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In music, the BACH motif is the motif, a succession of notes important or characteristic to a piece, B flat, A, C, B natural. In German musical nomenclature, in which the note B natural is written as H and the B flat as B, it forms Johann Sebastian Bach's family name. One of the most frequently occurring examples of a musical cryptogram, the motif has been used by countless composers, especially after the Bach Revival in the first half of the 19th century.
"The figure occurs so often in Bach's bass lines that it cannot have been accidental." Hans-Heinrich Eggebrecht goes as far as to reconstruct Bach's putative intentions as an expression of Lutheran thought, imagining Bach to be saying, "I am identified with the tonic and it is my desire to reach it ... Like you I am human. I am in need of salvation; I am certain in the hope of salvation, and have been saved by grace," through his use of the motif rather than a standard changing tone figure (B♭-A-C-B) in the double discant clausula in the fourth fugue of The Art of Fugue.
Bach himself was well aware of the motif and had used it in a number of works, most famously as a fugue subject in the last Contrapunctus of The Art of Fugue. The motif also appears in the end of the fourth variation of Bach's Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her", as well as in other pieces. For example, the first measure of the Sinfonia in F minor BWV 795 includes a transposed version of the motif (a♭'-g'-b♭'-a') followed by the original in measure 17.
Bach's contemporaries knew of the motif's possibilities: it was discussed in Johann Gottfried Walther's Musicalisches Lexikon (1732), and used as a fugue subject by Bach's son Johann Christian and by his pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs. However, the motif's wide popularity came only in the 19th century during and after the so-called Bach Revival, when works by Johann Sebastian Bach were rediscovered by composers and the public.
Much later composers found that the motif could be easily incorporated not only into the advanced harmonic writing of the 19th century, but also into the totally chromatic idiom of the Second Viennese School; so it was used by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and their disciples and followers. Today, composers continue writing works using the motif, frequently in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach.
Selected works featuring the motif
In a comprehensive study published in the catalogue for the 1985 exhibition "300 Jahre Johann Sebastian Bach" ("300 years of Johann Sebastian Bach") in Stuttgart, Germany, Ulrich Prinz lists 409 works by 330 composers from the 17th to the 20th century using the BACH motif (ISBN 3-7952-0459-3). A similar list is available in Malcolm Boyd's volume on Bach; it also contains some 400 works. Some of the more famous works that feature the motif prominently are:
- 1845 — Robert Schumann: Sechs Fugen über den Namen: Bach, for organ, pedal piano, or harmonium, Op. 60
- 1855 — Franz Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H, for organ (later revised, 1870, and arranged, 1871, for piano)
- 1878 — Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Variations on BACH, for piano
- 1900 — Max Reger: Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H for organ
- 1910 — Ferruccio Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica for piano (first version; later versions 1912 and 1922)
- 1926–28 — Arnold Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31
- 1937–38 — Anton Webern: String Quartet (the tone row is based on the BACH motif)
- 1968 – Alfred Schnittke: Quasi Una Sonata (repeated motif, one reviewer, "noting that B-A-C-H is the victor of the composition")
- 1981 – Schnittke: Symphony No. 3 – used alongside the monograms of several other composers.
Other works include:
- 1856 – Johannes Brahms: Fugue in A-flat minor for organ, WoO 8
- 1930 – Marios Varvoglis: Canon, Chorale and Fugue on BACH
- 1932 – Alfredo Casella: Due Ricercari sul nome B-A-C-H, Op. 52
- 1932 – Francis Poulenc: Valse-improvisation sur le nom Bach for piano
- 1934 – Hanns Eisler: Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46 for string trio
- 1937 – Marios Varvoglis: Prelude, Chorale and Fugue on BACH
- 1942–46 – Charles Koechlin: Offrande musicale sur le nom de B-A-C-H, Op. 187
- 1952 – Jean Coulthard: Variations on BACH for piano
- 1952 – Luigi Dallapiccola: Quaderno musicale di Annalibera for piano
- 1954 – Dallapiccola: Variazioni ("Variations", orchestral version of Quaderno musicale di Annalibera)
- 1951–55 – Dallapiccola: "Canti di liberazione"
- 1964 – Arvo Pärt: Collage over B-A-C-H for strings, oboe, harpsichord and piano
- 1974 – Rudolf Brucci: Metamorfosis B-A-C-H for strings
- 1993 – Ron Nelson: Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H) for concert band
- 2004 – Pamela Decker: "Passacaglia on B-A-C-H" for organ
- 2010 – Zsolt Gárdonyi: Hommage à J. S. Bach for organ
- 2010 – Mateus Araujo: Bachmazonia – Symphonic Overture for Orchestra 
- 2011 - Kit Armstrong: Fantasy on B–A–C–H
- Marshall, Robert (2003). Eighteenth-Century Keyboard Music, p.201 and p.224n18. ISBN 0-415-96642-6. See Godt 1979.
- Eggebrecht (1993:8) cited in Cumming, Naomi (2001). The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification, p.256. ISBN 0-253-33754-2.
- Boyd, Malcolm. "B-A-C-H", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 15 December 2006), grovemusic.com (subscription access).
- Schulenberg, David (2006). The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach, p.197. ISBN 0-415-97399-6.
- Christopher Alan Reynolds (2003). Motives for Allusion: Context and Content in Nineteenth-Century Music, p.31. ISBN 0-674-01037-X.
- Daverio, John (1997). Robert Schumann: Herald of a "New Poetic Age", p.309. ISBN 0-19-509180-9.
- Platt, Heather Anne (2003). Johannes Brahms, p.243. ISBN 0-8153-3850-3.
- Arnold, Ben (2002). The Liszt Companion, p.173. ISBN 0-313-30689-3.
- Stein, Erwin (ed.). 1987. Arnold Schoenberg letters, p. 206. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-06009-8
- Bailey, Kathryn. 2006. The Twelve-note Music of Anton Webern: Old Forms In a New Language, p. 24. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-54796-3
- Schmelz, Peter J. (2009). Such Freedom, If Only Musical, p. 255–56. ISBN 0-19-534193-7.
- Ivashkin, Alexander (2009) Liner notes to BIS complete symphony cycle, BIS-CD-1767-68
- Crist, Stephen (2002). Bach Perspectives: Vol. 5: Bach in America, p.175. ISBN 0-252-02788-4. "The reference could not be more clear."
- Fearn, Raymond (2003). The Music of Luigi Dallapiccola. 2005: ISBN 1-58046-078-X.
- "Zsolt Gárdonyi in Munich (in German)". University of Music Wuerzburg. 19 October 2011. Retrieved 30 March.
- Boyd, Malcolm. 1999. Bach. Oxford University Press. 2006 edition: ISBN 0-19-530771-2.
- Jeong, Seyoung (2009). Four Modern Piano Compositions Incorporating the B-A-C-H Motive. ISBN 3-8364-9768-9.
- Prinz, Ulrich; Dorfmüller, Joachim; and Küster, Konrad. 1985. Die Tonfolge B–A–C–H in Kompositionen des 17. bis 20. Jahrhunderts: ein Verzeichnis, in: 300 Jahre Sebastian Bach, pp. 389–419 (exhibition catalogue)
- Robinson, Schuyler Watrous. 1972. The B–A–C–H Motive in German Keyboard Compositions from the Time of J.S. Bach to the Present (thesis, University of Illinois)