Bloomsday Review
You Are Reading

Finding Flowers in Music: Bach and Flowers

31
Musings

Finding Flowers in Music: Bach and Flowers

J.S.

Johann Sebastian Bach (an Aries) was born twelve days after the spring equinox in 1685. Johann means “God is Merciful”. And, Sebastian is a reference to Saint Sebastian who died a martyr at the behest of Emperor Diocletian (a Capricorn).

Saint Sebastian

Diocletian’s original name was Diocles, which means “Glory to God”. Considering his persecution of Christians, Serbians did not find the name fitting and created an avatar of Diocletian called Dukljan, which means “adversary of God”.

Emperor Diocletian

In Diocletian’s palace, there was a rood screen decorated with a pentagram of flowers and birds.

Pentagram of flowers and birds

 

A.M. Flowers Birds

Anna Magdalena Bach (2nd wife of JS, and a Virgo) was once given a gift of her favorite yellow carnations and trained linnets from her nephew, and it was said that “she values this unmerited gift more highly than children do their Christmas presents and tends to them with such care as is usually given to children.”

Pair of linnets

The Quodlibet by J.S. Bach, which was likely sung by A.M. at their wedding, speaks of the joy that flowers bring. In addition to being his oldest vocal work, it shows his sense of humor. A quodlibet is a musical piece where you take music from well known pieces and recycle them into a new one, the kicker is, every one shows up at the wedding and performs it together without any practice.

According to Christian legend, carnations grew from the Virgin Mary’s tears as she watched Jesus carry the cross.

Thus, pink carnations became symbolic of motherly love. Another interpretation has Diana the Goddess ripping out the eyes of a shepherd boy who rejected her and has her throwing them onto the ground where they sprouted into the Dianthus flower.

Diana of Roman Mythology

Dianthus caryophyllus, the botanical name for the carnation shares the root, dios (“divine”) with aforementioned Diocletian and is combined with anthos (flower). The root word of carnation, caro (flesh) can be interpreted to fit either story, as either incarnation of God to flesh or carnage.

In BWV 182, J.S. depicts the image of a soul walking on a bed of roses. The soul is represented by the cantus firmus, the thorns are the dissonances, and the consonances are akin to the perfume and beauty of the flower.

Color

Every flower seems to have a meaning, and each color of a flower furthers its meaning. Red can be used as a symbol for socialism, the Carnation Revolution, admiration, or deep love depending on which shade of red. Oscar Wilde was known to wear green carnations which became an LGBTQ symbol.

Oscar Wilde

As a matter of fact, one of the earliest LGBTQ symbols was none other than Saint Sebastian. Yellow, A.M. Bach’s color of choice, unfittingly symbolizes disappointment or rejection. The beauty of symbols is that they are open to interpretation, and I certainly agree with A.M. that yellow carnations have a much more positive aesthetic. The significance of color is not isolated to the visual world. Musicians rely on color as symbols for their palette of tones, harmonies, moods, and emotions that can all be evoked, just as in floral design or art. Composer Alexander Scriabin in his Prometheus, uses a color organ which features colors that change with the music.

Perception Patterns Pentagrams

There are hundreds of flowers in a flower shop, but it’s only when they appear in the backdrop of nature during a super bloom that people will flock to immortalize their experience on Instagram. Negative Space or the space around the subject and the concept of figure-ground organization give us a backdrop on which to place our subject and the opportunity to give the viewer or listener a sense of what they should focus on.

Figure-ground vase

Photo negative

The music of Bach is like a baroque garden, made up of flowers that are placed in intricate patterns framed by walkways of negative space that contribute a beautifully complementing pattern that is designed to show you a balance of primary and secondary lines. Each small group of notes is a flower, and the beauty of the flower lies in its symmetry. A flower is usually actinomorphic (star shaped) or zygomorphic (bilateral) which resemble the star like qualities of the pentagram in Diocletian’s Palace which is an isomorphic shape. Taking a hint from nature, Bach also uses isomorphisms: Iso- (equal), morphic (shape or form)…a structure that stays the same while it undergoes invertible transformations. Bach will take a handful of notes and he’ll work with them like a shape, moving the pattern forwards and backwards, upside down and starting on different pitches and key areas to write music that all seems to stem from the same seed like a beautiful series of mandalas that connect in harmony.

Bach Seeds

Now, back to names. JS’s last name Bach means “brook”, which is not an apt description at least according to Beethoven who stated, “Not ‘brook’ but ‘sea’ should he be called because of his infinite, inexhaustible richness in tone combinations and harmonies.”

Beethoven nurtured seeds placed by Bach and grew to understand that to affect people through music or any medium, one must study the flowers and understand their place and function within the garden. The color, texture, and placement of the flowers must be in harmony with the negative space. Only then can you use four notes (Da-Da-Da-Dum) to write a symphony.

There is a floral festival at the Palace of Diocletian to this day and also the only sign of life at Bach’s tomb are the flowers placed on it, but even those die. Bach’s music however, is Immortal…like humanity’s desire to lead meaningful lives utilizing patterns of meaningless symbols. If it means arranging flowers in a beautiful way or reading little black and white notes on five lines, then asking what meaning can I squeeze out of these sounds, Why not? Take a step Bach and don’t forget to stop and smell the carnations.

First print of “Komm, süßer Tod”, edited by Schemelli in 1736

 


“Immortal Bach” arr. by Knut Nystedt conducted by Edward Hong.


published on June 14, 2019.

Photo (top): French Garden at the former Duke Gardens in New Jersey. Source: nosha

About Author

EDWARD HONG studied Music at Colburn School where he played percussion and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he completed graduate work in Conducting. He was music director for Opera Theater Unlimited's production of Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea" which was noted by the San Francisco Chronicle as among the top ten classical music performances in San Francisco in 2016. He has also served as conducting fellow of the American Youth Symphony and at Eastern Music Festival. Edward is based in Los Angeles and Temecula.