This Sunday, 21 March, is the 325th Birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. If that seems like a long time ago, it was. Long enough, in fact, to take a very lively and real person and turn his work into a kind of holy writ and the man himself into a deity. But this personality who can speak to us through so many centuries was, like so many legends, even more than his myth – he is an example. His birthday is as good a time as any to understand the simple gifts he keeps giving us.
Bach, whose name means “brook” or “stream”, was born on the first day of spring. The flowing fountain of new life that bubbles through his work is what sets it apart from his own era when music itself was being established and codified like never before. He happened to live in a time when the Musician’s Guild was established across Europe, setting up correspondence between the craftsmen. The mixing that resulted opened up a new era that Bach took full advantage of, writing in his native German style with flourishes and tidbits taken from Italians like his pen-pal Vivaldi, whom he never met.
Bach himself is reported to have said that “The purpose of all music is the magnification of the glory of God and the recreation of the soul.” I have yet to find the original German to make a more modern translation of this saying, but I do not doubt he said it. As much as he is claimed by intellectuals, Bach himself was a simple man who smoked, drank, and consumed a lot of coffee. His works for the church depict Jesus as a friend who comforts and lives on in each of us. The secular works were often written for his gigs at Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig, where he performed with the “Musical Friends” (Collegium Musicum).
How did he get so much life into a few lines of music? His orchestra works show the minimalism that dares the listener to put themselves into the moment. Most of them are, essentially Trio Sonatas, works where two voices play off against each other while grounded with a moving bassline. My favorite example of this is the Trio Sonata in D Minor (BWV 527) which has a distinct mood and a bounce like 9/8 time – three groups of three played off of three voices rolling across and through each other. If you listen to any one line the twists and turns are far simpler than they appear at first, but together they move like so much fresh water. This is the music of life.
Every generation for three centuries has claimed Bach in one way or another. Modernists loved his use of atonal or chromatic passages, but intellectualized the mathematical structure that made it all work to the point of sterility. Bach is more suited to the Fractal Era in which we now live, a complicated interplay between lives and stories that move on past each other in the power of a moment.
If he were to come back today, I’m sure that Bach would be amazed that his work is still performed. He would probably be most proud of his contributions to the standard Lutheran Hymnal, which are too numerous to list. He would probably shake his head at how over-produced most of today’s music is and how far from the simple pleasures of a full life, given by God, we have strayed.
He worked as little more than a capable craftsman, barely scraping by as he raised his 20 children. His one big shot at fame was an attempt to get a gig as music director at the powerful court of Brandenburg, the resulting Brandenburg Concerti standing as the most elaborate resumé ever written. He didn’t get the job. The complicated interplay of up to six voices (#s 2 and 3) and insane harpsichord riffs (that include 1/64th notes in #5) was likely too much for Brandenburg to even play at the time. As full of life as he was, Bach was meant more for all time than his own.
Why do we still know and love this man and his work after so many years have gone by? If anything, the attempts to deify him have only gotten in the way of the essence of what makes Bach so relevant today. He was a very real man who let his heart and mind flow through everything he did, rarely letting his ego stand in the way of making it happen. His birthday is always worth celebrating – even more than he helps us to celebrate every day we are alive.