Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Melody maker

Sabby Sagall looks at the life and music of Johann Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

On 28 July celebrations were held to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the world's greatest composers and arguably the father of modern Western music. Bach was born in Eisenbach, Germany, at a time when to be a composer meant being a retainer working to commission for a king, an aristocrat or the church. Music was performed only at court, in church or in the mansions of wealthy patrons, occasionally in smaller family homes.

In the 18th century Germany was divided into a number of small principalities overshadowed by the larger kingdom of Prussia. Bach worked as a court violinist, organist or composer for a series of princes, and, from 1722 until his death in 1750, as cantor (singing leader) at St Thomas's church in Leipzig, one of the most important posts in Protestant Germany. However, the princes treated their musicians as lackeys and Bach was once imprisoned by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar for insubordination. Although he composed hundreds of pieces, perhaps only half of which have survived, during his lifetime he was better known as an organist than a composer.

In feudal Europe music was largely sacred, intended to produce in its listeners an attitude of contrition for their sins and of reverence towards the church. Its characteristic style was polyphony, in which every voice had its allotted place, each following the other at a different pitch in strictly regular counterpoint (the same or a second melody added to the first as an echo or accompaniment). There was an orderly arrangement of notes and chords without competition or struggle between musical themes and with little emotional variation--a style of music that emphasised order and stability.

However, with the decline of feudalism and the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie, music was no longer characterised by a single theme expressed polyphonically, but by a growing struggle between themes, by rising tensions, dramatic contrasts and climaxes, and by the composer's increasing individual expressiveness. Music was no longer performed for a stable, homogeneous community but for a changing, heterogeneous audience. Thus the 17th and 18th centuries witnessed the creation of a new musical language--harmony--and of new musical forms such as opera and the symphony. A new way of organising sound was being developed by composers as they became increasingly concerned with the 'vertical' effect of many notes played simultaneously rather than with the 'horizontal' lines of several voices or melodies in sequence. The new path taken by music clearly expressed the competitiveness and individualism of the developing capitalist society where the merchant was displacing the priest. Modern harmony did not spring ready made from polyphony, but developed gradually within the old music just as the bourgeoisie grew within the womb of feudalism.

Bach was deeply religious and his music has been described as the most complete embodiment of the Lutheran faith in art. Yet his music reflects the beginnings of the secularisation of European society. His style is actually a fusion between the old and the new. On the one hand, his music rests on the foundation of the 17th century German polyphonic style through, for example, his extensive use of the fugue (contrapuntal form in which a melodic theme is introduced by one part, then successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts). On the other hand, Bach is the greatest of the early exponents of modern harmony. His music is rich with deeply emotional melodies that are then linked in powerful harmonic resolutions of a kind that delighted Mozart. Bach also had a great sense of climax. He often takes a single melodic theme, develops it, then builds a climax out of the accumulation of themes derived from the original melody. The overall effect is one of liberation. He influenced composers as different as the romantics Mendelssohn and Brahms and the modernists Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Among the numerous items of church music Bach wrote--cantatas, oratorios, masses--one can perhaps single out his St Matthew Passion (1730), Christmas Oratorio (1734) and one of his last great works, Mass in B Minor. All combine poignancy and drama, and in particular a profound sense of tragedy. Of his orchestral pieces, the six Brandenburg Concertos (1721) have remained firm favourites. Of his instrumental music, there are many magnificent organ works such as the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and for clavier (forerunner of the piano), the 48 preludes and fugues and the Goldberg variations (1742).

Bach's work points to both past and future. We can perhaps understand this quality better if we examine the historical background of his music. During the 16th century the German middle classes lost the economic and political influence they had been steadily building up since the end of the Middle Ages. There was a decline of the cities, and the peasant revolts were defeated. These factors strengthened the princes, who no longer faced a challenge to their position as great feudal landowners. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) brought about the final collapse of German commerce, destroying the cities economically and politically. The consequent powerlessness of the German bourgeoisie--their exclusion from politics--induced a passivity which affected the entire cultural life of the period. The traditional element in Bach's work reflects this domination of the Lutheran princes over German society and its resulting backwardness.

On the other hand, Bach was open to wider social and political influences. And on the broader European canvass we witness the steady growth of the bourgeoisie's economic and political power, and of its cultural influence which was to culminate in the great French Revolution of 1789. From this standpoint Bach's music is testimony to the great struggle for human liberation that always continues despite numerous setbacks.

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