Bach Fugues and Biology

As I write this today, it is the 335th birthday of one of my favorite composers, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). This fact has caused me to reflect on what it is I like so much about his music, and this got me to thinking about fugues. Bach did not invent the structure known as the fugue, but he certainly was a master of this type of composition. It would probably be safe to say that he took the fugue to a whole new level.

A fugue is described as a “a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts” (thanks, Merriam-Webster). What is fascinating with fugues is the way in which these voices call out and talk back to each other. Each voice could be played independently, and would be judged to be a fairly complex piece in and of themselves. So, it is astounding when they are all played together that they interweave harmonically – constantly complementing one another, but allowing one voice to stand out at times while the others fade to the background only to have another voice step forward to be heard. Throughout the fugue, several different voiced can be heard at one time. At times it may be just one, but it can be two, three or even four voices which are woven together.

Fugue in G-minor (BWV 578) by J.S. Bach (3:14)

To suggest anything like a fugue could emanate from some baboon randomly pounding on a piano would be grossly naïve at best. The composition of a fugue can only be explained by the existence of an intelligent creator, but not just any intelligence. To make this complex composition work out as it does is nothing short of sheer genius.

While Bach probably did not have this in mind when he composed fugues, this type of complexity is also reflected in nature. Take for example, a “simple” photosynthetic cell. In order for this cell to function, several tasks must be accomplished, one of which is the acquisition of energy. Energy is the thing required in order for a cell to be able to “do” anything, but energy is very elusive, and must be captured first.

The process of photosynthesis does so by using light energy to break apart a water molecule transferring the energy into electrons. The energy carried by the electrons drives the biochemical pathways to produce sugars whereby the sun’s energy is stored in its chemical bonds. If all a cell could do was photosynthesis, however, it could not “do” anything because the energy residing in the sugars is not readily available.

To make use of the energy stored in sugars requires another process known as cellular respiration. In this process, the sugars produced by photosynthesis are systematically broken down by a series of biochemical pathways to create a molecule known as adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) which becomes the energy carrier within cells. While not the only way cells gather energy, ATP is utilized by a high percentage of biochemical reactions.

Neither photosynthesis nor cellular respiration could operate, however, without a large assemblage of proteins. Some proteins are used as pumps to move ions across membranes. Some are used as catalysts to speed up chemical reactions. Some are built into little nano-machines used to manufacture essential molecules. What becomes interesting is that the processes used to make these proteins (i.e. transcription and translation) rely upon a source of amino acids which are actually derived from the sugars produced during photosynthesis. They also rely upon an energy source, namely, ATP which came from cellular respiration.

While each of these biological processes (voices) is complex in their own right, they cannot function independently. Each process relies upon the other processes to accomplish its function, and the product of each process only find their purpose in the other processes. The functioning of these processes certainly acts in accord with natural laws, just like the voices of a fugue function according to the rules of music theory. But it was not the rules of music theory which produced the fugue, and likewise, natural laws on their own are incapable of interweaving complex biochemical processes. Like a fugue, the existence of these integrated systems can only reasonably be explained by an intelligent creator.

J. S. Bach signed the manuscripts of all his church music, and even some of his secular pieces with the initials “S.D.G” which stood for Sole Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone). While such initials are not stamped inside a cell, it might well be said that the inner workings of a cell are indeed singing out like the voices of a fugue. It is as the psalmist writes, “All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.” (Psalm 66:4)

1 thought on “Bach Fugues and Biology

  1. Kristen Christianssen April 5, 2020 — 4:50 pm

    Wow! “Wow” is all I can say about the complexity and beauty of fugues and photosynthesis / cellular respiration. Enjoyable to read.

    Like

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