What Makes Bach So Great?

Johann Sebastian Bach Jo-Michael Scheibe

Portait of Johann Sebastian Bach (age 61) – by Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Ah, Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)  is one of the most famous musicians of all time. What makes him so great? Like many famous artists, Bach wasn’t highly regarded in outside of a small devoted circle of fans. He didn’t hit cultural caché until just about a hundred years after his death. In hact, Bach would probably be amazed at his fame today.

Studiert Bach! Dort findet ihr alles. (Study Bach! There you’ll find everything.)

– Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Many people simply answer, “Bach was a genius.” But what’s his story? What influenced him, and how has he influenced nearly every composer in music since?

The young Bach secured his first job as a musician at the Weimar court at seventeen years old. After just one year, he moved to a post as organist at a church in Arnstadt. His career progressed through a range of church appointments where he produced some the most unusual organ and vocal music of the time, underappreciated in his time yet gloriously memorialized now. His music is both challenging and rewarding; it is also challenging to perform. Bach’s work rewards passion and involvement as the man himself would have dedicated to the music.

Bach frequently confronted criticism for a radical in his musical compositions. According to musicologist Joseph Machlis in an article from Decoded Arts, “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 paid to write for church services. But Bach wouldn’t be held back by the rules. While his pieces may sound conventional to the laymna’s ear, Bach’s pieces are actually highly embellished versions of hymns and regional melodies. Bach took simple Lutheran melodies and developed them into ecstactic works, adding his own complexity to each one. Take for example, “Wachet Auf” – the original was composed by Phillip Nikolai, but most listeners would recognize Bach’s version instead.

Bach was a master at counterpoint. Counterpoint is composition based on independent musical lines played together. With Bach, counterpoint reached its highest point of expression.

 

His style of composition has an intellectual and aesthetic appeal, attributed to its complex and detailed structure.  Contrapuntal music is not always as immediately engaging as classical or romantic styles. It’s a matrix of overlapping themes, symbols, tones; it reveals itself gradually over successive listening.  Bach is so complex that his two-volume compilation of forty-eight preludes and fugues (the fugue being counterpoint at its most complex) is identified as the backbone of a true professional pianist’s repertoire.