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 keyboard music, above all those works that were educational in character. These constituted his chief publications during his lifetime: they consisted of four volumes called Keyboard Exercises. These are to be understood not simply as exercises for the technical agility of performers (although they are partly that), but above all as exercises of composition, models to show young musicians the proper way to go about it. They are exemplary works for composers, demonstrations of the different genres and techniques. The four published volumes contained the six partitas for harpsichord, the French Overture and the Italian Concerto (demonstrating the two basic opposing styles of the time), the set of chorale preludes for organ arranged in the order of the mass, the impressive “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue, four duets, and finally the thirty so-called Goldberg Variations—the last-named work gives an almost encyclopedic survey of genres and types of short forms from the French overture and the fugue to the dance and folk song, and demonstrates how to write a canon at all the intervals—unison, second, third, fourth, fifth (in the latter two the answering voice plays the melody upside down), sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. Consult this wonderful set of variations if you want to know how to write a canon.

To these printed works, we must add The Art of Fugue, prepared for publication by the composer at the end of his life (ultimately, blindness did not allow him to complete the work), the two sets of Inventions (intended, as the composer wrote, to teach the young musician a cantabile style of playing and give a foretaste of composition), and, above all, the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Keyboard (the great forty-eight preludes and fugues), which Bach almost certainly intended to publish. Many eighteenth-century manuscript copies of the last work have come down to us, and there must have been many more that disappeared after it was finally printed in 1800. By that time, however, The Well-Tempered Keyboard was so famous that three independent publishers issued it simultaneously.


It had already been closely studied by the most eminent professionals. In the 1770s Mozart arranged several of the fugues for string trio and string quartet (along with one fugue from The Art of Fugue). Clementi practiced it assiduously, and it had influenced Haydn in his campaign to ennoble the string quartet with a more con-trapuntal style. The thirteen-year-old Beethoven was written up in the local press for his performance of it. By the time it was published at last, it was already a basis of music education, and it has remained the principal foundation for teaching pianists and composers until our day. Chopin, Schumann, Weber, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartok, Britten, Carter, and, in fact, most other composers and all pianists have learned their trade at it (perhaps the only important exception was Berlioz, who could not play the piano and thought Bach was a bore).

If, however, we take the “Bach Revival” to mean not simply making his music known, but making it once again available to the public, then the term is equally misleading. In fact, Bach had never had a public, except for those who attended services at St. Thomas’s in Leipzig and the few people who were lucky enough to be present at the infrequent small chamber music performances he directed. The institution of the public concert was in its infancy during his lifetime and for decades to come. None of his great solo works for harpsichord, with the possible exception of the Italian Concerto, a few concertos with small orchestra, and perhaps the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, could conceivably have been played at a public concert until well into the nineteenth century: indeed, semiprivate performances would have been rare. The Keyboard Exercises, The Art of Fugue, and the great forty-eight were intended solely for use in the home by professionals and ambitious amateurs. They were composed with absolutely no consideration for the effect they might have on a group of listeners. It is true that, as Robert Marshall has pointed out, in his last years Bach absorbed some of the new sociable developments of style inspired by the newfangled public concerts found in large cities from Paris to New York. The masterpieces that were at the heart of Bach’s initial reputation and that made Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and others consider him a supreme master were simply not fit for public consumption. They were to be played in private for oneself and perhaps a friend or two, objects of study and meditation.

Before a concert, Chopin always played a Bach fugue to warm up, but there is no record of his ever having played one for an audience. The first keyboard works of Bach to be performed in public were Liszt’s transcriptions of some of the organ preludes and fugues (just as Mozart had made The Well-Tempered Keyboard acceptable for semiprivate performance by transcribing six fugues for string quartet). The virtuoso organ works of Bach’s youth that gave him his early prestige as a performer were, of course, truly public, but in the latter half of the eighteenth century the organ lost its dominant role in musical life. There are no significant virtuoso organ compositions from the end of the eighteenth century, and almost no one at that time was interested in hearing the instrument. Mozart called it the king of instruments, but never wrote anything important for it.

Bach’s most masterly and accessible dramatic work, the St. Matthew Passion, was performed by the composer at three different times over the years in Leipzig, and then never played again until Mendelssohn conducted an abridged version in 1828. (The great Mass in B Minor could not be played at all during Bach’s lifetime: a Latin mass was not possible in a Protestant church, and at that time a perform- ance with an orchestra was banned in Catholic churches. The work was compiled from old and newly written compositions almost as if it were a theoretical demonstration of an ideal musical setting of the fundamental Christian text, although Bach did try to get the ban lifted for a performance. After Bach’s death, his son Philip Emmanuel organized a performance of a section of the work in Berlin.)

