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That Crown of Thorns

©1997, Riemenschneider Bach Institute
Published in the BACH Journal 28:1-2 (Spring-Summer/Fall-Winter 1997)
(online by permission of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute)

This article references Var. 25 of the Goldberg Variations and Canon 11 of BWV 1087, Bach's addendum to the Goldberg Variations. Both works can be heard at

It was the habit of Wanda Landowska, one of this century's more brilliant interpreters of the Goldberg Variations, to refer to Variatio 25 as a "crown of thorns." As a renowned performer, Landowska was entitled, of course, to plead Christ's passion if only to soothe her own Angst when it came to the interpretation of this Herculean cycle.

But the demand of Variatio 25 is spiritual, not technical. Landowska's presentiment of agony must have been a consequence more of what was said than how. In that sense Landowska's crowning insight may have been for anagogical undertones which appear to have reverberated within the mind of the composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, himself. What are these undertones, and how did Landowska come to hear them?

The answer to these questions may be found in a little known canon which Sebastian Bach had inscribed on the flyleaf of a book owned by theology student, and sometime player in his orchestras, Johann Gottlieb Fulda. Beneath the puzzle Bach had scribbled Symbolum: Christus Coronabit Crucigeros, which translates, "Symbol: Christ will crown those who carry His cross." The puzzle, solved, is a double canon, in contrary motion, above a ground quotation of the first phrase of the Goldberg soggetto. The leading canonic voice employs a lamento of five semitones (figure 1) similar to that which commences Variatio 25. If Landowska had known of this double canon, its resemblance to the "ancient music" which she had resurrected would have been her metaphor's raison d'etre.

Figure 1: Canon inscribed in the flyleaf of book owned by J. G. Fulda
While it is possible that Landowska could have been acquainted with the Crucigeros canon, she could not possibly have known of is consanguineous origin with respect to the Goldberg cycle itself. We know, because in 1974 Olivier Alain discovered an Handexemplar of the Variations to which had been appended one page containing fourteen enigmatical canons on the first eight notes of the Goldberg ground (BWV 1087). The Crucigeros canon is the eleventh of these fourteen. With the discovery of the addendum it became possible to assert that the two works not only "appeared" to be related, they emanated, in fact, from the same opus.

In view, however, of the fact that kinship would wait to be established until the fifteenth year after Landowska's death, we might wonder what the Polish harpsichordist might have seen, in Variatio 25, by way of allusion to that other crown...the one which bloodied the head of the Redeemer. Might she have envisaged, in the five semitones of its lamento bass, stigmata? Or was it Bach's lancinating dissonances that pierced, like Roman spear, Landowska's ear? Might she have counted in Variatio 25 a more cerebral filiation: fifth variation in the fifth cycle of six, the product of the number of Christ's wounds perfectly squared? Or was it Weltschmerz that led Landowska to exclaim "crown of thorns!"

Understanding, as we do, the relationship between the Crucigeros work and the larger Variations, we take for granted the passion not only of Variatio 25, but of the complete cycle. Landowska's insight is easily adduced by likening it to the canon for which the composer himself provides an iconological referent. Both works employ a five-tone lamento. Both works transmutate that lament by means of contrary motion. The canon features, moreover, a contrapuntal procedure that held profound theological significance for Bach.

In "Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach," Chafe suggests that Bach's use of the term Symbolum bespeaks a metaphoric dimension "permitting us to take the canons as statements about the nature of meaning and the relationship between art and theology." He writes: "Artists of the baroque period had means of expressing basic relationships between art and transcendent meaning." One means was the poetic epigram wherein the author used antithesis, conceit and paradox to remind the faithful of fundamental truths by compressing them into aphorisms. Also called paradoxa, a typical epigram included juxtapositions of passages such as "God wills all men should be saved" with "few are chosen."

Chafe likens the allegorical canons of Bach's oeuvre to Lutheran paradoxa noting that they, too, are rooted in antithesis. Inversion, contrary motion, retrograde, major/minor and sharp/flat contrasts, represented a universe of antinomies which may have evoked, to Bach's way of thinking, epigrammatic tones. As a consequence, Bach's canons are more than compressed tonal materials. They represent a peculiarly Lutheran dialectic in which antithesis can be understood to symbolize subjective realities transcending both the artist and his music. Bach's canons stand for the affirmation of Lutheran precept as much, or more, than exquisite examples of baroque art.

It is significant that the canonic followers, in twelve of the fourteen works of the addendum, derive either by melodic inversion (ten) or by retrograde motion (two). In three canons, including the Crucigeros, Bach employs an especially rigorous procedure in which intervals not only reverse direction but also strictly maintain quality as well as number. The follower voice of these "mirror" canons may be discerned, quite literally, in the reflected images of their leaders.

The reader who is curious enough to experiment with a mirror will find, for example, that the descending Schmerzenfigur of the Crucigeros work, like a diagonal line from top-left to bottom-right, is reflected as an ascending line from bottom-left to top-right. When superimposed upon the original, this reflection forms the Greek letter , a Christological symbol since ancient times, and one which Bach substitutes in many of his handwritten scores for the words Kreuz or Christus.

The canon thus limns its Latin...Christus Coronabit a representation of Christ (), those who carry his cross (five descending semitones of the lament), and the crown (ascending mirror image of the lament). The combination of canon and Latin reveal, what is more, a paradox in which only those who carry the cross will wear the crown. This revelation is recognizable as a typically Lutheran exegesis of Jesus' warning: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25). Bach elegantly affirms this paradox in his use of a mirror to generate the crown, as it were, from the cross (figure 2).

