JS Bach: where to start with his music

‘The immortal god of harmony”: that’s what Beethoven, no less, called Johann Sebastian Bach. “Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder,” is how Schumann put it, and Bach’s music continues to inspire a feeling of reverence and love that borders on spirituality, in atheists and believers alike. An astonishingly productive composer, Bach perfected all the existing musical forms of the baroque period and took the use of harmony to a new level, setting out parameters that most of the western musical tradition has been working within ever since.

The music you might recognise
If you know only one piece of organ music, chances are it’s Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the soundtrack to any number of shock-horror moments on film; Disney used Leopold Stokowski’s grandiose orchestral version in Fantasia. Thousands of couples have signed their wedding registers to the sound of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. And if you are old enough to remember when cigars were still advertised on primetime TV then you’ll know that happiness comes with the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3, better known now as the Air on the G String.

His life …
Bach was born in 1685 in Eisenach, a small town in Thuringia in what is now Germany, into a dynasty of musicians (several of his children, notably Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, became renowned composers themselves). His mother died when he was nine, and his father less than a year later, leaving the orphaned Bach to be brought up by his oldest brother. His career began aged 18 in Weimar, and progressed as he moved between towns working as a court musician or, more often, an organist, a job that typically included composing choral cantatas and other music for church services – the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, one of his best-known organ works, dates from his early days as an organist in Arnstadt. Life for the previous generation of composers had been much the same. These included Dietrich Buxtehude, of whom Bach thought so highly that he took time off from his Arnstadt post to travel more than 260 miles to Lübeck – on foot, it is claimed – to hear him play; in doing so he stretched four weeks’ leave to four months, which led to one of the disputes with employers that would be a recurring feature of his career.

Bach spent five years in Cöthen in the household of Prince Leopold, a Calvinist who had no use for elaborate devotional works, and it was here that his instrumental music blossomed. In the six Brandenburg Concertos, he put groups of instruments rather than single players in the spotlight, in the fashionable Italian concerto grosso style. The six Cello Suites and the Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are nominally sets of dances, though they were probably never intended to be actually danced to; likewise the Orchestral Suites, and the French Suites for keyboard. It was in Cöthen that Bach compiled the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier (“tempered” meaning tuned), a collection of preludes and fugues for keyboard, in each of the 24 major and minor keys – this gives a hint of his lifelong love of completeness, precision and mathematical symbolism. The strictures and challenges of fugue – in which repetitions and transformations of a theme must be slotted together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle – were conquered by Bach like no other composer before or since.

It was his next and final move, to the relatively cosmopolitan city of Leipzig, that would allow him to fulfil his extraordinary ambitions regarding church music. As head of music at St Thomas’s church, he was required to provide music for services on each Sunday and feast day of the year; Bach set out to compose, by himself, a “well-regulated” body of new music that would cover several years. Most of his nearly 200 surviving cantatas are the result of this extraordinary period of creativity, as well as his Magnificat, many of the organ works (including chorale preludes such as Wachet Auf and Jesu Joy), his Christmas Oratorio and the two great gospel settings for Good Friday: the St John and St Matthew Passions. The last mentioned are, in effect, sung passion plays, the storytelling interspersed with reflective arias and congregational hymns; along with the B Minor Mass (which Bach completed the year before his death) they arguably represent the pinnacle of Bach’s art – although lovers of keyboard music might also point to the Goldberg Variations. Bach died in 1750, leaving incomplete an ambitious final collection, The Art of Fugue.

… and times
What did those Leipzig congregations think of the musical riches lavished upon them? For that matter, what did Bach think? We don’t know. There are very few sources to go on. Few of Bach’s letters survive, and those that do are mostly to his employers, lobbying for better conditions or musical resources. He was reckoned to be the greatest organist of his day, but to become a household name he would have had to have composed for an opera house, and – unlike, say, George Frideric Handel, born in the same year – he wasn’t interested.

