Click to enlargeJ.S. Bach


Born: March 21, 1685. Eisenach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750. Leipzig, Germany

In his own words...

"Whereas the Honorable and Most Wise Council of this Town of Leipzig have engaged me as Cantor of the St. Thomas School... I shall set the boys a shining example... serve the school industriously... bring the music in both the principal churches of this town into good estate... faithfully instruct the boys not only in vocal but also in instrumental music... arrange the music so that it shall not last too long, and shall... not make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion... treat the boys in a friendly manner and with caution, but, in case they do not wish to obey, chastise them with moderation or report them to the proper place."

German composer and organist. Culminating figure of the German Baroque.

When we say that a composer such as Johann Sebastian Bach was a genius, what are we really saying? It is easy to call someone a genius, but far more difficult to explain what that means. The word itself tends to intimidate us, and we often feel that it is impossible to bridge the gap and find the human side of genius. So we simply call him or her a genius and are done with it.

In the case of Bach, however, his genius is a combination of a number of simpler qualities, all of which point to that human side. First, Bach was a craftsman. He lived in an age in which the composer created works according to the demands of his employer. For Bach, this meant that his various positions demanded different kinds of music. As court organist in Weimar, he produced his most important organ works, and as a composer for the Prince of Anhalt-C÷then he created music that his patron desired: ensemble music (including the famous Brandenburg Concertos, written for another royal patron, the Margrave of Brandenburg). But his most important and long-term position was as cantor of St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig. Not surprisingly, it is in this period that he wrote the bulk of his great church music. Because of the demands of his various employers, Bach was able to create works in a wide variety of genres, providing a breadth of expression not often seen.

A second quality we find in Bach is that of a student or an emulator. The composer constantly surrounded himself with the music of his contemporaries, and his study of these pieces (often involving rearranging pieces for different combinations of instruments) provided him an insight into a wide variety of national and personal styles. Throughout his life, he integrated these ideas into his own unique style.

Bach was also a deeply religious man. His personal Bible is filled with annotations and comments, and this depth of feeling finds its way into his sacred music, which often strikes the listener as an intensely personal statement of faith.

Finally, Bach had a passion for completeness. Many of his works seem to be exercises in exploring every conceivable possibility. An example of this is his two collections of preludes and fugues, the Well-Tempered Clavier. In them, Bach explores every possible major and minor key. But it is in his final works that this encyclopedic quality stands out. His Musical Offering is a tour de force of variations and contrapuntal inventions on a theme suggested to him by Frederick the Great. His Mass in B minor is not a liturgical work, but a summation of his sacred style, much of it reworked from earlier pieces. And his Art of Fugue (unfinished at his death) is a compendium of contrapuntal techniques unequaled before or since.

None of these qualities, by themselves, explain Bach's genius. In some aspects, he has no equal, and in all aspects, his music is unique. Taken together, however, they constitute the human elements of that genius. They help us to understand why and how Bach created what he did, and perhaps that is as close as we can come.

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