Bernard Chazelle
Discovering the Cosmology of Bach

Computer scientist Bernard Chazelle has an original take on what music works in us — especially the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Just as mathematicians talk about discovering rather than inventing great equations, so, he says, Bach set out to “discover” the musical rules behind the universe. After hearing this conversation, you may never listen to any piece of music — whether Bach or Jay-Z — in quite the same way again.

Share Episode


is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and NEC, as well as a member of the European Academy of Sciences. He’s authored an extensive collection of essays on music for A Tiny Revolution.


November 13, 2014

[music: “Partita No. 2 in E Major: I. Preludio” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Hilary Hahn]

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Bernard Chazelle is a Princeton computer scientist and a lover of the music of Bach. He’s written, “Bach didn’t regard himself as an artist but as a scientist, a cosmologist of music.” And after hearing this conversation, you may never listen to any piece of music — whether Bach or Jay-Z — in quite the same way again.

BERNARD CHAZELLE: What I find very strange is this. I mean, all Bach is doing is sending a bunch of sound waves. So in your brain, there must be this reservoir of beauty which most often is untapped. But if you can find it with the right spotlight, then you discover this amazing consonances, or dissonances, or this amazing narrative, story, inside you…There is this enormous gold mine that can be revealed.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Partita No. 2 in E Major: I. Preludio” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Hilary Hahn]

MS. TIPPETT: My conversation with Bernard Chazelle was part of Bachstock — WQXR New York’s month-long festival celebrating the music, life, and times of Bach. We spoke before a live audience at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in Lower Manhattan.

MS. TIPPETT: Hello. Good evening. It’s so great to be here in the Green Space. And I’ll just want to start by introducing Bernard Chazelle, who is Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University, with a specialty in computational geometry. He works with algorithms, a field he believes to hold promise of a scientific revolution.

A key theme of his blog is also his love of music. He writes in a most original way about Eric Clapton, and Eminem, and Thelonious Monk, and Amy Winehouse, and Bob Dylan, and especially Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bernard Chazelle makes observations like this:

“Millions of years of evolution have turned our ears into a giant logarithmic table.” He also says things like, “Bach, the most human of all composers, gets to your soul through your body,” or this, “Bach, like Ellington, doesn’t do despair.”

So, I think if we get to the end of this conversation with the capacity to hear Bach, in some way, as you do, then our musical lives will be that much more adventurous.

So, thank you so much for joining me tonight.

DR. CHAZELLE: Well, thank you having me.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, I’m curious about the earliest roots of your passion for both computer science and music. I wonder just to start, was there a religious background to your childhood? And was Bach in that religious background?

DR. CHAZELLE: OK. I grew up in Paris, in France. So I came from a family where the religion came from my mother. Very religious. And my grandfather, her father, was a church organist.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CHAZELLE: And, my household had no music, basically. And I had a passion for music. But, my grandfather gave me a whole stack of Bach’s mostly organ music in 78 rpm, which tells you how young I am. And so very early on, I listened to that. It was probably my first exposure to music. But I’ve always had this strange feeling that when I listen to Bach, he’s the only composer who I think really has written this music for me. Because it speaks to me in a way no other music does.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.


MS. TIPPETT: And you write a lot about your pleasure in music, an overwhelming pleasure, and particularly in Bach. And I almost feel like, for you, pleasure in music is kind of a compass. It’s a true thing. Almost as true as numbers.


DR. CHAZELLE: Yes. It’s hard to explain, because I work in mathematics mostly, and I have great admiration for all kinds of mathematicians, like the true geniuses of history.

And even though I can only in my dream aspire to do that kind of work, I understand what it is. But Bach, I don’t. That’s the thing. In other words, it’s not just that I’m not gifted enough or something, it’s another dimension. It’s like if I met somebody from a different planet…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CHAZELLE: …and it’s a paradox, because I think Bach is the most human of composers. So obviously, there’s a contradiction there. How can he be both the most human, and be completely out of this world?

MS. TIPPETT: Well, let me ask you this. I’ve always been so intrigued by this mysterious connection between mathematics and music. Music and numbers. And, I’ve asked people to explain it to me across the years, and I kind of just grasp it around the edges. You’ve talked about computer science as a profound window through which to view the world. You add the notion of algorithm to mathematics. And I wonder, is your life as a computer scientist also a window onto music or onto Bach? Or are these two things just kind of in conversation an interplay on your life?

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah, I think that’s exactly the latter. They’re in conversation. I mean, for example, because I’m naturally interested by mathematics, and, well, that’s what I do for a living, but I like to analyze Bach, because it’s complicated music. And there’s a whole logical system which I like naturally because that’s who I am.


DR. CHAZELLE: It’s not necessary at all. It’s just curiosity. But I don’t think it’s necessary to my — in fact, I would say that the only way to understand Bach is to listen to him. And there’s nothing else needed. There’s absolutely no need to study anything about it. Just listen to the thing over and over again, and finally it will come.

Now mathematics and music, yeah. I’ve thought a lot about this. And of all the arts, music is the only one that is purely physical.


DR. CHAZELLE: Maybe abstract art now is, but literature, a play, a poem, so to speak about music is very difficult, because we can speak like Macbeth, and there is a story there, we can talk about the story, and then we can try to go beyond it. There’s a painting. Well, you can discuss what’s going on on the canvas. But the “Ode to Joy”, if Beethoven didn’t tell us it was about joy, it could be about hamburgers for all we know. I mean, it’s just music.

