At this point in time, J.S. Bach and his music are central to the development of Western music in a variety of ways. However, some readers might have noticed that I did not include Bach on the list of epochal composers I made years ago. It is time to explore these two subjects. Chronologically speaking, Bach comes rather more near the present than he does the earliest surviving written music in Western Europe. However, he does fit as a rough chronological midpoint between the great Franco-Flemish masters and today, and has always presented something of a "gateway" to the early music movement. Indeed, Bach's music was some of the first to be revived, already in the 19th century, and reconstructing Baroque style to play it has spurred on early music as a whole. Moreover, Bach provides a conceptual gateway for many listeners, as early music becomes Music Before Bach, in more than one description. This was true for me as well, as the music of Bach and his time was the earliest to be studied in any detail in most classical music curricula, and remains the earliest to be treated with much comprehension in the popular press. My studies in this area were partly motivated by a desire to understand Bach's precedents, precedents I soon learned to prefer.
Bach's music has become the basis for studies in counterpoint, something to which it is rather well-suited. After all, it lays out the potential of a tune systematically, perhaps laboriously, within the confines of its harmonic system. It defines what counterpoint and tonality are for many people. Bach himself studied earlier counterpoint, back about 100 years to Palestrina. Today the study of earlier counterpoint is almost necessarily conditioned by Bach, as people generally see the earlier music through the lens of what they know. Bach's engineer's mentality fits a didactic framework well, and his fugues certainly deserve student attention today, even if a more explicit recognition of other than "common practice harmony" might help the student broaden his framework from the start. The idea that Bach's counterpoint is more sophisticated than earlier examples is quite a silly one. What it does do is leave no stone unturned, the antithesis of subtlety and therefore sophistication. It is also easier to understand because of its more modern tonal idiom. The idea that Bach was the most intellectually brilliant of all composers (a suggestion one sees not infrequently) is even sillier, reflective of the increasing pedestal on which society places engineering and technology. Engineers usually struggle with pure math, let alone rhetoric (or art). I am sure Bach would be amazed by such a characterization, even in comparison to composers of his own generation.
Although Bach had his career high points, and a reputation as a provincial musician with some worthwhile specialized skills, he was nowhere near the loftiest positions of his profession, and was able to publish only sparingly. More than my opinion of his music per se (I generally enjoy it more than I do Monteverdi's, for instance), it is his modest contemporary stature which makes it impossible to place Bach on a list of epochal composers. There was no buzz around Europe, with every young composer striving to emulate him, not even close. His interest in old-fashioned techniques (and let us not forget that such an obscure composer as Del Buono published a virtual encyclopedia of canonic treatments on one theme a hundred years before Bach) made him the symbol of earlier counterpoint for the 19th century and again for us, but made him seem stodgy in his own time. Bach's music has made some older contrapuntal ideas more accessible to the modern audience, and his huge and mostly-similar output makes it easier to form a perspective on personal style. However, now that we are achieving our own direct understanding of Dufay, Ockeghem & Josquin, we no longer need Bach for this purpose. Oh, his music is still very worthwhile, let me not suggest otherwise, but we no longer need him for the primary purpose he has served for the past 160 years.
Of course, just because Bach's stature came largely out of a revival does not mean that it has not subsequently become entrenched in our musical culture. The past 160 years, with Bach as a symbol for early counterpoint, count too. Symbols take on their own sanctity aside from their faithfulness to facts. Bach was a practically-minded composer, someone who had to regularly compose new functional music to keep his job. For me, his music is very well-suited to being a background for mechanical tasks... it is the ultimate in "whistle while you work" music, obviously arising from a strong work ethic in response to a heavy workload. The numerical symbolism people have found is nothing new, far from it; it was a staple of Renaissance counterpoint. This is one way among many that Bach has awed people simply by being a follower of something they had not encountered otherwise. He was not first, but he was heard first by the people of today. Bach's music is, moreover, well-suited for the middle class to understand. It is neither too simple nor too complicated. This is certainly part of its charm. In terms of transcendence, though, it cannot aim very high. Bach's approach to his (rather enjoyable) tunes evokes images for me of Martin Luther beating himself for his sins.
Bach's ability to appeal to a larger audience by adopting a regular style of development, while also being thorough enough to bring admiration on the academic level, has proven to be enormously successful in a world now dominated by middle class ideals. His popularity has never been higher or broader, and by my reckoning, he is the most popular Western classical composer in the world today. Such standings change with fashion, of course, just as they have changed adversely for Tchaikovsky over the past few decades (when one could cast a social argument that the reverse should be expected), but Bach's ascendance has clearly buoyed the early music movement and vice versa. The maturity of either within the eye of public aesthetics will only be tested when they are divested from each other, something bound to occur. Bach will always retain a historical centrality, however, both as one of the last and most old-fashioned composers of the Baroque era, and as someone whose work was at the heart of the early music revival. The enormous number of recordings also assures that new listeners can find a Bach interpretation which suits them. His music will certainly endure, and continue to be enjoyed by millions, but it is music which will remain "epochal" only in an indirect way. Perhaps that distinction is unimportant, and I should bow to the adulation, especially given the preeminence of the indirect today, but I cannot help but think that Bach's influence is more about revival than it is about Bach.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb