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What’s with Bach

For over three centuries, Bach’s music has fascinated both musicians, composers and performers, and listeners. It seems like his music never ages and finds context in each century, generation after generation. Musicians from all genres—from classical to popular music—learn from him, find inspiration in his pieces and continuously interpret his music. For the listeners, Bach is often part of an introductory ritual and helps strengthening the fascination for musical genius. While this article does not intend to explain the whys of the profound human impact the German composer has had during the last three hundred years, it provides a short timely chronicle of the signs of his influence on both composers and performers of all genres combined.

J S Bach © Wikimedia Commons

J S Bach
© Wikimedia Commons

During his time and after his death, Bach’s work was considered old-fashioned compared to the emerging composers of the mid-18th century. He was mostly remembered for his instrumental skills as well as being a renowned teacher. However his legacy was not ignored by both Mozart—who transcribed some of his instrumental works and learned from his contrapuntal music—and Beethoven—who, inspiring a lot of his followers, learned the entire Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC).

It is Mendelssohn who is known to have started the revival of Bach’s music, through performing his St. Matthew Passion. After him, Chopin based one of his most important set of pieces—the Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 28—on the WTC. After that, Bach’s music became a well-known subject of study; among the composers who promoted his music were Brahms, Bruckner, Gounod—who combined his Prelude in C Major with a melody line for his Ave Maria—, Liszt and Wagner.

Mahan Esfahani © www.telegraph.co.uk

Mahan Esfahani
© www.telegraph.co.uk

The 20th century saw the growth of leading performers, from András Schiff to Glenn Gould, as well as transcriptions of Bach’s works—including the famous Busoni and Siloti. Several 20th century composers referred to him or his music; Ysaÿe—in his Six Sonatas for solo violin—, Shostakovich—who wrote Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues—, Villa-Lobos—in his Bachianas Brasileiras—, or Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco—who wrote Les Guitares bien tempérées. With the development of recorded music—and the huge increase in the variety of music that people had access to and popular music—Bach broke the frontiers of classical music to reach jazz—through Jacques Loussier or the Swingle Singers—, rock— Deep Purple or The Nice—and even electronic music— Wendy Carlos.

Peter Gregson © images.universal-music.de

Peter Gregson
© images.universal-music.de

Starting from 2000—the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death—there was a budding of Bach rewritings and recontextualisations. Edouard Ferlet, who improvised over his music, Brad Mehldau who performed and improvised music inspired by him, Dan Tepfer who performed and improvised over the Goldbergs. Bachspace combined the music of Bach with electronic textures while Peter Gregson recomposed the Cello Suites. Bach Rewrite offered an electronic take on the Harpsichord Concertos—swapping the Harpsichord for a Fender Rhodes—, and 3000m prepared Bach’s music for computer. Not to forget performers such as Mahan Esfahani, Joshua Bell and Vikingur Ólafsson who participated in performing the works of the Baroque composer through the standards and sonic qualities of our times. Bach’s music is so universal that it has been featured three times on the Voyager Golden Record, a gramophone record containing a broad sample of the images, common sounds, languages, and music of Earth, sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes.

There is so much to say about Bach—and often, it has been hard to disagree—and there is so much more to say. What makes Bach a true genius, is not his musical precocity, nor his virtuosity, nor his great musical output. It is his ability to communicate and to be understood by all; regardless of the age, background and knowledge. If music—and art to the extent—is a language, then geniuses are its great communicators, and Bach is one of them. He was also a great teacher, and a lot of his works are didactic and therefore find meaning for many musicians. To me, Bach is the man who organised and structured the language of Western music.

“Bach is the beginning and end of all music.” Max Reger

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