There was no outpouring of grief from the musical capitals of Europe when Johann Sebastian Bach died on July 28,1750, in Leipzig, Germany, at the age of 65. At the church where Bach had worked for the last 27 years of his life, teaching music, composing and conducting services, there was a brief announcement from the pulpit to mark
his passing. Indeed, Bach died much as he had lived—in relative obscurity. And when he was finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave, his work was essentially interred with him for almost 80 years. Then, on March 11,1829, Bach was reborn into the world’s musical consciousness when the gifted pianist and composer Felix Mendelssohn resurrected his predecessor’s St. Matthew Passion. It was a historic performance, touching off a chain reaction that has continued ever since. This week his music will resound around the world, celebrating the 300th birthday of a man whom many
consider to be the greatest composer of all time. Said Rosalyn Tureck, a renowned American pianist: “His depth of emotion is infinite, his gaiety tremendous. And as far as popular appeal, he has everything.”
Celebrations: In many parts of the world the celebrations began in January, and they have included toasts to two composers who were also born in 1685, Domenico Scarlatti and George Frederick Handel (page 52). By year’s end, Bach’s heavenly sounds will have raised high the roof beams in churches, intimate salons and concert halls, making the maestro a household name for those who cannot differentiate between a partita and a fugue. Said Jane Forner, director of Bach 300, Toronto’s 17-day tribute: “If it had been any other com-
poser, we would not have mounted such a festival. But Bach is number 1 on the hit parade.”
Canada will celebrate Bach with a dizzying series of festivities, rivalling the most lavish of European events. From Vancouver to St. John’s choirs and chamber musicians are tuning up. The most ambitious tributes will be Toronto’s $950,000 Bach 300 and Edmonton’s $1.3-million TriBach, which has been billed as the largest musical undertak-
ing ever staged in Western Canada, including as guest of honor Bach’s great-great-great-greatgreat-great-grandson, John Sebastian Bach, who now lives in Calgary. Masterpiece: Music lovers in Toronto are being treated to a smorgasbord of Bach savories, including 18 new compositions or arrangements which have been created especially for the occasion. Vancouver singer Ann Mortifee ^joined the New Swingle Singers for a jazz version of Bach’s soaring masterpiece The Magnificat. Although purists may not approve, the festival ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. And
while the Canadian Brass provided a serious treatment of Harry Somers’s Fanfare for J.S.B., the National Tap Dance Company of Canada clacked their way through the third Brandenburg Concerto.
Indeed, international celebrations will be a mix of serious musicianship and just plain showbiz. In New York City there will be a Bach lookalike contest and a breakdance performance to Bach’s music. One chamber group in Washington plans to play 200 of Bach’s cantatas—a feat that will take 11 years to complete. In Europe the Bach tricentennial was the inspiration for European Music Year, a $50-million extravaganza which will set new decibel levels in 24 countries. It has prompted a rash of popular biographies and coffee-table
books on the baroque era as well as a 130-album release of Bach’s work by Deutsche Grammophon. In September 20,000 choristers will sing at an open-air mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in Italy. Switzerland, on the other hand, is taking a radically different approach. Various municipalities have banned traffic from the streets so that nothing will interfere with the sound of music.
Prophecy: That myriad of modern testimonials celebrates a wealth of compositions so vast that it is estimated it would take 70 years for one person to copy Bach’s work. He is known to have composed some 300 choral works, most of them religious, a dozen major orchestral compositions—including the six Brandenburg Concertos—and hundreds of pieces of chamber music and works for organ and harpsichord. Hundreds of other pieces have probably been lost. Taken as a whole, Bach’s music represents a virtual encyclopedia of Western music itself, and it has had a major influence on almost every composer who followed him, including Mozart and Beethoven. Said Lawrence Ritchey, a professor at the University of Manitoba School of Music: “In his music, you can hear the coming of classicism and Romanticism. He sums up what came before him and he also prophesies the future.”
The massive output offers treasures for everyone. To some scholars, Bach’s power lies in the driving emotions that suffuse such grandiose religious compositions as the Mass in B Minor and the St. Matthew Passion. Others are drawn by the richness of his tonal architecture: the lacy detail and layering of crystalline melodies which fuse, separate and resolve with uncanny and beautiful logic. Conductor Leonard Bernstein has said, “He fashions a kind of sublime crossword puzzle where everything checks and all the answers are right.” That harmonic complexity intrigued Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, considered to be one of the most important Bach interpreters of this century, during his career. Gould, who died in 1982, made a lucid, almost clinical recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1955, sounding the death knell for more romantic interpretations of Bach’s keyboard music. Said U.S. minimalist composer Philip Glass: “It is quite
astonishing that a piece of that great age could sustain the imagination of a man like Gould. Bach seems to continually challenge and stimulate the best musical minds.”
Bach’s influence has extended well beyond the realm of classical music. His works have been jazzed up, toned down, rocked, electrified and squeezed through synthesizers. Everyone from American swing bands in the 1930s to
Japanese koto players have had their way with him. Even underground punk rock bands in East Germany have borrowed from Bach, using his melodic ideas in their political protest songs. But the baroque master has endured the tampering. Said U.S. composer and satirist Peter Shickele, who performs under the name P.D.Q. Bach: “No matter how you play his music, it still shines through as Bach.” Many jazz musicians, including pianists Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett, have also acknowledged their debt. Indeed, Bach was himself a great musical improviser who based many compositions on his spontaneous keyboard inventions. Said Peterson: “He is one of the most important influences in my music. He is the master of running lines, and I am drawn to the melodic quality of his music.”
