Though Johann Sebastian Bach’s name is now synonymous with Baroque music, he was surprisingly unknown during his own lifetime. His obscurity, posthumous lack of recognition, and eventual discovery by the masses has piqued the curiosity of many music historians. This blog post will cover his career and the factors leading up to the rediscovery of his music in the 19th century.
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Bach During His Own Era
Born in 1685 into a musical family, Bach demonstrated exceptional talent from an early age. However, his career trajectory didn’t align with the stardom one might expect for someone of his genius.
Why Wasn’t Bach Popular During His Career?
In short, Bach’s focus on Baroque music, and his commitment to writing and leading church music, kept his profile rather low. During Bach’s era, the musical scene was undergoing significant transformation. The ornate elements of baroque music began to give way to the clearer, more accessible forms of the emerging classical style. Public concerts grew in popularity, shifting musical appreciation from the church and court to the public arena. Bach, however, spent much of his career in positions that anchored him to church music and courtly duties, such as his lengthy tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, where his primary responsibilities involved composing and performing music for church services and civic events. This role, while prestigious, limited his exposure to the broader public and the evolving music scene.
Bach’s Music Was Too Complex For the Average Listener
Bach’s music, known for its intricate counterpoint and demanding technical proficiency, was often deemed too complex for the general listener of the time. His focus on religious and formal compositions further isolated him from the mainstream, where operatic and secular music were becoming the rage. So while he was respected among musicians and connoisseurs for his mastery, Bach did not achieve the celebrity enjoyed by some of his contemporaries.
Why Did Bach’s Music Fall into Obscurity After His Death?
After his death in 1750, Bach’s music largely fell into obscurity. The rapid evolution of musical tastes and styles contributed to this decline. The enlightenment and the classical era ushered in a preference for clarity, simplicity, and emotional expression, characteristics less prevalent in Bach’s compositions. For several decades, his works were seldom performed outside of academic and ecclesiastical settings, overshadowed by the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Mendelssohn Revived Interest in Bach’s Music
The revival of Bach’s music is a fascinating chapter in music history, attributed largely to a growing interest in historical musicology and the efforts of a few dedicated musicians. The 19th century saw a resurgence of interest in Bach’s work, spearheaded by Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” in Berlin. This event marked a turning point, reintroducing Bach’s genius to a new generation. Subsequent scholarly efforts to publish and study his complete works further solidified his reputation, painting him as a foundational figure in Western music.
Despite the delayed recognition, Bach did experience moments of notoriety during his lifetime. His skill as an organist was unparalleled, earning him fame across Germany. Notable events, such as his scheduled musical duel with the French organist Louis Marchand, which the latter avoided by fleeing before the contest could take place, and his appointment to various prestigious positions, attest to the respect he commanded among those who were familiar with his work. His influence on students and contemporaries, including his own family, laid the groundwork for his enduring legacy.
Bach is Now Celebrated, And Always Will Be
Pianists like Glenn Gould have ensured that Bach’s music will always be performed by pianists, and St. Matthew’s Passion is now standard choral literature. Piano students around the world learn the Well Tempered Clavier, along with countless preludes and fugues. There are even conservatory courses entirely structured around the “counterpoint,” the compositional method used to write fugues.
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