Exploring Christian Symbolism in Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor

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Photo by Sole D'Alessandro G. on Unsplash

Introduction

How do religious composers create works that express the divine? An exploration of any religion will yield some practice that involves a spiritual journey through music. Music and spirituality enjoy an inextricable link; one has always been connected to the other. In western history, music was valued as a means of connection with God. The church historically valued music in their services and sought the most talented composers and musicians to bring their music to the highest level. Why was the church so heavily involved in this endeavor? Why is it that, as many religions claim, when sounds are joined together in a certain way, they result in a religious experience?

In the Christian tradition, the Bible is rarely taken for face value. Instead, practitioners are encouraged to look through the text to find patterns, analogies, or lessons to be learned. Christian-inspired western classical music should be viewed in the same way.

Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is the paramount example of a divine work of music. Through its diligent use of numerology, gesture, rhythm, form, harmony, and other compositional methods, Biblical signs are woven throughout the entire piece creating a layered sense of intricacy not only in the notes itself but in the meaning behind those notes. In this piece, Bach constructs a musical narrative of the Bible’s journey through the Old Testament, the birth of Jesus Christ, his Crucifixion and Resurrection.

What is Symbolism in Music and How does it Work?

To understand how religious icons are created, the nature of semiotics in music must be understood. Semiotics is the study of signs; how we construct meaning and recognition out of patterns and figures. “Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning” (Chandler 2002). The same can be said for notes in music. The first eight bars of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor has no inherent meaning, but instead meaning is invested through interpretation and becomes a sign. According to Saussure’s model of semiotics, those eight bars of music are a signifier, and their resulting meaning is signified.[1] Signifiers refer to the object itself, while the signified is the ascribed meaning of the object.

Each symbol in this piece is reinforced by another symbol. One needs many signs to recognize them as signifier, and repeated instances to register their signified. Thus, a layering of signs occurs, where perhaps a theme is repeated ten times. Thus, the signified is the number ten. And in a religious setting, the presence of the number ten in something holy may signify the ten commandments.

This investment is not conscious however, “we interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics” (Chandler 2002). No amount of music will carry universal meaning, but some will be understood by those who have enough context on the music to relate it with their “familiar systems of conventions.”

The process of reading sheet music is itself a layer of signs. The ink on the page arranged in a certain way signify notes, meter, or tonality. Those signs become signifiers for the music being heard, and from there, associated with other sonic patterns or musical context associated with the piece. J. Peter Burkholder explores the association of music and meaning more deeply in his essay, A Simple Model for Associative Musical Meaning. He argues for a “simple associative model…It allows issues of musical meaning to be discussed in a relatively jargon-free manner, rendering it accessible to nonspecialists” (Burkholder 2006). This model will be the standard for identifying meaning in the remainder of this paper.

Burkholder’s model follows a five-step process which may or may not occur in order, but work in this order as an analytic method. They are the following:

1. “Recognizing familiar elements.

2. Recalling other music or schema that make use of those elements.

3. Perceiving the associations that follow from the primary associations.

4. Noticing what is new and how familiar elements are changed.

5. Interpreting what all this means.” (Burkholder 2006)

Religious ideas in music (although this model works just as well for religious texts) depend on this process. Informed by the research done on semiotics as mentioned above, Burkholder presents a compositional model through which religious iconography is formed.

To recognize what is new in a piece of music, one must have sufficient context to understand what is expected. Context can be any information that the listener ascribes to the piece before needing to hear it. Context can be thorough, such as understanding the biography of the composer, when the piece was written, what style, for what audience, instrumentation, and/or commissioner. It can also be as simple as knowing the title and key signature. Burkholder states that the first step in generating associated meaning is recognizing “what is familiar in the music” (Burkholder, 2006). Sometimes familiar elements are present in information given before the music.

