The Magazine

Bach to the Future

Why Johann Sebastian appeals to moderns.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Geck calls the B-Minor Mass, compiled at the very end of Bach's life, a final "bouquet of parodies," in which the composer refashioned his favorite cantata movements with German librettos of local interest into a new work with a more universal Latin text. The B-Minor Mass (never so labeled by Bach) was described as "The Great Catholic Mass" by Bach's descendants. Geck believes the composer was striving to create a catholic piece in the broadest sense of the word, a work capable of eliminating the borders not just between Protestant and Catholic faiths but, ultimately, between the sacred and the secular. The presence of so much dance music in the Mass points in that direction.

The B-Minor Mass does not seem to have been performed during Bach's lifetime, but when it was revived in the 19th century, it was presented as a humanistic "concert" Mass and paired with Beethoven's Missa solemnis. Today it is performed in concert halls as frequently as in churches.

Geck and Williams reconstruct the life of Bach as viewed through his music, and they do a commendable job, presenting safe, serviceable accounts in a straightforward way (despite the dialectical detours in the Williams book). Yet one finishes them wishing for a bolder, more imaginative reading of Bach's life, one in which the biographer takes informed leaps and attempts to fill in the gaps, even at the expense of subjective interpretations. Here Christoph Wolff's denser but magisterial Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (2000) meets the challenge. Wolff, too, admits that our knowledge of Bach is limited. But through clever surmise--such as assessing Bach's room-order bill in Halle to conclude that a good deal of beer, brandy, and tobacco went into the creation of a cantata--he is able to paint a fuller, fleshier portrait of the father of counterpoint than any other account.

In the end, there is also the question of precisely what it is about Bach's works that make them so appealing to modern audiences. Why is it that Bach's music remains so important today--that it continues to offer joy, solace, challenge, and assurance to general listeners as well as professionals, on a global basis? Bach has become a cultural icon, and his works have achieved a universality that transcends the borders of Germany and Europe, which makes us want to beam his compositions into space to affirm the positive spirit of mankind.

How do we explain this phenomenon? If we can't answer all the unknowns about Bach's personal life and inner being, then perhaps we ought to address this issue, just in case the extraterrestrials drawn to earth by the composer's music ask about it.

George B. Stauffer, dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and professor of music at Rutgers, is the author of the forthcoming Why Bach Matters.