Why is Bach a Great Composer?


I once mentioned to my father that I was studying some of BachÕs keyboard works. His reply was: ŅOh, Bach—heÕs the guy who makes you pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, isnÕt he?Ó I managed to dodge an argument by reminding myself ix-nay on the arcasm-say. Instead I responded, perhaps a little too quietly, ŅWell, Dad, thereÕs a lot more to Bach than thatÓ and changed the subject as quickly as possible.


Funny that my first reaction to my dadÕs inoffensive but glib remark would be irritation. It wasnÕt the words themselves that annoyed me, but the very idea of anybody making a glib remark about Bach at all. So IÕm moved to ponder why I hold Bach to be such a great composer that offhand quips about him can raise my hackles. After all, I am not put out if somebody offers a trivial sound-byte about, oh, Galuppi. So what makes a composer Great as opposed to merely Good or even Adequate? Or can we even say that any creator stands at a higher level of achievement than any other? Are such judgments anything other than elitism masquerading as aesthetic appreciation?


None of these are easy questions, nor should one expect them to have simple or even completely satisfying answers. And yetÉconsider biologist Lewis ThomasÕs opinion about the contents of the disc that was to be placed on the 1977 Voyager spacecraft before launching it on its long journey into the cosmos. Carl Sagan had asked Thomas for his suggestions about works which would represent the human race at its very finest. Thomas replied: ŅI would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.Ó Then he paused and added: ŅBut that would be boasting.Ó


Wow. I try to imagine anybody ever saying that about any of my stuff. The implication is that BachÕs work transcends conventional human excellence; weÕre not talking here about just being an A+ student as opposed to plain old A. ThereÕs a touch of deification in ThomasÕs statement, to be sure. But a reverential tone is common when people talk about Bach. That scent of transcendence perfumes all discussion.


(For the record, the first human music on the Voyager disc is BachÕs Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, along with two other works by Bach. He is the only composer on the disc—West or East—honored so with three compositions.)


I remember a story of a young woman who traveled through the counterculture of the 1970s, indulging freely in the basic three food types: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. In the process she destroyed her physical and mental health, but eventually entered a long and difficult path towards regaining sanity and balance. Every night, before going to sleep, she would listen to a recording of BachÕs Goldberg Variations. To her they represented all that is noble, accomplished, and—to use an old-fashioned word—civilized in the human spirit. The humanistic glow of the Goldbergs illuminated what must have been at times a fearsomely dark journey.


I can imagine other Bach compositions serving the same healing role—the Mass in B Minor, the Passion According to St. Matthew, The Art of the Fugue, The Musical Offering, The Well-Tempered Clavier. Those are all monumental creations, any one of them a lifetime achievement for almost any other composer. But even a short keyboard piece like Two-Part Invention No. 1 in C Major displays that same nobility, that same accomplishment, that same—hereÕs that word again—civilization.


There is a comprehensiveness about Bach, a thoroughness, that is rare in any creative artist. From the micro-level of a single phrase to the macro-vision of a St. Matthew Passion BachÕs work encompasses technical perfection, aesthetic beauty, startling originality, and an unerring precision of intent. This is not to say that every single Bach work is a masterpiece: of course not. His output includes some competent but workaday stuff here and there. But there arenÕt any abysmal embarrassments like BeethovenÕs WellingtonÕs Victory, and his music at its best completely justifies Lewis ThomasÕs veneration.


BachÕs sacred music has the unusual characteristic of dissolving the boundaries of the religious context in which it was written. The Mass in B Minor is a deeply affecting work of art, regardless of oneÕs religious orientation or lack of same; ditto the cantatas, passions, oratorios, motets, or chorales. BachÕs mind and heart were infused with Christianity, to be sure, but to refer to him specifically as a Christian composer is to limit him unnecessarily. His compositions are ill-served by facile labels such as ŌsacredÕ or ŌsecularÕ.


BachÕs music remains nowadays as strong a model of musical perfection as it ever has, maybe even more given todayÕs heightened historical awareness, which provides a more reliable appraisal of its merit within the context of BachÕs own day. Musicians of later eras have gratefully acknowledged their debt to his authority. ItÕs now more than 250 years since he passed away, but his overall stature in the canon of Western musical art continues to grow, and his popularity with the listening public holds firm.


Popularity alone, however, is no measure of worth or greatness. At the time I write this, a rap album containing songs with such ennobling titles as Puke and Big Weenie is high on the charts. However, I will venture to propose that the Mass in B Minor will be a treasured achievement of Western culture long after Big Weenie has faded away. (In fact, for all I know, Big Weenie could already be considered hopelessly quaint by rap cognoscenti.) If that be elitism, so be it.


An attempt to fathom BachÕs greatness using words is rather like trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa by running oneÕs hands over it. Let BachÕs music stand advocate for his greatness, and let the babble of commentary recede into the background. Decide for yourself. There are no prerequisites or qualifications: your job is just to listen attentively, and Bach will take care of the rest.