Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bach and Germany's Solar Eclipses

How is it possible that music and astronomy collide? More in reality than you think!  

Emphatically aspired as the one of the most remarkable Baroque composers that has ever lived, and arguably one of the greatest of all musical eras, Johann Sebastian Bach laid an outline of melodies, some of which we will never forget today. He was a true virtuoso, himself being an organist, harpsichordist, violist, violinist, and a composer of both sacred and secular music, which "drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity," as Donald Grout states in his book, A History of Western Music [1]. In summary, Bach’s music helped reform and fundamentally redefine the Baroque era — through musical excellence and his unwavering belief in God. 

As we all know, Bach is considered as a great composer. And his music is well respected. But, how does his music relate to astronomy, and of all things, solar eclipses? Although only fragments remain, in his work, Quodlibet (called, Wedding Quodlibit) "Was seind das vor grosse Schlösser" (BWV 524), a line of the piece gives questioning. This is what the subtitle reads, in German, respectively. 
...In diesem Jahre haben wir zwei Sonnenfinsternissen...
In English translation, we can perceive it to mean "In this year we have [seen] two solar eclipses." But which events are these? Because of this indication on the piece's work, we can determine that it was written and the events happened sometime around 1705-1708 AD in central Germany (where Bach lived). From [2], "A reference to two eclipses of the sun in one year has yielded the possibility that the year in question could only be 1705, 1706, or 1708 since 1707 had only partial eclipses in the region;" this makes the question of eclipses more exact. When and what were these eclipses?

According to NASA's eclipse statistics, two eclipses within the years of 1705-1708 are recorded that are near Germany, one passing right though it: May 12, 1706, the one definite for Germany, and the other, September 14, 1708. The latter passes through the Middle east, but Germany would see partial eclipse; there are no other total/hybrid/annular events other than those. Article of the May 12, 1706 eclipse from SOA/NASA Archives.

[1] Grout, Donald (1980). A History of Western Music. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 435
[2] Bratz, Thomas. "BWV 524 Quodlibet (Fragment) 'Was seind das vor grosse Schlösser'". Retrieved 25 January 2012 from

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