And yet, of course, music has a little fragments of language because if you play the western standard, you know, western standard music, has certain signifiers, like cadences, and dissonance, and there’s certain things that indicate emotion. So you can create moods that will kind of appeal to certain mental dispositions, but it’s very fragile. Ultimately, since music is so powerful and so physical, you ultimately have to go back to physics in ways you don’t have to understand.

You see, I was talking about evolution is giving us a logarithm table.


DR. CHAZELLE: You know…

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, how evolution has turned our ears into a giant logarithm table.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah, well, that’s what it is.

MS. TIPPETT: So, yeah, what do you mean by that? Yeah.

DR. CHAZELLE: Because, what I mean by this…

MS. TIPPETT: The way we process music.

DR. CHAZELLE: No, when we hear music, we hear, sound waves. So, air bounces around at a certain frequency. It could be very quick, could be very slow. And your brain takes the logarithm of this frequency, that’s what it does. Nobody knows exactly how it does that. So logarithm is a function. But has all kinds of property, a mathematical thing that has all kinds of properties. And your brain automatically does that. It’s not like you have to be trained. That’s what your brain does. That’s how it processes sounds.

And so, once you’ve done that, then there are relations between sounds, which we know sound good. This is universal to the human brain, why we like it. We can explain this, because it’s the small fractions that was — the frequencies are in certain fractions.

And so basic chord structure comes from physics. It’s not a choice.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s something that you wrote. “If Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song” rocks my world, it’s because a bluesy F-sharp minor resonance physically rocks my auditory cortex.”


DR. CHAZELLE: That’s one way to put it.


DR. CHAZELLE: Not sure Jay-Z would put it that way. But…

MS. TIPPETT: So, all right, so this idea that music is the most, um, physical art form.


MS. TIPPETT: And you have observed that it’s the small fractions that make music the physical art form it is.


MS. TIPPETT: And, that no one is more amazing at small fractions than Bach.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah. So, let me try to unpack.


DR. CHAZELLE: This. It’s…

MS. TIPPETT: Can I just say, interviewing you I feel is how I feel when I’m interviewing a string theorist. Where I’m just-


MS. TIPPETT: Where I — no, where I…

DR. CHAZELLE: It’s that bad.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Kind of. Right, yeah.

DR. CHAZELLE: Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll try harder.

MS. TIPPETT: …Where we don’t all speak this language. So yes. Interpret. Translate.


DR. CHAZELLE: So, Bach. So the well-tempered clavier, which is this famous piece — a lot of music Bach wrote was intended as like homework assignments, like practice. They’re not intended as concert pieces. And so, there are four of them in the key of C, and then four of them in the key of C sharp, and then four of them in the key of D. Why?

Because he invented a new — well, he didn’t invent it, but he played with a new kind of tuning the piano — which is called well-tempered. Maybe that’s why it’s called well-tempered.

In the case of Bach, it changes the actual personality of the key. And so when it’s in B minor, or in D minor this has true meaning for him. It’s not just, well I did it because the way you sing, it corresponds to your voice. No, no, no, no. On the piano, well, there’s no singing there, but he did it because every key had its own particular flavor, mood if you will. And that is mastery of the highest order, when you think about it. I mean, especially if you think you’re doing this not just for prosperity, for art, but simply as a textbook. I mean, that’s a lot of devotion to students.

DR. CHAZELLE: That is mastery of the highest order, when you think about it. I mean, especially if you think you’re doing this not just for prosperity, for art, but simply as a textbook. I mean, that’s a lot of devotion to students.


DR. CHAZELLE: I mean, I know from experience.

MS. TIPPETT: …And I think — do you experience that as a kind of intuitive, mathematical sophistication? There’s something he’s intuiting, that you can explain in other terms.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah, so, what’s remarkable about Bach more than any — OK, before I go into this, I don’t want to forget to say one thing.


DR. CHAZELLE: And maybe I’ll come back to this. When your producer very kindly invited me to be on this show…

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yes.

DR. CHAZELLE: …I was very excited. And I said “yes” immediately. I then checked my calendar and I would drop everything, because how can I resist talking about Bach? And, so, and then I told — I was so excited, I told my family, and my friends. And all of them, without exception, had the same reaction, which was, “Why you?”


DR. CHAZELLE: Why did they choose you?


DR. CHAZELLE: And I could not answer. Because in fact, the level of scholarship today about Bach, I mean, has never been higher. I mean, in the city of New York alone, you could find half a dozen world experts who should be right now sitting in this chair. And, so, anyway,

Now I forget what I was talking about. So…

MS. TIPPETT: So, what I’d…

DR. CHAZELLE: Oh yeah. No.

MS. TIPPETT: …it’s because we have these special powers of investigation…

DR. CHAZELLE: The mathematics.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Yes.

DR. CHAZELLE: The, yeah, if it’s only mathematics, I can say something without embarrassing myself. But, I think it’s fair to say, that western music got the most complex at the time of Bach. And then it got only simpler. It’s only gotten simpler since.

