think of the attitude of the archbishop of Salzburg towards Mozart (1756-1791) to realize that a musician, no matter how unique, was still regarded as only a servant. So let us look at the music to see if we can discover hidden meanings.

Masons have tokens of recognition, which are not generally known outside the fraternity. Such things are not unique to Masonry, as other forms of ciphers, allegories, and allusions were widely used. We can think of the extensive use of such devices by Francis Bacon, or the Rosicrucians, to name two examples. It is therefore quite conceivable, even logical, that musicians might want to communicate abstract Masonic messages in purely musical terms. As example, Mozart definitely and more obviously had such design in the "Magic Flute." Let us now examine the "Musical Offering."

The theme supplied by the king is in C minor, which has three flats. The first three notes comprise a minor triad, which to a musician would be suggestive of the first three officers of a Lodge. The following two notes are a semitone above and below, suggestive of the senior and junior deacons. This is followed by nine descending semi-tones. There are seven more notes to complete the theme. This is the challenge that Brother Frederick gives to Bach upon which to build his musical edifice to open Bach's musical meditations. The numbers are three, five, seven, nine, and eventually more. So in case you think I am being far fetched, let us see what Bach worked out for his final version.

The work is in a musical cipher to respond to the king's gambit. The opening, which is probably very much like what Bach originally improvised is a Ricercar. This was a term for fugal pieces. Etymologically, the word signifies a piece of music in which we have to "seek" something — namely a theme. The choice of words is interesting and Masonically suggestive. I am putting them in quotation as they are not mine but by Albert Schweizer, from his book on Bach. So, "the word signifies a piece of music in which we have to "seek" something — namely a theme." The Ricercar is inscribed "Regis Jussu Cantio et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta" — acrostic on the word 'ricercar.' This is followed by ten canons, not only of utmost complexity but also of transcendental beauty. It is really as though it was not made by human hands but by the Eternal in heaven. In two of them, the fourth and the fifth, Bach aims at certain musical symbolism. Over the fourth, in which the theme is treated in augmentation in contrary motion, he writes "Notulis crescentibus crescat Fortuna Regis" ("May the good fortune of the king increase like the note values"). The fifth, a circle canon ascending through the scale, is inscribed "Ascendenteque Modulatione ascendat Gloria Regis" ("And as the modulation ascends, so may it be with the glory of the King"). It was generally the custom with canons, which are really like musical puzzles, to indicate the solution for performance. However, the last two canons, which precede the trio sonata with flute, obviously written to be performed by Frederick himself, Bach does not supply the clue. Instead, he writes a Biblical quote, which is also central in Masonry — "Quaerendo invenietis" meaning "Seek, and ye shall find." The solution of the second in four parts is clear enough, but the first in two parts has, you might guess, three possible solutions!

The question still remains whether Bach was a Mason.

Obviously, as there is no record of his initiation and no direct reference to him with regard to any Masonic connection, we cannot officially count him among the Brethren. It is interesting to note however, that his son, Johann Christian (1735-1782), who was very instrumental in establishing the rococo style in composition, was known to be a Mason. He resided in London and had a warm and very influential relationship with the young Mozart whose first piano concertos were arrangements of his mentor, Johann Christian Bach's compositions. Back to Bach the elder, even if there is no actual record of any affiliation to Masonry, I still think that among all the composers, Johann Sebastian Bach expressed musically the very spirit of Masonry to the highest degree. His work deals with the glorification of the supreme Creator, great formal architectural forms and, above all, the harmonious coexistence of the several parts and the peaceful resolution of all conflicts. When we think of Bach, we can really meditate on the question that every Mason was asked: "Where were you first prepared to be made a Mason?" To which we replied: "In my heart."

For those who might find the above thesis improbably far-fetched, I should like to add the following. A month after the Potsdam visit, Bach became a member of Lorenz Cristoph Mizler's "Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences." The members were distinguished and included the leading composers, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), and Bach. There were altogether nineteen members. Mizler was described as a polymath and one of his keenest interests was to find a firm mathematical and philosophical basis for musical science. Bach wrote canonic works for the society's publication and it is believed that he intended at least a part of the "Musical Offering" and the "Art of Fugue" to be published there also. These are the most complex and mathematical among Bach's compositions.

Numbers clearly played an important part in Bach's compositions. For example, in the choral prelude, entitled "These are the Holy Ten Commandments" (BWV 679), the fugue subject enters ten times, similarly, in the chorus "Lord, is it I" from the St. Matthew Passion, there are eleven repetitions of the phrase, one for each disciple.

In the late 1940's a theory was put forward by Friedrich Smend that Bach used a musical gematria in his compositions. As an example, he pointed out the numerological significance in the cantus firmus of the 'deathbed' organ chorale, "Vor deinen Thron tret' ich" (BWV 668), which has 14 notes in the first lines and 41 in all. The significance is the gematria of 'BACH' is 14 and that of 'J.S. BACH' 41! Some more fanciful writers, like Kees van Houtenand Marius Kasbergen have tried to establish a Rosicrucian connection with Bach through gematrical calculations, which might well be just coincidental.

The important point to remember is that these complex numerical and symbolic ways of thinking and communicating were prevalent in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, to an extent we can now hardly imagine.

Bibliography

  • Bach, J. S., Musical Offering.
  • Schweizer, Albert, Bach.
  • Boyd, Malcolm, Bach.
  • Tatlow, Ruth, Bach and the Riddle of the Number Alphabet.
  • Case, Paul Foster, The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order.

Author

Janos Cegledy, P.M. of Sinim Lodge, Japan, is also the Ambassador to Japan of the Association of Masonic Arts.

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