The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Bach and the H-Bomb. The Ear celebrates five years of writing his blog by offering a poem about thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. | August 22, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Yesterday, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, marked the fifth anniversary of The Well-Tempered Ear blog, which this past June surpassed one million hits and now has over 1,800 daily posts and 6,200 comments. Thank you, all, for your loyalty and your participation. The results have exceeded my wildest expectations or hopes.

To mark the occasion, I thought I would do something different, something I have not done before: Offer a poem of my own from a personal project: A collection of poems I often write about the piano pieces that I am myself playing or listening to. Maybe a reader out there who likes the poem will know, or even be, a literary agent or a publisher of some kind who would be interested in seeing the poem, and others like it, reach a larger audience. The YouTube link at the bottom to the music in question adds a certain unusual attraction.

This particular poem is based on historical fact, but I have of course taken some liberties. It is like historical fiction, only in the form of poetry.

The poem concerns Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) and the late Hungarian-born and controversial theoretical physicist Dr. Edward Teller (1908-2003, below bottom), who was the model for Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1964 satirical movie of the same name. Teller developed the Atomic Bomb, created the Hydrogen Bomb and proposed Star Wars.


Edward Teller

Here is a photo of the young Dr. Edward Teller, whose mother was an accomplished concert pianist, playing the Steinway piano that he bought at a hotel auction in Chicago, while his wife Mici looks on:

Edward Teller plays piano with wife MIci CR Jon BrenneisIf you wish to check out more biographical information, including his being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1960, here are some links:;jsessionid=2C9ABDC3269E3F2ABC31706C137871EA

Here is a biography with a video clip at the bottom of the web page of Edward Teller playing the first movement, in an overheated manner, of the “Moonlight” Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven at his home at Stanford University, California, in 1990, when he was 90 years old. He died there of a stroke at 95, two months after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.

At bottom is a link to a YouTube performance by Friedrich Gulda –- a famous jazz musician but also an important teacher of classical piano titan Martha Argerich — of the Bach prelude and fugue in question.

I hope you like the poem and find it rewarding. If you do, let me know, and perhaps I will post some more in the future.

Hydrogen Bomb


By Jacob Stockinger

Late at night, when he is not in his lab
Building the world’s first atomic bomb,
Dr. Edward Teller is back in his barracks.
He thinks through his fingers
As he pedals with his fake right foot,
Practicing and playing on the century-old Steinway
He had shipped to the high New Mexico desert.

The physicist’s taste runs to Mozart and Beethoven.
But tonight he is working on Prelude and Fugue No. 8
In E-flat Minor and D-sharp Minor,
from Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s
The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Since childhood, his mind has been held captive
By only two things: the music of mathematics
And the mathematics of music.

This slow, melodious and mournful
Music, he finds, is solidly, stolidly built.
The paired-up pieces match,
Mirror-like in their linkage
Like fission and fusion,
Like Bombs A and H.

Bach and bombs seem compatibly ingenious,
Old equations for a new beauty.
He likes how the main melody at the core
Radiates and grows, outward and inward,
Down and up, across treble and bass.
The multiple voices echo in a chain reaction of sound,
Like the counterpoint of nuclei and electrons,
And the dialogue of chalkboard equations.

The transparent thickness of Baroque beauty
Suits his scientific bent and emotional need,
His taste for a stately and elegant destruction
In which he can lose himself and others.

He knows that the two pieces remain something of a mystery,
The only ones Bach wrote in those keys,
Obscure keys that no one used back then.
But rarity equals a kind of originality
and that attracts Teller, who is still thinking up
“The Super,” his own word for an even
more powerful thermonuclear device.

That is what he now calls apocalyptic energy,
When he is not playing Bach.

And especially when he is.

© Jacob Stockinger



  1. Hi Jake, By way of being a minor (VERY) poet (albeit published) myself I was very interested and impressed. I “enjoyed” it, if one can enjoy such a subject. I would share Teller’s desire to to have demonstrated the bomb to the Japanese and not have had to use it but I am firmly convinced it saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions and millions of Japanese lives.

    As a poet I think it is too bad that Bach did not use the keys of A and H (Yes Virginia, there is or was a key of H in Bach’s time and place; he used both in a musical signature piece” B, A, C, & H) though perhaps not musically.

    I think Ann Boyer hit the right note in her comment.

    Daryl S.

    Comment by Daryl Sherman — August 22, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

  2. What a poem, Jake. It’s fascinating how you interweave the two seemingly unrelated topics to create a new logic. And your understanding of Bach’s music never ceases to amaze me!

    Comment by Ann Boyer — August 22, 2014 @ 6:46 am

  3. Jake, I’m not a particular fan of poetry but couldn’t help be impressed with your work. Having live/worked in Japan 35 years, I know something about Hiroshima & Nagasaki & why the Japanese people commemorate the bombings every August. The museums in those cities graphically illustrate the horrendous results of the A-bomb. Hopefully, thermonuclear power will never be used again. Take care. Larry

    Comment by buppanasu — August 22, 2014 @ 6:25 am

    • Larry,
      Thank you for your kind words about the poem.
      I think we all share your hope about thermonuclear weapons will never be used again.
      Edward Teller was one of the scientists who later regretted that the US hadn’t found a way to demonstrate the power of the Atom bomb to the Japanese before dropping it with the hope the enemy would surrender once they saw the results.
      The practical issue, as I understand it, was that only two bombs had been made.
      And if Japan didn’t surrender from a preview, the US and its allies were afraid the one bomb left might not be enough to end the war.
      An estimates of causalities for an invasion of Japan ran upwards on one million, I think.
      But the poem is intended not as a protest so much as an insight into kinds of thinking, into the way that art does not prevent inhumanity — much like the Auschwitz guards who kills Jews during the day and then went home and listened to beautiful music by Schubert at night.
      Hard to reconcile, but it happened.
      Thanks for writing and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 22, 2014 @ 7:57 am

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