How to calligraphy music like Bach

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BWV 1001 Comparison

BWV 1001 Fugue Sonata 1 violin solo

Johann Sebastian Bach 1720  -  Anna Magdalena Bach 1725
Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe 1879  -  Neue Bach-Ausgabe 1958

To have a foretaste of what this is all about we can make a comparison by selecting one bar from a Bach autograph, the copy his wife made five years later, and two carefully formatted 19th and 20th century scores, published by the Bach Society.

Bach's handwriting is beautiful, but we can say more about it than that.

The sheets are available with a few clicks on Bach Digital and IMSLP, hence the links, so you can view the measure in context. The height of the staves is taken as a benchmark for the proportions.

Bach's sample here is somewhat repressed on the right side of his page, some notes are a bit tight, although he still manages to give a nice curved pendulum to the last eight rest. His first two eight notes take up twice as much space as the last, and the vertical alignment follows an light arc, a result of writing fast. There was no overview for this bar for the width.

His first stave begins with a small indent, the clef is placed a little further, a usual beginning based on a long history. But there is no room left on this stave at the end for the little notes that indicate the triad of the next line. So, a small crash on the right side, ending more dense, which is not uncommon.

Anna Magdalena came out well, all her notes are powerful written and come into their own. She didn't indent the clef, (her time signature is of outstanding beauty), so there was room enough on the right, even for the announcing little notes of the next line, but she doesn't add them, after all Bach hadn't done that either. Her connecting slur also has a faithful starting point, with the correct positioning, but still loses out to the wonderful tension and curvature that Bach managed to put into it.

Her top right connecting beam is damaged, but her line for the octave connection for the first two eight notes is nicely balanced, where it is more grabbing with Bach. The barlines of Anna Magdalene are nice vertical, her feather point is sharp, the lines are exquisitely thin, Bach's nib is slightly more worn and here his bar lines are a bit more oblique.

The words Fuga and Allegro in Anna Magdalena's copy are written with a different cut quill and ink. The ink of the capital F was not yet dry when the two folios were closed, and was thus stamped in reverse on the next folio.

The writing of the two critical editions makes a similar overall impression. There is a certain striving for (right) angularity. The stem on the second beat is disproportionately long in both cases. In relation to the height of the stave, both versions are very wide. Although both their slurs represent a smile,
they still manage to make me sad, stiffly dancing and grouping four notes: an interpretation. The 19th century edition suffers from poor scan quality.

The twentieth century edition has bar numbering, and almost all stems of the lowest voice point downwards, an improvement. Bach's motivation for aligning the stem of the last eighth note upwards must have been to preserve space for what would come below, which was hard to foresee. In hindsight, going down was possible and preferable. More than a century old intabulation manuals already prescribed that stems of the lower voice, or more precisely the lowest notes, should point downwards, and there is also visual logic: for clarity and cleaness.

Likewise unnecessary rests should be avoided. It is not that for the soprano a rest is forgotten in the first beat, a score should only contain what is relevant to the performance of the music, everything else crowd the notes.

The design of the modern eight rests has little to do with Bach's clarity and beauty. The shape of the flags has more ground in contemporary conventions. In the latest release, noteheads and ends of the flag lines meet, a choice with no historical ground and questionable functionality when it comes to legibility. In the 1879 version, the first flag bisects a beam, quite an achievement in itself considering the position of the notes.

Expressive, vibrant and moving lines are reproducible, as well as page size, layout and proportionality of line weights and spacing. Mimicking the characteristics of tools and materials used for the original eases and clarifies dealing with the source. In contrast, contemporary features are disruptive and distorting, a distance-creating time-bound translation, a puzzling barrier. To straighten what is bent, to make everything equal, and yet not be able to suppress decoration, but then according to one's own taste.

The Urtexts both span three pages. If you print it out on the thin paper that is common nowadays, you are far removed from the tactile and visual characteristics of the two original Bach versions, bearing in mind current practice is mainly to print yourself with the cheapest possible equipment and materials, ending up with weak, taped leporellos, or loose-leaf with a will of locomotion of its own, or stapled which is equally sad.

This is a comparison of some points of the original two manuscripts with the two major scholarly editions. Commercial editions does not compare favorably.

