The Inspired Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach

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by Richard Wall

"Truth may be the first casualty of war, but culture is always another. Those who are indifferent to its destruction are apt to be indifferent to the destruction of life itself," writes Joe Sobran in a recent article on the looting of Iraq.

If of late you've had a little too much of the philosopher Leo Strauss and his followers — the ones who failed or did not care to prevent the looting which has taken place in Iraq — take a break from the cultural and media wars. I recommend sitting down quietly to listen to the glorious music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

"Over 250 years after his death," writes the Catalan musician and conductor Jordi Savall, "the mysterious current of Bach's genius continues to transport us to the depths of the human spirit. [His music] provides the inexhaustible impulse for a spiritual and aesthetic journey into those sublime realms where the human and the divine communicate and are sometimes united in harmony."

Heady words, but no exaggeration for anyone who has experienced the frisson that runs down the spine when listening to Bach's music. It is an invidious task to recommend any of it in particular. To connoisseurs and Bach aficionados who are reading this I therefore apologize, since no choice of this sort would ever command a consensus, but for those who might like to experiment, or perhaps revisit the music, I have picked three introductory items: the Violin Concertos (BWV 1041-1043), the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), and The Preludes and Fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Part 1 BWV 846-869, Part 2 BWV 870-893).

For further exploration, I have compiled a small suggested discography at the end of this article. In addition, the Internet is a rich source of material on Bach. There are many excellent websites detailing and cataloguing his life and work, some offering music samples for downloading, and I have listed a few of these as well.

For preference, your audition should be uninterrupted, as in a live concert. Of course, modern living is not conducive to this, but it is still a worthwhile goal. No phones, no getting up to order a pizza or cook supper in the middle, and visits to the little room should be got over before you start. Otherwise, as a good school friend of mine once said to me and I have never since forgotten, every time you interrupt, stop the music, or walk out, you are insulting the composer. To say nothing of diminishing the experience and your own enjoyment of whatever you are listening to.

I say this half in jest, and half seriously, because Bach's music, like the best of art and culture, is in the true sense inspired by the divine. It is a journey in search of ultimate consolation for the soul, in a material world of trouble and tribulation. Therefore it is best experienced in a straight-through sequential performance, with all its stirring climaxes, moments of deep contemplation or even despair, and waves of elation and joy.

While the experience of listening to recorded music does not match the experience of attending a live concert, audio technology, lately in the form of Digital Radio, Super Audio CD (SACD), and home theatre DVD for example, has been moving us closer and closer to the live performance experience. I count myself fortunate that I grew up in the age of the high fidelity stereophonic sound recording and the long-playing vinyl record. While some say they still prefer vinyl records as giving the more mellow (analog) sound than the (digital) CD, despite the penalty in clicks and scratches, I have for almost all of its 20 years been a dedicated fan of the now universal iridescent compact disc, which makes it possible to listen to music in the way I have recommended above with a high degree of clear and faithful sound.

In Bach's day, the early 18th century, it was a different matter. The music was written most often for church performance at particular solemn occasions or ceremonies, requiring significant organizational skills to marshal all the necessary human and musical resources, and Bach would probably not have seen any one work performed more than two or three times in his lifetime. This meant that when composing new works he would liberally cannibalise older works (and, as all artists do, pinch ideas from the work of earlier composers as well, such as Vivaldi), and re-arrange or transcribe for another instrument works which had originally been written for one particular instrument, so that several different versions of the same works abound.

It has also meant that, down to our own day, Bach's works lend themselves to brilliant and infinite improvisation: they can be set to voices as was done by the Swingle Singers in their "Jazz Sebastian Bach" series of the 1960s, to different groups of instruments, or be played by solo instruments, especially the harpsichord, or jazzed up like the work of the Jacques Loussier Trio in his highly listenable-to Play Bach series, which some scandalized lovers of classical music viewed as a sacrilege when they first came out in 1960.

Many other composers and performers have been profoundly influenced by Bach and have paid tribute to his inspiration in their own adaptations and variations on his works — the names of Felix Mendlessohn, who was responsible for reviving the music of Bach in the 19th century and incorporated Bach's chorale "Now thank we all our God" in his second symphony, and the Brazilian composer Villa Lobos with his haunting and beautiful Bachianas Brasileiras, are just two which spring to mind.

That we have such a rich legacy of passionately intense and inventive music today is due in no small measure to Bach's ability to transcend the limitations of his own human (and financial) condition. Dr. Percy Scholes, the original editor of the classic one-volume Oxford Companion to Music, first published in 1938, places his life as a composer in its material context thus:

"He lived in Protestant North Germany in the days when music there made an important part of the splendour of the courts, of municipal dignity, of religious observance, and of the daily happiness of the people, and he occupied successively the posts of choir-boy, violinist in the orchestra of a prince, organist of town churches, chief musician in a court, and cantor of a municipal school with charge of the music in its associated churches."

In career terms, according to Scholes, u2018he experienced a good deal of that tribulation that often comes from contact between the clerical outlook and the artistic temperament.' In 1723, Bach, who had been Kapellmeister — official composer — twice before, had taken a step down in career terms, to become the Cantor (Precentor or Choirmaster) of St. Thomas school and Director of Music in the churches of Leipzig.

A remarkable example of Bach's divine inspiration during this period is the haunting Cantata for Solo Bass voice of 1727, "Ich habe genug" (I have enough/It is enough), BWV 82, with its famous aria, "Ich freue mich auf meinem Tod" (I look forward to my death). u2018The entire score,' writes Italian musicologist and Bach specialist Alberto Basso, u2018is suffused with an intimate and personal tone… the cantata becomes a contemplation on death considered as a liberation from the afflictions of this world.'

Afflictions which, for Bach as for most of us, included keeping body and soul together in this short earthly lifespan. In 1733 the reigning monarch in Saxony, the Elector August the Strong, died. A period of mourning was decreed during which, for five months, no musical performance was allowed. Bach took advantage of this time for creative work, and produced the early part of what was to become his Mass in B Minor, which he planned to dedicate to the new Elector and send in to him with a request to be appointed to the (better-paying and more secure) position of HofKapellmeister — Court Composer. He wrote in the following terms:

Most Illustrious Electoral Prince, Most Gracious Lord,

It is with the deepest devotion that I lay before your Royal Highness this trifling product of that science which I have obtained in music, with the most humble request that you will deign to look upon it with a gracious eye, in accordance with your Clemency, which is renowned throughout the entire world, and not judging it according to the poorness of its Composition; and that you will also deign to take me into your most mighty Protection. For some years and up to the present-day I have had the Direction of the Music of the two principal Churches in Leipzig, but have also been obliged to suffer one slight and another quite undeservedly, and also a diminishing of the additional honoraria connected with this function; the which might entirely be withheld unless your Royal Highness shows me the favour of conferring upon me a Predicate in your Hoff-Capelle, and in respect of this places before the appropriate authority your high command for the bestowal of a decree; this most gracious accession to my most humble petition will impose upon me an infinite obligation, and I offer myself in most dutiful obedience and will show my constant and indefatigable diligence in the composition of music for the church as well as for the orchestra at your Royal Highness’s most gracious desire, and will also devote all my powers to your service, and remain in an unceasing loyalty your Royal Highness’s

most humble and most obedient servant Johann Sebastian Bach Dresden, July 27th 1733.

The career guidance industry was not even in its infancy here. No-one to help with an upbeat resumé and summary of skills and achievements either. Despite this masterpiece of grovelling to supreme officialdom, Bach was not to get his appointment by decree until over three years later, in late 1736. To celebrate it he gave an organ recital at the Frauenkirche in Dresden, an occasion at which the famous Georg Silbermann organ was inaugurated.

From this time until his death in 1750, Bach was to remain settled at Leipzig, and would compose or complete some of his most intense and most inspired music, such as the three works which have come to be regarded as his musical monument – u2018The Art of Fugue,' u2018Musical Offering' and the u2018Mass in B Minor.' These are intense and difficult pieces of music which reflect his turning in on himself in his later years, when he tried to collect together what he himself already saw as a legacy for the future, and when, although betraying u2018few signs of having grown tired of his job,.. he spent his time on things which interested him, even if there was no immediate necessity to write them,' as eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has written. He says of the B Minor Mass:

"Setting the text of the mass means, above all else, giving direct musical expression, without periphrasis or ambivalence, to invocation, praise and the confession of faith. Such an undertaking could not but be close to Bach's heart, for it was the supreme opportunity to unite his creed as a Christian with his creed as a musician in a single statement. But that statement had to meet his own very high standards of perfection, and so it is no wonder that it took him more than 15 years, from 1733 to 1745, to complete. There was, after all, no deadline: in this task the only obligation Bach acknowledged was his personal responsibility to his Creator, to tradition and to posterity."

