This time of year, the world makes a special nod to the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany.
When I first explored classical music, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Bach was a much more distant figure than we encounter today. Yes, he was considered one of the three greatest composers ever, but largely in a scholarly consideration. Rare performances of his music itself largely focused on the organ works – infrequent events outside of their application in religious services in churches having both outstanding instruments and musicians – or came about through a few soloists who championed his instrumental compositions. Think of E. Power Biggs, Pablo Casals, Wanda Landowski, Rosalyn Turek, or the Bach Aria Group.
Harpsichords, for that matter, were a novelty, and the Brandenburg Concertos were typically performed with a piano as a substitute in the ensemble. How strange that sounds today, when these once exotic pieces are among the most frequently played works on classical radio stations, and commonly in period-instrument bands at that.
For one thing, the repertoire is not as defined by symphony orchestras as it was then – a break for Bach, who wrote little that would fit into their programs, even in a scaled-down mode. Today, we have chamber orchestras, community choruses, and period-performers to champion other avenues of composition.
Seems strange to consider how much the classical music scene has changed during my lifetime. For perspective, Vivaldi and Mahler were even greater rarities. And for many of us, the jazz-influenced Swingle Singers gave us the first clue of just what Bach’s scores might unleash.
We’ve been liberated from the heavy-handed, smoky, Romantic-era, Victorian approach I first encountered. What’s happened parallels the breakthroughs in painting restoration, where old masterpieces were finally stripped of the layers of dark varnish that we’d assumed were part of their intended appearance. What a brilliant, startling, controversial revelation that was! How garish rather than reverential we found much that was finally released to the light. How playful, how scandalous! What joy!
Thus it’s been with Bach, too. In the right hands, the mathematical purity of Bach’s inventions is utterly heavenly, intimate, sensual. To sing the parts with others is a marvelous balancing act of hearts and minds dancing in spirit together. Gone is any sense of a sermon in sound – this comes closer to prayer.
Add to that the demands of daily craftsmanship imposed on Bach, meaning that he created work after work more or less on deadline, with little time for major revisions, and the results can be seen as all the more impressive. No wonder we’re left agog in the face of what we discover in what he timeless wonder he discovered and embraced.