Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was a German composer who wrote in the old polyphonic style, perfecting it. In an age when there was greater travel throughout Europe, and printed music was available, he was greatly influenced by the music of several regions from Italy to Great Britain. I, personally, love his music because, to my ear, it is as a riveting dialogue between individual voices: declaring, asserting, responding, imitating, inverting, countering, and ultimately resolving in solidarity and repose. He was a numerologist. Many experts see significance of certain numbers in his compositions. Some find significant musical moments at numerically significant points in his music.
Bach wrote during a time when keyboard tuning became “well tempered:” if the division of an octave into separate steps and half steps is strictly mathematical, there are some keys that will sound good and others that will sound out of tune or conflicting. It was discovered that if the keyboard was tuned slightly out of tune, then all keys would sound “the same.” Piano tuners know that they have tuned the notes “perfectly,” or sufficiently out of tune, when they can play two differently pitched notes which create “beats,” much as interference pattern of waves created by casting two stones in water. Bach demonstrated this new value of this method of tuning in his Well Tempered Clavier, which systematically explored each of the keys for various numbers of “voices,” or parts.
He is known for a common inscription on his music manuscripts, roughly meaning “to the glory of God and edification of the soul.” To my mind, Bach’s music has a strong spiritual component reflecting that dedication of all his music, both sacred and secular.
He was also an organist and served a Lutheran church, St. Thomas, writing one cantata each week for church services. In his “spare time” he wrote secular music, one of the most popular sets being the Brandenburg Concertos. Whatever he composed had a contextual relationship with a set, such as Preludes and Fugues in each key, Inventions for keyboard in each key, a set of unaccompanied sonatas for violin and another set for cello. I suspect that thoroughness was another expression of his fascination with numerology.
Among his most impressive works is the oratorio, St. Matthew Passion. I understand that it was not so much intended for performance as to demonstrate his skills, in hopes of obtaining a better position than that which he enjoyed at St Thomas. It is immense in scope and its demands for resources and for audience endurance. The following YouTube post is exemplary of Bach’s beauty, skill and power’ his sensitivity, even intimacy:
Organ Toccata e Fuga BWV 565-Karl Richter
David Garrett – popular interpretation of Air on the G string
Wachet auf – Strathmere Festival Orchestra – Blanche Moyse Chorale
organ: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
J.S. Bach Magnificat Ton Koopman BWV 243
Motet BWV 227 ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ – Vocalconsort Berlin
Motet BWV 229 ‘Komm, Jesu, komm’ – Vocalconsort Berlin
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