Markedness

While a sense of familiarity is necessary to starting this process, engagement with the unfamiliar is often the step that creates new meaning. The fourth step in Burkholder’s associative model is about recognizing what’s new, or different compared to that which is expected. Robert Hatten, who is famous for his research in musical meaning, explores what he calls “markedness” and shares an example through Mozart in his chapter, Aesthetically Warranted Emotion and Composed Expressive Trajectories in Music (Hatten, Aesthetically Warranted Emotion and Composed Expressive Trajectories in Music 2010). In this chapter, Hatten compares one version of a Mozart phrase which he calls “normalized” — representing what an audience member would expect of the music, to Mozart’s own writing. The differences where Mozart thwarts the expectations of the listener or of the style are what Hatten would call “marked”.

In developing iconography in a piece of music, markedness is crucial for identifying where those icons might be. In these moments of thwarted expectation, one finds instances that give the listener pause. They may recognize a structural change, they become curious at hearing something new and question why the composer wrote that passage in that way. Sometimes the music moves so far away from the expected that the sense of time is discarded, and the audience is left in a state of awe, forcing them to contemplate the meaning of that time-shattering moment.

Symbolism of the Organ

Few instruments carry as much anecdotal meaning by their mere mention than the pipe organ. The instrument is found almost exclusively in churches, and occasionally large concert halls. The organ is famous for being the principal instrument to drive church congregations through their services. Secular works for organ exist but they are overshadowed by the immense catalog of religious Christian works. For the most part, writing music for organ carries some relationship to the church according to the audience. A relationship to the church also indicates a relationship to Christian Music, attempts to communicate the word of Christ through the pipe organ. Someone attending a classical music concert in a church, to hear music by Bach on the organ would then be more likely to expect the work to be religious than not. What follows when listening to the music is then a series of biblical associations.

Numerology in Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue

Using Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue as an example for applying the associative model, one’s thought process would likely be organized as such:

1. This piece is a work for organ by J.S. Bach, a religious Lutheran

2. Bach has written many other pieces for the organ and is known for his preludes and fugues.

3. These pieces were written for and performed in the church. Bach regularly used his organ works to express religious themes, such as the great E-flat Major Fugue on the theme of St. Anne.

4. This piece was composed as one unit, which is unlike Bach’s other organ works. The preludes and fugues were often composed separately and joined later by key signature. But this work was written as one whole with two parts. This piece also starts with a passacaglia, not a prelude, so one should expect a structured beginning with a repeating bassline.

5. This piece is likely to be focused on religious themes, and Bach probably intended some numerological meaning by composing a piece with two distinct parts that work together in three flats and in ¾ time.

This model shows one’s thought process even before the piece begins. But evidence is needed for the listener to know for sure what is being expressed. The way evidence develops in musical meaning is through recognizing similar processes repeatedly in the music. The listener’s intuition is then validated as repeated references to the same, or similar signs. Once a suspicion arises, further instances will guide the listener towards the intended meaning and validate their suspicions.

Since the listener already established a suspicion of religiosity, they then consider evidence based on any context they may know. In this case, one can find religious symbolism before the first note. Bach’s use of the C minor key is of importance to this piece since, as Goodrich points out, “the tonality of C minor, expressive of profound sadness, was apparently a favorite one with Bach at that time” (Pirro and Goodrich 1902). The holiness of the number 3 marked by the profound-sadness key imitate Christianity’s obsession with both the holiness of God and the sin of humanity. C minor is the perfect key for someone like Bach to express a struggle that necessitates salvation. C as a center pitch is also valuable because it utilizes the entire range of a baroque organ, whose lowest note in the pedal is a C, and the keyboard’s range can reach up to either a high C or the dominant G. Bach’s use of number symbolism in the key and time signatures also hint to further use of numerology in the piece.

It is no secret that Bach was a fan of numerology and used it as a means of expressing the bible in his works. As mentioned earlier, a sign doesn’t become recognized as a sign unless there are repeated and structured instances that match what is known through context. One can easily argue for the use of numerology in this work, because almost everything that can be counted in this piece yields a number of some biblical significance that coincides with the context of that unit.

