How, in the eighteenth century, the director of church music in a small, unimportant German town attained posthumously a prestige that has no superior in all of Western musical composition and only one or two equals is the strange story of Johann Sebastian Bach. Every other composer to reach enduring fame either worked for at least a significant part of his career in a musical center of international importance or traveled to a great capital city to make a public presentation of his works—Palestrina in Rome; Handel in London; Haydn in Vienna and London; Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms in Vienna; Mendelssohn in Berlin; Wagner in Munich and Paris; Berlioz, Chopin, Debussy, and Stravinsky in Paris. But Bach never traveled except very briefly, and the city of Leipzig, where he worked from 1723 until his death in 1750, had neither a prince nor a bishop, and consequently neither an opera house nor the patronage of a court.
The lack of an opera house was a disaster at that time for a composer with any pretensions. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the only road to fame for a composer was opera. (It is true that Handel’s operatic activities, which helped him build his enormous reputation at the beginning of his career, bankrupted him, but he found a lucrative substitute with his oratorios, basically unstaged operas, cheaper to produce and equally grand and ambitious.) Bach worked with no possibility of writing an opera, and had to deal with church administrators so stingy with the musical budget that, as he complained, he did not have the money to hire enough choristers and was often forced to produce his liturgical works with only one singer to a part. Not that Bach would not have liked to find a position that would have made it possible for him to compose an opera: he applied for the job at the relatively important court of Danzig (now Gdansk), but was turned down.
The closest Bach came to composing an opera were his two great Passions, and it is Mendelssohn’s performance (considerably truncated) of The Passion According to Saint Matthew in 1827, more than three quarters of a century after Bach’s death, that is credited with inaugurating what is called the “Bach Revival.” However, “revival” is a misnomer, and the term betrays a profound misunderstanding both of Bach’s reputation and of the nature of his musical activity.
Among professional musicians, Bach needed no revival. In his early years his reputation as a great organ virtuoso had spread throughout the German lands, but in later life he was famous mainly for his unequaled skill in learned counterpoint. This fame endured. By 1770 manuscript copies of many of his most important works began to spread throughout Central Europe. The most distinguished composers and many performers were well aware of at least part of his achievement.
At first, the foundation of his prestige was only the simple settings of chorale tunes and the …