Bach meets Euler

It is known that both Bach and Euler were at the court of Frederick II in Berlin at the same time. It is therefore quite possible that they met.  Leonhard Euler was one of the greatest mathematicians the world has ever seen.  Of course, Bach was in many people’s eyes the greatest composer in history.   So there would certainly have been some brain power in that room.

In 1739 Euler wrote the Tentamen novae theoriae musicae, hoping to eventually incorporate musical theory as part of mathematics. This part of his work, however, did not receive wide attention and was once described as too mathematical for musicians and too musical for mathematicians.

According to Stacy Langton at the University of San Diego, at least part of this work was translated into German by J.S. Bach’s student Lorenz Christoph Mizler.  Mizler founded the Correspondierende Societät der musicalischen Wissenschaften (de) (or “Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences”) in 1738 of which Bach was a member.  It is highly likely therefore that Bach was familiar with both Euler and Euler’s paper.  

Leonhard Euler (15 April 1707 – 18 September 1783) was a pioneering Swiss mathematician and physicist. He made important discoveries in fields as diverse as infinitesimal calculus and graph theory. He also introduced much of the modern mathematical terminology and notation, particularly for mathematical analysis, such as the notion of a mathematical function.  He is also renowned for his work in mechanics, fluid dynamics, optics, and astronomy.

Euler is considered to be the pre-eminent mathematician of the 18th century and one of the greatest mathematicians ever. He is also one of the most prolific mathematicians ever; his collected works fill 60–80 quarto volumes.  He spent most of his adult life in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Berlin, Prussia.

Lorenz Christoph Mizler von Kolof (26 July 1711 – 8 May 1778)  was a German physician, historian, printer, mathematician, Baroque music composer, and precursor of the Polish Enlightenment.    Mizler, an amateur composer, was deeply interested in music theory, advocating the establishment of a musical science based firmly on mathematics; philosophy; and the imitation of nature in music.

He founded the Correspondierende Societät der musicalischen Wissenschaften (de) (or “Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences”) in 1738. Its aim was to enable musical scholars to circulate theoretical papers in order to further musical science by encouraging discussion of the papers via correspondence. The entry requirements of this society resulted in both the famous 1746/1748 Haussmann portrait of Bach and his Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” for organ, BWV 769.  George Frideric Handel was also a member.

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Bach, The Greatest Composer

“Not Bach, but Meer”  Timothy Smith discusses the virtues of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Greatest Composer?

The student of music need not read far before encountering the passionate assertion that Johann Sebastian Bach was probably the greatest composer who ever lived. Such ardorous declarations might well be excused as author’s bias were they not so prevalent in the literature–not to mention, proposed with such fervor–at least to elevate the proposition to a reasoned debate. If Johann Sebastian was not the greatest, he was at least in the company of that august group; but the rule of greatness of an artist’s life and work is ultimately measured by the eye in which the beholder’s own work has been influenced by the life in question…..

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach (1962)

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The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was one of the most brilliant and idiosyncratic interpreters of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In this 1962 special for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Gould reveals the same brilliance and idiosyncrasy in his understanding of Bach’s place in history.

Bach, says Gould, was not so much ahead of his time as outside it. “For Bach, you see, was music’s greatest non-conformist, and one of the supreme examples of that independence of the artistic conscience that stands quite outside the collective historical process.”

“Glenn Gould on Bach,” was first broadcast in Canada on April 8, 1962, two years before Gould’s retirement from performing and only two days following his controversial Carnegie Hall concert with the New York Philharmonic, in which Gould’s interpretation of the Brahams D-minor piano concerto was so eccentric that Leonard Bernstein felt compelled to make a disclaimer to the audience. The centerpiece of the Bach broadcast is a performance of the Cantata BWV 54 featuring the American countertenor Russell Oberlin. “Glenn Gould on Bach” is a fascinating and entertaining half hour–essential viewing for lovers of Baroque and Classical music.