“Bach is Bach, as God is God.” Hector Berlioz
“I had no idea of the historical evolution of music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.” Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov
“Study Bach. There you will ﬁnd everything.” Johannes Brahms
“And if we look at the works of JS Bach — a benevolent god to which all musicians should oﬀer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity — on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overﬂowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered.” Claude Debussy
“This is what I have to say about Bach – listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.” Albert Einstein
Johann Sebastian Bach is the greatest composer of all time: His unparalleled gift for composition has never been equaled. His influence on musical history unrivaled. I can no more heap any greater superlatives on his legacy as explain, really, what is going on in his music. So, at the great risk of embarrassing myself, I will try to do so through his music and biography. We will take our time here, so great is Bach’s legacy. It will take the best part of 12 weeks to work through his music. And even then, we will have only scratched the surface.
First, a few facts about Bach. He was primarily known during his lifetime as a virtuoso organist. Travel around Northern Germany and you will find several churches that are primarily famous for housing organs played by Bach. He was decidedly less famous than his two compatriots Telemann and Handel, partly because Telemann and Handel traveled widely and also, I suspect, because they composed operas—the most popular music of the day. There is also the fact that Bach’s music is difficult. Difficult to play; difficult to understand. Even the greatest composers and musicians say that they discover something new about nearly every Bach composition each time they play, hear or study it. They are puzzles within puzzles, constantly referencing what came before, buried within successive layers of harmony.
The touchstone for understanding Bach is, I think, his personal narrative. His Lutheran faith was very, very real. Which is not to say that he did not struggle with his faith—he did, and that struggle is evident in much of his religious music. Part of that struggle was due to his personal tragedies, of which there are almost too many to count. If the most awful thing in the world is to bury your child, Bach suffered that particular fate too many times. To top it off, the love of his life, his first wife, died young. But despite all of that, the anecdotes of the man himself recall a Bob Cratchit-type. Outwardly jovial, generous to a fault, and always spreading good cheer. That too comes out in his music. As one musician said of Bach:
Here is a man who was orphaned by the age of 10, who lost 11 of his 20 kids in infancy or childbirth, whose first wife and love of his life died suddenly. So there’s Bach, drenched in grief, sleeping with groupies in the organ loft; a dueling, fighting, hard-drinking rock star with a work ethic that makes Obama look like a bum and producing music that still, 300 years later, inspires, stuns and rockets us into a fourth dimension of existence.
Bach composed some 1,100 works in his day—enough to fill several books. So where to begin here? No composer has presented such a challenge and I do not expect another to do so likewise. This brief overview cannot begin to delve into the depths or breath of the Bach repertoire. So what I have chosen to do is to divide his music into three sections: music for unaccompanied solo instruments, larger scale compositions, and late works. I hope there is reason to this organization.
In college, I held the view that Bach’s Cello Suites were the greatest compositions of all time. Unsurprisingly, this view is held by pretty much every cellist I’ve ever met. I am not a cellist, but I likely held that view because I tried and failed to do justice to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin. And, of course, there are the two sets of truly revolutionary music for keyboard—The Well-Tempered Klavier and the Goldberg Variations. I will have a lot more to say about them in a bit. But, first up, the Violin Sonatas and Partitas. Every violinist worth his salt has recorded these, but time and time again I return to Nathan Milstein’s landmark recording . Milstein was the last of the great Russians who had escaped communism to settle in the West. For this reason, I was fortunate to have seen him perform a few times towards the end of his career (and have a signed program as proof). By 1970, Heifetz had stopped performing and Oistrakh had tragically died. But Milstein soldiered on. Some derided his playing as cold and overly analytical. I disagree. Absolutely stoic in performance, what he lacked in personality on stage was made up for in spades in his playing—sheer perfection itself. I’ve attached a link to the complete recordings, but also to two in particular that warrant attention. Amazingly, the second is an interview with Milstein followed by a performance when he was 82 and hardly at the peak of his powers. Incredible.
Bach transcends the forms of his day to give us a meditation on existential agony. I crashed my bow across these pieces to my own agony of not being remotely talented enough to do them justice. It is Bach’s uncompromising demand for technical excellence that, in the end, caused me to reflect on the lunacy of pursuing a career in music and led me to Duke University and, ultimately, a career in law. So you all can thank or blame Bach as the case may be.
J.S. Bach, Violin Sonatas and Partitas (complete):
Sonata No. 1 in G Minor:
Partita in D Minor (“Ciaccona”):
A Chiaccona or Chaccone is a dance, but surely no one could dance to this? The critic Alex Ross describes it as “a grave dance before the Lord, the ballet of the soul in the course of life.” The dance is best heard in transcription for guitar, as demonstrated by the great Julian Bream:
J.S. Bach, Partita in D Minor, transcribed for guitar:
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