And so, let’s try to unpack what I mean by this.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CHAZELLE: You know, if you listen to classical music, so I’m being a pedant here — classical music really means from Haydn, onto Bach is baroque. And Handel it’s different. But classical music has greatly simplified Bach by developing the concept of having a tune, of having a voice, and harmony. So, most of Mozart, you know, there’s a melody. A beautiful melody, because the guy was a genius. And then there’s a gorgeous harmony with all kinds of interesting dynamics and so on.

But there’s a hierarchy. There is a voice telling you a story. And then there’s the accompaniment to make it beautiful. Bach is not like that. There are the concept of voices. So Bach is going to have six voices, like the Goldberg variations which are six people having their own melodies. And the harmony is derived from that.

So, it’s a completely different way of composing music. It was so complicated that people said, “come on, let’s get rid of this thing. This is just too complicated. We’ve got make it simpler.”


DR. CHAZELLE: And so, it’s been simpler since.

[music: “Partita No. 2 in C Minor: I. Sinfonia” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Anna Polonsky]

MS. TIPPETT: This is Bach’s “Partita No.2 in C Minor”, as the pianist Anna Polonsky played it for us in the Greene Space when I interviewed computer scientist Bernard Chazelle. I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.

[music: “Partita No. 2 in C Minor: I. Sinfonia” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Anna Polonsky]

MS. TIPPETT: So tell me what you mean, when you’ve written that Bach did not regard himself as an artist, but as a scientist, a cosmologist of music.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah, so, that also is an interesting story. So maybe we should briefly talk about in the 19th century, there was a major change. The concept of art was radically changed. And so, to understand this, let’s take our time now.

When Martin Scorsese has a new movie out, you hear that Martin Scorsese made a movie. A scientist does not make anything. An engineer does, but not a scientist. When you study astronomy, you don’t make the constellations. You don’t make the stars. You just try to understand what’s there.

And, Bach wouldn’t have ever thought of himself as a maker of music. In fact, when he died, there’s an obituary of a guy who really couldn’t stand Bach. Bach made quite a few enemies in his life. And he wrote this really trenchant thing that says, in English, that Bach was a music maker. And that was considered the worst insult. And this is like, oh, I’m not a music — he’s a music discoverer. So, Bach viewed himself as a discoverer of music, not as a maker.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s that other analogy, mathematicians also talk about…


MS. TIPPETT: …whether equations are invented or discovered.



DR. CHAZELLE: That’s a very good — in fact, so let’s talk about mathematics. Let’s talk about Newton. So, I think it’s important to remember that all of these are pre-enlightenment dispositions. And Newton is a good example. So here’s Newton, who invented the calculus. It’s very important in science.

And, with Leibniz but, he invented the calculus. And so, you can ask, why? Why did Newton invent the calculus? And he did because he wanted to do physics. And so you can ask, well, why did he want to do physics? Now, today, if you ask that question to a physicist, they’ll say, well, because that’s what I do. I like physics. I do physics because I like physics. Physics are important. And that’ll be the end of the story.

But that’s not the way it worked. Newton did physics in order to do astronomy. Why did he did do astronomy? He did astronomy not because he was interested in the stars, because he wanted to date Biblical text and ancient classical text.

Because he realized the Greeks got their astronomy wrong, they didn’t know that the stars every year moved — the whole thing shifted by a tiny angle, every year. And so, when you use the stars to date, you ended up making big mistakes. Now there’s some question as to the dating of Newton himself, but that was his motivation.

And he became a big hero. By the time Bach was in function, Newton was considered all across Europe as the ultimate genius.


DR. CHAZELLE: I mean, Newton equaled genius.


DR. CHAZELLE: And he wanted to discover the laws of the universe. And he became very famous, very popular in Europe because he had a very happy explanation for a story which meant a lot to people, which is, in Virgil’s — Aeneid there’s this love story between Dido and Aeneas. And it’s a beautiful love story. But there’s only one problem with it which is that if you believe the mythology, Dido and Aeneas are 300 years apart.

So it’s pretty hard to have a love affair when you’re 300…


DR. CHAZELLE: …when one has been dead for 300 years. But Newton managed, with his new dating, he managed to say, no, no, no, no, actually, look. I can prove they actually lived at the same time. That made people so happy.


DR. CHAZELLE: Like, for hundreds of years, everybody said, oh, no, that love story is fake. It’s fake. This is terrible.


DR. CHAZELLE: He said, no, no, no, no, no, no, it is true. He also re-dated the Trojan War — he re-dated everything. And, so he becomes very popular. And, Bach had a good friend Winckler, who was a physicist, and who actually was teaching Newton’s ideas.

Now, there’s no evidence that Bach himself knew the physics of Newton. He was…


DR. CHAZELLE: …too busy doing other things. But he saw Newton, and here, this is not my theory, this is Christoph Wolff, who was a professor at Harvard, who is the master of that sort of thing. And, that Bach saw himself like Newton, not as the maker of a craft, but as a discoverer of the laws of the musical universe, of aesthetics. And so, for him, it was a way, you know, every piece he wrote, Bach, he signed as SDG, Soli Deo Gloria. You know, to the glory of God, alone. That’s what it means. To the glory of God alone. The key word is alone. Because it’s not to the glory of God and me, the composer.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CHAZELLE: It’s to the glory of God and nobody else. Because the whole point was that he was out to glorify God by showing — by discovering the relation between nature and God. That was his only goal. And if you don’t understand that, you cannot understand why, for example, he had no interest in posterity. A concept we cannot comprehend.


MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. CHAZELLE: He had no interest, for example, that his cantatas, his passions survived. I mean, just think about it. You’ve produced this masterpiece, and then you say, oh, it’s OK, you can destroy it. That’s fine. Because God will know, God will not forget that I did it, and that’s good enough for me.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s so interesting for me in your writing that Bach never stopped fine-tuning the mass in B minor. That in fact, he never heard the B minor mass performed in full in his lifetime.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yes. So the mass in B minor is a special case.


DR. CHAZELLE: Though it is true, he fine-tuned. Fine-tuning was the practice of the day. You would take other people’s work…

MS. TIPPETT: And I mean, just…

DR. CHAZELLE: …and fine-tune…

MS. TIPPETT: …you know, just, again…

DR. CHAZELLE: …them.

MS. TIPPETT: …to your point, in terms of how we work now, we are creating something and offering it to the world as perfect as it can be.


MS. TIPPETT: And thinking about how it will survive.


MS. TIPPETT: And that that was…

DR. CHAZELLE: No, for him…

MS. TIPPETT: …he had a completely…

DR. CHAZELLE: …it was…

MS. TIPPETT: …different mindset.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah. And, which is why, also, like what we just heard this incredible, beautiful music — in German, this is part of something called clavier-übung. And übung means workout.


DR. CHAZELLE: This is a workout. This was written to teach pupils in the next generation. The only thing he wanted posterity to keep were his textbooks. Because he thought that’s very useful for the next generation to learn music. But, no concept of that beauty has to stay. And, now the mass in B minor is a special case, because he mostly recycled cantatas, and the mass in B minor is a very long thing. He never heard it in his lifetime.

It’s mostly made of pieces that are re-tooled from older cantatas, except for a few pieces, like the Gloria, the Kyrie, which he wrote just for this. And the reason he did this is because he was trying to get — basically a job, an approval — stamp of approval from the King of Poland. You know, if I’m the official court composer of that king, because he was working for a bunch of idiots. Because there’s a famous quote of one of these idiots, who said, when they hired Bach, they said, well, I guess the best players or the best musicians, we couldn’t hire, so we are stuck with a mediocre one.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s right. Right.

DR. CHAZELLE: That’s Bach. But then he didn’t get the job. Uh, he — he took — he got the job three years later. So it’s a Catholic mass, because the King of Poland was Catholic. That’s the only reason why it’s Catholic. Because he was Lutheran, himself.

[music: “Mass in B Minor – Gloria In Excelsis Deo” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Collegium Vocale Gent & Phillippe Herreweghe]

MS. TIPPETT: Bach’s Mass in B Minor is indeed a musical setting of a complete Latin Mass. But in the centuries since its completion shortly before Bach’s death in 1750, it has become widely recognized as one of the great musical works of all time. The esteemed atheist scientist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that this should be THE piece of music presented in a first contact with an alien race: “It is the best,” he said, “of who we are.”

[music: “Mass in B Minor – Gloria In Excelsis Deo” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Collegium Vocale Gent & Phillippe Herreweghe]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again, watch, and share this conversation with Bernard Chazelle through our website,

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Mass in B Minor – Gloria In Excelsis Deo” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Collegium Vocale Gent & Phillippe Herreweghe]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: I’m with a computer scientist, Bernard Chazelle of Princeton, discovering the cosmology of Johann Sebastian Bach. We spoke in front of a live audience at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in Lower Manhattan, as part of Bachstock — WQXR New York’s month long celebration of Bach.

Bernard Chazelle is an original thinker about the mathematical sophistication and the deep humanity of this great 18th Century composer.

He’s been describing how, just as mathematicians talk about discovering rather than inventing great equations, Bach set out to “discover” the musical rules behind the universe.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a fashionable way to talk about Bach, and not just Bach, but particularly him, to say, he was a product of Christian princes and Christian elites, and if he had lived in another time, he would have written brilliantly, but less religiously. But, I think the way you hear him, and understand him as a human being, um, that orientation he had, um, as you say, of discovering God’s music rather than creating something for himself, or even for the world…


MS. TIPPETT: …is absolutely central also to the music he made.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Whether he would have said it that way or not.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yes. You know, there’s a beautiful insight by Richard Taruskin, who is a very, very highly-regarded music historian from Berkeley, who’s written this massive history of western music. Just remarkable achievement. And he said the music of Bach is not a medium of beauty, it’s a medium of truth. And this is very interesting, because within the rules, the strict rules of counterpoint Bach does not care if it does not sound good. Like, he loves dissonances. He will stick all this chromaticism within two bars, and not, so, sometimes you wonder what was he thinking?

He was pursuing a certain idea of truth of these rules of music. And whether it sounded good or not, he could not care less. So, that, too, is something he was not trying to give pleasure to people. In fact, people complained they didn’t like his music. It was too complicated, too operatic, too showy. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, well, that’s just too bad. I’m not working for you. I’m working for God. So complain to God. He was trying to take dictation from God.

