Happy Birthday Johann Sebastian Bach!

S. Stasov

Johann Sebastian Bach
Photo: Google Images

Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have unleashed and seeded the torrent of genius that became the Austro-Germanic school of music. It is as if there had been some kind of Hegelian consensus among a group of gifted souls who agreed to incarnate in roughly the same region – with overlapping lives – creating the tradition of what most people think of as classical music. Bach (1685-1750), the first great name in this tradition, was followed by Mozart, born 5 years after his death (1756-1791). While Mozart and Bach never met, Mozart was close with Bach’s son, J.C. Bach, whom he met in London during his childhood tours. The teen aged Beethoven (1770-1827) traveled to Vienna to study with Mozart, but both were burdened by the sudden occurrence of parental deaths, and Beethoven’s trip was cut short (Beethoven later described Mozart’s celebrated virtuosic keyboard playing as “choppy”). Franz Schubert lived in Vienna (1792-1828) in the shadow of the living legend, Beethoven, acting as his pall bearer in the funeral that preceded Schubert’s own by just 20 months. Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) music dramas are an outgrowth of Beethoven’s revolutionary symphonic style. Brahms (1833-1897) was the end of the road of Germanic musical genius, at least of the so-called First Viennese School. The Second Viennese School centered around Arnold Schöneberg’s atonal style, and is a different matter.

During his lifetime Bach was a renowned keyboard artist more famous for his acclaimed playing, especially of the organ, than for his composition. He lived long enough to see his own contrapuntal style dismissed as old fashioned, academic, and boring, to be replaced by the melody-oriented style that his son J.C. Bach advanced.

Born into a musical family on March 21, 1685, and orphaned by the age of 10, Bach was sent to live with an older brother who taught him music. He fathered 20 children with two wives, and left an enormous body of magnificently crafted, highly expressive work.

Bach’s legacy is immense. He composed prolifically, some of it produced for his eyes and intellect alone. He established what is today called ‘functional tonality’, the basic harmonic structural relationship of notes to which western ears are accustomed. His encyclopedic Well Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2, demonstrated the individual characters of each of the 24 major and minor keys with an exquisitely wrought prelude and fugue for each key. The Well Tempered Clavier is one of the most influential works in the Western musical canon.

Glenn Gould performs the Well Tempered Clavier

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