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Bach’s canon

It is 268 years ago today that Johann Sebastian Bach died. On 28 July 1750 the German composer breathed his last breath in Leipzig. Maurits Cornelis Escher was a big fan. The similarities between them were considerable: the mathematical order, the strictness of the rules, the symmetry, the systematic approach.

Escher was particularly fascinated by Bach’s canon. In a letter to his friend Hein ’s-Gravezande from 1940, he wrote*:

‘Now, I should like to say something else to you about the connection with music, primarily that of Bach, i.e. the Fugue or, put more simply, the canon. I loved Bach and I love him too without “understanding” his technique, but since I understand a (little) bit of it, I love it all the more.

What is a canon? I do not feel qualified to offer an adequate definition, but in essence it can be distilled to a short motif—a finished product, as it were—which is repeated. This repetition manifests itself in all kinds of ways: identical, or in a different key, or in reverse, or upside down (like a mirror image), or at half tempo, and these inverted motifs are played simultaneously, creating all manner of mathematical figures. It has a great deal in common with my own motifs, which I have rotate around various axes too. Nowadays I have such a strong sense of relationship, of affinity, that when I am listening to Bach I frequently get inspired and feel an overwhelming urge to listen to his insistent rhythm, a cadence seeking something of the infinite. In the Fugue everything is based on a single motif, often consisting of just a few notes. In my work, too, everything revolves around a single, closed contour.’

Escher saw the connections between Bach’s canon and his own regular plane division. The composer had created sonic ‘manipulations’ in a manner akin to the way in which Escher created visual manipulations.** While reading the quote, it immediately evokes Escher’s tessellations, with the single motifs that are rotated and mirrored and endlessly repeated. As an ode to Bach, we are sharing such a tessellation today.

Read the article about the St Matthew Passion programme as well, with samples from his calendar mentioning Bach concerts he visited.

[*] and [**] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 272-273

More Escher today