Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries were of
the notion that music was a science "sounding
mathematics" and therefore reducible to theorem and
law. Bach's concurrence with the notion was
demonstrated by his membership in Mizler's Society for
Musical Sciences...joined in 1747 while composing the
Musical Offering...for which he not only submitted the
thirteenth canon of the Fourteen on the Goldberg Ground
but also composed the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel
hoch. If Bach believed that music was a science, he may
have conceived of canon as a window through which it
might be possible to glimpse its laws. Given as we are
to understand the eighteenth-century compositional
ideal of elaboratio...the development of ideas from a
single theme (inventio)...Bach's fascination with canon
was more than entertainment.
Bach may have composed canons for the same reason that
we solve crossword puzzles; they were entertainment...
a game. Perhaps he composed canons because he found in
them a challenge of the first order. Or Bach may have
written canons in order to stimulate his muse;
composers often generate new ideas by employing canonic
techniques. There is reason to suspect, however, that
the Baroque taste for canon was more than a game,
challenge, or method for generating ideas.
There remains a third possible explanation why Bach and
his contemporaries practiced the art of writing canons.
The technique may have stood for them as a symbol of
all that was NOT understood...that which was
transcendent, therefore symbolic of themselves as
creators and the processes of musical creation. Thus,
while Bach may have composed canons in an effort to
understand these processes, he could just as well have
composed them as an expression of the very mystery of
musical creation itself. We know by their enigmatical
notations that Baroque composers viewed canon as
something to be figured out, if not mediated by that
select few (namely, composers) who understood it. .
Although originally written for 8 unspecified
instruments, I created this Arrangement of the 7 Canons
(BWVs 1072-78) for String Ensemble (4 Violins, 2 Violas
& 2 Cellos).