Canons & Fugues Well-Tempered Clavier

Bach's notation of S.D.G., I.N.J.,
and other Christological symbols in sources
pertaining to the Well-Tempered Clavier

In the 18th century it was customary to write "For the Glory of God" upon a finished work of art. While this practice was pro forma, in Bach's case there is compelling evidence that he really meant it. In his book, Bach's metaphysics of music, John Butt posits that Bach's view of the cosmos was musico-centric. Butt explains this term as meaning that, "The substance of music both reflects and embodies the ultimate reality of God and the Universe." Butt suggests that in his religious life Bach reflected the special place of music as "an essential component of the religion itself, indeed one of its defining characteristics." As to the manner in which the composer might give glory to God, Butt concludes that it was by revealing the Pythagorean idea of "well-composed music as natural harmony." [John Butt, The Cambridge Companion to Bach, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 54-55.]


Bach wrote S.D.G. on the reverse side of the last fugue (b-minor) of the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I. This autograph appears in the Mus. ms. Bach P 415 of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Prussischer Kulturbesitz. There is no autograph in Book II that bears a similar dedication. The initials S.D.G. stand for Soli Deo Gloria, a quotation from the Latin translation of Romans 16:27 and Jude 25. This information courtesy of Yo Tomita.


Prior to publishing Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, Bach assisted his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann in copying early versions of eleven preludes into what has come to be known as the Clavier-Büchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The initials J.N.J. appear in the top margin of the first piece of the Clavier-Büchlein. J.N.J. stands for In Nomine Jesu (In the name of Jesus). This information courtesy of Yo Tomita.

Canon BWV 1077

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On October 15, 1747, Bach jotted this canon (left) on the flyleaf of a notebook owned by Johann Gottlieb Fulda (1718-1796), theology student and player in Leipzig's orchestras. In Fulda's notebook the canon is accompanied by two Latin inscriptions. The first is Symbolum Christus Coronabit Crucigeros, which translates: "Symbol, Christ will crown those who carry his cross."

The second inscription reads, Domino Possessori hisce notulis commendare se volebat J. S. Bach: "J. S. Bach wanted to commend himself to the lord possessor by means of these notes." Bach's reference to the "lord possessor" has a double meaning. It obviously refers to the owner of the book (Fulda), but also to the Lord God: i.e. "By means of these notes J. S. Bach wanted to commend himself to God."

This canon is key to understanding Bach's conception of composition as a way of sharing Christ's passion and carrying his cross. It establishes a broad basis for supposition that Bach conceived a musical expression of his creed and monogram. That expression is found in the five descending semitones of the top voice. This lament is expressive of Bach's word Crucigeros--those who carry Christ's cross. When inverted, the lament is made to ascend--Bach's symbol for a crown. Canonically, the crown is generated out of the cross just as Christ crowns those who carry his cross. Theologically, one cannot wear the crown without bearing the cross. The top two lines of this music are canonic; they represent the leader voices, with the followers implicitly derived by contrary motion. The double counterpoint yields an exchange of registers in which what had been in the high voice moves to the low and vice versa. This exchange represents the Chi () symbol--Christus.

In the 18th century Symbolum also had a personal meaning, more like creed or sign. In the B-Minor Mass (see YouTube instructions) Bach identifies what we call the "Nicene Creed" as Symbolum Nicenum or Nicene Symbol. So the "sign" is both personal and corporate, an affirmation of one's own belief in concert with others of the same belief.  For this reason I refer often to Bach's motto as, "Christ will crown those who carry his cross." I am thankful to Dr. Holger Sonntag, a Lutheran pastor, for pointing out the double significance of this motto. Luther taught that Christians should meditate upon Christ's cross as gift and example. As a gift, Christ bore the cross in the Christian's place. As an example, Christ invites Christians to take up that cross and follow him. Thus Christ carries the cross for Christians, and Christians carry the cross for Christ. This twofold nature of the cross is exemplified in many Lutheran 'cross and comfort' hymns that were likely also known to Bach. Dr. Sonntag points out that the crown is not just a promise of future reward, but a present reality in the Sacrament of the Altar.

An earlier version of this canon, though not discovered until 1974, is BWV 1087, the Fourteen Canons on the Goldberg Ground. BWV 1077 appears as No. 11, the third mirror canon, of that collection. Suggested Reading: That Crown of Thorns by Tim Smith.

St. Matthew Passion No. 23 (mm. 1-20)

Bach's association of the cross with the Greek letter Chi (, first letter in , the Greek spelling of Christos), can be established in the several instances where he substituted one for the other. In No. 23 of the St. Matthew Passion (left), not only did Bach substitute for Kreuz he coupled both symbols with the melody associated with his name -- his musical symbol for the cross. Here is the context.

During the vigil at Gethsemane, Christ prays, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt." Bach investigates this propositio (reading of scripture) with tractatio, a recitative wherein the Evangelist sings: "The Savior falls down before His Father [falling strings] thereby he raises me and all men [rising strings] from our fall upward to God's grace again. Because it pleases God, he is ready to drink the cup of death's bitterness, wherein the sins of this world are poured and stink odiously." Next, Bach proposes an applicatio, but not directed as one might expect toward his congregation. Instead, the composer weaves his own name into the subsequent bass aria (N.B.A. 23), focusing the application inward, thereby making it a conclusio, a resolve to carry Christ's cross himself: "Gladly, whatever the cost, I welcome the cross and cup, in the same manner as it was offered the Savior to drink." On the words "cross and cup" (Kreuz und Becher) Bach substitutes for the word Kreuz. This phrase is set to the melody for Bach's name (in retrograde or inversion). All told, Bach's name is heard six times, the last of which (mm. 65-66) is un transposed.

But how can one justify the linkage of with the Well-Tempered Clavier, a work that has no words? Well, if Bach himself connected with Kreuz and his name in the St. Matthew Passion, it is plausible to make the same association in reverse. The WTC contains many instances of Bach's name in tones, which we can safely associate with Kreuz and .

Measure 75 of the St. Matthew Kommt ihr Töchter represents another instance where Bach substituted for Kreuz. Although I've not seen it, I've heard that he does the same thing in the Kreuzstab cantata. In the Christmas Oratorio (title pages of the 2nd & 3rd parts) Bach employs sti in place of "Christi."