Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the greatest musicians throughout the music history. He was a supreme composer, organist and teacher. The Baroque period reached its zenith in the Bach’s music. In this essay, I will discuss reasons for the acknowledged greatness of Bach’s music. I will use specific examples from his various works.
Bach was the universal composer. His universality was reflected in many ways. Bach’s music synthesized different influences. He composed music in almost all possible genres (except opera). However, some of his composition such as St Matthew Passion exhibits such a dramatic elements and compositional mastery that none of the opera could compete. He also composed both sacred and secular music (for ex: Cantata 80 and Musical Offering). Bach was also a transitional figure between the style antico and style moderno. Bach received his schooling that was still based on the trivium and quadrivium. This ancient university system came from Ancient Greece.
Greek as well as Renaissance composer and philosophers believed that music reflects the cosmic harmony. Therefore, music in the Renaissance had a scientific approach. Compositions were based on the strict proportions and numerical symbols. The polyphonic texture dominated. Such style was well exhibited in music written by Palestrina. In the Bach’s life time, the attitudes had dramatically changed. Music was no longer reflecting the cosmic harmony. Music was assigned a new purpose – to entertain people. For this reason, music became lighter, the polyphonic texture was taken over by homophony, and horizontal thinking by vertical.
Bach, however, was able to compose in both styles. For example, Bach’s first three chorales from the Clavierübung III (Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie), the large chorale “Aus tiefer Not,” the first fugue in E flat major (from the same collection) and the six-voice Ricecare (from the Musical Offering) exhibit influence of style antico. In these chorales Bach uses alla breve meter, pulse is in half notes. All these chorales demonstrate Bach’s contrapuntal abilities. He uses such contrapuntal devices as vorimitations, imitations, strettos, inversions, augmentations and diminutions. In pieces like these, Bach reveals himself as a scientist.
In general, all of the pieces exhibit Bach’s architectural thinking and sense of symmetry and proportions. Bach’s architectural plan involves the general structure of every piece (for ex: large cycle such a Clavierübung III, or relatively short piece such as fugue form the Well-tempered clavier II in D major). Bach’s harmonic language is also well balanced. He was able to balance between the horizontal and vertical thinking (for example the six-voice Ricercare from the Musical Offering).
Bach’s abilities to write in a new style are revealed in such compositions as the third movement of the Trio sonata (from the Musical Offering). Here Bach uses the dynamic contrasts, sigh motives, the texture is homophonic, general mood of this movement is light and elegant. The galant style is also well represented in the seventh movement of the Cantata 80 as well as in some chorales from the Clavierübung III.
The other aspect of Bach’s universality is that his music synthesized different cultural influences. Bach was not afraid of studying pieces by other composers and borrowing their ideas. However, Bach not just simply took ideas by other composers. He also was able to expand upon them. As a result of this, his music received a new approach and the highest possible sophistication. Moreover, Bach was able to combine different influences in the same piece. The Italian (Vivaldi, Corelli/Italian concerto) influences are well exhibit in Bach’s use of the ritornello. This influence can be found in the second and fifth movements of the Cantata 80, in the Praeludium in E flat major as well as in many chorales (from the Clavierübung III), and also in numerous examples of the St. Mathew Passion.
Bach not only borrowed the ritornello ideas from the Italian composers, but also the harmonic progressions. He actively used the cycle of fifths, usually cycle of fifths helped for Bach to expand the ritornello itself (through the sequences). Bach also was influenced by French music. This influence is especially evident in his French overture (from the Clavierübung II). Bach also combined French and Italian influences, for example: in the Prelude in E flat major from the Clavierübung III the beginning ritornello (Italian tradition) has dotted rhythms in the French overture style. Moreover, the central piece in this collection Fughetta super Wir glauben all an einen Gott is also written in French overture style. This example exhibits Bach’s architectural thinking (beginning and middle pieces of the Clavierübung III are influenced by French style).
Another major influence on Bach’s music came from North German organ school. The features that it exhibits are brilliant virtuosity, alteration between strict and free, stylus fantasticus, and strong harmonic language with unexpected dissonances. There are many compositions by Bach that have these features (mostly in his organ works). However, the Prelude in B flat major from WTC I, has many features similar to those I have just mentioned.
There are also other important things that must be said about the WTC. From many of his examples it is clear that subjects of fugues are related to the beginning of preludes. In the B flat major fugue the beginning of the subject is an inversion of the opening bass line from the Prelude. The subject of the D major fugue includes the same intervals and pitches as the opening of the prelude. Also it is important to mention that fugue in D major does not have a countersubject.
This fugue (as well as his many other pieces) exhibits Bach’s compositional economy. In this fugue Bach exhausts all possibilities related to the subject. He works as a scientist, deriving entire piece from a short idea. It also exhibits Bach’s possibilities to write strettos and it is also very symmetrical. In the fugue in B flat major, Bach reveals his ability in writing countersubject and episodes. In this fugue he also uses double invertible counterpoint.