Bach was a genius, but he also made mistakes every now and then, his use of accidentals is not always consistent, writing rests was sometimes rather random, every now and then the layout did not turn out well and patchwork was needed, there are all sorts of corrections and revisions. His graphical choices are made quickly and sometimes he makes a better choice in a similar situation elsewhere. His scores suffer from age, discolorations are a dominant factor in the experience of reading.

A division over two folios supports the overall view, the scholarly editions are correct for the accidentals, although there is some tension with Bach's logic when writing them, emphatic clarification can be functional. Their decisiveness when it comes to different versions of passages can be clever and wise, but can also completely overshadow valuable variants. The rabbit hole of regularity gives a dead impression in the Urtexts, the dancing and swinging lines of the Bachs are full of life.

There is no room for individuality in the later editions, a self-imposed limitation dictated by method of formation, out of conviction, technical difficulties and restricted view. A misguided simplification that suggests objectivity, but is not, it is a subjective compulsion to put everything in line. In addition, in those places where there are small deviations from the vertical alignment, the readability in modern editions is particularly weak, whereas the Bachs are often very inventive, in favor of legibility.

There are critical comments to be made on all four versions, the original and the copies, some are improvements, others a decline. A modern manual or digital copy would ideally unite the best characteristics, and overcome the critical issues. There is ground for learning how to write like Bach.

God, I mean Bach, is in the detail: whatever one does should be done thoroughly; details are important. Calligraphy is a fun hobby and activity, funny for some and boring for others. But it should be taken seriously, it has a voice in many issues, dates, assignments, order. But above all it serves your senses, supports the experience and understanding of his music, and helps to substantiate artistic decisions.

There is no such thing as an ultimate, perfect copy. There are countless possibilities, but there is such a thing as a welmade copy, style stability is an important criteria when assessing this. Speaking the same language, in the case of calligraphy visual language, his visual language.

Preparing quills

Bach calligraphy quills rastrum

Preparing quills for starting a new project: making a fair copy of the Well Tempered Clavier Book 2 in the finest handwriting of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The feathers are in a cake tin filled with fine sand that has been in the oven for twenty minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. They have first been soaked in water overnight to soften. The tip of the quills are cut off, so that the shaft is also filled with the hot sand. After cooling, the quills are so hardened that they have metal strength, but still have a certain flexibility, wear less quickly and can be cut sharply.

We don't have a neat copy of the second book of the WTC in Bach's handwriting.

Taking all Bach's scores into account there are about ten people whose handwriting is so close to that of Bach that it is sometimes difficult to identify who is who. How did they manage to do that?

Bach's finest calligraphy can be seen in scores as the solo violin compositions and the St. Matthew Passion.

Part of the aim is to document a manual based on learning by doing, discussing with experts, historical practice and relevant literature.

Stickman stone age rock art from Finland.

Many thousend years ago - Stickman stone age rock art from Finland.

Some say equations can’t describe Bach’s musical genius and impact on our lives to the present day.

“If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it must be God.”

“It is possible that not all musicians believe in God, but they all believe in Bach.”

In the 1970s, scientist Carl Sagan chaired a panel that selected the distinctive sounds of human life that could be sent into space by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Biologist Lewis Thomas suggested including the full works of Johann Sebastian Bach, on the understanding that "that would be bragging".

If you have never really gotten further than stick figures when it comes to drawing, then the goal to do calligraphy like Bach can seem a haughty ambition against those superlatives.

The good news is that calligraphy isn't rocket science, a quarter note is a simplified stick man.

With the skills of a caveman you are able to copy a Bach chorale, which is a means to travel deep space after all.

Twenty thousand year old number based sequences of dots and lines, keeping track of times, just like bars of music representing abstract values, can be classified as the first writing.


1729 - BWV 201 Chorus 1 folio 1 autograph and a little help by a little anonymus

A prehistoric musical drama, Phoebus and Pan are still silent in this opening fragment of cantata BWV 201, which deals with a stylistic struggle.

Bach has left the door of his unguarded composing studio open and inquisitive eyes and eager hands have helped him fill empty bars with music.

