What Makes Johann Sebastian Bach So Great?

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Elias Gottlob Haussmann's 1746 portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann’s 1746 portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. Painting in oil by Elias Gottlob Haußmann, resides at the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) put it quite bluntly: Studiert Bach! Dort findet ihr alles. (Study Bach! There you’ll find everything.)

What is it about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) that makes listeners respond in awe? What is it about his music that may make the performer feel that he/she has encountered the greatest, the most challenging obstacle, and the most obscure challenge in his/her musical career?

Why is Bach so revered that even the composers who followed him generations later, want to know and study his work in such great depth?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) put it quite simply: Das ist doch einmal etwas, woraus sich was lernen laesst! (At last, this is something I could learn from.)

Johann Sebastian Bach, the Man and His Music

Johann Sebastian Bach was a young musical genius. He couldn’t avoid the music profession because even then, the Bach name was synonymous with music. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695), was a musician and, after his death when young Bach was only ten, the boy moved into the home of his elder brother, Johann Christoph, where his music education really began.

At the age of seventeen, the young Bach secured his first position, albeit a minor one, as a musician at the court of Weimar. At eighteen, he secured a post as organist at a church in Arnstadt. His career steadily progressed after that, mostly through various church appointments where he produced some of the finest and most unusual organ and vocal music of the time.

His patrons often criticized Bach as being too radical, too controversial in his musical compositions. He was an artist, though, and, as such, his musical mind drove him. According to musicologist Joseph Machlis, “His sheer mastery of the techniques of composition has never been equaled. With this went incomparable profundity of thought and feeling and the capacity of realize to the full all the possibilities inherent in a given musical situation.”

Bach was a master of his art and he knew it. He would not allow his patrons or his listening public to shape his musical genius. Hence, Bach’s need to frequently find new patrons to support himself and his own ever-growing family.

The Master of the Keyboard

I still remember the very first work that I learned by J.S. Bach. It was the very well-known, much repeated tune of Minuet in G major (BWV Anh 114). It was one the many teaching pieces written in Bach’s own handwriting, discovered in his collection, The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (there were two 1722 and 1725, this one was in the 1725 notebook); pieces that he used to teach his own eleven children.

I discovered much later, as researchers took considerable time and deliberation over this discovery, that the work was not by the famous Bach, but rather by one of his contemporaries, Christian Petzold (1677-1733).

As I explain to my students, there were no photocopiers or other means of quickly, efficiently and inexpensively reproducing music in the 1600s. And, of course, there were no real concerns about copyright. In fact, seventeenth century people considered it a compliment if someone liked your work enough to copy it in his/her own handwriting, which is what Bach did with this work and many others. Petzold was a music acquaintance, one who composed in a similar style as Bach. But this particular minuet was (and still is) quite special.

Many of my teachers described Bach as a real technician, which has a different definition than in today’s high-tech understanding of the word. He was a technician at the piano, one who explored all possible avenues of technical challenges that can very easily and quickly tie one’s fingers into knots.

His works are technical in the sense that the pianist must have good technique (a solid control of scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.) in order to master even the simplest of his keyboard works.

Plus, the mere fact that J.S. Bach was a technical genius at the piano and that he taught his children how to play, adds up to the possibility (and the reality) that some of his children would follow his footsteps in the music world.

In fact, four of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach (1714-1788), Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1720-1784), Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1782), and Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) became musicians and composers. C.P.E. actually wrote the first treatise (a manual or a textbook of theories) on how to play the piano. Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753-62) has been the cornerstone to piano technique since it’s writing.

When studying C.P.E.’s treatise, one quickly realizes that he clearly inherited the technician element found in J.S. Bach. For example, study the following excerpt from Mitchell’s English translation of C.P.E.’s treatise: “A noteworthy rule which is not without foundation is that all tones of a melody which lie outside the key may well be emphasized regardless of whether they form consonances or dissonances and those which lie within the key may be effectively performed piano, again regardless of their consonance or dissonance.”

Even a learned musician has to study C.P.E.’s words intensely in order to fully comprehend his meaning. As a treatise, it certainly reads like a high-tech manual of the twenty-first century, a technical resource that only the experts in the field could possibly understand.

The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Master of Counterpoint

J.S. Bach's manuscript for The Well-Tempered Clavier vol. I Prelude No. 1 in F minor.

J.S. Bach’s manuscript for The Well-Tempered Clavier vol. I Prelude No. 1 in F minor. Image by Dmitrismirnov.

J.S. Bach was primarily a virtuoso organist and composed most of his work for the church. He wrote over 150 organ pieces and over 200 cantatas (vocal works).

He was a master of overlapping melodies, a technique known in music as counterpoint. This technique is clearly evident in his most revered collection of piano works, The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1742).

According to musicologists like Machlis, The Well-Tempered Clavier (clavier, meaning keyboard) is the pianist’s Old Testament (bookended by Beethoven’s collection of piano sonatas which became known as the New Testament of the piano.)

In other words, Bach’s two-volume compilation of forty-eight preludes and fugues (the fugue being counterpoint at its most complex, almost a matrix of overlapping ideas and themes) is the backbone, the very basics of any thorough professional pianist’s repertoire.

Glenn Gould (1932-1982), the Canadian virtuoso pianist who wowed the world with his interpretation of J.S. Bach, described one of the fugues in this collection, the monumental Fugue in A minor, as “a contrapuntal obstacle course.”

The Well-Tempered Clavier was a technical repertoire for the pianist which, as J.S. wrote himself (and quoted in The Bach Reader) would provide the pianist with the necessary tools “to deal correctly and well with three obbligato parts” and “to arrive at a singing style in playing and at the same time to acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”

The Technical Genius of Bach

Why was J.S. Bach so great? That is such a big question, but worth pondering.

Those who came after him certainly worshipped his work. Even Beethoven referred to J.S. Bach’s work in an 1801 letter as “the great artistry of this father of harmony.”

Anthony Tommasini, in his Top 10 Composers, said that “if there is one composer in history that is the ultimate master, than that ultimate master is Bach. Bach summed up everything that happened in music.”

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