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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Looking Back to Bach

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

The name of Johann Sebastian Bach is universally revered these days as one of the big names of music, but it was not always so. Even in his own lifetime, Bach was regarded as old-fashioned, and when he died in 1750 his music was almost immediately forgotten by the majority of the musical world.

During his life, Bach’s music had had a limited circulation. Very little was actually printed, and the manuscripts of course were available to very few. Some of Bach’s works circulated in handwritten copies, but for all that, we need to remember that the 18th century was not like our time. Music of the past wasn’t revered as it is today. Audiences were only interested in the newest music, and there was little concept of works having a life much beyond their initial performances - my how things change! Back then, music of only 40 years before was regularly regarded as “ancient” music.

Bach’s music fell into oblivion, although his name was kept alive in the next generation by the prominence in European music of four of his sons. The eldest, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, was born in 1710, but his life was a sad one, full of professional unhappiness and financial insecurity. In his latter years he had to sell off many of his father’s manuscripts to support himself. Very few of his compositions are heard today, which is a shame because they display a truly fascinating mind. [listen]

Guelle: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1782)

Three other sons fared better. The youngest, Johann Christian Bach (born 1735) was an important composer of operas and symphonies, and he lived much of his life in London, where he met the eight-year-old Mozart during one of the boy prodigy’s many tours. They remained friends for the next 20 years until JC Bach’s death. His influence on the young Mozart was enormous. [listen]

Gainsborough: Johann Christian Bach (1774)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in 1714. He was one of the most important composers, performers and theoreticians of the 18th century. He spans the late Baroque, of which his father was one the greatest exponents, and the high Classical style, the world of Haydn and Mozart. CPE Bach’s legacy includes one of the great books of its time - the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments - one of the most important sources of performance practice for the period. [listen]

Löhr: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

These three sons of JS Bach are the ones remembered today, but there is a fourth, largely forgotten, who also deserves recognition. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (born 1732, the same year as Haydn) is sometimes called the “Bückeburg Bach” as a significant part of his career was based in that city. He lived until 1795 and his works include symphonies and chamber music which are very reminiscent of Haydn and his contemporaries. His remarkable cantata, Die Amerikanerin (“The American Woman”) is amazing. [listen] Sadly, a great deal of his music was lost during the destruction of Berlin in the second world war.

Matthieu: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1774)

But Bach’s sons didn’t really do a great deal in keeping their father’s music before the public. They had busy lives as composers and performers in their own right, and by the time JCF Bach died in 1795, Johann Sebastian Bach was a distant memory. Ironically enough he was usually mentioned, if mentioned at all, as having been a famous organist (which he was) but his work as a composer was forgotten.

Well, not completely forgotten. Those lucky enough to have access to JS Bach’s music - and there were very few with such access - knew what a colossus he was. One such person with an interest in music of earlier generations was Gottfried van Swieten, a diplomat and amateur musician who mounted performances of the music of Bach and Handel through a private organisation in Vienna. He was extremely influential and played an important role in the lives of CPE Bach, Mozart, Haydn and the young Beethoven.

Mansfeld: Gottfried van Swieten (c. 1790)

Around 1782, van Swieten introduced Mozart to the music of Bach and Handel, and the effect on Mozart was profound.

Mozart saw in the music of Bach an intellect that could match his own, and a style that was completely new to him. To a composer of Mozart’s generation, the writing of complex, multi-voiced music like Bach’s would have been old fashioned, passé. He would have done exercises in fugue, but until he saw the music of Bach, Mozart didn’t realise that fugue could be a powerfully expressive way to write music. He arranged some of the fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard for strings, and wrote his own fugues as well, like the dark, thundering Fugue for 2 pianos, K426, composed in December, 1783. [listen] Some years later, for reasons unclear to us now, he returned to this piece and arranged it for strings, adding an even darker, more disturbing Adagio introduction (K546). [listen]

The next important milestone in the rehabilitation of Bach with the musical world was the publication of the first biography of the composer. Johann Nikolaus Forkel was a brilliant writer on music in the late 18th century, and his ground-breaking 1802 biography is still an important source, despite the fact that some of the information it contains has subsequently required updating or correction. Forkel had access to WF Bach and CPE Bach in person when writing this book, something no other biographer of JS Bach can claim.

Small pockets of Bach’s music were known in the early 19th century. Beethoven and his contemporaries knew the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Keyboard but not much else was in general circulation. The revival of Bach performance is generally agreed to have begun in 1829 at the hands of the 20-year old Felix Mendelssohn, who directed the first performance since Bach’s lifetime of the great composer’s St Matthew Passion in Berlin. Yes, the work was shortened and re-orchestrated, but Mendelssohn’s love of the music of Bach (and also Handel) led to the musical world reassessing the work of these bygone giants of a century before.

Mendelssohn also composed works which were inspired by his acquaintance with the music of Bach. Among them is a series of chorale cantatas, movements for choir and orchestra which - like much of Bach’s church music - are based on Lutheran chorales or hymn tunes. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mendelssohn pays the greatest of compliments to Bach in these works. Of particular interest is his beautiful Jesu meine Freude written in 1828, the year before he conducted Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the first time. [listen]

Other nineteenth century composers looked back to Bach, among them pianists like Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. Schumann became obsessed with Bach’s fugues, and in a diary entry dated 14 May, 1832, wrote, “JS Bach did everything - he was a human being through and through”. He also wrote piano accompaniments for Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas, and for the solo cello suites. Many Romantic composers, including Schumann and Liszt, were fascinated by a particular little musical motif - a tiny four-note tune - that Bach himself used as his musical signature.

By a peculiarity of language and usage, German musical parlance gives a couple of notes different pitch names to those we’re used to in English. The note we call B flat is called B in German, and the note we call B is called H. This means that the notes we would call B flat-A-C-B would be called B-A-C-H in German.

Being able to write B-A-C-H in notes meant that Bach could incorporate surname in his music, something he did most notably in The Art of Fugue, a summation of his life’s work in counterpoint written not long before he died.

Other composers took up this idea, and paid a sort of homage to JS Bach by not only writing music based on his four-note signature, but also by writing fugues, the form of which Bach was the greatest exponent known. A fugue is a composition in many parts or voices. One part starts off with a melody known as the fugue subject. This is joined by other parts or voices in turn. Each new voice presents the fugue subject at its first appearance, while the other parts go on with other music. It is incredibly complex and to excel in fugue is generally regarded as the mark of a great musical mind.

Franz Liszt - probably the most famous piano virtuoso of the 19th century - wrote two works incorporating fugues which are based on Bach’s musical signature. One of these is a prelude and fugue for organ (Bach’s own instrument), based on Bach’s name, using the prelude and fugue form that Bach himself used so often. [listen]

Hanfstaengel: Franz List (1858)

A particularly beautiful tribute to Bach was penned by Anton Webern in 1934. One of Bach’s late works is The Musical Offering, in which there is an austere yet beautiful fugue in six parts, which Bach calls a ricercare (a word used in the Renaissance to describe a contrapuntal, fugue-like texture). Webern was one of the composers directly influenced by Schoenberg in the early 20th century, and among other things he was an exponent of the concept of Klangfarbenmelodie. This German word is made up of three smaller words - Klang (sound), Farben (colour) and Melodie (melody). Klangfarbenmelodie is a concept which sees melodies broken up into smaller components, sometimes only one or two notes, and passed around from instrument to instrument. The melody is given lots of sound colours, or Klangfarben. In his orchestration of the Ricercare from The Musical Offering, Webern keeps all of Bach’s notes and adds no others, but he distributes them among the instruments of the orchestra in such a way as the melodies become three-dimensional and multi-coloured. The result is a model of clarity and restraint, so delicate that the music sounds to me almost as if it’s made of glass, extremely fragile and barely breathing. [listen]

Anton Webern (1912)

Another composer active in the 20th century who looked back to Bach was Igor Stravinsky. During the 1930s Stravinsky was French citizen, but he travelled often to the United States and received a number of important commissions from American patrons. He eventually moved to America, living in Hollywood, in 1941, and in due course took American citizenship.

The 1930s were for Stravinsky the years in which he embraced most clearly what was known as his neo-classical style - that is, a style which looked back to the eighteenth century, to the music of both the late Baroque (Bach) and the Classical era (Mozart and Haydn). In several of his works from this period we can see the influence of JS Bach, but in none more clearly than the concerto in E flat, known as the “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto.

Picasso: Igor Stravinksy (1920)

In 1937, while staying in the American country house of one Mrs Robert Woods Bliss, Stravinsky accepted a commission from his hostess for a work of Brandenburg concerto dimensions - that is, on the scale of Bach’s famous Brandenburg concertos. The Concerto in E flat was the result, and it was given as its nickname the name of Mrs Bliss’ estate - Dumbarton Oaks. For the sum of $2500, Stravinsky composed one of his masterpieces - a vibrant work for 15 instruments which takes about a quarter of an hour to perform. The opening of Stravinsky’s new work was clearly inspired by the opening of Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto, but Stravinsky doesn’t set out to write music like Bach. He takes the drive and rhythm of Bach but superimposes on it his own musical Cubism, a bit like “Bach with wrong notes”. The result is a gem. I love it - it’s almost like Stravinsky’s trying to be naughty or something. [listen]

The music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become increasingly popular in recent times. His later style is sometimes called minimalist but he embodies within that a certain spirituality which seems to touch most people quite deeply. In 1976 he composed a tribute to Bach with the intriguing title of If Bach had kept bees. This work is scored for string orchestra, piano and five wind instruments, and it contains music that puts us into a sort of trancelike world right from the start. The bees of the title are clearly audible - the music buzzes from start to finish - but the four sections of the work are each based on a different note: you guessed it - B-A-C-H. There is also a quote (in the piano) from the B flat minor prelude and fugue from Book 2 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard. The question of the title is never answered - what would it have been like if Bach had kept bees? - but it does combine two things we would never have thought of putting together - and the result is delightful. [listen]

Arvo Pärt (2008)

Many people have arranged Bach’s organ works for orchestra. After all, the music is so richly layered it’s a gift to the imaginative mind of a composer or arranger with a flair for orchestral colour. Beyond this, though, it strikes me as fascinating when one of the big name composers (like Webern, mentioned earlier) arranges Bach’s notes and puts them in another context.

In the last 15 years of his life, Edward Elgar produced no major works. The Cello Concerto of 1919 was followed only by minor pieces, but Elgar did (as Grove’s dictionary puts it) “take refuge behind other music”. That is, he arranged the music of other composers, among them, JS Bach. In 1921, Eugene Goossens conducted the first performance of Elgar’s orchestration of Bach’s C minor Fantasia and Fugue, originally a work for organ. This arrangement shows Elgar’s keen ear for orchestral colour and he overlays Bach’s superb counterpoint with his own unmistakable style. His style is the complete opposite of Webern’s approach: big, bold, confident brush strokes, majestic and proud. [listen]

The influence of JS Bach on composers of later generations is impossible to quantify. His works are required study for anyone in the musical world: composers, performers, everyone. I hope this article has given you just a little indication of the great man’s influence on other composers who achieved greatness.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2003.

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