March 2003 -- What marks a genius? If it is misanthropy, then Johann Sebastian Bach (born March 21, 1685) was not a genius. He did his greatest work in the hubbub of a full and loving home life and a busy and demanding round of arranging, performing, and teaching. He not only produced great compositions, he produced fine composers as well, in his sons. If a genius must suffer, then Bach was not one. By all accounts he was a jolly, active person who held down steady, paying work throughout his career.
But if genius is rational and productive, then Bach is a composer for all seasons, for no other composer produced so much excellent, cunning music or understood his craft so encyclopedically.
Bach made his reputation initially as a keyboard player. It was said that his mastery of the organ was intimidating. He lived in north-central Germany and never attained great notoriety for his own works, though his production was enormous. He worked as a composer and performer in several secular positions at the courts of minor German nobility until eventually landing a job as cantor (music director) to both town and church in Leipzig in 1723. He worked there—and what work it was!—for the rest of his life, providing music for the Lutheran church and for town festivities.
Bach was a master of virtually every musical form of his day. He mastered the church organ and the scoring and presentation of German church chorales. We see this in the able and often brilliant chorale-based cantatas he churned out weekly over several years during his tenure in Leipzig. He mastered both the newer homophonic (single-melody) music, which is standard today, and the Renaissance-era techniques of polyphonic music (in which two or more different melody lines intertwine). Though he never wrote an opera as such, he demonstrated his up-to-date knowledge and mastery of the light Italian opera buffa in his humorous, secular Coffee Cantata. And he displayed his mastery of the forms of grand, tragic opera in his immense and moving St. Matthew Passion. He mastered the stylized music of the French court, as demonstrated in his delightful orchestral suites. He mastered and surpassed the Italian instrumental concerto made classic by Vivaldi and Corelli, as his divine Brandenburg concerti brilliantly declare.
Bach was not a boundary breaker: His works fit into types of music that were familiar in his own day. But what he did within those boundaries showed the untapped possibilities that lay within "conventional" music. This is an approach to serious music that composers today should admire.
It is typical of modern Western culture to praise originality for its own sake. Hence, Beethoven is much admired for shocking his contemporaries and writing crashing piano music that physically broke the pianos of his time. Hence, John Cage is cashing out on the dead end of shock performance with a few minutes of nothing. We live in an age where so many forms have been explored, so many boundaries transgressed, that nothing (not even nothing) shocks now. Noise is now confused with music, and tonality and melody, while making a comeback at last, do so shyly and nervously in classical music settings.
But does this mean that the musical possibilities have been tapped out; that beauty, grief, and exaltation can no longer forcefully be conjured? The example of Bach tells us to rethink our assumptions about great music. We should consider that much of what makes any art great is what one does with the tools at hand. Tonality, melody, and the diverse styles and techniques of music that have employed them are the tools at hand today. Perhaps what matters most is not the originality of the forms in which one composes, but the substance that one makes with them. To be a great composer today would mean to master the techniques of making music, as Bach mastered the techniques of his day, and use them as the springboard to create art that is fresh and true—and that is not ashamed of being intelligible or enjoyable.