I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.
Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.
As difficult as it was to do justice to the works of J.S. Bach in these pages, so too is it difficult to even scratch the surface of his monumental legacy. Bach did more than take the Baroque Period to the grave with him; his influence is ubiquitous in all music that follows. His legacy is everywhere, omnipresent, even if we don’t always recognize it. Mozart studied his scores; so too did Beethoven (a MAJOR Conversation to come). His music was a profound influence on Debussy and Schoenberg and, through them, his influence was amplified through jazz, pop, and the formal music of today.
This blog cannot begin to reckon with such a legacy. Instead, I have compiled a playlist that tries to show, in a limited and incomplete way, how Bach’s music remains with us, right up to that hit song from the other day.
The gnawing fear I have about trying to sum up the life’s work of history’s most important composers is the certainty that I have left something very important out. But, at least with Bach, I have no such concerns because up today is Bach’s titanic Massin B minor. I am not even going to attempt to analyze this music (or the numerology puzzles hidden in the Credo section). If you are interested in learning more, this is a great place to start your study: https://ahistoryofmusic.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/6c560-bachmassinbminorguide.pdf.
Bach wrote a lot of spiritual music for the church and every one of the great oratorios presented previously was done so on commission from a church (or church leader) or otherwise in hopes of securing a position with a church (or church leader). In contrast, the Massin B minor was written for posterity, that is, for us. Largely unknown to audiences for generations, the B Minor Mass was finally published in 1845. Until then, it existed only as rumor–the greatest work by the greatest composer ever to live. Beethoven searched in vain for a copy, dying long before its eventual publication. Part of the reason for it remaining in obscurity for nearly 100 years after its completion is likely the monumental length, which makes the B Minor Mass makes it unsuitable for actual liturgical use, either in a Lutheran or Roman Catholic setting.
So why would such a deeply religious man like Bach write a mass that was unsuited for liturgical purposes? Bach was, I think, getting at something deeper here–the unification of his religious and musical creeds. In the B Minor Mass, Bach sums up music history to date, seamlessly combining forms, techniques and musical sensibilities from across the ages, all wrapped up in the absolute apex of Baroque sound. Bach also recycles many of his best known themes here, reworking them in new ways. For example, the opening of the Kyrie section recalls the opening of the St. John Passion, discussed here a few weeks ago, while the final Kyrie harkens back to Renaissance polyphony. Bach studied Palestrina’s scores and you can hear the old Roman master’s voice echoing through Bach at various points in the B Minor Mass, distilled and amplified through Baroque instrumental counterpoint. But the source material is largely Bach himself. Much of the Sanctus comes from the Christmas Oratorio, while the Agnus Dei recalls part of the Ascention Oratorio. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor and the Contrapunctus X from The Art of the Fugue also make appearances here. I’m sure there are many others.
In the B Minor Mass, Bach fuses academic musicology, devoute Lutheran faith, and glorious sound. You might say that we really didn’t need to listen to anything that came before—ab uno disce omnes. This is the ultimate Conversation–Bach, having a conversation with himself and so many of the great composers that predated him. For me, the B Minor Mass is the greatest single work of music ever composed. It is more that simply one of my Desert Island Discs: It is the whole Island.
I can think of no better way to spend the better part of two hours than listening to Bach’s ultimate summation work. The finale of the mass, a prayer for peace—Dona nobis pacem—was among the last things Bach ever composed. It is so absolutely and completely perfect—I like to imagine that Bach simply laid down is quill and called it a day on this Earth. And, in fact, that’s exactly where I will leave Bach after 12 weeks here, taking his body, mind, and the entire Baroque Period to the grave.
One thing is certain. Even if few truly appreciated it at the time, Bach was very aware of his genius. A humble Lutheran by nature and faith, Bach sought to cement his legacy at the end of his life through two monumental works. Sick, going blind and dying, Bach set about to compose on both a small and massive scale. In the Art of the Fugue, Bach delivers the ultimate summation on musical theory to date. Included in this set of compositions are the most intricate, detailed and complex music ever written. It’s as if Bach threw down his gauntlet, exclaiming “Decipher this!”
