Bach the Genius
The concept of genius has fascinated and captivated humanity for centuries. Genius is nearly impossible to precisely define, and a rigorous scientific measure of genius does not exist.
However, its ill-defined nature hasn’t stopped us from making certain observations about it or trying to identify it. Genius is extremely rare, and it can manifest in many forms, ranging from mathematical to musical.
Johann Sebastian Bach, a German composer of the Baroque period (~1600–1750), is considered by many to exemplify genius.
Bach’s music employs a breadth of compositional techniques with a seemingly unmatched rigor and expression. These include the rules that govern the progression of musical chords (four-part harmony), changes in key as the music evolves (modulation), and the elaboration of a small musical structure (motive) to construct a large-scale work (motivic development).
However, Bach’s use of counterpoint is perhaps his most sophisticated and expressive skill.
Counterpoint is an advanced compositional technique in which multiple independently evolving melodic lines form a harmonic structure that progresses according to strict rules. The pianist András Schiff astutely noted that the works of great composers, in particular Mozart and Beethoven, became increasingly contrapuntal in their later years owing to their study of Bach.
In fact, the heightened influence of Bach in the work of great composers entering their later stages is so common it seems like an inevitable prerequisite for advanced growth. In Beethoven’s case this occurred as a result of his search for a new compositional ethos at the conclusion of his “heroic” middle period.
But there also seems to be a spiritual motivation that guides the musical world to Bach in times of immense struggle.
The pianist Murray Perahia, who suffered hand injuries that prevented him from playing for several years, has stated that during his recovery Bach’s music, “provided me with spiritual comfort and nourishment, and I saw hope through his music.” In his biography on Brahms, Jan Swafford makes a point of mentioning that, during his final days battling liver cancer on his deathbed, a thoroughly annotated Bach motet lay open on Brahms’ piano rack.
This last excerpt also illustrates the wealth of knowledge that many perceived to exist in Bach’s music. Several of his works are considered invaluable lessons in musicianship and composition. Some examples include the Inventions and Sinfonias, Books I and II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and The Art of Fugue, a monumental work cut short by his death. The renowned 19th century German conductor Hans von Bülow was known to refer to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as the “Old Testament” of keyboard music.
One of the most compelling arguments in favor of Bach’s genius are the numerous quotations of his musical ideas in the works of other great composers. Indeed, quotation is one of the most genuine acts of respect we can offer to those that came before us. Perhaps no clearer testament to the importance of an individual exists.
Thus, below you will find a few select examples of great composers quoting Bach in their music. By their very nature, such musical quotations are best appreciated by listening. The appropriate links are provided for your listening pleasure.
1. Repeated quotation of Bach by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven was profoundly influenced by the aria ‘Es ist Vollbracht’ (‘It is Accomplished’) from Bach’s St. John Passion.
‘Es ist Vollbracht’ can be heard in the lyrical, and at times fiery, development section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata № 3 in A Major.
It also appears as a mysteriously dark transitionary phrase in movement I of the Piano Sonata № 17 in D minor, also known as the ‘Tempest.’
In its third instance, ‘Es ist Vollbracht’ emerges as a profound lament in Piano Sonata № 31 in A flat Major.
2. Two quotations of Bach by Johannes Brahms.
The first instance is based on Contrapunctus 13 of The Art of Fugue.
This idea is the basis of the principal theme of the finale movement of Brahms Cello Sonata № 1 in E minor.
The second example is from the bass line of the closing Chaconne of Bach’s cantata ‘Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich’ (‘For Thee, O Lord, I long’), which Brahms adapted for the final movement of his Symphony № 4 in E minor (the last he wrote). For many at the time, this symphony marked the end of the great tradition of western tonal music that started with Johann Sebastian Bach.
We have briefly explored why Johann Sebastian Bach’s name should be included in any serious discussion of the meaning of genius, at least insofar as the musical world is concerned. Of particular note are 1) Bach’s unparalleled mastery of complex compositional techniques, 2) his consistent influence on the development of composers’ late styles, 3) his deeply expressive, spiritually motivating and pedagogical works, 4) and the profound recognition paid to him by the great composers.