I’ve spent much of this week slowly coming down from our excellent rendition of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor with the Cantori Domino Choir and the CalArts Orchestra Sunday at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Santa Monica (I had the privilege, honor and joy of playing harpsichord continuo). It’s a real trip to do such exalted music at such a high level with this great choir. Wasn’t perfect by any means, but Bach’s sublime music burst forth nevertheless. One feels one can see The Other (heaven? God? the next life? the entire universe? the purpose of life?) with such music.
Through history many others, including Bach’s musical descendents and those from other fields, have felt and seen Bach’s greatness and his preeminent place in music and art. Some of these quotes are, admittedly, a bit exaggerated and may not always transcend their own time. But the two most famous quotes about him are probably those by Mozart and Beethoven, and still ring true:
Mozart, on hearing or looking through Bach motets in Leipzig: Now here is music from which a man can learn something!
Beethoven, punning on the word ‘Bach’ meaning ‘stream’ or ‘brook’ in German: His name shouldn’t be ‘Stream’ – it should be ‘Ocean!’
The Romantics and moderns also weighed in. Composer Robert Schumann, who wrote six fugues on Bach’s name for the now-obsolete pedal-piano, gave at least two opinions on the subject:
Religion owes as much to Bach as to its founder. And, Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numbskulls.
One should not unduly extrapolate beliefs from what may well have been spontaneous, off-the-cuff, unguarded remarks. But I understand the sentiment behind both of those statements. In fact, some of the Cantori Domino choir did a tour of Germany years ago, which included singing a concert at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach, only third in line in the auditions for this position after Handel and Telemann, labored in relative obscurity in this cultural backwater for many years (but that’s a whole other story). In fact, he was buried in another churchyard and probably never had a headstone, so the exact site became lost for many years, and only rediscovered and authenticated in 1894. Now, of course, there is a large imposing statue of him in front of the church. But I digress.
Anyway, after the concert the choir was invited to take Communion – gathered around Bach’s grave, now in a prominent and appropriate place inside the Thomaskirche. How I envy them and that occasion. Talk about transcendental, renewing, and life-changing. Maybe someday…
Many musicians, especially creative ones (including this one) can relate to Schumann’s ‘numbskulls’ statement. In grad school I heard on good authority that the contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki said that he can never listen to anything by Bach while composing – if he succumbed he would just throw up his hands in despair and give up for awhile!
So, Bach to a few more quotes (sorry, couldn’t resist any longer, and don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming!):
Karl Barth: Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. Could be – when Charles Marie Widor gave organ recitals, he played few other composers (besides his own organ symphonies, including the famous Toccata) - but always Bach!
Hector Berlioz: Bach is Bach, as God is God.
Claude Debussy: …if we look at the works of JS Bach – a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.
Somerset Maugham (from ‘The Alien Corn’): She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognized the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight on the wide German country, and a tender cosiness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space.
Carl Friedrich Zelter (the teacher of Felix Mendelssohn), in a letter to Goethe: The poetry, the atmosphere, the intensity of expression, the beauty of the preludes and fugues grip, overwhelm, and stimulate us. Let us not be afraid of the supreme contrapuntal science of the fugues, nor be overawed by the stern appearance and heavy wig of Father Bach. Let us gather around him, feel the love, the noble goodness that flow from each one of his phrases and that invigorate and bind us by ties strong and warm.
Felix Mendelssohn, who led a Bach revival beginning in 1839: …[Bach's music is the greatest in the world - ] if life had taken hope and faith from me, this single chorus would restore all.
Pablo Casals: Bach is the supreme genius of music… This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way.
Paul Hindemith: Any musician, even the most gifted, takes a place second to Bach’s at the very start.
Aaron Copland: If one were asked to name one musician who came closest to composing without human flaw, I suppose general consensus would choose Johann Sebastian Bach…
And finally, the sublime…
Helmut Walcha, renowned German organist: Bach opens a vista to the universe. After experiencing him, people feel there is meaning to life after all.
Quote from a German opera house: Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s Laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s Fire, God gave us Music, that we might pray without words. Somewhat ironic, since Bach never wrote an opera!
And the pointedly humorous:
William F. Buckley: If Bach is not in Heaven…..I am not going!
Contemporary composer Michael Torke (b. 1961), whose style includes jazz and minimalism: Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?
Lewis Thomas, eminent biologist and author, when asked what message he would choose to send from Earth into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft: I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach. After a pause, he added, But that would be boasting.
Finally, two by the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe and The Salmon of Doubt, among others:
The fact that I think Bach was mistaken [with regards to religion] doesn’t alter the fact that I think the B minor Mass is one of the great pinnacles of human achievement. It still absolutely moves me to tears to hear it.
Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.
I could go on and on - there are lots of great quotes on the Web about Bach’s importance, from Rimsky-Korsakoff, Reger, Gounod, Mahler, Albert Schweitzer and others.
The last word should go to a composer who is musically almost a direct descendent of JSB:
Johannes Brahms (possibly the best-educated composer of all time:) Study Bach. There you will find everything.