Bach did not specify which instruments should perform these fugues and instrumentation varies widely in recorded versions. I’ve selected a few here, but they are all worth careful listening and consideration, across multiple recordings. These may not be among my truly favorite works of music, but they’d be on my Desert Island Discs for sure—I’d never, ever tire of hearing them. For this first entry, I’ve selected two, the Eleventh and Seventh. The Eleventh is perhaps the most complex fugue ever written. Again, we have the familiar three subjects, which were taken from the Eighth. But, here, each of them is inverted and combined. In the Seventh, the themes are so dense I can barely figure out what’s going on. This is where my ear reaches a wall I cannot pass. As I said several weeks ago, Bach brought me to my knees musically, delivering a humbling realization that what mattered most to me was beyond my ability. Here, over 30 years later, he compounds that lesson. Every entry is in stretto—so each subject is imitated before it has even finished. I hear chords in this that are so new for the period they seem to anticipate jazz. And . . . that’s about all I can explain. Bach continues to elude me after all these years—what was that Einstein quote again?
In 1724, Bach unleashed his St. John Passion on Good Friday. Solemn music for the most solemn day in the Christian calendar. While Lutheran congregations would have expected an austere service, with a handful of Lutheran hymns, Bach had something new up his sleeve. As John Eliot Gardiner observes: “What greeted worshippers that day, however, was music of overwhelming descriptive and emotional power that would surely have shattered their perception of music itself.” More raw and unpolished than the St. Matthew Passion, which featured in this blog earlier in the week, this is for me the ultimate music for Easter. Goosebumps, right from the opening, Bach doesn’t relent during this two hour tour de force, an emotional rollercoaster for the ages. Fear, empathy, sorrow, despair, and, finally, transcendence.
Melt, my heart, in floods of tears.
J.S. Bach, St. John Passion:
John Eliot Gardiner and his frequent collaborators, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, recently released a new and remarkable recording of the St. John Passion. Recorded live at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, during the height of the pandemic and with a socially distanced choir and soloists, the sound engineering of the recording replicates what must have been a truly enveloping sound on the day.
From Gardiner’s liner notes: “The incredible force and beauty of Bach’s music creates an extraordinary effect, a huge impact, and it offered us a chance to aspire to something much bigger than us and beyond us–the divine.”
Last Christmas, I published a playlist that looked at Christmas music over nearly 1,000 years. At Easter, it is all about Bach.
As mentioned earlier, Bach’s faith ran deep; while his great and frequent personal tragedies were never worn on his sleeve or visage, they poured out of him and into his music. The St. Matthew Passion is the second of his two Passion settings (his first, the St John Passion will feature later this week).
Here, Bach lets fly his full genius and grief: The flutes used to express the anguish of the apostles at Jesus’ revelation of his impending death (Buss un Reu), the relentless repeating savage diminished chords to symbolize the strokes of the lash during the Scourging (Erbarm es, Gott), and the anguished salvation of its finale (Wur setzen uns mit Tränen nieder).
It’s a brilliant work, which began developing the advanced harmonics of the Romantic Period. No wonder Mendelssohn and Schumann tirelessly promoted Bach’s music. And if the man’s opinion matters, Bach considered this to be his best.
In the comments to the video, you can find links to jump to the sections referenced, but the entire oratorio is worth a few hours of your time. Here is Bach approaching his zenith as a composer, melding religious and personal sorrow and loss into music like no one before or since.
The Goldberg Variations, composed towards the end of Bach’s life, are one of his “summation” works. In these works, and here on a single instrument no less, he presents the entire history of music, synthesizing diverse styles from Italian Aria to French Overture. Depending on how many of the repeats are taken, a performance can last upwards of eighty minutes. This is peak Bach, equal parts mathematical precision and human emotion fused as one. When they were published in 1741, Bach remarked that they were “prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.” That’s just about right.
So, what makes the Goldberg Variations so special? They are, after all, 80 minutes of harpsichord largely in the key of G major. The same harmonies repeat over and over again, leading at least one critic jokingly to call the Goldberg Variations a monument to monotony. Yet within this deceptively simple compositional framework, Bach’s genius shines through. The theme is symetrically spaced, with 32 bars of the theme, replicated by the 30 variations plus the two framing themes. The fundamental bass is also 32 bars long. Variation 15, the halfway point, is the first of only three composed in minor key closes out the first set in melancholy fashion, only to be immediately reset by Variation 16, composed in grand French Overture style. Every note is exactly where it should be according to mathemtical precision. And yet this isn’t music composed by an unfeeling computer. Bach’s inherent joy comes spilling out of the music, lifting up both performer and audience alike.