Bach had grown up in a region still reeling from the thirty years’ war, which had been followed by decades of disease. The population of Thuringia had been devastated – some figures suggest that as much as half of it had been wiped out. In such an environment, the Enlightenment ideas that were gaining traction throughout Europe were relatively slow to catch on. Faith was central to life, which could be harsh and short – something of which the orphaned Bach would be reminded, with brutal regularity, throughout his life. In 1720, he returned home to Cöthen from a trip expecting to be welcomed by his wife, Maria Barbara, only to find that she had died and been buried before word could reach him. Of the 20 children he had with Maria Barbara and his second wife, Anna Magdalena, 11 died before he did, 10 of those before their fifth birthday.

He found genuine consolation in both music and his unswerving Lutheran faith, which had been twin pillars of his upbringing: much of the teaching in Lutheran schools was done through music and singing, and the standard Lutheran hymns were so well known that the congregations in the Passion services would have had no trouble singing along. But we would be wrong to think of Bach only in a devoutly religious context; his “other” job in Leipzig, as director of a group called the Collegium Musicum, saw him leading dozens of concerts each year in one of the city’s increasingly fashionable coffee houses. His Vivaldi-inspired concertos for solo violin, and the matchless Double Concerto, may have been composed for the Collegium Musicum; the tongue-in-cheek Coffee Cantata certainly was.

Why his music still matters
Because for countless musicians, whatever their omega, Bach is their alpha. He, more than any other composer, remains a shared point of reference. As Beethoven studied Bach, so do today’s music students, learning the rules of harmony from his hymn settings, and the art of counterpoint – how to interweave two or more melodies together – from his fugues. It’s almost as if Bach himself made and codified those rules, if it weren’t for how often he breaks them in his own music, and to what wonderful effect.

Fashions change, but Bach’s music always works. His music has been at the vanguard of the period-instrument performance movement, and has reaped the rewards in an increasing number of dynamically charged recordings – but that hasn’t invalidated anyone else’s ownership. The 1960s and 70s saw a vogue for performing Bach as jazz, thanks to Jacques Loussier and the Swingle Singers. The Goldberg Variations can be just as glorious on accordion or harp or mandolin as on piano or harpsichord. This is music that is capable of endless renewal. It’s also the music that was chosen to introduce the human race to extra-terrestrials: Bach has three tracks on the Voyager space probe’s Golden Record, more than any other composer or group.

But none of that explains the singularity of Bach, and the connection he makes with so many music-lovers. The composer György Kurtág, who often references Bach in his work, expressed it thus when asked if he believed in God. “Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed.” What is it that connects on such a strong, subconscious level? In the instrumental works, it’s perhaps their sense of balance, of mathematical completeness – this can make the music seem in some way elemental. But the devotional music is where we get a sense of Bach’s humanity and of his music’s capacity for empathy and consolation. In the St Matthew Passion, for example, it’s striking that the most moving sequence is not for Jesus – however tenderly Bach draws him, with a “halo” of glowing strings around his words – but for Peter. His bitter grief at having betrayed his friend finds expression in the alto aria Erbarme dich; and, as we listen, it’s our own shortcomings as much as Peter’s that seem to be offered up for forgiveness. At times like these, Bach doesn’t judge, doesn’t moralise; he simply sits with us until we have found peace.

Great performers

Felix Mendelssohn brought Bach’s choral music into the concert hall, conducting the St Matthew Passion in Berlin’s Singakademie in 1829; more recently, the torch has been carried by conductors including Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, John Butt and Masaaki Suzuki, the last both as an organist and as director of his Bach Collegium Japan. Glenn Gould’s eccentric brilliance popularised Bach on the piano, blazing the way for the cleaner, clearer interpretations of Murray Perahia and Angela Hewitt. The Cello Suites have dozens of advocates on disc, notably Yo-Yo Ma, but will forever be associated with Pablo Casals, who championed them in the first half of the 20th century after stumbling across a copy of the music in a Barcelona second-hand shop. The Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin have similarly been a touchstone for most of the great players on disc, from Yehudi Menuhin to Hilary Hahn.