Bach's adage was show, don't tell. He left it to others to debate, expound and explain. Although in this cave and case he might have taught a little lesson by telling something about it.

Upon discovery Bach would have broken the silence. His words are gone, but they will have been less preoccupied with the philosophical implications of this writing on the wall, and probably more focused on the practicalities of the story.

BWV 176 So wundre dich, o Meister, nicht, warum ich dich bei Nacht ausfrage!

1725 - BWV 176 Recitativo 4 folio 4 verso autograph

"So don't wonder, o master, why I'm questioning you at night!."

So why, what's the use? Don't modern urtext editions suffice?

Approaching, describing and valuing calligraphy as a craft can demystify the learning process and result. Making copies is instructive, Bach himself regarded it as his education.

The availability of good digital scans of scores is changing the way we study Bach. If you're a musician and you play from a authograph, it can be helpful to understand how the writing is done. Connecting to the analog is an enrichment of your powers of observation. This also applies if you are a musicologist, or just a lover of Bach. Encoding notation benefits from quill knowhow.

Interpreting Bach's music is also interpreting his calligraphy. Every urtext is an interpretation, there is someone between you and the composer. By becoming familiar with the handwriting, knowing the tools and technique, you can substantiate your vision directly at the source. You can notice valuable things that no one else has seen for centuries.
Discovering something new in something familiar is a rewarding and meaningful undertaking.

Reading and playing a score in Bach's handwriting can be an effort if you are used to modern notation. If you become familiar with his writing tools and style by imitating it, the original scores will no longer seem strange to you. Bach regularly revised his compositions, all versions are available digitally. It is instructive and fun to go through all of them, without there being a definitive interpretation of layout in between.

It is not the intention to disqualify urtexts. Well-informed observations have been made about interpretation marks, slurs, dots, strokes and embellishments. Understanding which questions play a role in this enables you to find an answer yourself, you can come to the same conclusions, but you can also see reasons to have a different opinion.

It is said that it should be possible to find out angle at which the quill was held and the pressure that was applied to it by examining the handwriting using infrared reflectography. But it can simply be read, understood, reproduced and demonstrated as handiwork. Filling this information gap and showing and documenting in words and video how it is done is one of the goals of this project.

There are great expectations from what Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will bring. My point will be that the human body and the way motor skills and tools work brings a lot of insight. I will have failed if I give the impression that I can shine as someone who does something very special. I shall have succeeded when you gradually get the feeling: but so can I, even if now you are dissatisfied and unhappy with your own handwriting.

Admiration can get in the way of observation. Humanizing the actions can open the eyes, the how is an entrance to the mind. Observing, articulating, discussing and imitating interact, they reinforce each other. By becoming aware of the many micro decisions and their reason you make contact, you connect. Bach is talking to you, personally.

It may be wise to replace what is the use by what is the meaning. What matters and is valuable might not be self-evident in an economic sense.

The formula will be simple: select the same materials, observe what he did, and make the same gestures. Some said it will be an useless gimmick, but I doubt if that is thruth. I suspect that somehow between the lines lies the real meaning, unverbalised but involved to the meaning of life.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a masterful calligrapher who also wrote some music. You will not find what his finest handwriting has to offer in printed editions. Understanding why and what makes his handwriting so great is a joy.

Not to forget the fun you can have with the tactile experiences with a bird's feather and nice ink on good paper. Learning comes in small steps, but each step forward is satisfying. The reward of trying, persevering, not being discouraged, being critical and recognizing what is good is a gift that you can control yourself and where a little help can lead to unexpected progress. You can drastically shorten the myth that you have to spend ten thousand hours to master something by being focused on improvements, pay attention.

Bach was not a highly educated calligrapher, you will not find the neatness by command and control in him that, for example, his older brother Johann Christoph has, but he knows exactly how to make the most of the artistic freedom that a certain mess entails. A nimble flexibility that manages to make optimal and clear use of limited space. This ensures a lot of individuality, and because he knows what he wants, it is an ideal means for his masterfull accuracy and expressiveness. Bach was good at fixing, in his harmonies, his modulations and with his graphic solutions he shows the sleight of hand of a pickpocket. Despite his wig, you will not find a gaudy display of curls in Bach, but there is a lot of visual poetry to be found.