The public in Leipzig had access to the cantatas as well during Bach’s lifetime, but by 1770 the most important musical centers of Europe were Venice, Vienna, and Paris, three Catholic cities where Protestant liturgical music was not thinkable, and pietistic German baroque texts were unlikely to please sophisticated concert-goers in London, the only other capital of comparable influence, not even those who went to the performances of the Society for Ancient Music. The publication of Bach’s more than two hundred surviving cantatas was a gigantic project that began only in the 1830s, and the history of the performance of these works in our time is a genuine tale of revival. As time went on, the interest in Bach shifted to his church music. In 1906, the famous French historian André Pirro, who specialized in Bach, wrote a book about him with hundreds of pages on the cantatas and Passions, and only twenty pages on the keyboard music. This stood the traditional view of Bach on its head, but had the merit of making us realize the importance of religion for Bach’s musical thought.


Nevertheless, it was the private works, the only ones created for a world beyond the purely municipal ambiance which shaped the liturgical compositions, that initially won Bach his international eminence. His isolation from the larger public world of court and opera may be thought to have given his private style the striking inward intensity, which was then transferred to the Passions and the cantatas. I am not sure that this is true, since much of the intensity was there from the beginning, but the isolation surely magnified it. The range of his harmonic and contrapuntal thought was unprecedented. By his understanding and exploitation of so many aspects of the tonal system, he was able to anticipate some of the large-scale harmonic developments of several generations to come. His music has not only a complex richness of texture that we cannot find in any of his contemporaries (and this disturbed the few critics of his time), but above all an introverted concentration on the expressive capacities of the smallest detail. This concentration, this understanding of the significance of a short motif and the various possibilities of transforming it, won him the professional admiration that eventually made possible a century or more later the public performance of his most private works, and would show how effective they could be even for the layman.

His separation from the world of public music outside his own small city turned Bach’s concerns into a sphere at once more deeply personal and apparently more abstract. The educational works are a meditation on the nature of music itself—at least, music as Bach and his contemporaries conceived it in the first half of the eighteenth century. This made his musical thought precious to the generations that came after him. His age was the time when the language of tonality gained a new power through the introduction of a more articulated chromaticism: equal temperament made possible the use of harmonic regions remote from the main key, and stimulated new forms which used distant harmonic regions to magnify both the size of the individual movements and their dramatic force.

It is significant that Bach employed considerably more dissonance than any of his contemporaries—not the percussive dissonance of Domenico Scarlatti, who was a master of tone color, but dissonance harmonically complex and richly chromatic, continuously and intensely expressive. Bach could create wonderful effects of tone color when he wanted to (in the Brandenburg Concertos, for instance), but in the theoretical works, where he was turned in upon himself, he invented musical structures that could be successfully realized with many different kinds of sound. The Well-Tempered Keyboard and The Art of Fugue were meant to be played at home on whatever keyboard instrument you had: clavichord, harpsichord, small portable organ, or early pianoforte (an instrument in which Bach took an interest, even helping to sell it). It would be hard to imagine a sonority more contrasted than that of organ and harpsichord: on the organ the sustained notes get all the weight, while on the harpsichord they die quickly away, giving precedence to the more quickly moving voices. Yet many of the pieces in these great collections adapt equally well to any of the contemporary keyboards.

As a result, Bach’s music sounds better on the modern piano than that of Couperin, Rameau, or his other contemporaries. It was in the musical thought that the extraordinary expressive power resided more than in its realization by one kind of sonority or another. And this ensured the survival over the centuries of his work, which retains almost all its distinctive qualities under changing fashions of instruments, acoustics, and performance. Played austerely or freely, classically or romantically, impersonally or eccentrically, it always makes sense to us. He takes us back to the fundamentals of the musical language of tonality that we all grew up with.

More than any other composer, Bach revealed within this language the immense power of the small detail, the significance each motif could have within the tonal language: he can make his contemporaries seem insipid. Nevertheless, in addition to the grand and even startlingly original effects of his imagination conceived throughout his life, he was able to demonstrate the latent expressive force that resided in pure craftsmanship, in a simple technical competence that amounted to genius. In 1811, the famous novelist and music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote:

There are moments—above all when I have been reading for a long time in the works of the great Sebastian Bach—in which the numerical relationships of music, indeed the mystical rules of counterpoint, awaken in me an inward terror.

Bach’s music can stimulate a powerful physical and emotional reaction to the simple perception of the way the individual contrapuntal voices combine, to the harmonic transformations drawn from the transposition of a tiny motif, to the technique of using a single melodic line to imply four-part harmony (that is how he was able to write so eloquently for solo violin and solo cello), and to the realization that the structure of a work can appear determined almost inexorably by the character of a short opening theme. Meditating in private, away from the centers of power, on the language of tonality that he had inherited and was helping to develop, Bach influenced the course of public music for the next two centuries.

This Issue

December 21, 2000