MS. TIPPETT: Although, he did draw on folk music. There was — music…


MS. TIPPETT: …was democratic in a way, then, and dance, and so…


MS. TIPPETT: …at the same time, it’s not like he’s impervious to…

DR. CHAZELLE: No. What Bach looked…

MS. TIPPETT: …to music as a part of ordinary life.

DR. CHAZELLE: Bach loved the opera. I mean, we know this, because he used to go to the opera all the time. And he played in coffee houses. He had his own band with his family.



DR. CHAZELLE: They’re very talented people.


DR. CHAZELLE: And they would play in coffee had just been introduced or maybe not just, but had become very popular to go to coffee houses. It was a new concept. He wrote a coffee cantata, which is very, you know, it’s fun. It’d be like pop music now. I mean, high-quality pop music.


DR. CHAZELLE: So, he had that aspect of him. I mean, he was a fun-loving guy. he got in trouble with the law. I mean, he went to prison. He got into fights. He was a real…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So…

DR. CHAZELLE: …human being. And…

MS. TIPPETT: …and I think I wanted to pick up on the idea of dissonance dissonance in music, and in life. And I don’t want to simplify this, so I want you to push back if I am. You’ve said that dissonance was something that renaissance musicians have called — that musicians had even spoken about in divine terms, right? That our ears naturally don’t like dissonance, although we work with it powerfully. There’s this half-octave dissonance, what is it called? The tri…

DR. CHAZELLE: Tri-tone.

MS. TIPPETT: Tri-tone, that renaissance musicians called the satanic interval. So, actually before we started, Tim played this satanic interval for us. And he recorded. Can we hear it?

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So we know that.


MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] I want to hear a little bit more about how Bach worked with dissonance. You know here’s something very interesting you wrote that, think of dissonance as, and you said, — you didn’t say the f-word, but I’m going to say the f-word. This is public radio. Think of dissonance as the f-word in comedy used to transgress, to liberate, to ridicule, to humanize, to bring down to earth, to change topics.

It feels to me, as much as you sense this high mathematical sophistication in Bach, you most of all value him and are captivated by him as this most human of composers. Somebody who lost perhaps 10 children in his lifetime. Who lost his wife. Talk a little bit about how he worked with dissonance in life, and in music, and in music as an expression of a real complex messy life.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah. So there, too, he’s very surprising. For example, at the end of this show, we’re going to hear the chaconne, which is a very remarkable piece at the end of a suite, made of small, not too long, little pieces, they’re dances. The chaconne is a dance, but it’s longer than all of the other movements combined. It seems like he added it on because he went on a trip and he came back and his wife was dead. She was buried already, actually. In those days, trips took a long time.

And he was devastated by this. And he wrote music, he wrote a dance. Now, it’s very sad music, too, but there’s these — in the St. John Passion, the very end, the next to last movement, is this lullaby “Ruht Wohl,” you know, “rest well,” where he’s singing over the tomb of Jesus.

And you would think, I mean, this is the most solemn moment in the Christian calendar of the year, and he just has a little lullaby. Very sweet, very gentle.

[music: “St. John Passion_Part II: Chorale: Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Hanno Muller-Brachmann, Joanne Lunn, Eliot Gardiner, Robert Murry, Mark Padmore, Peter Harvey, Julian Clarkson, Katherine Fuge, English Baroque Soloists, Bernarda Fink, Monteverdi Choir & Paul Tindall]

DR. CHAZELLE: And so, what’s going on there? What’s happening? And, you know, I like to think, to simplify things, that as opposed to other composers, Bach targets the very young, the child, and people of a certain age, like me.


DR. CHAZELLE: And tries to leave out the middle. And what I mean by this is that there are all kinds of mental, psychological dispositions from the opera that he totally shunned. Envy. Greed. Lust. Jealousy. I mean, this is the bread and butter of the opera. He never went there. He had no interest in that. His music tries to express things like, awe. Grace. Thanks. Fear. Trepidation. Hope. All kinds of sentiments a child can have, and an older person can have, but none of this sexual nonsense in the middle.


DR. CHAZELLE: And, so, in that sense, he thinks of death very differently from his own experience. I mean, he lost his parents before he was 10. He lost both of his parents, and then he lost half of his children. He lost 10 children.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CHAZELLE: And, so, these are different different times, different circumstances, and for us, it can be very surprising to see these reactions.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And I think your point he works in a very complicated way with that. One doesn’t sense he didn’t feel things deeply, right?

DR. CHAZELLE: Oh, no. No.

MS. TIPPETT: The opposite.

DR. CHAZELLE: On the contrary. I mean, you can tell from his music that his emotion is raw. I mean, it is so controlled, but it is so profound.


DR. CHAZELLE: This is a man who truly grieves. I mean, you’ll hear the chaconne. It’s a dance. But it’s a grieving dance. I know, it seems like a paradox. But it’s extremely moving and — of somebody who clearly has enormous feeling. And, yet, it’s very controlled.

So, if I can go back quickly to this Taruskin point about truth, I find this very interesting, because I thought a lot about this.

MS. TIPPETT: And what about? The…

DR. CHAZELLE: So, Taruskin said, Bach is not about beauty.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, yes. But about truth.

DR. CHAZELLE: He’s about truth. Well, he said, truth of what? Well, you have, of course, if you think of Newton, God’s truth. So, the universe — the musical universe. So, that makes sense. But I’d like to take this even further, and, you know, somewhat historical nonsense, if you will, but I still believe there’s merit to it. So let me try this.

