Scientists create the 'true face' of Bach

Using medical files, a death mask and the latest technology, scientists have created the 'true face' of the great composer. Kate Connolly catches up with the father of fugue in Berlin

I step into the hotel lobby and there he is, the father of fugue, perched on a leather armchair, staring out at me from inside a raffia shopping bag - tanned, silver-haired and blokeish, with pepper-grey eyebrows, brown eyes and an ironic grin playing on his lips.

I am, apparently, looking at history. This bust is the first modern scientific reconstruction of the 18th-century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, the master of baroque, and it has just jetted into Berlin to be unveiled to the public.

"This is the most complete likeness of Bach we can achieve from the information we have," says forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson. Commissioned by the Bach Haus museum in the musician's hometown of Eisenach, Wilkinson has spent a month reconstructing the "true face" of the maestro at the Centre for Forensic and Medical Art in Dundee, where - apart from archaeological recreations of Pharaoh Ramses II and Saint Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) - she is usually involved in crime cases, rebuilding faces out of remains found everywhere from back gardens to war zones.

Using a bronze casting of Bach's skull (made by the Leipzig anatomist Wilhelm His a century ago), and a portrait painted four years before his death in 1750 at the age of 65 - as well as documents hinting at his health, weight and fondness for beer and schnapps - Wilkinson has created the most definitive image of the composer yet. It is, she believes, around 70% accurate: his friends, apparently, would have recognised him right away. "We made a laser scan of his skull," says Wilkinson. "From there, we recreated all the muscles of his face, taken from our muscle database. Using the detail of the bone, we then recreated his facial appearance."

Documents describing Bach's eye problems, including what were possibly cataracts, allowed medical artist Caroline Needham to add the final touches that give Bach a human look. She also embellished a few details: a light tan, stubble, nasal hair and a set of eyelashes picked up in Boots and trimmed accordingly. The result, fashioned in acrylic plastic, is a bull-necked, double-chinned, furrow-browed fellow. Or, as Joachim Mischke of the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper put it: "A mixture of Charles Laughton, Mr Clean and an older Marlon Brando."

And not, perhaps, someone you'd mind having a piano lesson with. But, without the big curly wig he sports in that well-known portrait, he does look as if he'd be more at home packing meat in a market, or topping a wrestling bill, than tapping out the Toccata and Fugue in D minor on his baroque organ. Wilkinson happily admits that her reconstruction has limits: "Unfortunately, you can't tell anything about personality from the way a person looks. All we can learn about is his appearance. We know his lower teeth were more prominent than his upper teeth. He's also got quite a heavy brow, a large head [58cm in diameter] and he's a very robust, strong gentleman."

While Wilkinson can't claim to be a fan of his music ("too frilly"), the team did develop a fondness for their creation. "He became quite a character in our department," says Needham. "His animated head was permanently on the computer and the bust of him was always sitting around. So he was soon part of the furniture." The scientists stress that such "archaeological" projects allow them. to test new techniques, a luxury everyday forensics doesn't allow. But it seems valid to ask: what, really, is the point? As one German critic put it: "What's Bach's body mass index got to do with the Goldberg Variations?"

Joerg Hansen, director of the Bach Haus museum, will not stand for any suggestion that this is kitsch nonsense. "People have always had an interest not just in his music, but in the man himself," he says, adjusting the wig that has been placed on the composer's head. "They have busts of him on their pianos. But, at the same time, the only idea we have of what he looked like is based on just one painting. So there's been this mystery surrounding him - unlike Handel and Vivaldi, of whom we have loads of images.

"We know that he was a physical man, who sang and danced and stamped his feet when he played the organ. But now we have a lively picture - an image of someone you could bump into on the street, rather than just an old chap in a wig. He was dynamic and that's reflected in the reconstruction. Now people have a different image to concentrate on when they're practising their preludes."

Hansen insists he will stop short of allowing the new image to be rendered in chocolate or porcelain for souvenir hunters. "We already have chocolate organ pipes that sell very well," he says. "Frankly, I think that's as far as we want to go"


Kate Connolly

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Angela Hewitt: My battle with Bach

Pianist Angela Hewitt has played Bach everywhere from Beijing to Bogotá. But she always avoided his final work – thinking it was too tough. She relives how she overcame fear and major surgery to love The Art of Fugue

Angela Hewitt

19, Sep, 2012 @5:33 PM

Article image
Isabelle Faust: musical sleuth

The multi-award-winning violinist hunts for any clue to bring works to life, even reading composers' love letters, she tells Anna Picard

Anna Picard

15, Sep, 2013 @9:17 PM

Article image
Angela Hewitt review – brain-teasing Bach and Beethoven's bite
Hewitt’s celebration of Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year, packaged with music by Bach, a source of his inspiration, was brilliant, exuberant and expressive

Rian Evans

26, Jan, 2020 @11:34 AM

Article image
Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki review – tightly plotted drama with real bite
Conductor Masaaki Suzuki set an urgent pace while compelling performances from soloists helped pile on the tension

Erica Jeal

11, Mar, 2020 @12:14 PM

Article image
Bach Weekend review – fluent and fleet cello suites after artful Goldbergs
Jean Rondeau may have a cult following but his playing was funereal and po-faced. Jean-Guihen Queras’s cello suites, however, were wonderfully accomplished

Andrew Clements

18, Jun, 2018 @10:57 AM

Article image
Bach portrait returns to Leipzig
The best-known painting of the German composer – formerly in the possession of a US philanthropist – is to return to the city that Bach made his home

Tom Service, Imogen Tilden

29, Apr, 2015 @5:01 PM

Article image
St John Passion review – immersive and communal Bach staging is deeply touching
Intensity and urgency underpin English Touring Opera’s communal reflections on faith, loss and mortality

Tim Ashley

08, Mar, 2020 @10:54 AM

Article image
Painting of Johann Sebastian Bach returns home to Leipzig
Best know portrait of the German composer unveiled with grand ceremony at emotional homecoming

Kate Connolly in Leipzig

12, Jun, 2015 @7:03 PM

Bach finally comes home as Eisenach reclaims composer
Most citizens of Eisenach, a former communist town in central Germany, know precisely how their long-running Bach legacy began.

Kate Connolly in Eisenach

04, Jul, 2007 @10:56 PM

Christmas with Bach

This week, Radio 3 begins its Bach marathon, playing the composer's complete works uninterrupted for 10 days, ending on Christmas Day. To celebrate, we present this special issue devoted to the man many believe to be the greatest music-maker of all.

12, Dec, 2005 @11:49 PM