In Praise of Johann Sebastian Bach

born Eisenach, March 21, 1685; died Leipzig, July 28, 1750

" language in the world is rich enough to express all that might and should be said of the astonishing extent of Bach's genius. The more intimately we are acquainted with it, the more does our admiration increase.

"All our eulogisms, praises, and admiration will always be and remain no more than well-meant prattle. ... Bach's works can not be spoken of by him who is fully acquainted with them except with rapture, and some even with a kind of sacred awe.

"We may indeed conceive and explain his management of the internal mechanism of the art; but how he contrived at the same time to inspire into this mechanic art, which he alone has attained in such high perfection, the living spirit, which so powerfully speaks to us even in his smallest works, will probably be always only felt and wondered at."

Johann Nicolaus Forkel, 1802, fifty-two years after Bach's death.                 

Not a day of my adult life has been without something in my soul singing something that comes from him. Not a week passes without something in my mind reflecting on the mind that showed itself in the music he gave us. All the music I have ever loved or done, all the music that has ever penetrated my daily preoccupations and defenses to touch me, orders itself in relation to his music, his mind, his spirit.

He is the frame of reference, the coordinate system into which I map all the music I have ever experienced. Do I like Stockhausen? I compare his intuition and spontaneity with Bach’s. Cage? I think of Bach the unpredictable. Ravi Shankar and his tabla player Alla Rakha? They put me in mind of the irresistible, apocalyptic drive of Bach’s rhythms. Olivier Messiaen? That profound secret upwelling devotion to his Maker, eternally redemptive creation. The Beatles, the Band, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and newer generations (Kevin Gilbert), there's room for them all in the musical universe that he defines for me.

As a youngster, he learned faster than anyone could teach him. As an adult, he made his own rules; he broke everything. But unlike later self-consciously heroic, romantic, or revolutionary composers, he put everything back together again, better than it was before. Every musical convention, every structure or form he touched, was transformed into something just like it was, only better: deeper, bigger, higher, more moving, better crafted.

The musical world he was born into, in 1685, was in transformation. By 1750 it was being swept away, dying of demographic shifts, political change, new science, inexplicable whims of taste. Music (demanded a new generation of critics) was to please even the simplest ears. Music had to express simple emotions, in obvious ways, so no one could be confused by it. Music, said the New Enlightened Thought, was not a divine gift by which we return praise to the universe that brought us forth, but only another form of human language, a poorer alternative to speech.

Bach would have none of this. Writing for the praise of God and the enjoyment of connoisseurs, he wrote vocal lines for instruments, and instrumental lines for choirs. He had the trumpets take the voice parts and the choir take the string parts and wrote new string parts and years later moved them to the organ. In his youth he loved strange harmonies, little electric shocks to the ear like Charles Ives. He cared little, at first, for counterpoint: he loved big chords, fistfuls of notes alternating like a kid playing with blocks.

Others may praise him for his counterpoint, his canons, and for, in general, the discipline of his fugues. I praise him for his freedom, for his fiery and endlessly fissioning musical imagination. I praise him for freely bending anything to look and sound like anything else; for transforming profane into sacred, sacred into secular, secular into vulgar, vulgar into something ineffably Holy.

He said to a student once that everything must be possible in music. I praise him for tone clusters that resolve innocently and angelically without so much as a wink. For chains of suspended harmonies that could span the Grand Canyon. For apparently simple harmonic progressions that unpack, under analysis, to exhibit raucous dissonance.

And for the fugues, where everything is patterned but nothing is predictable . How can this be? I praise him for this unspeakably profound paradox.

And finally, I praise him for the spirit with which he welcomed every passing musician into his home. I praise him for his freedom from envy, rancor, and spite, for his encompassing, genial, generous human spirit.

Jim Michmerhuizen, prattling in 1997           

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