The student of music need not read far before encountering the passionate assertion that Johann Sebastian Bach was probably the greatest composer who ever lived. Such ardorous declarations might well be excused as author's bias were they not so prevalent in the literature--not to mention, proposed with such fervor--at least to elevate the proposition to a reasoned debate. If Johann Sebastian was not the greatest, he was at least in the company of that august group; but the rule of greatness of an artist's life and work is ultimately measured by the eye in which the beholder's own work has been influenced by the life in question.
We might begin debate, then, with the matter of Bach's influence upon composers and composition. For if we were to measure his greatness upon the basis of the number of his compositions, the man would surely be found wanting. His more prolific contemporaries, Telemann and Vivaldi, collectively wrote at least five times as much; although the latter is sometimes glibly criticized as having written not more than 450 different concerti, but the same concerto for 450 different combinations. When it comes to influence, however, we are on solid ground; no single composer has wielded such a weighty sword as has Johann Sebastian. Even those who might deny this, that they have never striven to emulate Bach's technique, might find it more difficult to deny that they have at least striven not to emulate his technique. Thus, positively or negatively, Johann Sebastian has cut a wide swath.
In his old age Haydn went to great trouble to obtain a manuscript copy of the Mass in B Minor (see YouTube instructions). At nearly the same time young Mozart, visiting the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, upon hearing a Bach motet for the first time, exclaimed "Now there is music from which a man can learn something." Whereafter, it is recorded, Bach's grand-successor ushered the young composer into the library where Mozart quickly spread out reams of Bach in earnest study. No wonder Beethoven exclaimed "Not Bach, but Meer should be his name!" Mendelssohn revived Bach and Brahms eagerly awaited each new edition of Schumann'sBach Gesellschaft.
...and Being Influenced
But the ocean of Bach could not have streamed over so many if he had not first allowed himself to be illumined by lesser lights than himself (when one's is the brightest, any other's must necessarily be dim). So, Bach acquired a voracious appetite for the music of his contemporaries: Pachelbel, Keiser, Frescobaldi, Froberger, Telemann, Fischer, Strungk, Corelli, Buxtehude, Bruhns, and Böhm. If he is reckoned to have been a great composer, it is partly because he did not appear ex nihilo.
In 1802 Forkel, wrote: "Bach knew Couperin's works and valued them as he valued the works of several French harpsichord composers of the period, because one can learn from them a neat and graceful keyboard technique." Bach's work was born of the matrix of musical styles that were as much the creations of his contemporaries as of himself. We do well to remember that in Bach's day greatness was measured by how well one mastered technique, not originality. Johann Sebastian Bach's music has infinite connections to the people, traditions, and institutions of his day; he was not wanting to escape from the present or the past.
Humility & Hard Work...
It requires more than token humility for one who is good to become better through the self-criticism that attends the study of other artists' works; this was clearly Bach's attitude. "I have worked hard" he said, "anyone who works just as hard will go just as far." Johann Sebastian began this work in 1704 by walking a circuit of more than five hundred miles to hear Buxtehude'sAbendmusik. Bach concluding many days by candlelight laboriously hand-copying the creations of others (he is known to have made copies or adaptations of works by Locatelli, Marcello, Palestrina, Pergolesi, Kerll, Caldara, Handel, and Reincken). But Bach did not merely clone the muse of his mentors, he continuously reworked it so that their expressions might become truly his own, transformed by a synthesis of ideas simmered by his own muse.
The greatness of Bach's reputation has less to do, then, with genius--his innate talent--than with the self-discipline that nurtured that talent to its full potential. Saint-Saëns may have had the most natural ability of any composer since Mozart, but his work does not equal Mozart's, because he did not work as hard. Handel, who knew Telemann well, wrote that his friend could compose a motet in eight parts as easily as you or I might write a letter. Perhaps, because Telemann's motets by the dozen came with such little thought on his part, today they are seldom given any thought, while Bach's half-dozen are thought to be the greatest in the choral repertory.
Copying to Learn
But being influenced by, and influencing, others, presupposes a more substantive greatness than mere emulation might suggest. Twentieth-century pop culture, like a continuously mutating virus, replicates itself with minor variations upon each new generation, achieving commercial acclaim by copying the latest Oscar, Emmy, or Grammy. Copying, without respect for the artwork or the artist, and copying in order to learn technique are different matters indeed; one is kitsch, the other, an education. People are neither educated nor influenced by that which has no power to change or to inform them; and people are not changed by that which they do not respect, even if it is a copy of something they do respect.
Coming Back to Bach
If Bach has earned the respect of each new generation it is primarily because we hear in his music something of himself, something that sustained him, something that he offers to us that we need, something that will make each generation better. Whatever it may be, something causes us to return to Bach, often, for our own sustenance. It is plain to most people that the perpetuation of musical works of art depends ultimately upon the willingness of musicians and audiences to play and to listen to them. Bach's music, unlike Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Pietá, exists only when it is heard, and when it ceases to be heard it ceases, dusty scores notwithstanding, to exist.
Time Does Tell
That people listen to Bach is not evidence in and of itself that his music is great, else, regrettably, would be also every ditty from today's top fifty chart. But if an audience alone is not the measure of greatness in a composer, an audience betraying no hint of infidelity, two-hundred and fifty years after the fact, is a measure, to be sure. It is a cliché, but true nonetheless, time does tell. Unlike so many composers, some flashes in the pan during their own lifetimes, others great, no doubt, but whose audiences have consistently dwindled through the years, Bach's audience, which at his death consisted of a few sons and faithful students, has only grown. Johann Sebastian Bach's reputation is unique in that sense; he may be the only composer in western history to have died for all intents and purposes without a reputation but to have been resurrected with such devotion one hundred years later by a generation whose musical tastes and practices he could never have anticipated.
