Can any composer equal Bach?

Johann Sebastian Bach, born March 21st 1685, has done everything completely. He was a man through and through.

Franz Schubert

Nearly 300 years after his death, Johann Sebastian Bach is still the gold standard in classical music. Clemency Burton-Hill explores why that is.

On BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast show we have a daily feature called Bach Before 7. Every weekday morning, just before 7.00, we play a piece of music by Johann Sebastian Bach – usually something requested by our listeners, who tune in from all over the globe. It’s inconceivable that another composer could take Bach’s place in that slot. Even Mozart or Beethoven wouldn’t cut it. And as for other giants of the musical canon, Monteverdi, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, Bartok: forget it. Over the course of my show, between 6.30am and 9.00am, I will of course play many of these and indeed dozens of other composers of all different periods and styles, from Adès to Zemlinsky. But it’s Bach, and Bach alone, who could warrant his own daily slot.

This is not to say that JS Bach is everybody’s favourite composer – of course not. But he is the ultimate composer. Trying to explain why is a fool’s game: it’s like the famous quote attributed to several that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. It’s hard to think of a more refined brain than Albert Einstein’s, and yet it was he who famously uttered, “This is what I have to say about Bach – listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.”

It’s good advice. I’m only ignoring it because so many people I meet, from all walks of life who are innately and immediately moved by Bach, ask me: just what is it about him? Why does his music do that – and how? How does it invade us, change us? So here are a few reasons why I think he is the godfather of classical music. All music.

Humanity and divinity

Bach’s instinctive understanding of human nature, his rhetorical skills and his innate skill as a dramatist are second to none. Living from 1685 to 1750, he had no choice but to write music to the glory of God – and yet everything that it is to be human – to love, to lose, to laugh, to be betrayed, to betray, to be torn into little pieces or to feel so whole you could fly, is here. Conflict, friendship, despair, joy, his music encompasses what I can only describe as “the everything-ness of everything”. Even Shakespeare cannot compare.

John Eliot Gardiner, a peerless Bach conductor and author of the superb recent biography Music In The Castle of Heaven, jokes that Bach is like snorkelling. “Being in Bach’s music has that sense of otherness: it’s another world we enter, as performers or listeners,” he told me in a recent interview. “You put your mask on, and you go down to a psychedelic world of myriad colours.”

Gardiner also makes a compelling point about Bach’s music and faith. Because when you hear something that beautiful, it’s hard not to wonder how it could have been made by a mere mortal. Gardiner is an agnostic, but admits to feeling close to becoming a Christian when performing Bach. “It’s irresistible in its persuasiveness,” he admits. “I cannot deny that even if my logical mind says ‘no’ – my soul, my spirit says, ‘This can only have come from somebody who has a totally credible and believable sense of godhead and the futility of human existence; [these are] the aspirations that are necessary to make sense of our lives…’”

Bach’s music was made through faith, but it transcends faith. He humanises the Lutheran theology of his time and makes it approachable. He makes it speak to people of all beliefs, and of none. Gardiner reckons Bach’s own tussles with faith, explored through the music, make his sacred pieces less didactic, less doctrinaire than others. Consider, for example, the “peasant stomp of the B Minor Mass, as opposed to Handel’s wispy angels which disappear into the ether.” This earthy element to Bach’s epic spirituality is “a wonderful paradox. There is so much wit. It’s real.”

Bach suffered devastating personal loss and his music, while occasionally saturated in grief, is somehow always immensely consoling. This is particularly true of his two hundred-odd cantatas, an astonishing suite of works that form the centre of his musical universe.

As soprano Nancy Argenta has said, “Bach can be very reassuring. When you’re feeling frazzled, you need Bach not Beethoven to relax you. He has a calmness that makes people feel that all’s well with the world and that they’ll be all right.”

The first rock star?

Helmuth Rilling, another outstanding Bach conductor, reckons the true extent of Bach’s genius is only now becoming apparent.  When asked by Gramophone magazine if ‘Bach was best’ he had this to say: “He was the great consolidator, summing up the best of what had gone before, refining the best ideas of his own time.” And it’s not enough simply to look at Bach’s achievements alone. “He’s the teacher par excellence,” Rilling says. “His music has influenced every later generation of composers and musicians – a heritage that continues right up to our own time. My friend Krzysztof Penderecki told me that without Bach he would never have written his own St Luke Passion.”

It goes much further than Penderecki and avant-garde classical music, though: Bach’s influence on jazz, soul, hip hop and pretty much any 20th Century musical genre you could care to name is inestimable.  Sometimes this is very obvious, as in the hip-hop outfit Sweetbox’s song Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, which directly samples Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3; sometimes it’s a little more oblique, as in the Swedish death metal band Dismember’s apparent appropriation of Bach’s Komm, Süsser Tod in their song Life, Another Shape of Sorrow.

When I asked pianist James Rhodes recently why Bach was the ultimate, he put it pretty succinctly. “Here is a man who was orphaned by the age of 10, who lost 11 of his 20 kids in infancy or childbirth, whose first wife and love of his life died suddenly,” he mused. “So there’s Bach, drenched in grief, sleeping with groupies in the organ loft; a duelling, fighting, hard-drinking rock star with a work ethic that makes Obama look like a bum and producing music that still, 300 years later, inspires, stuns and rockets us into a fourth dimension of existence.”

I’ve been trying to nail down my Bach ‘starter kit’ – the gateway pieces to the fourth dimension that would enrich and inspire everyone’s day, everyone’s life. And I was going to say, how about the Double Violin Concerto, second movement? But maybe it should be the Violin and Oboe Concerto second movement instead? Definitely listen to the St Matthew Passion – at least the opening; and from the St John – this chorus. And obviously the Sanctus from the B Minor Mass. Then you’d absolutely have to include the Chaconne from the Violin Partita in D minor; the Prelude from this one and probably the Andante from this one. Oh, but what about this Brandenburg concerto? Then we would need, of course, this prelude and fugue from the Well-Tempered Klavier. And what about the fact that there are countless wondrous interpretations from across the ages of each of these pieces?

I give up. Like Einstein, I’ll keep my trap shut, and let Bach’s music speak. It’s the ultimate gift to humankind. Go listen, play, love, revere – and be changed for always.