the many Bachs

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

    live performer.

  • 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.

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