Making a Reputation
Passing the test of time is qualification enough for Bach to claim a wreath (not necessarily the biggest wreath) of greatness. But when we reflect upon the reasons why time has not ravaged his reputation we can at least appreciate Johann Sebastian's stature as first among equals. There are reasons and then there are reasons, but, in Bach's case, there are six compelling reasons why he just may have been the greatest composer who ever lived.
Inventor or Inventive?
First, while Johann Sebastian Bach restricted himself to the structure of known genres and stylistic idioms (with the exception of the viola pomposa and his two-and three-part inventions, Bach did not invent anything) his music is yet unparalleled for its inventiveness. With the possible exception of the newly-discovered chorale preludes of his youth, virtually everything that he wrote is characterized by an highly individualistic stamp that makes it easily recognizable as "Bach". While he made use of the referential idioms of his day, his music is always fresh, highly creative, never clichéd and never hackneyed.
Second, Bach had a natural gift for writing beautiful melodies. It is sometimes said that Bach's music makes too many demands upon the listener, therefore it is accessible only to the dilettante. If it is true that Bach requires an initiation, he certainly does not require a college degree. What amateur has not been moved by such masterpieces of melody as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Air on the G String," and "Sheep May Safely Graze"? Whatever be one's musical taste, there is a passionate expression that will reach out and grab any person within earshot of a good Bach tune.
Third, while Bach's music is accessible by the beginner it belongs to that class of the most rigorous music conceived by the human mind. There is an intellectual component to Bach, a logic, that fascinates musicians and non-musicians alike, but especially theorists and composers. For this reason Bach's chorale harmonizations have comprised the core material for the study of voice leading for a century. Bach-style counterpoint, while not entirely understood, has nevertheless served as a model for composers from the nineteenth century's Beethoven and Brahms to our own Webern, Schoenberg, Berg, and Boulez.
Fourth, Bach's music, representing as it does the apotheosis of baroque style, manifests an integration of structural elements, an organicism, that the Germans call Fortspinnung--the "spinning out" of a single motive, usually stated within the first few seconds of a movement. Bach's music is organic in the sense that the whole is always related to its parts and would be dysfunctional were any of its parts to be omitted. Similarly, the parts of Bach's music are inextricably intertwined with each other and with the whole, so that no single part is entirely intelligible without the perception of that whole.
Not to trivialize non-organicist systems used by other cultures and composers (there are other ways to organize sounds), Bach's music has withstood the test of time because it is compellingly and lucidly structured. In terms of its form, counterpoint of harmony and melody, balance, completeness, and temporal elements, Bach's music represents the crowning achievement of architectonic principles and processes practiced by the western world for half a millennium.
You Have a Point
Fifth, if Bach accomplished no greater thing, it is enough to recommend him to future generations that he raised the art of counterpoint to a level never seen. When, late in their careers, Mozart and Beethoven both perceived a need for the infusion of new techniques and forms into their own compositional toolboxes, they embarked upon a systematic study of the most highly advanced contrapuntal procedure known to humankind: Bach fugues. From that study forward the music of both composers was decidedly contrapuntal. Not only so, but, in an ironic twist of association, because Bach, the consummate contrapuntist, was primarily remembered by them as Kapellmeister (church musician), fugue as a procedure came to be nearly synonymous with sacred as a style. Throughout the next century few composers would write a major sacred work--Mass or oratorio--without consecrating it in a liberal baptism of fugues.
Finally, it is by no means the least of Bach's claims to greatness that he devoted his talents primarily to the service of the church. Of his nearly 1000 compositions, roughly three-fourths were written expressly for use in the Lutheran liturgy; this repertory has withstood the test of time because it has profound spiritual substance. While it may antagonize modern criticism to invoke the intentions of the artist to explain his art, Bach himself would surely have resisted any attempt to magnify his memory without giving credit where he felt credit was due. Soli Deo Gloria was his belief not a bromide.
Gone to Leipzig
In 1723 Bach and his wife, Anna Magdalena, were comfortably employed by the ducal court of Anhalt-Cöthen with a combined income significantly higher than he would make in Leipzig. With every evidence that they were welcome to remain at Cöthen indefinitely, they took the cut in salary to return to the service of the church. At his Leipzig nadir Bach confided to a friend that he had decades earlier taken the abortive church position at Mühlhausen because his objective had been to compose "a well-appointed body of church music." It appears, on the face of it, that Bach left Cöthen for Leipzig because that goal continued to beckon.
Why Not Opera?
But why church music, why not opera? His compatriots, Telemann and Handel--both famous, both rich--wrote eighty operas between them, but Bach wrote not a one. It is a nagging question why Bach, born a month after Handel (and fifty miles away) did not follow the same career path for which he was amply endowed and surely would have succeeded. After all is said and done one cannot escape the conclusion that, though Johann Sebastian certainly cared about his career, careerism was not what moved him. Music moved him, especially when it was offered in thanksgiving to God--which Bach would have granted to any music that was well crafted. Bach's pupils were fond of recalling that their teacher often quoted Gerhardt Niedt: "The sole purpose of harmony is the Glory of God; all other use is but idle jingling of Satan."
In 1827, one hundred years after the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion, Mendelssohn resurrected that masterpiece stimulating a revival of interest in Bach's music that has continued unabated through the founding of the Bach Gesellschaft to this day. When Goethe heard Mendelssohn's performance he wrote to Zelter: "The eternal harmony in Bach's work was in a dialog with himself." Goethe went on to express the idea that before the world was created God must have felt something of "elemental significance." That feeling, wrote Goethe, is expressed in the works of Bach. If Goethe had been a preacher he could not have said it with more zeal -- and Bach's congregation could not have raised a more thunderous "Amen!"