INKPOT#99/24 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: To Bach is to be Human: A Tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach

To Bach is to be Human

a 250th Anniversary Tribute to
Born 21st March, 1685. Died 28th July, 1750

by Chia Han-Leon

Unverified portrait of Bach, by Johann Ernst Rentsch, 1712During the Baroque period, approximately the later 17th century to the middle of the 18th century, art developed the ideas of the Renaissance period to its highest stage. Expositioning the virtues of refinement, civilisation, intellectualism, it was without doubt one of the great milestones of the humanism movement. This is one general way of expressing the Baroque contribution, but it is hardly by all means exhaustive and is of course (and should be) arguable.

The important contributions that the Baroque composer brought to music formed in many ways the foundation for music of the later periods. For example, the attention to form was both inherited by the Classical composers, but also rejected by them because of the perceived over-complexity of the Baroque. The Classical composer rejected the heavy intellectualisms of the Baroque composer, chiefly Bach, who was called “a powdered wig stuffed full of learning”. That is to say, Bach was a sort of a sacred professor of “modern” theory-music. A geek.

Above right: Unverified portrait of Bach
by Johann Ernst Rentsch, 1712

But the Baroque period was a crucial stage in music history where the orchestra you see today was born. Prior to this, in the Renaissance, the orchestra had a more ensemble-like nature and its role certainly wasn’t as prominent as it is today. During the Baroque period, the orchestra not only grew in size, the instruments were improved greatly and the composers demanded superhuman feats from their players. Orchestral music gained prominence beside and at least matched vocal and choral music. In terms of keyboard music, the contributions of the Baroque composers virtually laid out the entire foundation for solo piano music as you encounter it today.

Detail from an anonymous painting, first half of 18th century

Right: Detail from an anonymous painting, first half of 18th century.

The Baroque dance suite is also one of the ancestors of the modern symphony.

For the Romantic generation, the key figures of the Baroque period, such as Bach and Handel, provided inspiration for their expressive (and some would say excessive) needs. In 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, it was the first time the work was being played and probably the biggest work by Bach to have been staged since his death. The sheer scale and emotional power of this Baroque sacred epic blew the audience then away.

In the 20th century, the Baroque composer was again both rejected and respected some composers couldn’t care less, others deliberately copied their style. Stravinsky for example is the creator of that infamous quotation (“…. composed the same concerto 500 times…”) in reference to Vivaldi. But how else does one exhaust and expand the possibilities of a genre?

One interesting area is jazz. It might surprise you to know that Baroque music had to some extent elements of jazz, because both utilised ideas of improvised bass, plus both used the printed score as a guideline, not a series of notes to be played strictly.

Bach’s place in all this is tremendous and complicated, and made all the more mysterious by the fact that relatively little is known about him. He was born in 1685 to a very musical family. So musical that in his region, the name “Bach” was synonymous with “musician”. From young, he was trained on the keyboard, and sang in choirs. Bach later took up appointments in Weimar and then Leipzig, where the core of his works were written.

I don’t know how, with no vibrato, Bach could have so many sons.

Paul Hindemith

Bach apparently led a rather nondescript life. Nothing really monumental or shocking happened to him. He didn’t travel far from his German homeland. But he is famous for having walked more than 400 kilometres to listen to his contemporary Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ. Johann Sebastian was married twice, had 20 children but only 9 survived into adulthood. Four of Johann Sebastian’s children became fairly well-known composers – Carl Philip Emanuel (1714-1788), Johann Christian (1735-1782), Wilhelm Friedmann (1710-84) and Johann Christoph (1732-1795). By the time their father died, the appeal of Baroque music had waned considerably, and although his name was not forgotten, his works were hardly performed widely until the 19th century.

Bach is now one of the world’s most universally loved composers, at the very least in terms of western music. His music has a kind of appeal that somehow transcends the trappings of cultural bias. Whereas many composers composed in such a way that you could more or less recognise the cultural style, Bach seemed to either detach his music from this, or fuse everything together.

THERE ARE THOSE who have said that Bach is a “mathematician.” Yet there are also those who claim that he is the epitome of human feeling. Yes, Bach is in some sense a logician. What this generally refers to is Bach’s tendency and ability to work out some of his music on very intellectual terms, quite often in terms of a system or mathematical principles.

If you listen to something like A Musical Offering, however inviting the title sounds, it can be stuffy music but I must immediately retract this statement as it really is a matter of taste. Some people find all Bach stuffy. A Musical Offering is based on a single theme which Frederick the Great commanded Bach to improvise on.

Like the Goldberg Variations and other works, it is therefore very much an intellectual exercise. Similarly, when Bach embarked on the Well-Tempered Klavier, a series of 48 preludes and fugues for keyboard, he was out to exploit every possible key possible on the Western scale system. Ultimately, it is through this that future generations could use as a base for composition on and off the keyboard. It is rather like writing a dictionary it is a tough job, someone’s got to do it. When someone has finally done it, new worlds open for future generations who practise the art.

