14 and Bach

“By giving each letter a number from its order in the alphabet you can deconstruct the name ‘Bach’ as follows: 2 for the B, 1 for the A, 3 for the C, 8 for the H—which makes 14. A pleasing mirror, or reversal, of this number can also be formed from ‘J.S. Bach’—which gives 41. This pseudo-science of substituting numbers for letters is known as gematria, (or abjad in Arabic) and has innumerable variations depending on whether or not you include vowels or which language you translate back to or transcribe into. It has often appealed to creative minds and may have been behind Bach’s playful manipulation of the number 14, achieved by itself (in the fourteen canons of the Goldberg Variations for instance) or in pairs of sevens that occur throughout his work.

Gematria is a very ancient tradition, particularly in the Near East, where it has often had official sanction, with poetic inscriptions commissioned by rulers to reveal the date of the publication of a book or the construction of a building. There are examples dating back to Sargon II of Assyria (in the eighth century BC). In the first century AD gematria became a recognized tool of Jewish hermeneutical scholarship and it was tradition respected by many of the Ottoman Sultans. It seems only to have taken root in the imagination of Western Europe, however, in the seventeenth century.”

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

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