In Search of Bach’s Brain

This week I had the pleasure of visiting the editorial offices of the Last Newspaper in America, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, having not been there for a few years. Amongst the cluttered paraphernalia of old-fashioned newspapering and with the magnificent golden hills of California’s Mendocino County visible through the half-drawn curtains, legendary Editor Bruce Anderson and Major Contributor Mark Scaramella served up stories of past and present. In the latter category was this week’s AVA report on a sheriff’s investigation of County Supervisor Dan Hamburg’s burial of his late wife’s body on the family property. She wished this to be her last resting place, but it seems that her perfectly sensible desire for an at-home burial neither accords with Californian law nor pleases a sheriff perhaps too eager to exhume the body of a political foe’s wife.  This talk of bringing up the bodies made me think of the fate of Bach’s bones.


Bach was buried on July 31, 1750, three days after his death, on the south side of St. John’s church outside the walls of the city of Leipzig. So-called “extramural” (outside-the-walls) burial became the norm after the introduction of the Lutheran Reformation in Leipzig in the 1530s. Extramural interment was a response to a range of corrupt practices that had long provided vital sources of income for the Catholic church: the charging of fees for special masses for the dead, for intercessory prayers, and for indulgences intended to procure the remission of damnable sins for those lingering in purgatory. Before Luther sent these sacred cash cows out to pasture, the dead represented a vital renewable resource for the enrichment of the Vatican, at the time of the Reformation pouring money into Michelangelo’s rebuild of St. Peter’s.  The physical removal of the dead to a location outside the social geography of everyday life was a crucial feature of the Reformation: because Lutherans were offered no way of intervening on behalf of their dead, no money was to be made from prayers made after their burial. The dead were not to be forgotten, but they were to be separated both spiritually and physically from the living.

Anticipating his own interment during his final illness, Bach would have expected God to look after his posthumous body, and he would assumed that the oaken casket in which his body was to be buried would be his resting place until the Last Day, when his decomposed corpse would be raised up and transfigured into its gleaming heavenly form. Bach’s bones would indeed have remained in the ground where they were put on July 31, 1750, had his beliefs about the dead body retained their currency. But a new faith—science—had its own designs on Bach’s remains. Spurred by an emerging sense of national pride, nineteenth-century Germans began digging up famous historical figures—Kant, Schiller, Beethoven, and others—and examining their bones, before placing them in new, more prominent “final resting places” that encouraged worshipful pilgrimage, often in the shadow of a ponderous, nationalistic monument. If Bach’s bones could be exhumed, the remaining biological characteristics of his genius could be scientifically described.

By the nineteenth century Bach’s burial place was without a marker; prevailing scholarly opinion in the 1890s held that there had never been one. This made the task of finding his remains difficult, given the number of bodies that had been buried around St. John’s. Oral tradition had it that Bach’s grave was six paces from the south door of the church; this was the spot where choristers from St. Thomas School had long sung every year on the anniversary of Bach’s death. In spite of the interest in finding Bach’s actual gravesite and remains, many were not hopeful. In 1880 Bach’s celebrated biographer, Philipp Spitta, claimed that the grave had been obliterated and would be impossible to locate. Gustav Wustmann, director of the Leipzig city archives, had been among the most eager to find Bach’s grave and had discovered a St. John’s account book that showed that Bach had been buried in an oak casket, one of only twelve such boxes out of the 1400 Leipzigers who had died in 1750; this narrowed down the hunt for the remains considerably.  But in spite of his own efforts, Wustmann became convinced that there was little chance of finding Bach’s grave.

The chairman of the St. John’s vestry, Pastor Tranzschel, did not give up hope.  During the rebuilding of the church in 1894 he ordered excavations in the graveyard, directing some of the workers to dig down to about eight feet in the area where Bach’s grave was thought to have been. On October 19th of that year Tranzschel summoned Leipzig forensic expert and craniologist Wilhelm His to the excavation site. Dr. His described the scene as an enormous hole filled with “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” All the coffins seemed to be of pine. The workers were now ordered to dig more carefully and look for signs of an oaken casket. At eleven in the morning on October 22nd, after three days of digging, they came upon one. The casket had collapsed around the skeleton, bits of wood mashed around the bones. Dr. His began sifting through the remains, and quickly established that they belonged to a young woman of diminutive stature. Before disappointment could set in, however, another oaken casket was found, but the workers demanded lunch before prying it open.  In inclement weather perfect for the Gothic scene, a dark-clad pastor and an anatomist stood over a jumbled pit of bone, mud, and wood in which men dug with picks and shovels as the second casket was pulled from the ground.