The Goldberg Variations are grouped into ten sets of three variations, with each third variation written as a canon (i.e., a round like Row, Row, Row Your Boat). Adding to the complexity, each successive cannon sets the voices at progressively wider intervals. Trying to follow the themes in these is like trying to run through a maze at top speed—you keep hitting dead ends and completely losing your way.
The final variation is a “quodlibet”–an improvisation in which multiple songs are combined. The Bach family was fond of this sort of musical game and I like to think that Bach is saying here that this was, for him, his greatest joy in life: making music with those he loved.
This is truly the music of joy.
J.S. Bach, Goldberg Variations
Glenn Gould made two famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations, one in 1955 at the start of his career and the second in 1981, just before his untimely death. Both are remarkable, but given the choice, I prefer the 1981 version when Gould have fully realized his interpretation of Bach. Both versions are presented here.
Bach’s influence on keyboard instruments is unrivaled. But before getting into his works for solo keyboard, it is important to talk about Equal Temperament, which solved for all time the problem of the Pythagorean Comma, which we discussed at the beginning of this blog. To recap, Western music was based on a natural scale with each successive note having a 2/3 relationship to the next. But the spacing between each note was slightly off, and increasingly so as you went up the scale. By the time you got to the next octave, the pitch was noticeably off. The historical compromise had been to discard 5 of the 12 tones. To use more tones, composers developed keys—but each key required a unique tuning. So switching between keys became difficult, if not impossible in many cases. Equal temperament was developed to enable instruments to play in all keys in a single, uniform, tuning. To do so required music to make a fundamental shift from nature—correcting the Pythagorean Comma so that each note was the exact same distance from the next changed the fundamental mathematics that linked music to the natural world of sound. As Howard Goodell is fond of saying, due to Equal Temperment, every note you hear today is a monstrous lie. Here, again, is the math: https://pages.mtu.edu/~suits/scales.html
Bach wrote the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Klavier to prove that a single keyboard could play all the tones in each key without being re-tuned. Bach did not write this to perform; he may not even have written it for teaching his students. It is just possible that Bach wrote this as the proof of Equal Temperament. But, oh, what a proof! The reclusive pianist Glenn Gould brought the Well-Tempered Klavier into the concert hall and his recording of them became one of the true landmarks of recorded music. Along with his classic recording of the Goldberg Variations, Gould is the modern master of Bach. Only one problem—these pieces were not composed for the piano.
In Bach’s day, the dominant form of keyboard was the harpsichord, where strings are plucked rather than struck. Harpsichords, however beautiful, cannot vary their volume. Every note, no matter how forcefully struck, will be just as loud as any other. As noted earlier in this blog, a harpsichord maker had invented a keyboard that could play both softly (piano, in Italian) and loudly (forte, in Italian). So was born the “fortepiano”, the forerunner of our modern piano.
These new fortepianos made their way to Germany and, naturally, one was presented to Bach. If they were looking for an endorsement, however, they went away disappointed. Bach was not impressed. Thus, to really understand these pieces, you must hear them on the harpsichord. Here, we have the Kenneth Gilbert recording, who plays a harpsichord from 1671! From the very lengthy set across two books, I have selected Fugue No. 4 in C-Sharp Minor from the first book. This fugue has the familiar three subjects, one inverted. An inverted subject “retains the rhythm and the basic contour of the material, but flips it upside down: where the original moves up, the inversion moves down just as down changes to up.” It is a mirror image of the original. There is no break in this fugue as the subjects gather one on top of the other. It is a brilliant composition. I’ve also chosen the B minor Fugue from the first book. It is particularly notable as the subject uses all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. I’ve been looking for the earliest example of this, but I believe this is the first time that feat was achieved. Conversation alert for the 20th century.
J.S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Klavier
Book 1, Fugue No. 4 in C-Sharp Minor (on harpsichord):
“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: