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J.S. Bach: A Birthday Reflection

March 22, 2011

It is technically March 22 now, but since I haven’t yet gone to sleep and in California—California being the place where everything important happens—it’s still before midnight, I figured I had time to mark the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, March 21, 1685.

Discussing Bach is like trying to tell someone everything you know.  His output is so vast, and most of it rises to the level of truly great music.  A devout Lutheran who spent his life working for the church, his music nonetheless is treasured by many kinds of people, and amongst church musicians his work is considered to be universal.  Even those who are most opposed to using “Protestant music” in Catholic churches generally make an exception for Bach, in my experience.

It’s rather unfortunate that in a generic YouTube search for Bach the first item that came up was the infamous Toccata and Fugue in D minor.  This is not a bad piece—though the exact identity of the composer is somewhat in dispute these days—but it is over-played, and most people call it the Phantom of the Opera piece, or something like that, which would only seem to perpetuate rather than to mitigate musical ignorance.  Bach wrote more than just “churchy” stuff and Halloween music.  His cello suites are a wonderful place to start.  You might like to track down his orchestral suites and the Brandenburg Concertos as well.  And for fun, don’t forget the Coffee Cantata.

Very often cited as the greatest composer who ever lived, Bach occupies a place in musical history that I would have a hard time characterizing with perfect logic:  While he represents, in many ways, the culmination of years of steady development with a style that combines not only polyphony but also tonality, horizontal lines and vertical harmonies, he also points to the future with  sounds that portend the so-called “breakdown” of traditional harmonic language.  I remember once playing the great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, emphasizing a number of very crunchy chords, and after the concert a knowledgeable friend gave me an approving wink and a nudge.  Bach’s music is not clean; it is real.  I was once told a story, but cannot verify it, that when Bach was confronted with the rules of theory that are so often erroneously ascribed to him, he said, “If that’s the way French people wanna write music, let ’em.”  I hope the story is true, but even if I figure out that it isn’t, I’m going to continue to tell it, because, like most fiction, it contains truth in it.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is the supreme art, if by art we mean something that is well-made.  It is well-formed without being crunched into a mummifying mold—in fact he gladly bends and breaks standard forms when the subject matter calls for it—and it is inspired without being sentimental, egotistical, or generally self-indulgent.  It transcends nations:  No one synthesized the French, Italian, and German styles into one cohesive approach quite like he did.  He loved to talk about God; it was his job, after all—along with teaching Latin, among other things, at the adjacent school.  Yet his music combines the colossal with the personal, the divine with the human.  Anyone who has ever heard his setting of Wenn wir in hoechsten Noeten sein from the Orgelbuechlein knows that Bach knew pain in his life.  In fact he wrote that piece while in prison for breach of contract with a less-than-agreeable employer.  Listen to this, and hear how the melody twists and turns, like a lost soul searching for comfort.  I once played this at a very difficult point in my life and wept with a mixture of sadness and joy; sadness at my situation, and joy at realizing that in this moment I was communing with such a great composer, who experienced the vicissitudes of life just as I did.  For a moment it seemed like Bach was on the organ bench next to me, which was more comfort than any living human being could give.

Maybe his humanity is what infuses his great works with their authenticity.  It is so easy to be bombastic, to overstate oneself in a gigantic piece of music.  And yet not a note of the St. Matthew Passion or the B Minor Mass, each two and a half hours long, seems to be wasted.  Neither is his music weighed down by any pretension.  It seems to serve a purpose beyond itself, a Purpose which cannot be crammed  into the dusty cubicles where musical, artistic, and philosophical treatises are kept.

If I am rambling it is because I’m rather overwhelmed by the subject of this great composer.  One runs the risk, in these kinds of situations of saying something stupid but if one more person loves the music of Bach because I was willing to make a fool of myself on his behalf, then I am quite at peace.   Suffice it to say that someday I hope to see him conducting the heavenly choirs, with Olivier Messiaen as his accompanist, while all the great musicians of history sing in his schola.  Soli Deo gloria.

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