The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. -Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a German organist and composer who was active during the Baroque period. He is widely regarded to be one of the best musicians humanity has ever produced (Swafford 65).
In fact, Bach tops the list for many journalists and historians, some of whom just bite the bullet here and concede that Bach is the undisputed king of the musical universe (Goulding 96).
Many of Bach’s works are held up as a testament to this claim: The St. Matthew Passion, The B Minor Mass, The Art of Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and many other unimpeachable masterpieces. Out of these, musicologists are fond of citing The Art of Fugue as an especially extraordinary demonstration of Bach’s musical prowess.
The Art of Fugue is imagined to be the final say on counterpoint (which is the musical science of combining melodies) because it displays contrapuntal technique on a scale and scope that has never be surpassed.
Indeed, The Art of Fugue interweaves melodic lines with a devotion to thoroughness that leaves one wondering if Bach had somehow colluded with an artificially intelligent super brain that had arrived into the eighteenth century via time machine.
To get a sense of the difficulties inherent to counterpoint, consider that a fugue is actually four songs happening simultaneously to form one song that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Successfully executed counterpoint represents a peak on the landscape of human intelligence, and The Art of Fugue has been recognized by many smart people to be the best specimen of counterpoint ever produced.
To visualize Bach’s brilliance in The Art of Fugue, picture being aboard a spaceship plunging into the heart of a supernova that is ejecting plasma streams of incredibly dense, beautifully articulated, and perfectly formed musical phrases.
In any case, The Art of Fugue is a good piece, and Bach was a fine musician. He and it are worthy of careful study.
The rest of this lecture provides a rough sketch of Bach’s life and touches upon the musicological significance of one of his other masterpieces: the monumental keyboard work known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.
As a young boy, Bach learned the violin from his father. At age 10 (after both his parents had died), he went to live with his older brother who taught him the clavichord and the organ. As a late teen, Bach traveled great distances to see, hear, and talk to virtuoso musicians (Norton/Grove 49; Elie 25).
A great zeal to learn about music continued throughout his adult life, and Bach credited his own robust musicianship to hard work. “I was obliged to be industrious,” Bach was reported to have said. “Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well” (Gordon para. 1; Larousse 198).
In addition to having the industriousness of an entire aardvark colony, Bach also had industrial strength genes. Throughout Germany during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, some seventy musicians belonging to Bach’s lineage were professional musicians–many of them organists like Johann Sebastian (Schonberg 38).
To get an idea of the size and scope of Bach’s musical heritage, consider that he had four musician sons and that two of them figured prominently in music history–Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788) and Johann Christian (1735-1782) (Norton/Grove 42).
Incidentally, these aren’t the sons that papa Bach had the highest hopes for. Bach’s best praise was reserved for Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784), who was the apple of his eye and the son he believed would take up his mantle (Tauskin 402).
Wilhelm was the eldest son of Bach’s first marriage. Unfortunately, Wilhelm had what today we would call antisocial personality disorder. As a consequence, his professional career as a church organist was stymied, and he was far less successful than his father.
In any case, Bach was a cantankerous genius of the familiar sort. He knew that he was a superior musician, and he liked to remind others of this fact. Accordingly, he had very little patience for inferior musicianship and was often condescending towards his colleagues. In a famous episode, Bach called one a zippelfagotist, which means, “bassoonist that sounds like a nanny goat.” A scuffle ensued, Bach pulled out a knife, and the two musicians grappled (Schonberg 38-40).
Apparently, no one was hurt, but facts on this matter are piecemeal like much else about Bach’s life.
Concerning Bach’s output, we know that he was extraordinarily prolific. In almost every way, the man was an open spigot of productivity and progeny: He had twenty children from two wives, he wrote new music for every festival of the church calendar, he produced some 513 musical pieces. Basically, he was an unstoppable force of nature.
Historians suggest that the 513 extent pieces represent roughly half his actual output–the rest being lost to posterity. The failure to preserve Bach’s work was due to his lack of fame during his lifetime. As a consequence, Bach’s musical manuscripts were worthless after his death, so they were, in all likelihood, mercilessly discarded by the next church cantor. After all, Bach had done the same thing to his predecessor’s work (Norton/Grove 50; Larousse 198).
Bach spent his adult life working in various organist and church cantor positions. These sorts of jobs required him to teach music, to rehearse various ensembles, and to compose for all services of the church calendar. Therefore, most of Bach’s vocal music is sacred; there are very few secular songs by Bach. He did, however, compose many instrumental pieces (Norton/Grove 50).
Perhaps Bach’s greatest contribution to instrumental music is a collection of keyboard solos known as The Well-Tempered Clavier. A short synopsis of this piece follows.
The Well-Tempered Clavier
If you wanted to reduce Johann Sebastian Bach’s contribution to music history down to one piece, then The Well-Tempered Clavier would be an excellent choice.
It’s an excellent choice because this particular collection of keyboard music perfectly captures the musical trends of the day. Furthermore, it captures the way those trends were aided and abetted by emergent technologies.
One musical trend on offer during the eighteenth century was a shift away from the church modes and towards the major/minor scale system (Randel 588).
Bach championed this effort by composing a prelude and a fugue for each major and minor scale existing within the new system. He published two such collections–one in 1720 and another in 1744–for a combined total of 48 preludes and fugues (Larousse 201).
Such a creation was only possible because of a new tuning technology called equal temperament, which was a method of tuning harpsichords, pianos, and other claviers so as to make all twelve keys of the new scale system sound in tune (Schonberg 50).
One of my favorite sources for this class, the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, has this to say about The Well-Tempered Clavier, “…they are familiarly referred to as the ‘Forty-eight’, and comprise a treasure house of contrapuntal expertise and sheer musical beauty which were to make them the bible of professional musicians from the time of Bach himself to the present day” (201).
The Larousse Encyclopedia is not alone in this opinion. In fact, it is common among trained musicians (especially trained keyboard musicians) to consider The Well-Tempered Clavier to be the musical Bible.
The Well-Tempered Clavier was studied like scripture by both Mozart and Beethoven, two of the superheroes of the Classical Period.
The History of Music 2, which is the follow-up to this class, covers these two exemplary figures and many others including the aforementioned sons of Johann Sebastian.
It would seem that the Bach boys picked up a thing or two from their dad because they were both impeccable musicians.
No doubt, every era and every culture on Earth have produced impeccable musicians of the Bach variety. But this blog series has been an exploration of just one of humanity’s musical stories.
There are many more, of course, and most are still waiting to be told.
Burkholder, P.J., Grout, D.J., Palisca, C.V. A History of Western Music. 9th ed. W.W. Norton and Company, 2014.
Elie, P. Reinventing Bach. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.
Gordon, D. Reflections of Bach. spiritsounds.com. 2004. Web. 22, Nov. 2015.
Goulding, Phil, G. Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and their 1,000 Greatest Works. Ballantine Books, 1992
Larrousse / The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Hindley, Geoffrey. The World Publishing Company, 1971.
The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Sadie, Stanley, and Alison Latham W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.
Randel, Michael D. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Schonberg, H.C. The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd edition. W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Swafford, J. The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1992.
Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford University Press, 2010.
“The Art of Fugue” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.