It is a cruel irony of history, but no surprise to those who know what war and barbarism can do to culture, that the same Frauenkirche where Bach inaugurated the organ in 1736 was destroyed by the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945, a militarily unnecessary operation which, using conventional weapons (not WMD), killed 135,000 human beings – almost twice the number of people who died at Hiroshima.

Ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, destroyed by firebombing in 1945

For many years the Frauenkirche was left in ruins, its u2018hot stones' and moon landscape a memorial to those who died, as Kurt Vonnegut has so aptly described them in his classic, sad, funny and serious masterpiece and u2018book of the Dresden experience,' Slaughterhouse 5. But now the church is being rebuilt, and a webcam view of progress on the construction site is available on the Internet.

Posterity is fortunate indeed to have the legacy of J S Bach, but sadly, as all the human and cultural atrocities of war in the 20th and 21st centuries show, it has not learned to be any more civilized.

Nor are the state officials of today any better able than their predecessors were in 1945 to discriminate as to when to conduct u2018operations' with fancy names which are militarily unnecessary.

And, unlike Bach the composer and creative genius, whose works really have taken him into the realms of immortality, they certainly do not know when it is appropriate or not to invoke the name of God. I am thinking here of Mr. Blair's statements that he is ready to answer to his Maker for the invasion of Iraq.

Compared to the infinite journey to the depths of the soul which Bach's music offers us, what kind of legacy to posterity are the hot and radioactive stones of that poor bombed and looted land?


A suggested J .S. Bach Discography:


Catalog/Performers (*)  

Violin Concertos, BWV 1041-1043

Harmonia Mundi GD77006

La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken  

Brandenburg Concertos 1-6, BWV 1046-1051    

Works for Organ and Orchestra, BWV 1052a, 1053a, 1059 and Sinfonia BWV29    

Double Concertos for Harpsichords, BWV 1060-1062


The English Copncert, Trevor Pinnock  

Concertos for 3 and 4 Harpsichords, BWV 1063-1065


The English Copncert, Trevor Pinnock  

Orchestral Suites 1-4, BWV 1066-1069        

Choral Works:      

Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

Archiv 415 514-2

Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner  

Easter Oratorio, BWV 249

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901513

Collegium Vocale/Philippe Herreweghe  

Magnificat, BWV 243a    

St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244

Archiv 427 648-2

Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner  

St. John Passion, BWV 245

Archiv 419 324-2

Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner        


Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51    

Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66    

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80    

Ich Habe genug, BWV 82

Harmonia Mundi/HMA 151365/ Peter Kooy      

Organ Works      

Trio Sonatas BWV 525, 526, 529

Archiv 431 705-2

Ton Koopman  

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565

Sony Classics SBK 46551

E Power Biggs  

Fantasia in G Major BWV 572

Archiv 431 705-2

Ton Koopman      

Solo Keyboard Works      

English Suites, BWV 806-811

Sony Classics SK 60276 /SK 60277

Murray Perahia  

French Suites, BWV 812-817

Decca/London 433 313-2

Andras Schiff  

Partitas BWV 825-830

Decca/London 411 732-2/Andras Schiff  

The Well-Tempered Clavier – Part 1, BWV 846-869 and Part 2, BWV 870-893

Decca/London 414 388-2/417 236-2/Andras Schiff  

Italian Concerto BWV 971

DG 419 218-2

Angela Hewitt  

Goldberg Variations BWV 988

DG 439 978-2

Wilhelm Kempff        

Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-1012

Archiv 449 711-2

Pierre Fournier        

Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014-1024

Archiv 427 152-2

Reinhard Goebel/Robert Hill        

Musikalishes Opfer (Musical Offering), BWV 1079

Alia Vox AV9817

Hesperion XX/Jordi Savall        

Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), BWV 1080

1) Harmonia Mundi 1951169

Davitt Moroney, Harpischord    

2) Alia Vox AV9818

Hesperion XX/Jordi Savall

Some Bach websites (*):

1) "Bach Central Station" — a directory of J S Bach resources on the Internet

2) David Grossman Bach Pages

3) Audio Download Pages at David Grossman's website

4) Bach Index from Teri Noel Towe website

5) J S Bach Homepage



(*) I have no affiliation with any of these websites, artists or labels, but have personally listened to and enjoyed the versions of the works in question. Not all catalog numbers may be correct for all regions of the world.

Richard Wall (send him mail) is a freelance translator specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril, Portugal.

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