You know, Immanuel Kant, Immanuel Kant is a good half-century, 50 years, after Bach. So clearly Bach was not influenced by somebody who lived 50 years later. There’s no doubt about that.

But Kant had a very interesting take on freedom. And and this will connect to this. So, he listened to Hume, and he said, Hume’s got it exactly wrong. So, Hume said that reason is the slave. It must be, and ought to be, the slave to our passions.

So you know, for most people, when you say what does it mean to be free, they might say something like this. Well, it’s to be able to do what we want. So if you’re in prison, there are many things you want, but you’re not able to do them, so you’re not free.

So in that sentence, the key word is able. To be able, capital Able…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CHAZELLE: …to do what we want. And Kant said this is all wrong. The key word is want. It’s not able. And for Kant, freedom has to come from inside. And the only thing that comes from inside is reason. Or so he thought. And so, now, how do we go back to this disposition of Bach, which is that, I think, beyond truth, he also wanted to have freedom. In the following sense, he put all these rules so that once you are within the rules, it allows you to fly very, very high.


DR. CHAZELLE: And then, you can be free. You’re not tied to — so he’s not going to do lust, and sex. These are too easy, and it takes your music into things where you don’t have a freedom, because your emotions are taking you somewhere. So he would be horrified by a lot of pop music where basically the first time you hear is the emotion. It’s like, I’m very mad. Brr. Then — you’re something it doesn’t work like this.

Because your anger is driving your music. But that’s not freedom. And so I think he was actually looking for a medium of truth and freedom. Ironically.

MS. TIPPETT: And when you wrote, “like Ellington, he doesn’t do despair.” I mean, what you mean is, he chooses not to let despair…


Ms. Tippett: …have the last word or the last note.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah. So, for us, it’s very hard to tell, because we were not there, and it’s just so hard to imagine how one could cope with such horrible tragedies on, and on, and on, and on. But I think his faith was so big, that despair for him would have been sinful. It’s like, would it have been self-indulgence to despair just simply to believe in myself more than I believe in God? Because he still believed that God was looking out for him. I mean, I would wonder, given the circumstances, but he really believed that. And, maybe that’s how you had to be in order to survive in those days.

[music: “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today in a live conversation at the Greene Space in New York City with computer scientist Bernard Chazelle on the “cosmology” of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

[music: “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra]

MS. TIPPETT: I sense, and again, I may be making this up, but, there’s something in your writing that — there’s something about — there’s a consonance, or some kind of kinship between the universality of music for you, maybe, and the universality of code? Is that right?


MS. TIPPETT: I don’t mind making that up.

DR. CHAZELLE: You mean computer code?


DR. CHAZELLE: I never thought I never of that.


DR. CHAZELLE: But, why not?

MS. TIPPETT: Well, it seems to me…


MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that those are qualities that you love and revere and play with, and like.


MS. TIPPETT: Imaginatively engaging.

DR. CHAZELLE: …I don’t care that much about coding.

MS. TIPPETT: You don’t care that much about code?




DR. CHAZELLE: I mean, I care about mathematics. But something somewhat related perhaps? What I find very strange is this. That I think what’s magnificent about Bach is that when you listen to this music, and it moves you so much, I mean, it’s just a bunch of sound waves crashing into your ear, and you have to contain — you see this emotion bubbling up, you start seeing, like, tearing up, and saying, well, what’s going on? These are just sounds crashing into my — what’s going on in here?

So, of course, you could say, well, it’s just Bach. He’s a genius. You know, that’s just the way it works. No, not so easy. I have to have the ability in my brain to create that emotion. I mean, all Bach is doing is sending a bunch of sound waves. I have to be able — and when I say I, I mean everybody.


DR. CHAZELLE: And so, I’m always like — there’s something extremely optimistic and really almost dizzying when you hear something, and it moves you so intensely inside. And you realize, but this is you who is being moved. Nobody’s forcing this inside you. So in your brain, there must be this reservoir of beauty which most often is untapped, goes untapped. But if you can find it with the right spotlight, then you discover this amazing consonances, or dissonances, or this amazing narrative, story, inside you.

So I don’t want to make this solipsistic. I’m not saying we have our own music and so on. But I still think there’s something completely remarkable that we are capable of appreciating this to that level. To me, this surprises me more than, say, a poem or something, because a poem often, you know where it comes from. Because there’s a story. You relate to events in your life. It moves you because…

MS. TIPPETT: You just see what is happening it…

DR. CHAZELLE: …you see what’s happening…

MS. TIPPETT: …you know what is happening. Yeah.

DR. CHAZELLE: …because you think of people…

MS. TIPPETT: And your memories.

DR. CHAZELLE: …you can think of events…


DR. CHAZELLE: …there’s this whole thing. Music, you have no idea why am I being moved? It’s just a bunch of notes. What’s going on? It’s like a ghost is taking over. And yet, it’s all inside you. And so, I think there’s a message for all this, it’s that, all these people out there who have no beauty or so little beauty in their lives, and you think that basically is just everything is ugly, and maybe most of it for them is ugly, that they have to know that there is this possibility, just inside them, there’s this enormous gold mine that — that can be revealed.

