N is for 'Numerology'
The word "numerology" embraces a wide variety of esoteric techniques and interpretations and should never be used in association with Bach and his music. The boundaries in Bach's society were clearly drawn between what was acceptable, in terms of godliness, faith and pietism, and what overstepped the mark to become unacceptable superstition, mysticism and magic. Had Bach been a numerological practitioner he could not have taken the religious oath required of all pastors and school teachers in Saxony and thus would not have been appointed Thomaskantor.
Numbers were nevertheless an integral part of his world. Word and number conceits were popular with young ladies as well as useful for the more serious poet or orator who lacked inspiration. Among the much-published 18 th century techniques are the well-known anagram, chronogram and acrostic, together with the long-since forgotten paragram, which used any one of 30 or more different number alphabets to substitute letters with numbers. It is the number alphabet that connected Bach with numerology. In 1947 Friedrich Smend printed a paragram written by Bach's Leipzig librettist Picander. It uses the number alphabet A=1-Z=300. Giving no further evidence Smend then claimed that Bach embedded theological words in his compositions using an entirely different alphabet, A=1-Z=24. And people believed it.
Smend did not know what a paragram was. As a church historian, he had met a similar technique in Jewish cabbalism and falsely assumed that its use in the 1730s still had religious connotations. Smend was also drawn to the traditional interpretations of biblical number symbols. Again with no evidence to support his method, he presented detailed interpretations of selected numbers (of notes and bars) in Bach's scores. The lethal combination of symbolic interpretations and cabbalistic techniques that promised to unlock the secret depths of Bach's spiritual motivation in his greatest works proved irresistible. A fire was started in Bach studies that continues to smoulder and occasionally flare up today.
Knowing a technique and using a technique are two different things. Number alphabets, the paragram form and symbolic interpretations of numbers were common knowledge in Bach's day and society. But is there any documentary evidence to show that Bach used them? No.
Copyright Ruth Tatlow 2005
Ruth Tatlow, Bach and the Riddle of the Number Alphabet , Cambridge 1991 (paperback 2006)
In preparation: Ruth Tatlow, Bach's Numbers Explained.
Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach , ed. Malcolm Boyd ( Oxford , 1999), s.v. "number symbolism", "Smend, Friedrich"
Grove Music Online , s.v. "Numbers in Music", "Smend, Friedrich".