Since it's Bach's 327th birthday today, I thought it is appropriate to commemorate his genius by outlining some of his greatest achievements.
At the end of this article, I hope will enjoy the video of one of my favorites Bach organ compositions - Ton Koopman's performance of chorale prelude "Schmucke dich, o liebe Seele" from the Great 18 organ chorales.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was arguably one of the most influential composers, organists, and pedagogues of all time. He surely can
be considered as one of the greatest composers in the history of music. The
features of D major Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier II, B flat major Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier I, the cantata “Ein feste Burge ist unser Gott”, St. Matthew Passion, Clavierübung III, and ”Musical Offering” will demonstrate his genius.
The first sign of his greatness is Bach’s productivity. Although part of his
compositions is lost, what has survived shows that his compositional output was far greater than any other composer who lived before or after him. In addition, Bach created music in almost all known genres of the time, except opera and ballet. However, his vocal works, such as St. Matthew Passion have elements of baroque opera (da capo arias). Furthermore, he composed instrumental and vocal, sacred and secular music.
Bach tends to exhaust all available possibilities within the piece. For example, D major Fugue from WTC II and Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit Clavierübung III show that he used all available pitches of the scale for the beginning of the subject, time and pitch intervals, and form of the subject. If one particular possibility was unavailable, he would modify the subject in order to imply that one entrance of the subject. In addition, as is evident from the Fugue in D major and Kyrie, Gott Vater, he draws a piece from a short idea from which everything is constructed. Bach used his musical ideas so economically, that it seems at times there is hardly any other motive besides the theme and countersubject.
In case of D major and B flat major preludes and fugues from WTC, Bach seems to be very much concerned with the relationship between the pieces. Very often prelude foreshadows the fugue by having initial notes of the fugue subject. In addition, Bach’s interest in polyphonic devices (double invertible counterpoint) can be seen in the Fugue in B flat major from WTC I.
The crucial element in Bach’s music is symmetry. All pieces mentioned above
include various forms of architectural thinking. Proportionally, often his pieces can be divided in two (1/2), three (1/3 and 2/3), and four parts (¼ and ¾). Yet symmetry for Bach sometimes means even further (Clavierübung III, St. Matthew Passion or Cantata 80). Here the cycle is symmetrical in terms
of general structure.
Another feature which makes Bach so great is number symbolism. Perhaps the most evident example of this is Clavierübung III where Trinitarian
symbolism is all pervasive. This is not only apparent in chorale-based works,
but also in the Fugue in E flat where number of subject entrances reflect on
number Mass, catechism, and non-chorale based pieces. In addition, Bach often included his signature in numbers.
Bach’s all vocal works, such as Cantata 80 and St. Matthew Passion deal with
text painting. In Cantata 80, especially noticeable place is opening Chorus where cantus firmus is in canon in outer voices and symbolizes God the fortress which surrounds us. In the St. Matthew Passion, all of the recitatives are full of instances of text painting where dramatic leaps, dissonant and unresolved chords etc. symbolize the particular dramatic word. Moreover, in case of Passion, Bach often, if not always employs simple images which are apparent from the particular phrase of the aria or chorale verse.
Bach’s love for polyphony and learned devices, such as stretto, augmentation,
diminution, retrograde, and inversion are most clearly displayed in the Musical
Offering. To notice that, one can only look at one of the ten canons which are
often notated so that the performer has to figure out the time and pitch interval, and the form of the canonic voice. Here Bach explores all the possibilities where not only accompanying voice but the Royal theme itself is in canon.
Ricercare a 6 from the Musical Offering displays another feature of Bach’s
music which makes him so unique, namely perfect balance between seemingly opposing and contrasting elements. Here polyphony and vertical chords are in perfect balance. In addition, symmetry and forward drive are in balance as well. Furthermore, his ability in this piece to combine emotions and mind are especially noticeable.
Another important feature of Bach’s music in general is his universality in style and influences. He not only uses models of various composers for his own compositions, but often expands them and tries to make them more advanced. In addition, he combined French, Italian, and German practices into one universal musical language. That is especially apparent in E flat major Prelude from the Clavierübung III where Italian ritornello, French overture (dotted
rhythms), north German virtuoso pedal part, and central German fugal writing is combined into one unified piece. Italian ritornello influence is always evident
in the chorale preludes of the collection and arias of Cantata 80 and St. Matthew Passion. Furthermore, influences on Bach range not only geographically but historically as well. Movement III from the Trio Sonata of Musical Offering shows various features the style galant, the most fashionable style of the day, while Aus tiefer Not from the Clavierübung III is an
example of the style antico which was a typical style of the Palestrina
music. Sometimes, these two contrasting styles are combined in one piece (Fugue in E flat major from Clavierübung III).
Among other composers, Bach is perhaps the only one who can be called musical scientist. His importance, influence, and greatness are often compared with his contemporary scientist Isaac Newton. Like Newton’s universal laws of gravity, Bach’s well tempered tonality is the universal product of reason. Bach, like a scientist works with the smallest musical idea and that way composes a piece of music. Bach’s worldview is still influenced by the classical quadrivium principle (traditional approach) but he also explores the newest tendencies and fashions.
For Bach, the ultimate goal and reason of all music is glory of God and recreation of the spirit. In the beginning of the piece, he usually would write
Iesu iuva (Jesus help) whereas at the end he would include Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be Glory). His theological and pietistic statements are not only evident in his music, but in his own commentary to the Bible as well. Therefore, it is evident that Bach’s theological views deeply formed and
influenced his music. The features discussed above clearly show that Bach is
surely world’s greatest composer.
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