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Bach: Between Puzzles and Beer

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Johann. Sebastian. Bach. Perhaps the most venerated composer of all times. On a scale from bad boy to angel, Bach is the ultimate teacher’s favorite: studious, industrious, and pious. Johann Sebastian Bach came from the town of Eisenach in Eastern Germany that had produced a man, believe it or not, even more famous than himself: Martin Luther. Martin Luther was the monk who set off the Reformation (the splitting of the Roman Catholic Church by founding Protestantism), translated the Latin Bible into the German vernacular, and most importantly, allowed his priests to marry and have families. Central to the Lutheran belief system was the rectory through which the preacher and his family modeled Christian behavior.[1] In his professional life, Johann Sebastian Bach served the Lutheran church, without doubt, through his vast output of church music and the running of the Thomas-Schule in Leipzig. But at home, he was equally, though perhaps more privately, Lutheran: he fathered 20 children.

During his lifetime, Johann Sebastian Bach did not enjoy the international name recognition as a composer that he certainly enjoys now. He was known as one of the foremost organists of his time and enjoyed a portfolio career, like so many of us nowadays. He built his skill portfolio early on in life, learning to play the violin with his father, singing in school, and mastering continuo playing in Lübeck. In order to study under the eminent organ master Buxtehude, Bach walked over 250 miles (400 km) to Lüneburg on foot… Speaking of a goody two-shoes…. Needless to say, he became quite good at the organ and has set the bar for what villains sound like to this day:

Not quite unlike the mad scientists of the movies, Bach's ability to invent and twist music into new shapes (like the flexibility of a Möbius strip) was unparalleled. Bach loved puzzles, especially musical puzzles, and they are in a lot of his music. He would write melodies that could work in combination with themselves, forwards and backwards and even upside down. His signature move, though, was to spell out his name in musical notes (B flat, A, C, H/B natural). It was something that he used frequently in his music and most famously in the crown jewel of musical puzzles that he left unfinished: the Fugue in 3 subjects from The Art of the Fugue.

(Skip to 6:40, but I encourage you to listen to the entire thing.)

The B-A-C-H motif has been used by other composers countless times since and has influenced others to sign their own names in music, like Dmitri Shostakovich.

But, as if mastering several instruments and music itself was not enough to set him apart, one skill made him unique and truly sought-after. He acquired an immense knowledge of organ building and designing so that he was brought in on multiple organ renovation and building projects throughout his career. He was an 18th-century consultant.

In 1713, Bach was the organist and a chamber musician of the court of Weimar and was angling for a promotion. Unfortunately, they already had a Kapellmeister and Vice-Kapellmeister - upward mobility did not seem like much of an option. Luckily, he was called to Halle (hometown of Georg Friedrich Händel) to consult on the building of a new organ. He was put up in the city’s best hotel, the Gasthof “Zum Goldenen Ring,” and had all expenses paid.

(Market Square with the Gasthof "Zum Goldenen Ring", Halle ca. 1800) [2]

And oh boy, did he dine well. A menu of one evening with his hosts included:

Beef à la mode, pike in sardine butter, a smoked ham, a plate of peas, a plate of potatoes, spinach, grilled legs of mutton, canned lemon peels, canned cherries, warm asparagus salad, boiled pumpkin, green lettuce, Spritzkuchen, butter, and a veal roast.[3]

Bach’s overall hotel expenses during his stay were truly magnificent: he consumed the equivalent of 43 days’ wages of a house maid on food, an additional 12 days’ wages on beer, and roughly 5 on brandy for a grand total equivalent of 2 months’ worth of full-time household help.[4] The most impressive out of these expenses though is the beer bill. Beer was a staple drink in Europe and comparatively cheap. With the 18 Groschen that Bach paid at the hotel alone, he consumed around 36 quarts of beer or 5 pints (500 ml glasses) per day.[5] This is assuming that he did not have beer elsewhere during the day. Let's also not forget about his brandy intake of an estimated quart (nearly a liter) during his stay. Mr. Bach sure knew how to max out the corporate credit card and have a good time.

After he completed his consulting work and played an impromptu audition, the people in Halle offered him the job of organist, which he used to persuade his patron in Weimar to create a new job title for him. He subsequently turned down Halle, became concertmaster in Weimar and usurped the Vice-Kapellmeister without having him fired. And that is how one negotiates contracts... take that "The Apprentice!"


Since Bach ate so oppulently, let's talk about two specialties on the menu: asparagus and Spritzkuchen. Asparagus is not just a food but an event in Germany. The last day of asparagus season is known as "Spargelsylvester" - Asparagus New Year's Eve. Spritzkuchen is fried dough very much like a cruller doughnut that is particularly famous in Saxony, the state in which Bach spent his Leipzig years.

Warm Asparagus Salad (adapted from a recipe by Susanna Eger, 1706) [6]


2 lbs of thick asparagus (preferably white though green will do as well)



4 tbsp of white vinegar

6 tbsp of walnut oil (substitute mild olive oil or canola oil)

2 tbsp of dill, chopped

2 tbsp of flat parsley, chopped

1 tsp of mustard

salt and pepper

1. Bring a large stock pot of water with salt to a boil. Remove the dry ends of the asparagus. If you have white asparagus, peel until about half way up the stem.

2. Boil the asparagus gently for 15-20 minutes, until it is fork tender. Plate them and cover in aluminum foil

3. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk all ingredients for the dressing until emulsified. Add a little sugar if needed.

4. Gently drizzle the dressing over the asparagus. Serve warm.


Spritzkuchen (adapted from a Berlin recipe from 1732) [7]


4 tbsp of butter

4 tbsp of water

1.25 cup of flour

3 eggs

1.5 tbsp of sugar

vegetable oil for frying

1. Gently heat water and butter in a sauce pan, bring to a boil.

2. Add flour and stir vigorously until it forms a dough ball and doesn't stick to the bottom of the sauce pan.

3. Take the sauce pan off the heat, adding eggs and sugar. Stir continuously until it has all been incorporated. (This is a choux pastry dough.)

4. Spoon the dough into a piping bag (if you want it fancy, fit it with a star nozzle) with a half-inch opening, and pipe two continuously stacked rings per Spritzkuchen onto pre-oiled parchment paper.

5. Heat vegetable oil in a heavy pot. Once it is hot, gently flip the parchment paper with the Spritzkuchen upside down and let them slide into the oil.

6. Cook for about 5 min on each side (flipping only once) until golden brown.

7. Glaze as desired. A simple sugar glaze is traditional.


To all my composer friends and readers: here is a call for scores!

Please write a piece using the musical cryptogram for B-(I)-E-R (B flat - E - D/re) for either solo violin or violin/piano duo. If you didn't know that I am a violinist, you can check out my website here. (Closing date TBD.)

Prizes: performance via currently possible channels. Grand prize: a performance and a six-pack of beer!

Click here to submit your score


[1] Klaus Dahmann, “Kosmos Pfarrhaus,” Deutsche Welle, September 12 2013,

[2] "Sondermitteilung des AKI e.V.," Arbeitskreis Innenstadt e.V. Halle/Saale,

[3] Max Seifer, “Joh. Seb. Bach 1716 in Hallen,” International Music Society Vol 6 (1904-5), 595-6.

[4] Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, 152.

[5] Calculations based on “Appendix: Money and Living Costs in Bach’s Time,” The New Bach Reader, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, revised by Christoph Wolff (New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 1999), 527-8.

[6] Susanna Eğer, Leipziger Koch-Buch (Leipzig: Groschuff, 1706), 207.

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