Dr. His removed the skull from the casket and slowly, too, the bones. They could quickly see that the skeleton belonged to an elderly man.  The skull, wrote Dr. His later, was “sturdy and of strong features”—a protruding jaw, relatively low-set eye sockets, a sharply angled base of the nose. Dr. His could barely believe his good luck: after inspecting less than a dozen sets of remains in the bone-strewn mud littered with so many skulls of “indifferent form,” he had found a remarkable specimen, the skeleton that had to have belonged to a man of distinction. There was third oaken casket unearthed that morning, the skull inside smashed beyond recognition and therefore unsuitable for scientific study. Could those have been Bach’s bones? Dr. His conveniently dismissed that possibility, so that “Bach’s” skeletal remains could now be assembled and analyzed.

Armed with the anatomist’s contempt for religious squeamishness, Dr. His carefully dissected Bach’s skull so that the brain could be cast in plaster and its features analyzed. Bach’s temple, then thought to be responsible for aural cognition, was seen to be particularly well developed. These bones were cross-sectioned with a super-thin jigsaw so as to minimize the irreplaceable loss of bone mass. After painstakingly measuring the openings in the temple bone, Dr. His sent his data to a Viennese professor of osteology who was especially impressed by the size of the fenestra rotunda—the opening between the middle ear and the cochlea. These were exceptional bones that must have belonged to an exceptional person.  Further comparative research, suggested Dr. His, should be done on the skulls of other dead composers, though he lamented the disappearance of Beethoven’s temple bones after their exhumation earlier in the nineteenth century. They’d been unscrupulously sold off to an English doctor.

Bach's Brain


Bach’s Brain?

Just as important as the analysis of Bach’s brain was the project to reconstruct Bach’s face. For this endeavor, the varying thickness of the flesh had to be established scientifically.  Over the winter of 1894 Dr. His began his own tissue research with grim eagerness, probing the faces of thirty-seven corpses with a sewing needle and measuring the depth of the flesh, from the surface of the skin to the bone. According to his macabre report printed in the journal of the Saxon Academy of Sciences, all but four of the corpses were male: nine bodies “consumed by disease,” came from the penitentiary; the remaining twenty-eight were “healthy suicides.” The inmates were for the most part emaciated; the suicides by contrast were “well-nourished and robust.”  The averages of the measurements of the regions of the face were computed and then compared with the data from the faces of the eight elderly men who had died while still in fairly good condition. On the basis of this data a face could be sculpted on the Bach skull.  And if the result accorded reasonably with the historical portraits then it would further verify that the skull was Bach’s. Whereas these historical portraits had, of course, been the result of the artists’ skill and sensibilities, His now believed that a bust of Bach based on objective scientific data could be created, a likeness which would surpass the accuracy of any of the historical portraits on which its verification depended in the first place.  The glowering result, sculpted by the Leipzig artist Carl Seffner, is the head that visitors to Leipzig see atop the monumental bronze of the composer in the square outside St. Thomas’s Church, where Bach worked for the last three decades of his life.

With the bust completed and the data assembled and published, Bach’s reconfigured remains, arranged in anatomically correct configuration, were laid in a newly-made sarcophagus of heroic proportions, and placed in a tomb below the altar of St. John’s church, where they could be visited and honored.



Bach and Me

Bach and Yearsley.

But St. John’s was still not to be Bach’s final resting place; the remains would be moved again before the Last Day.  St. John’s was bombed in the Second World War, but the vault was not destroyed, Bach’s remains lying safely in their thick stone box.  In 1950, the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, the coffin was moved to the Thomaskirche in the center of Leipzig. At the entombment of Bach’s remains in his former place of employment, a group of state and religious dignitaries placed a wreath on the bronze plaque that marked Bach’s new “final resting place.” Reporting on the Leipzig Bach festival for the West German magazine Musik und Kirche, the musicologist Walter Blankenburg noted that in the celebrations of the 200th year of Bach’s birth, the Thomaskirche had become a place of pilgrimage from morning till night, with many lavish funeral wreaths placed above his bones.

The performance of Bach’s Art of Fugue was the culminating event of this landmark Bach festival, one that, as Blankenburg noted, took place in a devastated Germany. Hearing the Art of Fugue in this house of pilgrimage, with Bach’s wreath-laden tomb in view no doubt added to the intensity of the reaction following the cataclysmic breaking-off of the final contrapunctus, the point at which the composer himself had died—at least according to his son’s somewhat suspect annotation in the autograph manuscript. Blankenburg heard in the “seconds of silent stillness which the thousands spontaneously raised up … undoubtedly something more than a sentimental state of excitement.” Emerging from the hushed reverence of mass emotion came the death-bed chorale Vor deinen Thron tret ich  hiermit (Before  Your Throne, I now tread). Bach’s bones also remained silent beneath this cathartic spectacle for a divided nation.

A 2009 article appearing in the Medical Journal of Australia came to the conclusion, one harbored by more than a few at the time of the 1894 exhumation, that the skeleton had not belonged to Bach. The Thomas Church rejected a bid by the researchers to test the DNA of the bones buried beneath the bronze plaque where thousands of pilgrims continue to lay flowers each year.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com




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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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