There are big celebrations going on right now in the music world as a major anniversary rolls around. Composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born 333 years ago this week in the little town of Eisenach, Germany. Of that event, columnist and Bach aficionado William F. Buckley, Jr. said Bach’s birth was “as though God had decided to clear his throat to remind the world of his existence.”
In the genre of what we usually (if a little misleadingly) refer to as classical music Bach is without equal. I once saw him described as the “Homer of music,” equating his role in music history with that of the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey in western literature. His output was nothing short of incredible: several record labels have issued sets of his complete works that run to over 150 CD’s. He also composed in a dazzling array of styles, from solo pieces to small chamber ensembles to big choral works, writing both religious and secular music. Few works of art of any sort touch both the rational and the spiritual in the way Bach’s music does. Some of his music has what can only be considered a mathematical precision about it, with independent, impossibly intricate lines weaving in and out of each other, somehow never coming unmoored from the key. Yet to hear one of his transcendent organ or choral works in a sanctuary is to hear intimations of the holy.
Composer Claude Debussy, born nearly 200 years after Bach and whose style one could accurately describe as anti-Bach, nevertheless called him “a benevolent God to whom all musicians should offer a prayer before starting work.” Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma burst upon the world’s consciousness with his luminous recording of Bach’s famous cello suites. In 1955, a 22–year-old piano wunderkind named Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and it made him a superstar in the classical world and pretty much everywhere else.
(Excerpt from Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto)
Many of Bach’s pieces are perfect for learning music, too. My friend Sara Stephens Kotrba has been teaching piano for 30 years and was the one who first introduced me to the Goldberg Variations back when she and I were playing in Austin together. She considers him “the most important pedagogical composer in keyboard repertoire. The ability to internalize more than one voice is the critical skill that one develops from studying and listening to Bach.” Countless piano students throughout the ages have taken giant steps toward proficiency by mastering a portion of his sprawling 1722 work known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.
In 2010 a cellist named Dale Henderson began playing Bach on New York City subway platforms. A year later on the composer’s birthday, he issued an open invitation to other musicians to do the same thing, not for money but just to play his music for people where it wouldn’t usually be heard. He called it “Bach in the Subways Day,” and a movement was born. This week, thousands of musicians, from Anchorage, Alaska to New Haven, Connecticut, and from Hong Kong to Oslo will be playing Bach’s works not just in subway stations, but in public parks, malls, zoos, restaurants, and coffee shops. (Here in Texas, however, only musicians in Lubbock and Austin have registered their participation. Maybe others will be doing so.)
San Francisco Chronicle music critic Octavio Roca once observed that Bach “gave us a series of compositions through which—not merely in which—there arises a vast, humanistic vision of eternal truths.” Nowhere else but in the greatest expressions of art could we hope to gain such insight. Happy Birthday, indeed.
(J.S. Bach statue at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Germany)