The Passacaglia’s variations are divided in a way that yields a number of biblical importance. Twenty-one total variations are divided between ten, six, and five. Twenty-one is the product of seven and three. Seven is the number of “divine perfection or completeness” (Fairchild 2018). This number refers to the Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath, where God created the world. The Bible declares its value in the Book of Genesis, which states: “and on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2.2–3). These numbers are known through convention, but their significance is stated directly in the Bible as well, meaning that any practicing Christian would know their value. The bible is clear that followers of God should value the numbers he values in the book of Exodus where “the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it” (Exodus 20.11). Followers of God would then understand that their duty is to recognize what God deems holy and follow suit.

The number three is also of biblical significance, representing God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible also makes repeated references to major events happening on the third day. For example, Jesus promises at the temple of Jerusalem, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2.19) and after he was crucified, he rose from the dead in three days, and his followers retroactively realized that “he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus has spoken” (John 2.20–22). Again, followers of God acknowledge the commands of God and apply them to their lives. They believed his word and its significance wholly, down to the last number.

The Ten Commandments

The first ten variations of the piece represent the ten commandments. The first variation is the theme in isolation, a symbol for the unity and holiness of God. This variations is the first in ten “reasonably strict passacaglia variations (suggesting commandments), 6 free variations which ‘lose’ the subject (suggesting wandering away from the law, 6 also having some ‘imperfect ‘connotations here), 5 variations with Advent, Christmas and World figuren… and a double fugue where the 5 minor, 2 major and 5 minor fugal entries form a triptych representing the centrality of added new commandments amongst the re-affirmation of the old ‘Law’” (Rumsey n.d.). How does the audience know that the piece is divided in such a way, and how can they discern meaning in these different parts? In this piece, Bach marks a formal change through texture in the Passacaglia, and key in the Fugue. The reason why key is not a marker in the Passacaglia is because it doesn’t wander away from C minor.

This number symbolism in the form is also supported by instances of numerology within the music. The theme itself is fifteen notes long, the product of five and three; the duality between five, representing the incarnation of Christ and the four limbs and head of humanity, and the three of the trinity combine to form a theme which permeates the entire piece.

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Figure 1: mm. 1–6

Focusing for now on the Passacaglia, one can identify the first formal change through the change in texture. The first ten variations (other than the first) are in a polyphonic, contrapuntal texture. The eleventh variation is then marked by a melody and accompaniment. Because it is the first variation with a texture change, the audience will register this change as a formal marker (figure two).

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Figure 2: mm. 78–81

This numerology also reinforces the symbolism caused by what is happening to the theme itself. While the audience may not recognize the first ten variations as the ten commandments, they will hear that the theme is stated strongly and unwaveringly. The theme never leaves the bass, the theme barely changes, and it doesn’t change texture. They also recognize that only the first ten variations were composed this way.

Straying from God

Following measure eighty are six more variations in which the theme loses its gravitas and slowly fades away. This stark departure from the beginning forges a semiotic relationship between this departure from the theme and the departure of God’s people from his word. On the anacrusis to measure eighty-nine, the theme is moved from the bass to the top voice. In tonal music, the bass is the foundation of the harmony and the subsequent music. Changing the bass means changing the foundation. Now the bassline is a running sixteenth-note pattern, very different from the stability marked in the previous eleven variations (see figure three). The music is also much thinner, down from four voices to two — a number representing man and God, or possibly Jesus and God according to Bach. The downward descent coming from the theme above, which is marked in this context specifically because the location of the theme as above the run is also marked, also might signify the descent of Jesus Christ from the realm of Heaven to human kind.

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Figure 3: mm. 89–91

This pattern of destabilizing the theme continues through the next three variations. On measure ninety-seven, the music returns to a four-part contrapuntal texture but is still markedly different from the first ten variations because the theme is still in the melody, not the bass. Furthermore, the downward gesture is dramatized by the three lower voices. This thirteenth variation is the third in a row to feature a downward descent, adding validity to the idea that some meaning is to be interpreted from these downward gestures. If the listener, by this point, understands the theme to represent the word of God, then they would also recognize this descent as movement from Heaven to Earth.

They would also notice the theme straying away. It never departs the music, but instead becomes less prominent and hidden in the texture. The last variation in this section takes this progression to an extreme. Reducing the theme to one texture on measure 120 produces an interesting shape: an ascending figure, a quick drop on the last beat, and ascending again — a signifier for the cross (see figure four). This figure is reinforced by the notation of this passage. While the texture is one voice, the music is written as two, each playing two sixteenth notes each.

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Figure 4: mm. 119–123

The Bible makes various references to the number two. Two is the number of witnesses needed to follow through a death sentence (Deuteronomy 17.6) or can more largely represent truth of witness to the divine, as this story from the Old testament points out: “After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fat cows, and they grazed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. The ugly and thin cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. And Pharaoh awoke. Then he fell asleep and dreamed a second time…” (Genesis 41.1–6). While those interpretations are valid here, one must also question why Bach uses two voices. This situation is marked. Along with witness to the truth, and the figure of the cross, one can also recognize that the two elements here are God and Jesus, the same being as two between Heaven and Earth. This unity of two continues throughout the entire piece and will be critical in analyzing the fugue.

These six variations create a narrative of an established authority through the Passacaglia theme being slowly changed and hidden. If the first ten variations represent the ten commandments, then the following six represent humanity’s movement away from God. Humanity here is signified both by the prominent use of two voices, representing Heaven and Earth, and more importantly by the number six, regarding the sex variations in this section. On the sixth day, God said “’let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind’… Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’… So God created humankind in his image…God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1.24–31). The number six also has connotations of imperfection. It is one removed from seven, among the holiest numbers, almost there but not quite. It makes sense then that humanity would be represented by the number six. This number’s symbolism should not be confused with the number five, which is a holy number and represents the individual or the human, whereas six represents more the collective humanity and specifically its imperfection. Bach continues this narrative by reasserting God’s will on the people and introducing the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Birth of Christ

The Passacaglia and Fugue represent both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Passacaglia is marked by an unwavering C minor that contrasts with a freer texture and formal structure based on changing key signatures in the Fugue. In the same manner, the New Testament is a new set of rules that overrides the Old Testament.

One cannot truly understand the Passacaglia and Fugue without knowing Das Orgelbüchlein, Bach’s set of 46 Chorale preludes. Many of the gestures in this piece come from these preludes. One of the more prominent quotes is of his premiere prelude “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” which is quoted in measure 129. Notice the same gesture of chromatic lower neighbor anacruses repeated in a downward trend. The texture change is also radically different, from one voice to many, signaling another major formal change.

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Figure 6: Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland mm. 1–5
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Figure 5: mm. 129–132

“Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” translates to Now Come, oh Savior of Gentiles, a specifically Lutheran hymn detailing the birth of Jesus Christ. The first verse reads „Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, Der Jungenfrauen Kind erkannt! Dass sich wundre alle Welt, Gott solch’ Geburt ihm bestellt.“[2] In the moments before Jesus Christ was born, God’s people were sinful, and God loved them so much that he sacrificed his son to atone for their sins. Quoting this chorale prelude announcing the birth of Christ becomes its own announcement of the incarnation.

What follows is a marked rhythmic change. The following variation starting on measure 137 features a three-part texture, with the theme on the pedal and two running sixteenth-note triplets. The number three is now, and suddenly, expressed prominently where the rest of the passacaglia is in straight sixteenth notes. Not only does the energy pick up because the smallest note values are faster, but the audience will immediately recognize the promise of the trinities.

