What’s So Great About Bach?

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a contradictory musical figure. Uniformly considered one of the greatest composers of Western European art music, broad audience reception of his works has generally lagged behind the admiration for his compositional prowess. In his own time, he was considered outmoded, perfecting music that utilized strict musical conventions from the past. While his music was studied diligently by the following generations of “great composers” — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — it was rarely performed in concert settings. Granted, this was partly due to concert norms of the time. The Western canon hadn’t been established yet, and audiences were still eager to hear new works by contemporary composers.

The story has it that by a stroke of luck, Felix Mendelssohn found a chest containing many of Bach’s manuscripts in an attic. He recognized the greatness of the music he found, and took it upon himself to go around Europe performing these works, which prompted a Bach revival in the nineteenth century. This period introduced Bach to a broader audience, albeit through a nineteenth-century lens. Composers such as Ferruccio Busoni rearranged some of Bach’s more popular works into significantly more virtuosic arrangements, keeping with the musical fashions of that time. So, while Bach may have become a household name to these musical consumers, the music they heard was likely very different from what one hears today, where there are certain historical performance conventions that are regarded as the “correct” ones to strive for. 

J.S. Bach has certainly been a mainstay in classical music since the formation of the Western Canon in the nineteenth century. However, I would argue that his compositions are underperformed compared to other composers with equally giant reputations, such as Beethoven. A handful of people might sit back in an armchair and sigh, “ah, Bach,” but it seems like many more find his music boring or otherwise difficult to listen to, and many music students seem to learn Bach only under some kind of “eat your peas” duress. 

As I fall into the former category, what do I like so much about J.S. Bach? 

  1. For me, its most fundamental appeal is that it is highly emotive music confined within a highly constrained framework. There are none of the Romantic excesses that characterize much of the music that came later. While I sympathize with the immediate appeal of music by, say, Brahms or Mahler, I eventually tire of the melodrama. In many cases, I find Bach’s music to be more genuinely emotive because he manages to convey intense emotion under a restrained facade. The juxtaposition of convention and emotion is deeply compelling; it’s music I always want to come back to.
  1. It feels good to play and it feels good to learn. Bach did not write for the modern piano we have today — it hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, he wrote for the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ, which were the keyboard instruments available at the time. These older instruments were physically smaller in all aspects than the modern piano we have today (shorter, narrower range, slimmer keys, etc.). Additionally, this music predates the cult of virtuosity that arose in the nineteenth century, so while Bach’s music can be highly virtuosic, it is not virtuosic just for the sake of being so. It’s unusual to find things like reaches beyond an octave, large leaps, double thirds, etc. Together, this manifests as music that fits under my hands much more comfortably than many pieces by later composers.

    The learning process of this repertoire is also particularly satisfying. Pianists sometimes talk about the “Mozart effect” when learning a piece of music. That is, a piece of music that looks fairly straightforward on the page but turns out to be a nightmare to bring up to a performance standard. With Bach’s music, particularly with his contrapuntal works, I experience a kind of “anti-Mozart effect,” where the piece doesn’t look straight-forward, it is not easy to sight-read, and you have to put in a fair amount of effort to understand what’s happening in the score. It’s a puzzle in sound, but after putting in some upfront effort, the pieces fall into place.
  1. Finally, I like that there’s more freedom in the interpretations. Until relatively recently, music was an artisan craft one learned. As the Enlightenment drew to a close at the end of the eighteenth century and Romanticism emerged as its counterweight, there was a shift from music-as-craft to music-as-art. The composer transformed from an artisan into an Artist. One of the (many, many) consequent developments of this new orientation was that composers prescribed directions in the score with increasing frequency (e.g. tempo, dynamic, and articulation markings). Baroque scores (in their un-editorialized form) are just…notes. Performers need to draw on their knowledge of performance practice to decide on dynamics, tempo, articulation, and ornamentation. There is a range of equally valid interpretations of this music, which I think makes it more interesting to play and to listen to.