Why Bach? Exploring the Enduring Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach

Byvu lita

Jun 12, 2023

What’s the big fuss about J.S. Bach?

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There’s no doubt that Bach is a huge presence in the minds of so many classical music fans. Almost god-like. So what’s the deal? Well here’s a few of my ideas.

His music is unique in that it can be what you want it to be. Bach wrote music for various purposes — a lot of them for church services — but the music seems to exist in a different dimension.

The opening “aria” from his Goldberg Variations is just a simple keyboard piece. But it can mean so much to you and to me. And I bet it means different things. Bach left so little information about a lot of his music, and what he was thinking when he was writing it, that we’ve got a blank slate. The music can mean what we choose it to mean.

I also really admire Bach because he was a hard worker. Why? Because he was driven by a passion for music and his firm religious beliefs. But also because he had a family to feed. He was doing his job and putting food on the table, running music for two churches in Leipzig and composing, rehearsing and performing a whole cantata EVERY WEEK.

Well, that wasn’t enough for him. He also had a job on the side. He ran a student music society for which he wrote a lot of his music. They rehearsed and performed in Bach’s favourite coffee shop, Zimmermann’s. How did he do it all? Maybe the coffee helped. He’s said to have drunk 20 cups a day. But Bach goes so much deeper than that in the course of music history.

Through his work, he single-handedly created most of the musical language that dominated the next 200 years. What on earth do I mean by that?

Well he demonstrated standard ways for musical notes and chords to fit together. Like how two lines should intertwine and repeat over one another in a fugue. Or how the four parts of a choir can interrelate and sound “solid.”

They’re the building blocks of so much music. It feels like Bach took words, and invented grammar and sentences. That’s how groundbreaking his work was. He’s the Galileo or the Newton or the Shakespeare of classical music. And like Galileo, Newton and Shakespeare, it’s hard to find music from after Bach’s time, that doesn’t show this influence.

So what’s the deal with Bach? Well his music is sublime and has such meaning for so many people. And he composed a lot of it under incredible time pressure, not that you’d know by listening to it. But most of all, Bach’s love of music is woven into the very fabric of how we think about it. He’s the DNA of a lot of our musical culture.

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