The last two variations finish the Passacaglia in a harmonically dead fashion. Layers of three-note anacruses on the same notes pile on, creating a sense of being stuck. These variations are the moments before Jesus Christ’s birth, and the moments that necessitated God’s sacrifice.

The Fugue

What remains is a double fugue. The fifteen-note theme, now shortened to about eight, but still recognized as the whole. Changing the theme creates a massive change in the narrative of the piece. If the entire Passacaglia centered on the unchanging theme that is representative of God’s word, then the Fugue creates a new set of rules which allow more leniency to the theme. God’s rules literally changed. Through this understanding of the theme, one would then gather that the Fugue is to the New Testament as the Passacaglia is to the Old.

As part of the new rule in this section, another fugal theme appears, a five-note motif that is repeated (with slight alterations) at least three times. This change that brings about the new rules, following several instances of foreshadowing in the Passacaglia, assures the listener that this theme represents Jesus Christ.

The number five is a divine number representing humanity. While six has connotations to humankind’s imperfection, the number 5 is related to their divinity as God’s people. This theme forms a single unit with the main theme. Only one human was ever a single unit with God, and that was Jesus Christ.

This unity results in the first modulation in the piece to the key of G minor, and the first signifier that a new ruleset is being used in this section.

This fugue also has a countersubject that usually doesn’t change, a running sixteenth-note pattern. These three themes are always together and unchanging while the fourth voice is in free counterpoint. These three unchanging voices allow the listener to experience the trinity and its unity throughout the entire fugue.

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Figure 7: mm. 174–177

Number symbolism is still paramount to the form of this fugue, despite operating differently from the Passacaglia. These numbers that were experienced in solidarity in the Passacaglia are now developed and form a unity. The fugue starts with five passages in minor, two in major, and another five in minor, forming three sections and one whole unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It signifies the markedness of Jesus Christ as human, and the unity of Heaven and Earth.

Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes-Sohn

Throughout the fugue, one encounters the same motif: a three-note anacrusis featuring a lower neighbor tone. This motif is incessant as it appears in almost every bar of the fugue and is a major theme of development up until the end of the piece. This motif is reminiscent of another Chorale Prelude from Das Orgelbüchlein, “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes-Sohn”[3] reaffirming the presence of Jesus Christ as a foundational theme in the fugue. The theme appears as an anacrusis to the Holy-Spirit theme various times until it is exposed in measure 217 as a developing figure in the episode. Bach then exposes that motif again in measure 237, in case the listener didn’t get the point yet.

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Figure 8 : Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes-Sohn mm. 1–4
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Figure 9: mm. 178–180
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Figure 10: mm. 217–220

The Crucifixion

The ending of this piece features the most striking measure, and even one of the most striking moments in Bach’s musical output. This moment is preceded by four iterations of a seven-note motif in the bass and three-note motifs in the manual. The first time the figure rises, and then the figure repeats three times in the same downward gesture. Each gesture lead to a painful and prolonged dominant chord; with the momentum of seven in the bass and three on the keyboard, the dominant chord lasting three measures is nailed on each downbeat until a Neapolitan chord is played so strikingly that the music is forced to prolong that chord and pause in contemplative silence, shattering the sense of time which has been consistent throughout the piece before this moment on measure 285.

Signs of the cross were present throughout the entire piece, but they weren’t experienced. Instead, they foreshadowed this moment. This chord is a shock, but it’s not unexpected. The same Neapolitan chord was foreshadowed as early as measure seventy-one, the eighth variation. At that moment, the number ten was experienced as the ten commandments, the three-note anacrusis in variation 10 were not representative of Jesus, nor was the figure of the cross in variation 16. In those instances, the narrative of the Old Testament was unfolding, but these signs sprinkled in throughout the piece foreshadowed this moment indicating a master plan, a sense of timelessness, in God’s scheme. Everything done before, through the commandments, the covenant, the sinners and the suffering, were all part of God’s plan to prepare the world for his son’s incarnation, crucifixion, and reincarnation.

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Figure 11: mm. 281–292

Salvation

The piece’s end mirror Jesus’ journey upon death until his reincarnation. The piece concludes with a final resolution to a Picardy C major in measure 288. The same seven-note motif in the bass and three-note motif in the manuals are played on the tonic chord, now encompassing the whole of the keyboard. In such a leap one can visualize through the bass Jesus rising to heaven, and descending to free those in hell, and finally settling on the lowest C, building in texture until finally, the piece ends in a seven-note C major chord. Only one word can accurately describe the sense of relief and majestic awe at this ending following the profundity of a heavily dramatic piece: salvation.

Conclusion

The narrative of this piece is established through a consistent layering of signs. This piece illustrates Bach’s mastery in divine symbolism and is an inspiration for future generations of composers. Holy texts like the Bible are filled with icons that are recognizable in music and using these signs in composition are quite effective in then creating that sense of divinity. These signs are consistent as techniques change over the years. One finds these signifiers in the works of future religious composers such as Olivier Messaien and Arvo Pärt.

While one can listen to this work and ignore the symbolism, others listen with wonder and contemplation, questioning hidden meaning between every note. One way of listening is not more valid than the other, but because the latter is possible, that every corner of this piece can be explored and will yield new meaning into a consistent narrative, proves that these methods are effective in creating a sense of musical divinity.

[1] I use Saussure’s model because it is simple enough to understand for the purposes of this essay. The topic of semiotics is far more complex than laid out in this paper, which attempts to provide only the background information that is necessary to understanding the arguments presented here. Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics: The Basics is an excellent accompanying resource to this paper should the reader be interested in diving further into this study.

[2] Now come, Savior of the Gentiles, recognized as the virgin child, so that all the world is in wonder, God ordained such a birth for him.

[3] Lord Christ, God’s only son

References

Burkholder, J. Peter. 2006. “A Simple Model for Associative Musical Meaning.” In Approaches to Meaning in Music, 76–106. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Chandler, Daniel. 2002. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.

Fairchild, Mary. 2018. ThoughtCo. . September 14. Accessed December 5, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/biblical-numerology-700168.

Hatten, Robert S. 2010. “Aesthetically Warranted Emotion and Composed Expressive Trajectories in Music.” In Music Analysis, by Robert S. Hatten, 83–88. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Pirro, Andre, and Wallace Goodrich. 1902. Johann Sebastian Bach, the Organist and His Works for the Organ. New York: G. Schirmer.

Rumsey, David. n.d. “Bach and Numerology: ‘dry mathematical stuff’?” 143–165.

Bibliography

Almén, Byron. 2003. “Narrative Archetypes: A Critique, Theory, and Method of Narrative Analysis.” Journal of Music Theory 1–39.

Burkholder, J. Peter. 2006. “A Simple Model for Associative Musical Meaning.” In Approaches to Meaning in Music, 76–106. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Chandler, Daniel. 2002. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.

Fairchild, Mary. 2018. ThoughtCo. . September 14. Accessed December 5, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/biblical-numerology-700168.

Hatten, Robert S. 2004. “A Theory of Musical Gesture and its Application to Beethoven and Schubert.” In Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes, 1–23. Bloomington: Inidiana University Press.

Hatten, Robert S. 2010. “Aesthetically Warranted Emotion and Composed Expressive Trajectories in Music.” In Music Analysis, by Robert S. Hatten, 83–88. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Huron, David. 2006. “Introduction.” In Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, by David Huron, 1–18. London: MIT Press.

Karl, Gregory. 1997. “Structuralism and Musical Plot.” Music Theory Spectrum 13–34.

Pirro, Andre, and Wallace Goodrich. 1902. Johann Sebastian Bach, the Organist and His Works for the Organ. New York: G. Schirmer.

Rumsey, David. n.d. “Bach and Numerology: ‘dry mathematical stuff’?” 143–165.

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Lebanese composer, writer, and freelancer based in the Washington D.C. area.

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