And of course, Bach is not the only one. There are others. Everybody has to find their own way. But I really think that its’ really wrong to say, well, I’m just a vessel, and the genius out there is just — well, yeah, but that’s too easy.

I think we have to have more self-respect and saying that, actually, you know, there’s something wonderful inside me. And I think we should be grateful and appreciate that. And give others an opportunity to discover that in themselves.


DR. CHAZELLE: Sort of those aesthetic virtues. So.

MS. TIPPETT: You have said that you dislike concert halls. That concert halls are like secular churches. And no one is allowed to express emotion unless they’re prompted, and you’re such a peasant if you applaud at the wrong time.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And that in fact that’s not the way it worked when this music was being created.


MS. TIPPETT: That it was much rowdier.


MS. TIPPETT: And I, you know, I actually think, I think churches used to be rowdier, too.





DR. CHAZELLE: I think we’re stuck with this, but it’s really tragic. I mean, first of all, there are two things going on here. First of all, the concept of playing dead composers is fairly recent. It’s 19th century. Why did Bach have to write music every single week? They could have played old Palestrina music until the people dropped. I mean, there are tons of music to play. You didn’t have to compose something.

But you had to play something that was fresh. You would never play dead music. Dead people music.


DR. CHAZELLE: Now today, you go to a concert hall, and everybody has to behave, and the composers, all the good ones are dead. Well, I shouldn’t say that.


MS. TIPPETT: OK. I know. We know. We know. You don’t mean that.



DR. CHAZELLE: This is bleeped.


DR. CHAZELLE: What I’m saying is they want you to believe — they want you to believe that everybody [who] is good are all dead, and we’re going to worship as we should. I mean, so now the concert hall is a museum, or like a chapel, or something like this. So, that’s what I love about jazz. Because that’s just not the way, or let’s hope it’s never the way. Go to a jazz club, and it seems living. This is a living, you know, expression.

By and large, classical music, there’s so much respect for the art form that, say, improvisation is not encouraged. But this is crazy. I mean, Beethoven was probably the biggest improviser ever. Bach would improvise for hours at the organ. It’s not just that he could, that is the way they did music. It was just to improvise, to change.

They used to take other people’s music, and that’s how you learned your trade — your craft, is by taking other people’s music and rewriting it. Take this Vivaldi concerto and make it better. That was perfectly accepted. That was the way people did things. They didn’t worry about intellectual rights…

MS. TIPPETT: They didn’t have copyright, yeah.

DR. CHAZELLE: …going to get a patent. I’m going to be sued because, you know…



DR. CHAZELLE: …it was living. It was like people talk. We don’t worry that — the sentence I’m just saying has been said before, and I have to clear it with my lawyer or something.


So, maybe there is something, I don’t know, has been lost.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. This lovely line of yours that “Bach, the most human of all composers, gets to your soul through the body.” That’s an example, I think, of something — that kind of thing gets said, but somehow it’s a very beautiful, poetic sentence and it’s worth saying again. And repeating. I wonder if there’s something for you in the experience of Bach that captures for you what maybe religion should be. I don’t know if you are religious now or if spirituality is a word you use in any way. But how does Bach express that aspect of humanity to you?

DR. CHAZELLE: So I think it expresses in two ways. In one way, it is so human, it touches your body. It touches your soul, but via your body. If you don’t feel like crying, you’re not appreciating Bach. It has to be physical.


DR. CHAZELLE: It’s not intellectual. OK. And so there’s that. But there’s also, when you face excellence, you know, you watch the Olympics, you watch the Superbowl, you watch tennis, you watch — whatever is your thing, and there’s something really there’s a particular pleasure in seeing something done extremely well. OK. Just this level of perfection.

And so, when you see Bach, you see the ultimate expression of this. There’s something strange because I think there’s very little disagreement that Bach is the best composer of written music. OK. I insist on written music. And, that’s not true of any other field. There is no best mathematician that people agree upon. There’s no best painter. There’s no best writer. There’s no best poet. No, there are lots of great, but there’s no — but Bach completely towers over anybody else. And so when you listen to this, you say, well, where is this coming from?

So you would think this is going to be so distant and alien, because it’s so great. It’s like the sun. You can’t look at it. But it’s like the sun, except you can actually wallow in it. You can just watch it, and be devoured by it. And it’s this paradox that does not happen — it’s a greatness that’s very inviting. And so, in that sense, there’s something a bit religious, because it’s like seeing a mountain. You don’t know where it’s coming from. There is this mystery.

DR. CHAZELLE: Now this man virtually spent no time composing. This is so hard to believe. A cantata is about the size of a Beatles’ album.


DR. CHAZELLE: He virtually had just a couple of hours to compose the music.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, you mean, — but he — every day. Every day.

DR. CHAZELLE: No, no, but most day was spent copying, rehearsing.


DR. CHAZELLE: Practicing. Getting his musicians. The time he had to actually think, well, now, what’s the melody like? Was just a few hours to write something of the size of, you know, an entire Beatles’ album. Actually it’s more music than that. You know, Christoph Wolff, “Volf” I should say, German pronunciation, says you know, the “St. Matthew Passion” — he probably wrote it in or three weeks, he said, to their professional composer would have to take a three-year leave of absence…


DR. CHAZELLE: …to write something of this — of course, not something as good, that’s impossible. But something of that scale would take three years for a professional composer. He’d do it, you know, two, three weeks. It’s incomprehensible because science does not work like this.