The current devotion to Bach’s music is in sharp contrast to the reception he received during his lifetime. Although a virtuoso organist and a peerless conductor, he was often criticized for what his detractors said was an excessively florid
style. Said P.D.Q. Bach: “He was considered a fuddy-duddy.” Indeed, at his first job, as a church organist in Arnstadt, Bach was called before church authorities who complained that his music “obliterated melodies and confused the congregation.” As well, Bach had to withstand the attacks of many critics. In 1737 fellow musician Johann Scheibe wrote, “This great man would be the wonder of the universe if his compositions displayed more agreeable qualities, were less turgid and sophisticated, more simple and natural in character.” Even two of Bach’s musically gifted sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, refused to play their father’s work after his death.
Headstrong: In becoming a church organist, Bach was following in the footsteps of his forefathers, who had been professional musicians in the courts and churches of Germany. Born in Eisenach, in what is now East Germany, he was surrounded throughout childhood with musical instruments and adults who were constantly practising or perform-
ing. Although little is known about Bach’s early years, his parents both died when he was 10 and he went to live with his older brother, Johann Cristoph, who studied the organ under the renowned Johann Pachelbel.
In all, he held half a dozen musical posts, mostly low-paid church jobs. In most positions he earned a reputation for being both surly and headstrong. He once drew a dagger on a fellow student whose bassoon playing, he announced, sounded like a billy goat. On another occasion he took a month’s leave from his job at Arnstadt—without permission—to travel 375 km by foot to hear organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. And in Weimar, Bach was jailed by his employer,
Duke Wilhelm Ernst, for being insubordinate.
Tragedy: Bach’s life was also marked by sorrow. He fathered 20 children, seven by his cousin and first wife, Maria Barbara, who died while he was in Carlsbad.
Only nine of his children were still alive when Bach died in Leipzig, where he had created most of his choral music despite being burdened with family problems, teaching duties and the responsibility for the musical programs in four major Lutheran churches. By 1749 Bach had suffered a stroke and he was totally blind from cataracts, although he still continued composing. His final major work, the Art of Fugue, which consists of 19 different treatments of one eight-note theme, was written on his deathbed and never completed.
Now, the timeless quality of Bach’s music still speaks to people of all nationalities. In many ways his work has a special appeal for the 20th century, providing a sense of order, purity and spirituality in a secular society searching for balance. Said Halifax organist David MacDonald: “My life is not just happier because of my identification with Bach —it is fulfilled.” For the late Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, playing two of Bach’s preludes and fugues on the keyboard each day was an essential part of existence. Said Casals: “It is a rediscovery of the world in which I have the joy of being a part.” For Toronto soprano Mary Lou Fallis, who will premiere a one-woman show called Mrs. Bach at the TriBach Festival, the composer also has special meaning. Six years ago she
smuggled a radio into a hospital delivery room so she could listen to classical music. Bach’s joyful third Brandenburg Concerto accompanied the birth of her son, Benjamin. Said Fallis: “I found Bach a strong foundation to rest on. He also helped me with my breathing.” Indestructible: Bach’s music has been put to more bizarre uses. In Gödel, Escher, Bach, for which he won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter used the mathematical structure of Bach’s compositions to examine the possibilities of computer intelligence. Some Bach enthusiasts bristle at attempts to reduce
his pieces to formulas. Said Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer: “I am suspicious of anyone who describes Bach in terms of mathematics. The beauty of Bach is that his music transcends descriptions of this kind or, indeed, any kind.”
Bach has also become embroiled in modern politics. Recently, in China, political scientists claimed that he was a forerunner of Communist internationalism. And in East Germany the government has challenged the punk rockers’ claim on Bach by hailing him as a forerunner of its “progressive idealism.” But no matter how much Bach is analysed or exploited, his work remains an untarnished monument. Said Canadian flutist Robert Aitken: “Bach is virtually indestructible.”
There are those, however, who con-
tend that Bach has traditionally been corrupted in performance. During the 19th century many of the instruments that Bach composed for, including the harpsichord, had become almost extinct. And the church organs that Bach had used in the 18th century, having fallen into disrepair, were replaced by massive organs which created thunderous effects. But in the early 20th century Polish pianist Wanda Landowska spearheaded a return to a less bombastic approach. With messianic fervor she also labored to restore harpsichords to their rightful place in performances of Bach’s work. Landowska’s radical revisionism was a direct precursor of Gould’s crisp and beguiling interpretations of Bach.
Battles: Currently, the battle that Landowska launched is still raging as musicians debate whether Bach should be played on modern or authentic baroque instruments. Henry Bonnenberg, a music professor at the University of Ottawa, says he finds the sound of period instruments unsatisfying, and added, “Our ears are spoiled by our modern orchestras and the nearly perfect intonation of the instruments.” But Trevor Pinnock, the respected English harpsichordist and founder of the English Concert, says that the original instruments his ensemble uses are preferable. Said Pinnock: “With Ï modern instruments you have to worry that the tone or the sound is too heavy for the music as it was written.”
For three centuries Bach’s music has survived and transcended cultural change and shifting musical tastes. For generations people have walked down the aisle to Bach, been buried to Bach and recently even had brunch to Bach. His music has challenged and engaged a daunting array of the best musical minds and has managed to soothe and delight musical neophytes. Bach bequeathed the world an incomparable legacy which summed up the past and has remained pure and incorruptible in the present. That will doubtless continue as generations to come revel in the joy of his musical mastery.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.