Bach: The Mark of a Genius

Bach: The Mark of a Genius
Bach's autograph manuscript of the organ obbligato part in the opening sinfonia of the cantata "Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir" (We thank you, God, we thank you) BWV 29 (Bach works catalogue), 1731. Bach digital archive, Leipzig (public domain).
The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” —Johann Sebastian Bach
When visiting an art museum, you may have noticed that most of the older paintings depict kings, queens, and other nobles, or holy devotional scenes from the Bible. The simple reason, as you may already know, is that prior to the 18th century, the church and wealthy patrons paid for most artworks. One might be forgiven for thinking that “common” people didn’t exist prior to the 18th century, as so few were depicted in the art.

The term “starving artist” was more an actuality than a stereotype, and described composers as well as painters; it isn’t easy to compose for a choir or an orchestra if you can’t pay the band. The Baroque era is littered with choral works, cantatas, and anthems for one king or another, all paid for by the churches and nobility; at that time, artists were mostly constrained by the wishes of their benefactors and patrons. Keep in mind that, in those days, even the paper upon which one would write a music score was a relatively new and expensive innovation. Parchment made from untanned animal skins was a common writing material before the widespread popularization of paper as we know it. One must get beyond the Baroque era before you find artists who were not all “baroke.”

Circa 1722, German organist and Barouque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Circa 1722, German organist and Barouque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Johan Sebastian Bach came out of that era and milieu, from a long line of musicians who were all employed by the church. He followed in his father’s footsteps, and much of his early work reflects the confines of his theological patrons. Coming from a musical family does not explain his genius, however, nor can it be what gifted him to write something as profound as his “Cello Suite No. 1,” for example. It is a work of intricate and soulful beauty, but also, in musical terms, a work of startlingly complex symmetry. It is a puzzle that can only fit together one way, but when it comes together, its perfection is so pure, it seems almost simple.

Often, it seems, the mark of genius is to create something so simple that absolutely no one else in the world could possibly have imagined it. Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major” is still the number-one piece of cello music in the world today—and Bach was not even a cellist.

Cello is a particularly difficult instrument to write solos for. It is designed, unlike a guitar or piano, to play just one note at a time. Pianos and guitars can accompany themselves with rhythms and harmonies while still playing a melody, which is largely why they are so popular. The cello, for all its wonderfully soulful timbre, is generally only played one note at a time, so writing musically satisfying melodies for solo cello is quite difficult. To write something that could be considered a peerless masterpiece the world over, for more than 200 years, is almost incomprehensible.

If Bach had composed the “Cello Suite” and then retired, he would still be a composer of tremendous note, but he didn’t stop there. Among over 1,100 of his compositions, we can find the “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” perhaps one of the most dramatic pieces of music ever composed for a single instrument—the church organ. It featured in “Phantom of the Opera” and Disney’s “Fantasia” and is widely considered to be the most recognized music ever written for organ, with a gothically dark, thrilling passion well suited as the theme for “Phantom.”

Performed on a full-sized church organ, the sheer scale of this piece is massive and awe-inspiring. The introduction, familiar to most listeners, is followed by a series of long, intricately ornamented arpeggios that are truly dazzling and a challenge for any player. This work is a cornerstone of the Baroque style, but it reaches forward melodically into the Romantic period in a remarkable way. It has been described as both “too simple for Bach to have written,” and “such a stroke of genius, it couldn’t have been written by anyone else but Bach.” Such is the simplicity of genius.

The “Toccata and Fugue” is another composition that almost vanished. The copy we have today was made from a single surviving manuscript that was copied by one of Bach’s students. For almost a century it languished, considered just another piece of organ music, until it was popularized in the 20th century and came to be known as one of Bach’s signature compositions.

Bach himself was an organist, and his influence reaches far beyond the Baroque and Romantic periods. He was one of those rare composers whose works often appear to have been written in a style that didn’t come into fashion until 100 years later, which has led to heated debate among more than a few scholars about the origins of some of his work.

After the grandeur and frenetic drama of the “Toccata and Fugue,” you can calm your heart rate and let your soul wander where it will with Bach’s sublime “Air on a G String,” a master class in harmony and countermelody. It begins with a restful melancholy that suggests a reconciliation with life’s troubles, but leads into some of the most achingly beautiful passages of heartfelt spiritual aspiration ever composed; even the most downtrodden would be moved to reach up once more. There is a reason it is still played more than 200 years after it was written, and is on many top-10 lists of classical masterpieces.

In the end, genius is not the musical math of counterpoint or harmony—it’s in a composition’s ability to speak directly to your soul, in passages and melodies possessing an authentic resonance with the vibration of one’s core; they sound the way our emotions feel. In this sense, Bach’s “Air” is one of those magical moments in musical history that truly embodies the term timeless. Such masterpieces that transcend the period are all the more remarkable for their prescience and lack nothing in wonder, beauty, or complexity. Indeed, it can be bewildering to hear music written so long ago that knows full well who we are to this very day.

Pete McGrain is a professional writer/director/composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.
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