It is also important to notice that Bach always carefully plans the climax in every piece. Usually the devices that help to create climax are: increase of voices, expanding the diapason, increasing harmonic intensity, building up the dynamic, etc. For example, in his fugues, climax is often built by using a few voice strettos. The dramatic exception of the traditional climax is the climactic part in the St Mathew Passion of the Chorus #78. Here in the most climactic point of the piece, the dynamic reaches the triple piano (ppp). This is a very unusual thing in the Baroque period. It reveals Bach as creative innovator and musical genius.
Another noticeable thing about Bach’s compositions is his ability to write for different size of performing forces. For example, such collection as WTC requires only one instrument and a single performer. In contrast to this, the opening chorus from the St Mathew Passion requires double choir with the small third choir, and double orchestra (also the soloist for the later movements). This example also shows Bach’s ability to use entire space in the church. Bach also uses varied textures, for example in the Duets from the Clavierübung III there are only two voices, in the Ricercare from the Musical Offering Bach employs six voices.
One of the most significant things in Bach’s music is his ability to write in the contrapuntal style. There are numerous examples from the pieces that we have studied in class that show how masterfully Bach uses the learned devices. I will briefly mention only a few, because I’ve already mentioned some. For example, in the chorale Jesus Christus unser Heiland (from the Clavierübung III) Bach incorporates two melodic lines in one voice at the same time: one descending and one ascending. This opening phrase is later used in retrograde, in inversion, and in the retrograde inversion.
Another fascinating example of Bach’s polyphonic mastery is the fugue in E flat major from the Clavierübung III. This is a triple fugue where Bach not only writes three subject that he later combines, but also these subjects exhibit different types of fugues. For example: the first subject exhibits the style antico, the second subject exhibits the spielfugue, the third subject is dance type (gigue), and the combination of all these subjects makes it the art fugue. Moreover, all these subjects symbolize the Holy Trinity (1-the Father, 2-the Sun, and 3-the Holy Ghost). This entire cycle is full of the Trinitarian symbols, and this last fugue is the culmination of the entire cycle.
The other fascinating example of Bach’s contrapuntal genius is his Musical Offering. I have already briefly touched the six-voice Ricercare, which shows Bach’s maturity. Another significant example is his ten canons. These canons are the most sophisticated musical puzzle, which requires a lot of intelligence and patience, while trying to figure it out. In five of these canons, Bach uses the other voices in canon. In the other five, he uses the Royal theme in canon itself.
Another significant aspect of Bach’s music that makes him a genius is his creation of images and text painting. Bach used text painting in both instrumental and vocal compositions. The Cantata 80, the St Mathew Passion, and the Clavierübung III are full of wonderful examples of the text painting. In general, when text deals with pain and sorrows music becomes more intense, dissonant, and chromatic.
In the St Mathew Passion, Bach often uses the symbol of cross. In the # 71, when before death Christ shouts Eli, Eli, lama, lama a sabthani, no strings accompany Jesus voice. There is significant image of the tears in #18. Another significant example is in the # 12 on the word snake. This movement is also full of the sigh motives. Another significant example is Bach use of tonalities in the chorale “O sacred head now wounded”. It appears a few times in the Passion, every time in the different key: # 21-E sharp major, # 23-E flat major, # 53-D major, # 63 F major, and #72 in a minor. As we can see, the keys move chromatically down in # 21, 23 and 53. It goes up to the F major in # 63. This section is the highest point of tension in the entire Passion. In the # 72, it reaches the lowest point which is the A minor, and is concluded on dominant instead of tonic. This happens right after the death of Christ. The last chord of Passion incorporates dramatic dissonant.
All these examples (as well as many others) reveal Bach’s ability to express text and images trough music. The last example I would like to cite is from the opening movement of the Cantata 80. Here Bach keeps a constant canon between continuo and the oboe (bottom and upper lines). This canon surrounds the singers, and creates the image of God as almighty fortress.
Here I should also mention that this and other cantatas by Bach served as musical sermons in the Lutheran liturgy in Leipzig. All these examples of the text painting reveal Bach not only as a genius composer, but also as a man of a great piety and deep theological knowledge. In addition, the opening movement of the Cantata 80 shows Bach’s strive to variety because he uses all possible combinations of voice entries. Most of the times, Bach in his music combines variety and unity.
I think it would be impossible to cite all the significant examples from Bach’s pieces in such a short essay. However, I think that examples that I have cited give enough reasons for the acknowledged greatness of Bach’s music. These examples reveal Bach as a scientist, pietist, contrapuntist, and the greatest composer. They also show Bach’s strive for perfection in all possible ways. He carefully plans his pieces starting from an overall picture and finishing with the smallest detail.
Nothing in Bach’s music happens by coincidence. Such collections as WTC and Clavierübung III are the most excellent tools for teaching different compositional and performance techniques. Finally, above all, the most fascinating thing about Bach’s music is that even though the scores of his music are so complex and sophisticated, the sound of his music is aesthetically pleasing and beautiful.
Happy 332nd birthday, J.S. Bach!