THE 13th CANON: Portrait of J.S. Bach

by Alexander Maykapar

From the series The Secrets of Composers’ Portraits
Translated and edited by Maria Danova

This year marks an important date in the chronicle of a very famous portrait. Its prominence stems from its legendary subject, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Painted in 1748 in Leipzig by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, this work has had a remarkable history. In 1952 it landed in the US, where it spent the ensuing decades in the house of a great Bach scholar and collector William H. Scheide, a Princeton graduate and the first American musicologist to be published in the Bach-Jahrbuch in 1959. In 2014, Mr Scheide died at the age of 100, and, since he had generously bequeathed the portrait to the Bach Archive in Leipzig, in June 2015 the portrait returned home. This is a significant event in the life of, not only one work of art, but also global culture. As our own contribution to the Bach ‘epic,’ we are publishing a text by musician and music historian Alexander Maykapar telling the story behind this painting.

There are several portraits of Johann Sebastian Bach that have survived. Some were painted during his lifetime, others were completed after Bach’s death, but none date later than the 18th century. The main focus of this discourse shall be on the one painted by Elias Haussmann in 1746, that can today be viewed in the Altes Rathaus museum in Leipzig.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Portrait of J.S. Bach, 1746, Altes Rathaus Leipzig.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Portrait of J.S. Bach, 1748, Bach-Archiv Leipzig.

Haussmann made a total of two portraits of Bach, and the second one, painted in 1748, has been, since June 2015, in the collection of Bach-Archiv Leipzig, after a long record of private ownership. This second painting was, however, believed by Albert Schweitzer, the greatest Bach expert and biographer, to be a copy, and not an original work by Haussmann. Before recounting the story behind the first of these two portraits, I’d like to give a short account of the other known ones.

A compelling piece of historical evidence is offered by the Bach portrait painted by C.F. Liszewski in 1772, formerly preserved at the Joachimsthal Gymnasium in Berlin and subsequently lost during World War II. Regarding this portrait, of which only photo reproductions remain, Albert Schweitzer writes:

It is interesting because it is clearly not derived from either the Peters or the St. Thomas school portrait, and so pre-supposes another original. It shows Bach en face, sitting at a table with some music paper, as if about to run through, on the adjacent piano, some composition that he has just finished.
[Quoted from: Schweitzer, Albert. J. S. Bach. Reprint. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. 161. Print.]  

C.F.R. Liszewski, 1772, Portrait of J.S. Bach. Formerly housed in Joachimsthaler Gymnasium in Berlin, and later disappeared during the World War II.

Jean-Jacques Flipart, Portrait of Francois Couperin, copper engraving after the painting by André Bouys, 1735.

In terms of composition, this painting resembles a well-known lifetime portrait of the French composer Francois Couperin, the difference being that, whereas on Couperin’s portrait, one can actually read the score (with his piece Les Idées Heureuses), Bach’s portrait does not give us this opportunity.

Les idées heureuses, a harpsichord piece by Couperin, published in 1713, depicted in his portrait. Contrary to its title, “Happy Thoughts”, this music reflects a rather melancholic mood. Apparently it was the work that he was particularly fond of.

Francois Couperin, Les idées heureuses, performed by Blandine Verlet

An interesting account of yet another Bach portrait is given by Carl Friedrich Zelter in one of his letters to Johann Wolfgang Goethe. This painting, which has not survived to the present day, had once belonged to Bach’s favorite student, Johann Philipp Kirnberger:

Kirnberger had in his room a portrait of his master Sebastian Bach, that I have always admired. It hung over the piano, between two windows. A wealthy Leipzig linen merchant, who had of some years before seen Kirnberger, when he was a Thomaner [student at the St. Thomas school- Ed.], singing at his father's door, comes to Berlin, and resolves to honour the now famous Kirnberger with a visit. Scarcely has the Leipziger sat down when he cries out: 'Eh! Good Lord! I see you have our cantor Bach hanging there; we have him also in Leipzig, in the St. Thomas school. He was a rough fellow; if the vain fool hasn't had himself painted in a splendid velvet coat!' Kirnberger quietly gets up, goes behind the man's chair, and, taking hold of his visitor with both hands, calls out, first softly, then crescendo, 'Out, dog! out, dog!' My Leipziger, in a mortal fright, runs for his hat and stick, opens the door as fast as he can, and bolts into the street. Kirnberger now has the picture taken down and cleaned, the chair of the Philistine washed, and the picture, covered with a cloth, again put back into its place. When anyone asked him what the cloth was for, he answered, 'Never mind! there's something behind it!' This was the origin of the report that Kirnberger had lost his reason.
[Quoted from: Schweitzer, Albert. J. S. Bach. Reprint. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. 159-60. Print.]

