Is there any composer able to match Bach's output before his death at the age of sixty-five years? Perhaps Mozart, had he lived another thirty years. Perhaps. Who could be so prolific without a keen sense of responsibility and purpose, hard work and industry? Once when he was asked how he had set about to master the art of music to such a high degree, he replied: "I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well." Laziness was not in the Bach playbook.
At the top or at the end of every composition, Bach inscribed sdg, soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone be glory." Today, students are still encouraged to place a cross at the top of their work pages or amdg, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, "all for the greater glory of God."
When One Door Closes . . .
From 1720 to 1723, Bach won a music position at Clöthen. His Calvinist employer favored more instrumental music than music for worship. With one musical door closed, he was gifted enough to open another. He concentrated on instrumental music, and this is the fruitful period when most of it was composed: the six delightful Brandenburg Concertos, the keyboard concertos, the concertos for harpsichord and orchestra, and the monumental Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II. Here imaginative flights of fancy paired with highly-structured fugues are composed in every key of the twelve-note scale, both major and minor-forty-eight in all. The so-called Bach "Ave Maria" is the very first prelude of forty-eight gems.
More in The Way of Beauty
In 1720, Bach was required to travel with his employer, and he was away from home for four months. Imagine the shock on his return home to discover the tragic news that his wife Maria Barbara, who had been in perfect health before he left home, had died and had been already buried in his absence. Four children were left for him to raise. A year later, he married a singer Anna Magdalena. Their happy family increased to thirteen children in all, four composers among them.
The Fifth Evangelist
The word mediocrity was neither part of Bach's vocabulary nor of his effort. On this point, Claude Debussy once noted: "If we look at the works of Bach, we find a god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity."
From start to finish, Bach aimed high because all of his works were imbued with a deeply-felt religious faith. He cultivated the habit of perfection. The sacred works are monumental in scope: the great St. Matthew Passion, the Passion according to St. John, the B Minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio to name a few. Then there are the hundreds of cantatas he composed every Sunday for worship at St. Thomas in Leipzig. Is it any wonder that he has been dubbed "the Fifth Evangelist?"
Bach died in 1750 of a stroke brought on by an unsuccessful operation on his eyes. Copying and composing music contributed to his eventual blindness. His reputation was virtually buried with him. Had it not been for Mozart who, as a boy, played duets in England with Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian, and Felix Mendelssohn who conducted Bach's works in Berlin perhaps Bach might have remained a regional composer. These two composers revived his reputation and thrust him forth as one of the grandest stars of the musical constellation. With an eye for sharing him with the rest of the cosmos, astronauts have wished more than once that the complete works of Bach be placed in a time capsule and sent out into space.
Bach was a great composer not because he was a devout Christian. The goodness of art is ordered to the perfection of the work itself, irrespective of the good life of the artists who are concerned exclusively with the perfection of their work. But that perfection in its turn does not depend essentially on the moral and spiritual condition of the artists. With Bach, the perfection of his gift and his own personal goodness were realized together.
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Bach is a musical craftsman of the first order. At first, his music can disappoint because it seems like a series of rambling notes. Gradually patterns emerge. The fecundity of his ideas seems endless. He is never stale, never boring. His music skips and dances, walks, marches; it weeps and wails, comforts and prays. The Baroque beat keeps beating. With him, life seems ordered and good because he and his music are ordered and good.
He does it all, and all we can do is marvel at this composer who never traveled beyond a 100-mile radius. Yet, his music has touched all ages, all musical taste of all nationalities, the devout as well as the lapsed. Listen to the philosopher Alain de Botton: "Most contemporary music is about the love between two people. What makes Bach's music particularly striking is that it's about the love of God. This should present a hurdle for someone, who like me, doesn't believe in God-but doesn't. What I appreciate in Bach is his ability to suggest to me what a belief in God feels like. His music seems to me to be about devotion to a perfect ideal-something purer, better, higher."
Michael Torke, an American popular composer writes: "Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?"
With a touch of hyperbole and a flair for the dramatic, William F. Buckley opines: "If Bach is not in heaven . . . I am not going."