The Well Tempered Clavier had, among other things, an educational function: to show what is possible. It overshot its goal, his students started composing in a different style. It seemed as if all that could be said had been said with it. Yet it has had an enormous influence on subsequent composers.

Copying his calligraphic style requires insight into technical and artistic choices, it is not mindless work. Observing and reproducing makes you part of the process.

Let's pay attention to what the calligraphy says, and see what it can do, like a fly on the wall.
Zoom in on Bach and get to know his writing style and understand how it is done. Let's copy past the past. We might get dirty hands and loose a few hairs. We can get close to his skin.

BWV 24 Aria 5 folio 7 verso

1723 - BWV 24 Aria 5 folio 7 verso autograph

Bach's fingerprint set to music.

“What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.”
― Johann Sebastian Bach

You too can make a fingerprint.


BWV 24 Chorale 6 folio 10 recto Bach's fingerprint

1723 - BWV 24 Chorale 6 folio 10 recto autograph

Bach's fingerprints.

BWV 215 Chorus 1 folio 7 verso Bach hair

1734 - BWV 215 Chorus 1 folio 7 verso autograph

Cantata text: "Praise your luck".

Hair caught in the dried gum arabic of black ink of two whole rests. The hair twisted one more time on its axis to the top right before it was stuck for good. This is, of course, a tortuous hair from Johann Sebastian Bach, reminiscent of a stickman. Study his scores and you will find he is all over the place.

We do not have any photos or recordings of Bach. But we will see that paper documents an amazing amount of information, where he put his inkwell, how long he used his work table, what tools he used, recording his son laughing, even the color of the hair of Anna Magdalena. A lot that can been seen can not been seen, but will be seen once seen. There are unknown unknowns.


1726 - BWV 207 Chorus 9 folio 22 recto fingerprint autograph 

On the lyrics: "Short life, short bloom! Flesh: "which rises ever higher through me".

Klavierbuchlein Wilhelm Friedemann Bach folio 3 verso Bach's fingerprint

1720 - Clavierbüchlein Wilhelm Friedemann Bach folio 3 verso - Bach's fingerprint


1720 - Clavierbüchlein Wilhelm Friedemann Bach folio 14 verso

The letter u not only collided with an accidental but its ink also caught a hair in this heavily-thumbed notebook. The letter a has a nice cheerful bracket on the right, a relic of a ligature, the letter combination of a and e in one.

BWV 75 Aria 3 folio 7 recto Bach's fingerprint

1723 - BWV 75 Aria 3 folio 7 recto - Bach's fingerstamp


1723 - BWV 109 Chorale 6 folio 10 verso autograph

A finger exercise for the great choral fantasies of the next year.


1724 - BWV 94 Aria 6 folio 6 verso - Bach's fingerprints

BWV 135 Aria 5 folio 6 recto

1724 - BWV 135 Aria 5 folio 6 recto - Bach's fingerprint & organ tablature

BWV 32 Aria 1 folio 1 verso

1726 - BWV 32 Aria 1 folio 1 verso autograph

Fingerprint in pencil.

BWV 944

1705 - BWV 944 autograph

A Bachian Rorschach butterfly with a hair.

BWV 906 Fugue Bach's hairs

1738 - BWV 906 folio's 1 - 5 autograph with many hairs

The hair at the left top was partly enclosed in staff ink. Bach's hair at the bottom left is enclosed in dried soup, so no later addition, but frozen action. Soup ran into the fugue, but the fugue also walked into the soup and was not completed, having dwelled to far away from harmonic grounds to finish satisfally - a remarkable rare happing. Dozens of hairs can be found on these few folios.

BWV 1121 Bach hair

1705 - BWV 1121 autograph

Hair is irrelevant to understanding calligraphy, but we come across all sorts of things when we zoom in. The difference between digital and analog is sometimes also an obstacle to being able to see properly, there are limits to the scan. The papermaker of this fragment probably lived next to a busy hairdresser, which does not exclude the possibility that the young writer lost a hair here.

Hair-thin dimensions are relevant for the calligrapher, paper thickness for example matters a lot, but that data is not available.

BWV 49 Aria 6 folio 12 recto

1726 - BWV 49 Aria 6 folio 12 recto autograph

Lyrics: "I have always and always loved you and that's why I draw you to me".

A hair by Bach is not a unique find, everyone loses about 50-120 hairs a day, Bach spent years writing calligraphy, about a hundred thousand hairs must have fallen on the paper, and every now and then one is forever linked to his music with ink. Like the letters of his name are sometimes intertwined with notes and numbers in the music, so he himself is sometimes literally and physically.

BWV 1030 Andante folio 4 recto

1736 - BWV 1030 Andante folio 4 recto autograph

Bach's head hair curl type often starts from the root with a strong blow. It is a well-defined S-shaped curl. Some picks can be a bit steeper, but there can also be a number of strongly curled curls in between.

Modern facial reconstructions by Bach show a short haircut with straight hair, but his scores do not substantiate this.


1708 - BWV 71 Chorus 6 folio 5 verso autograph

Hundreds of hairs are encapsulated in ink and paper. Not every hair is Bach's, of course. A nest has been included in this pigeon aria, the folio somewhat resembles a shower drain, but the hairs are red in color and also come from a different hairstyle.

BWV 1080 Bach Eyelash Nosehair

1748 - BWV 1080 autograph

Eyelashes are relatively thick, stiff hairs, those on the upper eyelid are noticeably longer and thicker. Nose hairs are more curved and thinner. Eyebrows are longer and slightly arched.

Wigs were white, made of women's hair, and covered in pork fat to hold flour.
Good pork fat smells pleasant, but lard can become unpalatable, which was combated with perfume. During the day, the shoulders were lightly dusted by falling powder when a wig was worn. At home you usually didn't wear a wig. Some shaved their heads to get rid of hair lice.

I have not been able to detect graying of the hair or any lice or nits. Head lice feed on blood several times a day. Current digital scans have a high resolution, but good observations at this level require more.

Bach's recent facial reconstruction, based on a questionable skull, with a very generous jawline, and unhappy facial expression, has been fitted with a cheap polyester wig. The haircut is short, shorter as his scores show, and without the characteristic s-shapes.

bwv 1006 Menuet II Fingerprint Anna Magdalena Bach

1725 - BWV 1006 Menuet II fingerprint Anna Magdalena Bach

BWV 1061a Cembalo 2 Hair Anna Magdalena Bach red ink

1732 - BWV 1061a Cembalo 2 copy Anna Magdalena Bach

This score collected a rich variety of applied special writing materials: pencil, crayon, red ink stains, sewing thread, hair. Corrections and revisions were emphatically recorded, there was no purpose of doing this invisibly.

BWV 232 Kyrie Anna Magdalena hair

1733 - BWV 232 Violincello part copy by Anna Magdalena Bach

Anna Magdalena's hair is part of the music in various places in this score. She has thick raven black hair. Thin hair is about 0.03 millimeters, average hair thickness is 0.06 millimeters, and thick hair is about 0.09 millimeters.

Per square centimeter of skin, people lose about thousend skin cells per hour. A good part of it swirls through the air, and in Anna Magdalena's case some of it will have ended up in ink and gom of the ponds she created for corrections, sealed, invisible but present.

BWV 170 Aria 1 folio 1 Fingerprint Wilhelm Firedemann Bach

1752 - BWV 170 Aria 1 folio 1 fingerprints Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

BWV 232 Sopran Carl Phillip Emanuele Bach hair

1733 -  BWV 232 Sopran copy by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach

His hair is as twisty as his father's.

BWV 175 Violino I fingerprints Johann Andreas Kuhnau

1725 - BWV 175 Violino I copyist Johann Andreas Kuhnau fingerprints

BWV 830 Sarabande

1731 - BWV 830 Sarabande copy by Bernhard Christian Kayser

A glass of water with a light ink solution tipped over, perhaps used to clean a quill nib, dissolved some of the dried writing ink, the liquid pouring out at the bottom left. Ink binder encapsulated a hair.

Kayser's scores are a source of joy, he found elegant ways of coping with the graphical challenges and issues that comes with imitating Bach's handwriting, a real master.