[music: “St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 No. 68, Chorus I/II: “Wir Setzen Uns Mit Tränen Nieder” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Chicago Symphony Chorus]

DR. CHAZELLE: All scientists, the greatest scientists worked on one idea extremely hard. Extremely — they totally were possessed by it for years and years. There’s no, like, you wake up, and then E=MC2. Now, it doesn’t work like that.


DR. CHAZELLE: But for Bach, it seems to have worked like that. And that’s a mystery.

MS. TIPPETT: But right. But there is also something in him, his work ethic was also incredible, right? I mean, there was…


MS. TIPPETT: …there was a way in which he…


MS. TIPPETT: … he defied human limitations.


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, it’s almost like he’d read Malcolm Gladwell


DR. CHAZELLE: Yeah, 10,000.

MS. TIPPETT: Right? Back then.


MS. TIPPETT: So I mean…

DR. CHAZELLE: He put in 10,000 hours.

MS. TIPPETT: …there — I mean, yes, it’s mysterious, but there’s also a sense in which he was so invested hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yes. And you know, in those days, false…

MS. TIPPETT: It is that human combination.

DR. CHAZELLE: …false modesty was not something that, you know, people were doing. And, Bach is quoted several times saying that, um, that anybody who works as hard as I do will compose music that every bit as good. Now you would think, yeah sure.


DR. CHAZELLE: But no. There’s evidence that he really believed that.


DR. CHAZELLE: And to him, to work very hard was to glorify God. Because to be lazy would be insulting God. So, his work ethic was not just that’s the way he was brought up. That’s not true. It’s because it was part of his belief system.

[music: “Suite for Solo Celo No. 6 in D Major: I. Prélude” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m going to just ask you one final question and I do want to return to the computer scientist in you, if he has anything more to say.


MS. TIPPETT: This life that you spend with algorithm, with music, with a passion for both of these things. How did these things together shape your sense as it has evolved of what it means to be human?

DR. CHAZELLE: So I think the thing I’ll say about mathematics is that it’s my case, but it’s the case of every practicing mathematician I know, that we do it for aesthetic reasons. I know it’s hard for people to believe how this could be true, but the only thing that drives us is the beauty of the discovery of these…

MS. TIPPETT: Right, so for you, it’s the opposite…

DR. CHAZELLE: …these structures of these things.

MS. TIPPETT: …it’s not true. That it’s about beauty.


MS. TIPPETT: Beauty and truth are intertwined.

DR. CHAZELLE: Yes. In this case, yeah, because in mathematics, they’re absolutely identical. No, they’re not identical. I mean, beauty is a subset of truth. If it’s not true, it’s ugly, by definition.


DR. CHAZELLE: In mathematics.


DR. CHAZELLE: But — and some true mathematics is not beautiful. But without truth, there’s no beauty. What gets people up in the morning and work hard is — and mathematics is very hard. I mean, I know it’s a truism to say that, but it’s something that you really have to apply yourself for years and years.

And what moves us is really the sense of having structure, discovering a universe that’s totally beyond us. There must be a platonic value out there somewhere, and — because this is so — in that sense, it’s similar to Bach, because it’s not driven by emotion. Mathematics has no anger. There’s no — I mean, yeah, there’s envy in the sociology, but — but the mathematics itself…


DR. CHAZELLE: …a theorem is a theorem. And it’s not really subjective, also. A beautiful theorem is beautiful for every mathematician. There’s no…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CHAZELLE: …oh, school of mathematics, well, we don’t like this kind of theorem. No, there’s no such thing. People can recognize beauty just like anybody with a brain will recognize Bach’s music is gorgeous. I think.




MS. TIPPETT: OK. Well, I think everyone here understands why I invited you to be the person we spoke with tonight.


MS. TIPPETT: And now I want to introduce a little bit more music from Bach, which I think we will hear with new ears. So please welcome Tim Fain, who will perform the Chaconne from Bach’s “Partita for Violin Number 2”.


[music: “Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 in D Minor: Chaconne” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Tim Fain]

MS. TIPPETT: Bernard Chazelle is Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University.

You can listen to this episode again and share it, or watch my entire conversation with Bernard Chazelle in New York, at There you can also read a wonderful essay he wrote, “My Favorite Things By Bach.” And, hear violinist Tim Fain’s entire performance of Bach’s monumental Chaconne, as he played it for us live.

[music: “Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 in D Minor: Chaconne” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Tim Fain]

MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, David Schimke, and Bekah Johnson.

Special thanks this week to Graham Parker and Martha Bonta and all the great people at WQXR and the Jerome L. Greene Space. Our gratitude also to Jacqueline Cincotta and Elizabeth Sobel — and to pianist Anna Polonsky and violinist Tim Fain.

[music: “Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 in D Minor: Chaconne” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Tim Fain]

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Music Played

Artist: Yo-Yo Ma
Label: Sony Classical
Label: Sony
Artist: J.S. Bach
Label: SDG
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

About the Image

The Bolivian municipal orchestra of San Jose de Chiquitos perform the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in Toulouse. The orchestra is comprised of young musicians between the ages of 8 and 20.

Share a Reflection