Arrangement of the 14 Canons on the first 8 fundamental notes of the aria from the Goldberg Variations, BWV 1087 by Johann Sebastian Bach for recorder, traverso, 2 violins, viola, violoncello and harpsichord.
Fourteen ( B  A  C  H  = 14 )* is the precise total of the Canons on the first eight notes of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, a enigmatic work by Bach, rediscovered in 1975 when the Bibliothèque Nationale de France acquired a first edition of the Variations that 15 had belonged to Bach himself and contained on its back cover some curious canons written in the form of musical puzzles. Of these canons, only nos.11 and 13 were known before 1975. Using inversion and retrograde motion, augmenting and diminishing the note values in a counterpoint that might seem impossible were it not for his perfect and elegant mathematics, Bach sketches unheard-of worlds using as his sole basis the first eight notes of the bass of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.
But the meaning of these compositions goes beyond a highly refined mathematical succession of notes. Canon 11 tells us a little more of its history thanks to a first version that Bach himself inscribed in the autograph book of a friend of his, the theologian and amateur musician Johann Gottlieb Fulde. There the same canon is accompanied by two inscriptions: Symbolum: Christus Coronabit Crucigeros (Motto: Christ will crown the Cross-bearers) and Domino Possessori commendare notulis hisce se volebat J. S. Bach (J. S. Bach wished to recommend himself to the Gentleman owning this book in these few notes). So this little canon contains a rhetorical message in its mathematical perfection: the pain of the Five Wounds of Christ in the five notes in chromatic progression (passus duriusculus), and the representation of the Cross in the intersecting melodic movement of the voices.
Another canon that reveals more about its history is no.13, which was already known long before, mainly because it appears in one of the most famous portraits of J. S. Bach, painted by Elias Haussmann in 1746. In the painting, the composer is depicted wearing a jacket with fourteen buttons and displaying the canon in question, which along with the Variations on Vom Himmel hoch gained him admittance to Mizler’s Society of Musical Science.
* In the German system of note-names, B = B ﬂat and H = B natural