Bach: the invention of a musical god

As the musical world marks the 250th anniversary of the death of JS Bach, Bayan Northcott surveys the history of his extraordinary fame
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The Independent Culture

A quarter of a millennium ago, just after 8.15pm tomorrow, a stout, virtually blind 65-year-old Saxon organist, choirmaster, teacher and composer succumbed to the complications of a condition (possibly diabetes) that had been sapping his hitherto robust constitution over the last year - and a posthumous cult which would border on a secular religion was launched.

A quarter of a millennium ago, just after 8.15pm tomorrow, a stout, virtually blind 65-year-old Saxon organist, choirmaster, teacher and composer succumbed to the complications of a condition (possibly diabetes) that had been sapping his hitherto robust constitution over the last year - and a posthumous cult which would border on a secular religion was launched.

For the notion that the output and influence of Johann Sebastian Bach passed into more or less immediate oblivion after his death in 1750 until the young Mendelssohn revived his Passion According to St Matthew in 1829 was never substantially true. Granted, Bach had published only selectively and, of his massive output still in manuscript, something like two-fifths was subsequently lost. Granted, his cantatas and passions did lapse into neglect for a time owing to changes in the Lutheran liturgy. Yet, of his sacred works, it would seem at any rate that the motets continued to be sung, for Mozart, visiting Leipzig in 1789, was regaled with a stirring performance of "Singet dem Herrn", exclaiming "Now there's something from which one can learn!"

Meanwhile, Bach's supreme reputation as a performer and teacher ensured that his practices and methods were widely disseminated through the writings of his devoted pupils - not least, in the "True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments" by his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach - while manuscript copies of his keyboard works increasingly circulated as teaching material from which rising young talents such as Beethoven duly learnt their basic techniques as performers and composers. By the 1800s, quite a lot of this material had found its way into print, though it was to take the centenary of his death in 1850 to prompt the great Bach-Gesellschaft to collect, edit and publish his every note in a mighty sequence of volumes which young enthusiasts such as Brahms took to anticipating like the instalments of a thriller.

As the 19th century unfolded, as aspects of Bach insinuated their way into the work of composers as diverse as Schubert and Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, Wagner and Brahms, Mahler and Debussy, it became increasingly difficult to find major talents less than fundamentally beholden to him, though Berlioz remained sceptical almost to the end and Tchaikovsky denied him true genius.

Nor was Bach's influence to lessen even in the ensuing age of modernism. Long after he had devised his 12-tone method, Schoenberg still cited Bach (together with Mozart) as his primary influence, singling out Bach's contrapuntal thought, "i.e. the art of inventing figures that can be used to accompany themselves", and his art "of producing everything from one thing and of relating figures by transformation". Stravinsky apparently began his every composing day by playing something out of The Well-Tempered Clavier to get his own ideas going. Even the implacably future-orientated Boulez, has conceded that Bach's chorale preludes constitute the all-time greatest models of musical forming by "proliferation" from the simplest elements.

Yet, alongside, indeed interfused with this compositional heritage, there emerged an altogether more numinous view of Bach, already signalled by Goethe's observation on hearing some of the organ pieces: "It is as though eternal harmony were conversing with itself, as it may have happened in God's bosom shortly before He created the world." The notion of Bach as the source of music in its immanent, pre-creative state before mere artistry got to work on it was a recurrent theme in Wagner's discussions with his wife Cosima - or, as Mahler was later to put it, "In Bach, all the seeds of music are found, as the world is contained in God."

True, the anti-Romantic reaction of such early 20th century figures as Hindemith was partly inspired by an alternative view of Bach as the archetypal God-fearing, community-serving craftsman. Yet Wagner had anticipated this too in the shoe-making songsmith protagonist of his neo-Bachian paean to "Holy German Art", Die Meistersinger.

Meanwhile, the priestly pronouncements of such performers as Albert Schweitzer and Wanda Landowska were already leading towards the consecrated doctrine of "authenticity" in Bach performance, even as scholars vied with one another to extrapolate ever more arcane theological symbolism, ever more cabalistic numerologies and ciphers from the elegant curlicues of Bach's manuscripts.

Come the bicentenary of Bach's death in 1950, and one admirer, that awesomely socio-philosophical hyper-dialectician, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, could take no more. The following year he brought out a densely argued polemic entitled "Bach Defended Against His Devotees". His central thrust was that, far from submitting his art to the expression of the Divine Order, Bach's music, in its idiosyncratic complexity and unpredictable spontaneity, was in fact subtly subversive of the very sacred and secular forms it was supposedly fulfilling. And indeed, when Hans Keller subsequently declared that, "The B Minor Mass does not make propaganda for God", but, rather, that its framework enables Bach to convey unique meta-musical discoveries of his own, he might have been glossing Adorno's polemic.

So, in another way, might Charles Rosen when he argued: "The fashionable placing of the cantatas as Bach's principal achievement has only been harmful: it has led to an overemphasis on extra-musical symbolism." And that: "It is time to return to the old evaluation of Bach's keyboard music as the centre of his work."

Admittedly, Bach himself is, supposed to have remarked of his unprecedented mastery simply that, "I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious, will succeed just as well." But was he being ingenuous or a little ironical? After all, others of his time, such as Handel and Telemann, were quite as industrious, yet none of them synthesised such a range of past and present techniques, forms and styles, into remotely so rich an idiom as he.

Rosen was surely right to suggest that the primary agent of this synthesis was Bach's unique ability to invent, develop and control the most elaborate contrapuntal textures through his two keyboard-playing hands (plus, in the organ pieces, pedal-playing feet). Keller was surely right to imply that, say, the uncannily strange harmony that overtakes the "Confiteor" of the B Minor Mass, is not a conventional emblem of communal faith but a unique musical vision of Bach's own. And maybe Adorno himself was right in admitting that, after one has responded in depth to Bach's "infinitely involuted, unschematic"(sic) music, even Mozart and Beethoven can seem a tad mechanical and slight.

Well, Adorno, thou should'st be living at this hour! For only last weekend on Classic FM, Sir John Eliot Gardiner - understandably elated at reaching the mid-point of his year-long Bach Pilgrimage enterprise to perform all the surviving cantatas on their correct liturgical dates - could be heard reiterating yet again the argument that, for many audiences, the music seems to fill a gap in faith.

Back in 1985, the Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel put it more starkly: "No one believes in God any more, but everyone believes in Bach." He then proceeded to the logical conclusion of composing an entire Passion According to St Bach, no less. As one might expect of a composer known mainly as a satirical avant-garde gadfly, the project had its surreal overtones, but it also revealed hitherto unexpected contrapuntal and expressive powers. Strange that no one seems to have thought of putting it on during this Bach year.. Maybe after he has done with his pilgrimage, Sir John Eliot Gardiner should have a go.