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.
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.
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.
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