Bach’s Greatness as a Composer
The concept of the "great" composer
Jack Botelho wrote (January 10, 2004):
"I understand there is a centuries-old tradition of fine scholarship and research into J.S. Bach, initially a product of German efforts arising from 19th century nationalism. It does not take much imagination to understand the consequences of applying this same painstaking care of research to other composers. I also understand there is also an entire world-wide musicological establishment built on studying Bach, and that this establishment may become distinctly uneasy with approaching music history from a "genre", rather than a "composer" point of view. We must remember that it was only in 1947 that the first full-length genre study approach to baroque music was published (Bukofzer) which before that time were only "great" composer studies."
The above seems to imply that there are many composers of the genius of JS Bach just waiting to be discovered, but this cannot be so. The above also went un-replied by list members so I'll have a go at it:
First there is the question of what makes a composer "great"? I would venture with JS Bach that is the very high quality of compositions he left in all genres, indicative of a composer who was unwilling to relax his high standards.
Also, Bach, like the craftsman A Stradivari (quality of craftsmanship a key factor of baroque artisanship) must have been very self-critical in a constructive sense - Bach must have always sought to improve and refine his work.
A question which arises is - what are the characteristics of a high quality composition?
Finally, with regard to what makes a composer "great" is the variable of "natural genius" which a given environment either encourages to develop or restricts. There is considerable debate about exactly how constructive Bach's immediate musical environment was.
Any further ideas anyone?
Jose E. Amaro wrote (Januarty 12, 2004):
[To Jack Botelho] Since I am new to this Bach list let me introduce myself to members. I am coming from the ItalianBaroque list and mainly interested in pre classical music, focusing in particular in vocal genres: Opera, Cantata, Oratorio, Motets. Right now I am not contributing to these lists since I am in the business preparing an exhaustive catalog of my classical CD collection, which has been exaggeratedly increasing last years and this is the only way to get some control on it. I have cataloged up to the date around 900 CDs, in 50 pages in two-column format, and still have a similar number of CDs waiting. I'll put the catalog on-line when finished.
Now about your message:
< First there is the question of what makes a composer "great"? I would venture with JS Bach that is the very high quality of compositions he left in all genres, indicative of a composer who was unwilling to relax his high standards. >
At this respect let me make a correction, since there is at less one genre to which JS Bach did not contributed, and it is Opera. And this precisely the most important genre at that time, what made a composer "Great". Think about the great German composers of the time, all linked to opera, such as Hasse, Graun, Keiser, Telemann, ... and of course Handel. Some of the Bach profane cantatas are the only approximation to such a genre, but they are in German, not in Italian, as prescribed by the taste of the public.
John Pike wrote (January 12, 2004):
Article on Bach
[To Jack Botelho] I absolutely agree with this. Bach believed that the purpose of all music was to give glory to God and pleasure to the soul. Anything else was a "devilish hubub". He was a deeply religious man with great faith. He prayed for God's help with his compositions (see the inscriptions before and after many of his works) and I think achieved something remarkable in so many of his compositions.
John Pike wrote (January 12, 2004):
[To Jack Botelho] As someone has commented, Bach did not write any operas. This does not matter at all in assessing greatness. In so far as the term is useful at all, it is something to do with the sheer quality of the art produced and, in Bach's case, the quantity as well. This quality has a number of facets: the universal emotions expressed so well, the richness of harmony, sheer overall beauty, wonderful melodies, the timeless appeal of the music, the spiritual appeal, the other worldly nature of much of the music and so on. The fact that Bach achieved all this in so many genres is all the more amazing.
Jack Botelho wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To Jose E. Amaro] Nice to have you on this list, Jose! Your database/catalogue of your collection must be exhausting to construct but in the end very rewarding - I look forward one day to admiring it when/if you post it sometime in the future.
Thanks for pointing out the importance of opera - indeed it was the most important genre for court society across Europe at this time. Thanks for the correction and I should have stated "the high quality of compositions in all the genres that J.S. Bach composed in".
It is interesting to note our friend and collector at Italian Baroque. He often refers to Bach but he means J.C. Bach. Humorous, perhaps? But J.C. was more famous than his father in the 18th century, although father and son belong to two different periods of music history (according to style - basso continuo period vs. homophonic, "classical" period).
We have touched on the standard of musical performance in the 18th century in general here already, but one thing I do admire is the fine "taste" in music recorded by connoisseurs of the time: perhaps in our age we have a long way to go to equal such taste?
I also very much appreciate your input here Jose for your broad awareness of baroque music and music of the 18th century across Europe (posted elsewhere). If there is one criticism of "Bachians" that I have, it is the far-too-narrow focus on this composer to the deteriment of this entire, massive, period of western music.