Figure 2: Symbolic Connotations of the Crucigeros Canon Realized

Figure 2 is the graphic representation of how it might be possible, then, to conceive of the Crucigeros canon as existing in three dimensions: temporally, spatially, and tropologically. As a musical work of art, the canon does not have being outside of the time dimension through which it, necessarily, is performed and perceived. Yet the canon does indeed have significance, even without sound, as a spatial icon in which notational symbols have been used to signify the cross and crown. Finally, the canon is tropologically comprehensible as the product of a mirroring process in which secondary meanings are reflected, figuratively, out of ordinary tonal materials.

Integral to our understanding of anagogical ramifications within the canon is the fact that it functions as part of a larger cycle which was supposed, for two centuries, to have been autonomous...neither linked with objects outside of itself, nor lending itself to, extra-musical inferences. But, by appending the fourteen canons to the Goldberg Variations and Latin epigram to Fulda's book, J. S. Bach not only inferred something, he supplied the key to understanding what was inferred and the work to which it referred. Unlocked, the referent opens the ear to a world of shared sentiment, if not motivic lineaments, with one particular variation within the Goldberg cycle. It is of this variation that Wanda Landowska exclaimed, ahead of her time: "crown of thorns!"

I have attempted, in this essay, to establish the significance of the Crucigeros canon as it relates to the Goldberg Variations. This significance is predicated upon historical and musical factors having little to do with the composer's disposition toward the objects he created. There exist, however, two bits of Bachianna which leave little doubt as to Sebastian Bach's private conception of both the canon and the Variations as confirming his own Weltanschauung.

Throughout his life Bach used a monogram consisting of the letters JSB in florid calligraphy combined with its mirror image. This monogram was inscribed, for example, upon a crystal goblet presented to the composer around 1735 (either for his fiftieth birthday or upon his appointment as court composer to the Saxon monarch). The monogram is preceded by the word Vivat (figure 3). The reverse side of the goblet contains cryptic notation in which Bach's name has been worked in musical tones.

Figure 3: Crystal Goblet with JSB Monogram
Bach's personal seal--used as early as 1722--includes a crown above the intertwined initials. This crown enables us to see the monogram, like canon, as adumbrating the epigram..."Christ will crown those who carry His cross." But, unlike its counterpart, the monogram's initials go so far as to identify the crossbearer (Crucigeros). When mirrored, JSB appears to bear the (Christus) as if corporeally. Finally, both JSB and wear the crown (Coronabit). This crown, we cannot help but notice, is studded not with thorns, but with twelve precious stones. These twelve are grouped as seven (the number of completion) imbedded in a crest of five (the number of Christ's passion).
Figure 4: JSB Monogram with Crown

Throughout his life Bach demonstrated unshakable confidence in divine providence. His conflicts were many, and they cut him deeply. Yet, as Cox has recently noted, it was during the seasons of frustration and blighted hopes... the dispute with Ernesti, the request for dismissal from Mulhausen, the troubles at Leipzig ...that Bach expressed, most eloquently, his faith in God's preordination of good to those who carry the cross willingly.

This confidence, this willingness to endure suffering for the sake of rewards in this life and the life hereafter was by no means limited to Leipzig in the middle of the eighteenth century. It has been an article of the Christian faith for nearly two millennia. The American, William Penn, may have expressed it best when he wrote: "No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown." Although the American colonial penned his pamphlet fifty years before Bach scribbled on the flyleaf of Fulda's notebook, we surmise from the cunning symbols of his Variatio 25, double canon on the Goldberg ground, and personal monogram, that Johann Sebastian Bach would have agreed.

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1. In 1919 Landowska founded the Ecole de Musique Ancienne near Paris. Her tour of the U.S. in 1940 revived interest in the harpsichord in general, and the Goldberg Variations in particular.

2. Twelve of the canons in BWV 1087 had been unknown before 1974. The two extant before that date were No. 11 (the crucigeros canon) and No. 13 (the triplex canon which Bach had submitted for his 1747 initiation into Mizler's Society for Musical Sciences). It is this latter canon which Bach holds in his right hand in Elias Haussmann's famous portrait of the year before. Prior to the discovery of the addendum the triplex canon was thought to have been another of the canonic variations on the Advent hymn, Vom Himmel hoch (BWV 769), which Bach had also submitted as part of his probe.

3. When this article was originally published I incorrectly identified Christoph Wolff as the one who found BWV 1087. The actual discovery was made by Olivier Alain in Strasbourg. Alain was the brother of Jehan Alain, slain in combat in 1940, for whom Duruflé wrote his famous Prélude et fugue sur le nom d'Alain, Op. 7 in 1942. Their father, Albert Alain (1880-1971), was a composer and organist, and their sister, Marie-Claire Alain (b. 1926), a famous organist and student of Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé. I apologize to the Alain family, and Prof. Wolff for this mistake.

4. Eric Chafe. "Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S Bach." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. p. 14.

5. I Timothy 2:4 and Matthew 22:14

6. There are two techniques for obtaining a mirror image, each one yielding a different result. One technique involves positioning the original behind the head and reading it through a mirror. This produces an image in which the line reads from right to left (in retrograde). The technique used in a true mirror canon involves touching the mirror, at a ninety degree angle, to the base of the original. This produces an image in which ascending intervals descend and vice versa.

7. See, for example, the autograph of the "St. Matthew Passion."

8. see Revelation 12:1.

9. Howard Cox. "The Scholarly Detective: Investigating Bach's Personal Bible" Bach: the Quarterly Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute, XXV, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1994), p. 37.

10. William Penn (1644-1718), "No Cross, No Crown" pamphlet (1669).

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