Why was Bach so great?

Bach fulfills a huge number of criteria that people use to judge the quality of a composer. He had extraordinary harmonic control, he wrote beautiful melodies, he had great structural control, he wrote wonderfully for voice and idiomatically across all instruments, he was equally adept at both small- and large-scale works, he had a palpable sense of religious awe, he had a sense of humour, his music has great humanity, he wrote with an almost unbelievable intellectual rigour.

There is more, I am sure, but all those characteristics appear immediately in my head when I think of Bach.

He had astonishing range and clearly had access to parts of his brain that most of us cannot find. The kind of mathematical puzzles he was able to create I have only come across in people with Asperger syndrome or some kind of autism. That he could write harmonically functional counterpoint that is exactly palindromic, or that works the same when turned upside down, is in itself astonishing. That he could also create music that seems so deeply connected to the human spiritual experience takes him to an entirely different place.

Normally speaking, anyone with the kind of mathematical, puzzle-solving brilliance he clearly had would struggle to communicate even on an everyday level. My experience with musicians with this kind of extraordinary capacity has always been that they lack the ability to really communicate. I know one pianist that is able to simply look at a piece of music and then play it – without seeing the music again. In a recording of Bach keyboard concerti, he was able to add two additional lines of counterpoint that were in the string parts but not the keyboard just by reading the score. He re-recorded the concerto with the additional parts 5 minutes later.

That in itself takes my breath away.

But this pianist doesn’t play with the kind of phrasing and dynamic control that really speaks to you. I don’t know, exactly, how to describe the thing that is missing but there is definitely something. The technical achievement and the feat of memory is staggering but for probably a multitude of tiny reasons, the performance doesn’t communicate musically.

This is the bit about Bach that I find utterly, jaw-droppingly amazing. Not only does he have access to the bits of the brain most of us can only wonder at, he also has a level of human communication that few other composers – or any creative artists – have been able to achieve. The way he is able to shape and pace his music over sometimes extremely long time spans is incredible.

The opening of the Matthew Passion has an inescapably deep melancholy; the music draws you through with an unerring harmonic shape. On the opposite end, a piece like the second Brandenburg concerto has an incredible sense of joy about it. Its rhythmic vitality and bright harmonies create a fantastically upbeat sound world.

For me, this is what makes Bach special. Others come extremely close – Mozart, for example, Janacek, Sibelius, Brahms. But I don’t think anyone else is able to combine pure technical brilliance with deep humanity in the way Bach did.

Published by

Robin Newton

Musician and teacher.

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