Bach was a master of what is called line. No matter how a particular work is written, for how many instruments, you can always detect a sense of a line in the music. This line may be played on a single-voiced instrument, such as an oboe or violin, or it can be in a multiple-voiced instrument, such as the keyboard, choir or an orchestra or a combination. The result is exemplified most obviously in the great choral works when he has thousands of running notes and passages interweaving with mathematical precision (which is not to say that the performers can get it right!).

The sensation of a musical line is amazingly unbroken as the melodies pass from one register to another. Witness the Magnificat‘s opening chorus. Listen to the exact precision by which instruments interweave and take over melodic precedence in the overall architecture or picture of the music. The test is this if you attempt to sing along, you will find it very easy to sing the line.

Listening to Bach is like watching energy pass from gear to gear in a complicated – but perfectly aligned and synchronised individual parts – machine. Machine turned to art. And somewhere in between – because humans err – art to humanity.

Auf Wiedersehen!Above all this Bach’s music has a great sense of beauty. Because so much of his music has an abstract foundation – for example, the exercise of making a key exist in one of The 48 – it can be quite easily taken out of context and employed on its own. The result of all this is an inexorable, often irresistible sense of movement beyond the material and the touchable.

Left: J.S. Bach – 1746 portrait by

Bach was, despite all his intellectualisms, capable of music of great emotional power. Perhaps it is this balance he achieves which makes him so human because we are creatures of logic and emotion.

Like the artists of the Renaissance, Bach was keenly aware of the formal concerns of structure as well as the variety that is to be human. Of the five Passions he composed, only two survive today in their complete form. One is the gigantic St Matthew Passion, the other the St John Passion (the St.Mark and St Luke passions have been recently reconstructed, though). Combined with his great ability for improvisation, his understanding of keys and tonal relationships, and his willingness to be progressive, Bach was quite capable of employing dissonance to get his point across.

Bach is no longer music for mere entertainment. This is music seeking the very edges of aesthetic evolution, the abyssal depths and sky-piercing heights of human experience.

Like the Romantics, Bach’s music is capable of great emotion, yet it is one that soars upon a complex, intricately conceived architecture. The relationship between Baroque music and Baroque architecture is in fact very easily relatable. Baroque art emphasised ornament hence in both there is a profusion of decorative devices.

Bach’s universal appeal is perhaps because he offers something for everyone, from the mathematician to the Romantic. He combines the well-wrought intellectualism of his Art of Fugue with the overwhelming pathos of the Passions, and never at any one point can we really – fairly – divide the two.

Indeed my point is that we should stop thinking of Bach as either the mathematician or soul-searcher, or even as two separate things in one. In all my listening to Bach, the only word I have found that justifies him is “human.”

Statue of BachIn Baroque music, this is doubly important because ornaments are not indicated in the score – it is supposed to be added reflexively by the player. Imagine this – since the ornaments we give to a Baroque score are reflexively our own, could it be that one day if we were to give these same Bach scores to an alien race, in an alien world and alien culture – is it possible that these aliens will ornament a Bach score differently? And then their Bach would be different from ours – and thus, whatever they add to their scores would be their own essence, and that which we add to our own – is our humanity.

It is like how we can recognise different singers just by listening to how each sings the same music. If this is true, then whatever Bach does not express in his own scores carries our essence. This is perhaps how Baroque music – Bach lord of them all – brings us closer to our humanity, closer to ourselves.

When one hears the range of celebration, dance of joy, structural glitter, philosophy and melancholy Orchestral Suites, or the myriad moods of the solo violin and cello suites, there is a sense of the independence of the music without any real social, political or even historical ballast. Then we come to the famous “Air on the G-string” from the Third Orchestral Suite.

Is this nothing more than a beautiful melody?

Yes, perhaps it is nothing more – but perhaps that is the key to Bach’s universality of appeal – there is a nothingness to the connections that surround and attach the Air to our earthly world. It is so detached, in a sense, from its social environment that it becomes very difficult to place chronologically. Would you believe it if I told you it was composed in 1600? Or 1850? 1950? 2025? At least to me, it is possible. I for one am unable to place the ‘time’ of this piece. In a word, it is timeless.

Consider the formal elegance of the first Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I. Consider how it really isn’t a “melody” at all but a luminous series of modulating phrases; consider how it is a member of an intellectual series of exercises, then consider the sheer human beauty and appeal of its utter simplicity. Can this, too, be placed in time? Is it a sentimental piece which will go out of fashion? Is it such a boring intellectual exercise on C major that people will balk at it after a few years of practice?

Yes, perhaps. But perhaps also no, because being so indefinable, the Prelude, like Bach, may shift in and out of social time, of linear time. But in all time, I dare say that he will always remain with us, be it as the intellectual and/or the emotionalist, but above all because like everyone else, he and his music are in all its universal sounds, spinning past stars, sparkling above space, dancing with time: human.

Chia Han-Leon has never ever gotten sick of Bach’s music.

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