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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 in 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 discovered the relationship between the Bach’s canon and the regular division of a plane into similar shapes by himself. 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 displaying such a tessellation today.

Also read the article about the St Matthew Passion programme, with samples from his calendar mentioning Bach concerts he visited.

[*] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 272-274

More Escher today