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Honorific Canons

Significance of This Group of Canons

This study represents by no means a complete look at the canons of J. S. Bach; we have considered none of his choral works. Bach employs canon, for example, in the St. Matthew Passion when one false witness parrots the other. In keeping with the spurious testimony it represents, Bach contrives one of the all-time worst of canons. On a grander scale, the first chorus of Cantata 80 Ein feste Burg features that "Battle Hymn of the Reformation" in a canon at the octave.

But our peek at Bach's canonic art must not conclude without consideration of his honorific works: those canons composed to honor friends and relatives. The canons of this section are not associated with any large scale cycles, but they contain some of Bach's most beautiful and well-known works, including the Canon Fa Mi et Mi Fa possibly composed for the publisher of the Goldberg Variations, the enigma canon for Hudemann and the modal canon for Walther.


BWV 1078: Canon super Fa Mi a 7. post Tempus Musicus
(click facsimile to see translation)

In the year before his death Bach composed a short piece which he called "canon on the ground Fa Mi for seven voices with separation of a double bar." The canon is significant for this study because Bach may have dedicated it to Balthasar Schmid of Nuremberg, publisher of the Goldberg Variations. Latin acrostics accompanying the canon indicate that it was dedicated to one FABER. Whereas the dedication implies that this canon was composed for a close friend, Spitta proposed that it was most likely Johann Schmidt, organist at Zella's Church of St. Blasius. But the numerological symbols of the work suggest the publisher of Nuremberg.


BWV 1073:
(click music to realize canon)

In 1713 Bach composed a canon for distant relative and fellow Weimar organist Johann Gottfried Walther. The canon is for four voices reading the music in bass, tenor, mezzo and treble clefs respectively. The dedication reads: "This ditty is written for the owner [of the book] with fond memories. Weimar, Joh. Sebast. Bach. Chamber Musician and Court Organist to the Prince of Saxony." Smend notes that the sum of W+A+L+T+H+E+R is 82 (the number of pitches in the canon and twice the sum of J+S+B+A+C+H). Written in score there are 14 (B+A+C+H) measures; beginning pitches correspond to the open strings of the viola (Johann Sebastian's instrument).
BWV 1074: Kanon zu vier Stimmen
(click facsimile to realize canon)

In 1727 Bach visited Hamburg where he renewed his acquaintance with Ludwig Hudemann. In honor of this friend Bach composed a canon that could be read from any angle. Ten years later, when Bach became the object of Johann Scheibe's ridicule for writing "vain and tedious" music, Hudemann would come to the composer's defense in a poem (Proben einiger Gedichte) dedicated "To Herr Capellmeister J. S. Bach." Hudemann's one-of-a-kind canon immediately captured the imagination of theorists, composers and students, and was published in many volumes, including Mattheson's Vollkommene Capellmeister and Telemann's Der Getreue Musik-Meister.

The Hudemann canon specifies the rhythm, pitch contour, and intervals of imitation but not the time interval. Mattheson's solution was to invert and put into the minor mode, while Marpurg's solution inverted the melody but retained the major mode.

BWV 1072: Trias Harmonica

The triad, often called triunitas in the Lutheran tradition, stood for the triunity of God--three in one and one in three. The major and minor forms of the triad represented, moreover, the dual nature of Christ as both God and man. Bach's contemporary, Weckmeister, developed a musical theory in accord with such allegory, and Bach's own Trias Harmonica was undoubtedly intended to be heard as a musical representation of Deity.
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BWV 1075: Canon a 2. perpetuus

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BWV deest: Canon Concordia discors

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