A touching story indeed!

Flute sonatas by J.S. Kirnberger

Portrait of Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721-1783), Bach's pupil, by Heinrich Eduard Winter, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria.

Back to the portrait painted by Elias Haussmann, that is now on permanent display at Altes Rathaus Leipzig. The circumstances that led to the creation of this portrait are connected with a remarkable personality in the history of music and musicology.

Title page of one of the issues of Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek journal, Leipzig, 1739.

In 1738, Bach’s pupil, Lorenz Christoph Mizler (1711-1778) [1], who was barely 30 years old at the time, founded in Leipzig – the city where Bach lived and worked – the Society for Musical Sciences, Correspondierende Societät der musicalischen Wissenschaften.  This was the first-ever musicological society in Germany, and existed in the free form of circular correspondences, with no official meetings nor headquarters. Four years prior to this, Mizler defended his doctoral thesis “On the Relation of Music to Philosophical Education” (originally published in Leipzig in 1734 under the title Dissertatio, quod Musica Ars sit pars eruditionis Philosophicae, changed two years later to Dissertatio quod musica Scientia sit et pars eruditionis Philosophicae). In 1736, the young doctor announced a cycle of lectures on mathematics, philosophy, and music at the Leipzig University.

The activities of his Society were quite profound; for instance, it published the Musical Library (Musikalische Bibliothek) journal for readers interested in learning “everything that is happening in the realm of music and adjacent sciences.” Besides, Mizler, who saw the works of the Society as a new stage in music history, ordered a medal with a depiction of (as he himself described it) “a naked baby floating high up in the rays of a rising sun, with a brightly shining star on his head and an upturned burning torch; beside him, a swallow is flying, announcing the advent of a new day in music.”

In 1740, two years after Mizler’s “virtual” Society was founded, Georg Philip Telemann entered its ranks, and in 1745, G.F. Handel was elected its honorary member.

Komponistensonne (The Composers Sun), copper engraving by Augustus Frederick Cristopher Kollman, published in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, vol. 1, 1799. This image gives a curious hierarchy of composers: Bach is placed in the triangle in the middle as a kind of “sacred sun” in the music realm, surrounded by Haydn and Handel, among others, in the immediate proximity, with Telemann and Mozart somehow being placed in the second row.

At first, Bach, who was rather indifferent towards any kind of theorizing, had no intention of joining the Societät, although Mizler’s was pleading with him to do so. However, Bach eventually succumbed to Mizler’s persuasions and, as the society’s entry statutes demanded, submitted canonic variations on the Christmas hymn “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” (BWV 769) and a triple canon on six voices, later published in the Musikalische Bibliothek. Albert Schweitzer remarks that “posterity owes a debt of gratitude to the Mizler Society. In its journal for 1754 it published an obituary on Bach that contains the earliest biographical material relating to him,” and then wittily adds: “Or should we rather say that the Society is indebted to Bach; had it not been for him, who would remember this old association today?”
[Quoted from: Schweitzer, Albert. J. S. Bach. Reprint. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. 192. Print.]

J.S. Bach, Canon triplex a 6 vocibus (canon for six voices) was presented as his ‘entrance work’ to Mizler’s Societät and is also the one that he holds in the Haussmann portrait.

Along with these musical works, as was also the requirement, Bach contributed to the Society his portrait on which he holds in his hand one of the submitted works, the “Canon triplex a 6 voc.” Comparing the handwriting of Bach’s original score with the way it looks in the painting, one can clearly see that it was this score that Haussmann used as the prototype.

