Bach: Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, BWV 769

08.05.14: 236th anniversary of the death of Lorenz Christoph Mizler (1711-1778).

Lorenz Christoph Mizler was born in Heidenheim, Franconia; his parents were Johann Georg Mizler, court clerk to the Margrave of Ansbach at Heidenheim, and Barbara Stumpf, of St Gallen. According to his autobiography, his first teacher was N. Müller, a minister from Obersulzbach, and learnt the flute and violin. From 1724 to 1730, and studied at the Ansbach Gymnasium with Rector Oeder and Johann Matthias Gesner, who became director of Thomasschule zu Leipzig from 1731 to 1734. He enrolled at Leipzig University on April 30, 1731, and chiefly studied theology; his teachers included Johann Matthias Gesner, Johann Christoph Gottsched, and Christian Wolff. He took a bachelor’s degree in December 1733 and a master’s degree in March 1734. During this time, he also pursued the study of composition, and had some association with J.S. Bach, who he said he had the honour to call his ‘good friend and patron’.

L.C. Mizler moved to Wittenberg in 1735 to study law and medicine, and returned to Leipzig in 1736. From May 1737, he began lecturing on music history and Johann Mattheson‘s Neu-eröffnete Orchestre; he was the first to lecture on music at a German university for 150 years. He also began the Neu eröffnete musikalische Bibliothek, a monthly publication; in 1738 it became the periodical of his newly-founded Korrespondierenden Sozietät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften (Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences), which had the support of Count Giacomo de Lucchesini and G.H. Bümler, Ansbach court Kapellmeister. He also began a business publishing music. In 1743 he became secretary, teacher, librarian and court mathematician to Count Małachowski of Końskie, for which he learnt the Polish language, and about Polish history and Polish literature.

L.C. Mizler decided to take a doctorate of medicine at Erfurt University in 1747, and moved to Warsaw in 1752, where he became court physician and was able to study the natural sciences. He again established a publishing business, in 1754, became a member of the Erfurt Academy of Sciences in 1757, and received Polish nobility in 1768. He died in Warsaw in 1778.


Lorenz Christoph Mizler was only an amateur composer but deeply interested in music theory, advocating the establishment of a musical science based firmly on mathematics and philosophy, and the imitation of nature in music. He translated Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum into German (the original was in Latin), having written of it that ‘this methodical guide to musical composition [is] among all such works the best book that we have for practical music and its composition’. In intellect and study he was a polymath, his interests encompassing music, mathematics, philosophy, theology, law, and the natural sciences in great detail. He was influenced in philosophy by the ideas of Christian Wolff, Gottfried Leibnitz, and J.C. Gottsched.

The Musikalische Bibliothek, which he published between 1736 and 1754, is an important document of the musical life in Germany at the time, and includes reviews of books on music written from 1650 up to its publication. It appeared in four volumes with several fascicles. Mizler himself contributed commentaries and criticisms on the writings of Printz, Leonhard Euler, Scheibe, Schröter, Spiess, J.C. Gottsched, and J. Mattheson; especially the latter two’s Critische Dichtkunst and Vollkommene Capellmeister. His essays were detailed and perceptive and offer a useful musicological resource for present-day scholars of Baroque music.

L.C. Mizler’s interest in the scientific aspects of music extended to methods of tuning. He considered Werckmeister’s temperament to be the best of its time, but thought that Neidhardt had subsequendy improved on it. As regards Mizler’s own music, all that remains are the first three volumes of a four-volume collection of keyboard works entitled Sammlung auserlesener moralischer Oden (Leipzig, 1740-1746), a unique exemplar of which belonged to Dragan Plamenac (1895-1983).

Lorenz Christoph Mizler founded the Korrespondierenden Sozietät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften (Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences) in 1738. The aim was to enable musical scholars to circulate theoretical papers and to further musical science by encouraging discussion of the papers by correspondence. Many of the papers appear in theMusikalische Bibliothek.

Musical Society & J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach joined in 1747, presenting on admission his Canon triplex BWV 1076 and the Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her for organ, BWV 769.

The regulations of Mizler’s society, which, like his journal, remained in operation until 1754, required each member to pay an annual subscription of 2 thaler, to remain in correspondence with other members, and to send to the secretary (Mizler) at least once a year a scientific communication following the philosophical principles of Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and the literary style of Johann Christoph Gottsched. The scientific communication could take the form of a speculative musical composition, and members older than 65 were excused it altogether. It was also a requirement of the society that each member should present his portrait in oil (J.S. Bach‘s portrait, painted by E.G. Haußmann in 1746, is the only one known to survive. See: B-01) and bequeath to the society a portion of his estate. The society, for its part, undertook to produce the member’s obituary and to furnish the text of an ode or cantata in his honour, both of which would be published, along with his portrait, in the Musikalische BibliothekJ.S. Bach‘s Obituary duly appeared in the journal in 1754.

As his own contribution for 1748, J.S. Bach sent to the society the Musical Offering (BWV 1079), and for the following year his composition in lieu of a scientific dissertation was probably to have been what was eventually called Die Kunst der Fuge (‘The Art of Fugue’) (BWV 1080). Each of J.S. Bach‘s works connected in one way or another with Mizler’s society has strong esoteric and enigmatic connotations and uses variation and contrapuntal rigour as the basis of its construction.

The membership was limited to twenty; the following joined:
1738: G. de Lucchesini; Lorenz Christoph Mizler (permanent secretary); G.H. Bümler
1739: C.G. Schröter, Heinrich Bokemeyer, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749)
1742: G.F. Lingke
1743: M. Spiess, G. Venzky
1745: Georg Frideric Händel (1685-1759), U. Weiss
1746: C.H. Graun
1747: J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Andreas Sorge (1703-1778), Carl Heinrich Graun 1703/4-1759), J.P. Kunzen
1748: Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (c1670-1746)
1751: J.C. Winter
1752: J.G. Kaltenbeck
1755: Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) (was invited to become its 20th member, but declined the invitation)

Another possible J.S. Bach connection

Another possibility that has been considered is that J.S. Bach compsed the Cantata BWV 209 Non sa sia dolore was composed toward the end of the 1730s or in the early 1740s. Klaus Hofmann thinks that it might be conceivable that it was a farewell cantata for Lorenz Christoph Mizler who left Leipzig rather abruptly to go back to his parents in Ansbach after he had experienced great embarrassment by being openly ridiculed during the delivery of his Master’s disputation at the university (he did receive his degree, however). It is quite difficult to imagine how, after such a disastrous public appearance of a 23-year-old student, J.S. Bach would have found the opportunity for composing and performing this music under the unusual circumstances described here.

So, what do you think?

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