For some reason, I was thinking about all the dramatically different
ways in which people have seen and admired J.S. Bach since his own day.
- There is Bach as a virtuouso improviser, the man who could sit
down at a keyboard and swiftly invent a multi-part fugue on any
theme. This is Bach as forerunner of a jazz musician, an exciting
- There is Bach as pedagogue, the man who taught three sons who
were much more successful than himself and who wrote great instructional
works such as the "Well-Tempered Clavier." These musical
texts have been consistently consulted by composers even when Bach’s
other works were forgotten (for instance, in Mozart’s time).
- There is Bach the profound spiritual master, the Lutheran churchman,
the author of great narrative choral works such as the Passions,
which realistically depict human emotions in relation to God’s providence.
This is the Bach whom the Romantics admired most. They even disparaged
the "Christmas Oratorio" because it recycled music from
secular works—so it couldn’t be spiritually inspired.
- There is Bach as an anti-Romantic, an unpretentious musical worker.
Whereas Romantic musical geniuses were supposed to be free of all
worldly motives and inspired only by Art, Bach happily turned out
church music for every Sunday, often re-using material, borrowing
from other sources, and making do with amateur performers. For this,
he was admired by leftish anti-Romantics such as Paul Hindemith.
If I recall correctly, Bertold Brecht used to call himself a Schreiber,
not a Dichter—someone who makes his living by writing,
not a literary Artist. The same could be said of Bach.
- There is Bach as mathematical genius, author of technically and
formally complex instrumental works, especially the "Musical
Offering," that seem as other-wordly as mathematical proofs.
After writing a list like this, one is expected to say, "Of
course, Bach was all of these things, and that’s why he is
so great." I’m going to be a little less predictable and say
that Bach was all of these things, of course, but he was
at his greatest as the composer of narrative works that were grounded
in his understanding of human life and emotion.