"J.S. Bach's "Goldberg" Variations (1741) as a Refutation of Isaac Newton's Opticks (1704)."

J.S. Bach’s induction into a society of “musical scientists” was marked by a specially commissioned portrait in which the composer can be seen holding an enigma canon. The canon’s provenance remained a mystery for over two hundred years until Bach’s own copy of the “Goldberg” Variations was discovered with the canon on its back page. Now recognized as an allusion to the Variations, its inclusion in the portrait has been interpreted as symbolizing the composer’s skill at writing works of great complexity and order expressing a scientific cast of mind.

This paper proposes a more specific interpretation for the aptness of the allusion: that the Variations constitute Bach’s foray into science. I argue that the work comprises a treatise on the wave nature of light that refutes Sir Isaac Newton’s particle model. The individual variations respond in serial order to Newton’s “Thirty-one Queries” at the end of his Opticks, correcting their classic defects with corresponding illustrations of wave interference and transverse waves. Bach was likely stimulated by a recent renewal of the wave-particle controversy in Germany, inadvertently touched off by his friend G.P. Telemann. A cast of colorful characters and inventors rounds out the presentation, with a cameo by Bach’s arch-nemesis, J.A. Scheibe, who is redeemed in a surprising twist.


Max Schmeder received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at UC Santa Cruz, where he studied harpsichord performance practice under Professor Linda Burman-Hall. He subsequently attended and graduated from Columbia University with a PhD in Music Theory. His dissertation construed Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations as a series of miniature Hegelian dialectics, each one unfolding and consummating a seemingly impossible transformation. In 2013 he entered UC Berkeley’s History of Science doctoral program where he currently studies nineteenth-century intellectual and musical history. His research examines the empirical underpinnings of Romanticism, and, in particular, the various attempts of artists and scientists to grasp a new category of entity: waves and other flowing forms that surf the material plane. His project explores the question: How did the special properties of this new ontology enable it to be combined with various philosophies and agendas?