Simanaitis Says

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I’M HAVING A BALL learning more about the history of music. But not from the work of just any musicologist. Rather, it’s from a favorite author, actor and one-of-a-kind, Stephen Fry.


Stephen Fry’s Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music, by Stephen Fry as told to Tim Lihoreau, Macmillan, 2004.

I’ll bet Tim Lihoreau had a ball too in working on the book with Fry. It reads like an extended chat with a friend who knows musical history very well yet refuses to take the subject too seriously. Here are some tidbits concerning Johann Sebastian Bach.


Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685 – 1750, German composer par excellence.

Fry puts Bach in historical perspective as a composer at the end of the Baroque Era, which began about 1600, leading into the Classic Era, evolving around 1750. He makes the point that these musical distinctions didn’t occur sharply with these dates.

Fry writes, “And just like at the end of an exam, when the bell goes off, very few people immediately just put their pens down. So, very few people just stopped writing baroque, just like that. Well, OK, Bach did, but this was more down to a personal request from the Grim Reaper than a change to the classical. [Bach died in 1750.] Most others carried on a bit, writing baroque, until the teacher physically wrested the pen from their hands.”

Bach, Fry notes, was heavy into numerology: “If you give all the letters numerical value,… his second name added up to 14 (i.e., B2 + A1 + C3 + H8 = 14).” Reflecting this, Bach wrote many cantatas in which the principal theme has precisely 14 notes.

“One choral prelude,” Fry observes, Wenn wir in hocksten Noten sein, has exactly 166 notes, which, if you care to add it up, is the numerical value of his full name.”

As seen in mathematical treatises, I leave details to the reader.


Bach’s crest, during his residence in Leipzig. It contains the initials JSB superimposed on their mirror image.

Among Bach’s several job postings were recurrences to Weimar, Germany, which made a recent appearance here at SimanaitisSays in “Come On-A Bauhaus.” The second time around, Bach spent time in a Weimar lockup, the charge “for too strenuously forcing the issue of his dismissal.”

As to another issue entirely, Bach had a total of 20 offspring. His first wife had seven, three of whom survived their father. Bach’s second wife had 13 children, six of whom survived into adulthood.


I like the imagined sticky note on the back cover of Fry’s book. ds

c Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

One comment on “BACH IN A MINUTE

  1. Michael Rubin
    August 17, 2016

    Wasn’t Bach an organ tuner? You can hear scales throughout his compositions.

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