In 1812, sixty-two years after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote:
There are moments—above all, when I have been reading in the works of the great Sebastian Bach—in which the mathematical relationships of music, the mystical rules of counterpoint, in fact, awaken in me an inner terror.
(“Kreisleriana,” in Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Style)
This picturesque assertion is less extravagant, less romantic than it may appear. To most lovers of music who have an intimate experience of the works of Bach—most of all, those who play them—his music seems to reveal, with a direct physical impact, the most profound hidden aspects of the language of tonality. It is generally beside the point to try to distinguish Bach’s imagination from his knowledge or craft, his powers of expression from his manipulation of “the mystical rules of counterpoint,” but his craft was always acknowledged as formidable, even by those who did not appreciate his style. Several of his contemporaries testified to his ability, when given two different themes, to see at once all the different ways that they could be played together, with all the possible contrapuntal combinations. He knew immediately what could be done with a single theme: his son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, showed him a fugue he had been writing and asked if any other variations were possible; after a moment’s glance, he replied firmly, “None.”
The expressive power of Bach’s music has several sources. One is his ability to sustain the tension of an ornamental line or arabesque at greater length than any other composer before Chopin. Even more important is his exploitation of the dissonance of chromatic harmony: no composer of his time came near him in daring and originality. Most important of all, perhaps, is his understanding of the emotional possibilities inherent in counterpoint—that is, in the way one voice can imitate another, in the dramatic effects that can be drawn from a melody inverted or played against itself, and also from the subtle way the harmonic implications of a motif can be radically altered when it is played with another motif of different character.
A new book by Laurence Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention, takes up Bach’s creative process. It is the first study in some time to deal above all with the reasons that music lovers might want to listen to Bach or play him. Most of the recent studies of Bach have concerned themselves with matters of authenticity and chronology, with detailed questions of performance—how large was Bach’s orchestra and his chorus, how did he execute the trills, did he expect the performer to add to the decoration—with the religious symbolism of the music, or with the influence of rhetorical treatises on his aesthetic outlook. There have been studies of numerology in his music, most of them very dubious as are all such studies, but we may rejoice that these have now fallen out of fashion. A more recent development is sociological interpretation of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.