Il n’y a pas d’amour sans connaissance. Aimer les chefs-d’œuvre, c’est vouloir les mieux connaître.

From ‘Les secrets des chefs-d’œuvre’ by Madeleine Hours, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1964

The JS Bach Code



What follows is not a parody of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, nor another piece of pseudo-historical mystery fiction. It is not either an ephemeral study using ‘Zahlensymbolik’, but a sincere attempt to decipher the secret encoded within J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which is said to represent the pinnacle of European classical music. As yet, no Bach scholar or musicologist has ever tried to explain the enigmatic relationship between the key of B minor, and the meaning of the text as found especially in the movement of 50d. The beauty of that melody is unquestioned if one plays it moderately (MuseScore). However, it strikes a note of dissonance when considered against the accompanying Biblical text (St. Matthew, 27:25), which predicts a bloody and apocalyptic curse upon the Jewish people. This investigation (1) compares relative frequencies of various keys used in Bach’s instrumental and sacred works, (2) conducts a trend analysis (Cochran-Armitage test) of the keys used in Bach’s sacred vocal compositions throughout his musical life (1706-1749), and (3) contrasts those pieces in context with other examples of this strange thematic discord between tune and text in the St Matthew Passion of this great artist.

More concretely, the author unpacks the mysteries concealed behind the 2# keys – B minor and D major – by sounding out the differences between the Bach’s passion works according to St Matthew and St John. On that basis, we will see that the Mass in B minor expanded on the St Matthew Passion to stand as Bach’s testament, bequeathed to future generations. Incidentally, the author believes that almost all interpretations of Bach’s sacred music such as St Matthew Passion have been distorted by a prejudicial view of the composer’s supposed Christian piety. In reality, as far as Bach’s musical works are concerned, his faith was a changeable, volatile element of his work and life, and appears to have been drastically altered in the process of creating the St Matthew Passion, a change attested by the music itself. At the core of this shift was Bach’s growing belief that Judas Iscariot was the apostle most beloved by Jesus, having betrayed him and truly regretted it – as opposed to Peter, whose loyalty was tainted by lies and hypocrisy. The thoughts expressed in this anticipate the torments and salvation not only of Judas, but the Jewish people in general, especially in the key transition from B minor to D major, as heard in 50d. Furthermore, it seems clear that Bach thought of Jesus as more man than God, and refuted the Resurrection by describing instead his survival on the cross, and his living body passing into the care of Joseph of Arimathea.

  The framework of this study was completed in 1998, and distributed to a choir in Kyoto before a performance of the St Matthew Passion in that year. It was not originally intended for wider dissemination, but the author was inspired to publish by reading Michael Marissen’s book ‘Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, And Bach’s St John’s Passion (1998, Oxford University Press, New York)’, which was introduced to the author by Prof. Yoh Tomita at the Department of Musicology, Belfast University. This work was further inspired by the BBC television documentary, ‘A Picture Of The 20th Century’. In the very first scene of the film, the camera pans across a mass of Jewish corpses, piled up as mountains. The soundtrack to this image was the first movement in E minor of the St Matthew Passion. Without knowing the makers’ intentions in using this particular piece, it seemed to this viewer as if they were implying that German Protestantism gave rise to the holocaust, and that the St Matthew Passion effectively underscores this historical movement. The author hopes that readers who love Bach’s music may feel even more deeply after considering this matter. Moreover, I hope that they might wonder why musicologists have never explored it before.

  As far as I am aware, only a theologian, Karl Walt, has hitherto pointed out that Bach’s St Matthew Passion has been oddly composed and wrongly interpreted in terms of its Biblical origins. Since I am neither a musician nor musicologist but a molecular geneticist engaged in the geriatrics such as osteoporosis (1, 2), Alzheimer’s Disease (3, 4) and anxiety disorders (5, 6, 7), most of the data used in this work are not original but secondary materials, principally found in Japanese, which are readily accessible to non-professionals. Nevertheless, any musicologist who cares to do so should be able to obtain the original copies and to confirm the results. If any errors and mistakes are found, I would appreciate it if keen readers might inform me in a collegial manner, and thereby help me to advance our understanding of this fascinating musical masterpiece full with enigma.

By Tam Hashimoto-Gotoh on Dec. 25, 2010 in Kyoto

PS: The author would like to make clear that this text is not intended to endorse or refute any present-day religious or political position. It refers only to the prevailing views of the historical periods under study, and the social context in which the relevant artistic works were originally produced, performed, and published.

                                                                                 May 29, 2012

Special thanks to my friend Stephen Phelan for his comments and advices on my drafts.

Copyright (C) 2010-2011. Tam Hashimoto-Gotoh. All Rights Reserved.

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