Before saying a few words about this score-sheet painted in the portrait, it seems worthy to quote a colorful account of the portrait written by “a travelling. German artist” in the early 1790s:

On our way, we paid a visit to the chamber composer Reichardt in his charming villa situated in a picturesque landscape. I’d like to write you a few words about the two very characteristic paintings that we saw in his collection. One of them was the portrait of J.S. Bach painted from life, the other one – the portrait of Gluck by Duplessis. Bach, this great scribe and master of counterpoint, is depicted as a fat-cheeked, broad-shouldered man with a wrinkled forehead, wearing a formal civil dress, holding a score in his hands: he is, as it were, inviting us to decipher this sophisticated six-voice canon. Gluck, in a house coat, is playing keyboard: his head is raised in a spirited manner, the forehead is clear, his eyes radiate a heavenly shine, his lips are gleaning with likable kindness, his whole complexion expressing beauty and warmth – the joy of art. I cannot describe to you clearly enough how struck I was with such a remarkable difference in the appearance of the two men.
[Quoted from: ”Über zwei merkwürdige Bildnisse von J.S. Bach und Gluck. Aus dem Briefe eines deutschen reisenden Künstlers.“ Nachrichten aus Briefen: Leipzig. In Joseph Reichardt’s Musikalisches Wochenblatt, VII, 1791/92. See digital copy at Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum Digitalbibliothek, cf. pp. 53-54.]

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis, Portrait of Christoph Willibald von Gluck, 1775, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.

Indeed, it seems that in this portrait, Bach offers this canon for us to decipher: the way he holds the score sheet, turned towards the viewer, and lets us read it easily. All the three voices of the canon are written by the composer himself, and even in this form this piece is already harmonious. This canon is called ‘triple,’ because each of the voices, in its turn, constitutes a theme for a separate two-voice canon. In other words, by finding the right counterpoint (i.e., the fitting melody) to each of these melodies, we will first get three separate canons. The only clue that Bach gives are the moments when these voices need to start, but it still remains unknown which of the many existing rules needs to be applied in order to find just the right counterpoint.

I’m not going to give you a tedious detailed account of the search for the right solution to this musical riddle (there are canons that required several generations of musicians to finally be deciphered!); I’ll only tell you that each of the themes, as it turns out, presupposes the so-called ‘mirror reply,’ i.e. such a counterpoint where each turn of the melody involving a certain interval in each of the voices, needs to be mirrored by the same interval, only set in the opposite direction.

And finally, the most astounding thing about this piece: all the three pairs of voices (provided that you have deciphered them correctly) blend flawlessly in simultaneous emission, and there is not a single note here that wouldn’t comply with the initially set modus for solving this riddle.  

Here is this canon the way it is written by Bach in the copy of Goldberg Variations and depicted in the portrait:

Canon no. 13 as found among the 14 canons in the appendix to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 1087, composed between 1741 and 1750. Fragment of the original score, discovered in Bach’s own copy of the Variations in 1974. The score is stored at Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris.

And here it is in the deciphered form:

The 13th canon deciphered, image from A. Maykapar’s book Facets of Classical Music [Grani klassicheskoi muzyki], Vol. II, published in Russian, International Music Productions, Chelyabinsk, 2014, p. 199.

J.S. Bach, Verschiedene Canones über die ersten acht Fundamental-Noten vorheriger Arie (Various Canons on the First Eight Fundamental Notes of the First Aria), from the Goldberg Variations, BWV 1087, composed between 1741 and 1750, discovered in Bach’s own copy of the Variations in 1974. The score is stored at Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris.

In 1974, in a French private collection, the original manuscript of Goldberg Variations was discovered completely unexpectedly. It contained an appendix – fourteen canons employing the first eight notes of the bass voice of the theme (Aria) of the Goldberg cycle. This sensational find was immediately announced as the most significant addition to the known corpus of works by the Leipzig cantor. This newly discovered cycle was assigned a number according to the classical catalogue of Bach’s works, Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, compiled by Wolfgang Schmieder in 1950: BWV 1087. Out of the fourteen canons, only two had been known before: the 11th and the 13th, the latter being the one that is depicted in Elias Haussmann’s portrait.

Music video with explanations and score examples from the 14 Canons by J.S. Bach. The Triple Canon in 6 Parts, the 13th one, starts at 12:28

[1] Mizler was an avid supporter of the Pythagorean tradition in musicology, transmitted from the Master first by Plato and then by generations of philosophers. He first learned of Pythagoras’ connection to music while studying Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia.  See more on Mizler’s personality [in German] in Lutz Felblick’s dissertation “Lorenz Christoph Mizler de Kolof – Schüler Bachs und pythagoreischer„Apostel der Wolffischen Philosophie“ [Lorenz Christoph Mizler de Kolof – Bach’s Disciple and a Pythagorean ‘Apostle of Wolfian Pilosophy’], defended at Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig, presented online at: