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Top Five Deployments of the B-A-C-H Motif

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It’s no secret that Johann Sebastian Bach hid a musical cryptogram in many of his works. Spelling out his name in B-flat, A, C, and B-natural (which is an H in German conventions), the composer left his mark in bass lines, fugues and many of his other works.

Since then, hundreds of composers have paid the father of classical music homage by incorporating this motif in their music. We’ve gathered our favorite five.

1. Pärt: Collage über Bach

Arvo Pärt expressed his reverence for Bach in his seminal work Credo, which liberally uses the chord progression from Bach’s Prelude in C. However, Pärt’s Collage über Bach, completed four years before Credo, is more obvious with its references. In this work the composer developed the collage technique he would employ in the Credo, while paying tribute to Johann Sebastian. In addition to the B-A-C-H theme, the three movements, toccata, sarabande, and ricercar are all allusions to baroque conventions.

2. Liszt: Fantasia and Fugue on the Theme of B-A-C-H

Like Bach, Franz Liszt was celebrated for his keyboard-playing skills, and the latter composer paid homage to his Baroque predecessor with virtuosic pieces for both the organ and piano. Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on the Theme of B-A-C-H, uses the musical cryptogram as an anchor for his piece, and reins in his usual abundance of flourishes. The work has become a staple of the organ repertoire.  

3. Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra

Written from 1926 to 1928, Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 melds the composer’s forward-thinking process with his respect for the history of musical composition. Though the composer bristled when The New York Times suggested that the B-A-C-H motif is the theme of the piece, it is nonetheless quite prominent. It’s first carried by the trombones and becomes more present throughout. Wolfgang Rihm points out that Schoenberg also seems to incorporate Bach-like inventions and polyphony as well.

4. Schumann: Six Fugues on the Name of B-A-C-H

In 1845, Schumann, gripped by what he called Fugenpassion, spent much the year completing the cycle Six Fugues on the Name of B-A-C-H. Each of the six pieces is meant to showcase a character of Bach, within Schumann’s own Romantic style. Though, Schumann predicted these pieces would be among his most beloved works, they are in fact among his lesser-known ones.

5. Schnittke: Quasi una sonata

Perhaps no composer quoted Bach within his own compositions as liberally as Alfred Schnittke. The 20th-century Russian composer and proponent of “polystylism” paid homage to Bach, among numerous composers, including Haydn, Mozart, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and others within his works. Quasi una sonata, a work for violin and piano that translates to “like a sonata,” experiments with the B-A-C-H motif as a unifying theme. The composer said, somewhat cryptically that the theme, “stands out clearly as the solution. The solution consists of the fact that nothing is solved.”