Bach, Johann Sebastian

Bach was said, by Schumann, to hold the same position in regard to music that a founder does to a religion. He is called "The musician for musicians." Bach left behind him an immense number of works, of which only a small part were published during his life. For over fifty years his works were much neglected, after that some attention were paid to them, some were printed and some reprinted, but not until Mendelssohn brought out the Passion-Music, in 1829 at Berlin, was the full greatness of the man realized. It is said, that as an organist, no one has been his equal, with the possible exception of Handel, and that his organ compositions, written at Weimar, were " unsurpassed and unsurpassable." He was also an able performer on stringed instruments and wrote much orchestral music. For instruments no longer in use he wrote three sonatas for the viola da gamba; three partitas (or variations) for the lute; and a suite for the viola pomposa, an instrument between the viola   and the violoncello, which he himself invented. Among such a great mass of compositions, only a few of the most important can be mentioned: The Passion-Music; the Mass in B Minor; the series of three hundred cantatas; and the oratorios for Christmas, Ascension and Easter are among the best of his vocal works. For the piano are The Well-tempered Clavier; French Suites; English Suites; and a great mass of preludes, sonatas and inventions. For the organ are his Art of Fugue; an enormous number of preludes, fantasias, toccatas, fugues and chorals. There are also sonatas for the violin and violoncello, a concerto for several different instruments; also many motets, secular cantatas, solos and trios for different instruments in different combinations, beside an immense number of single pieces for various instruments. Beside his great Art of Fugue and other compositions for the organ, Bach's three most important works were probably his Well-tempered Clavier, the Passion-Music, and his High Mass in B Minor, which has been described as a "Gothic cathedral in music." The Well-tempered Clavier is in two volumes, each containing twenty-four preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys. The first volume was written during his five years' residence at Cothen, the second was composed at Leipsic in 1740. Forkel, a noted musical authority, says of his work, "The second part consists, from the beginning to the end entirely of masterpieces. In the first part, on the other hand, there are still some preludes and fugues, which bear marks of the immaturity of early youth and have been retained by the author only to have the number of four-and twenty complete. But even here -the author corrected, in course of time, whatever was capable of amendment. Even the second part received great improvements. In general both parts of this work contain a treasure of art, which cannot be found anywhere but in Germany." Another authority says of this work, that no musician or pianist can ignore it with impunity, and Schumann commended it to young musicians as their "daily bread." Of Bach's St. John and St. Matthew Passions, which are the gospel stories presented in musical form, R. L. Poole says: "The biblical narrative is followed with entire fidelity and the master has proceeded with such independent judgment that his work stands quite remote from the strange medley, with which his immediate predecessors had to be contented. The music they wrote to it was indeed of great individual beauty, but in their hands it never gained the symmetry of an organic whole. It is Bach's peculiar glory to have succeeded in this endeavor where everyone else had failed. He adopted, not the forms of the Italian oratorio, but he absorbed its spirit. He blended it in a manner of which no previous composer had ever suspected the possibility, with the profound religiousness of the national chorale. Above all, he created a recitative of his own, stripped of all that was theatrical and entirely appropriate to the setting forth of the divine narrative. In his Passion-Music, he brings to absolute completeness the form for which his conception of the church cantata had been through long years the preparation. The Passions according to St. John and St. Matthew lie before us as the noblest monuments of Bach's spirit. Each is in truth incomparable, whether in relation to the other, or to the rest of sacred music. The St. John Passion is the perfection of church-music; the St. Matthew reaches the goal of all sacred art, while its colossal dimensions take it, almost, happily not quite, out of the range of church performance." The Mass in B Minor was written probably for production in the Leipsic churches. On it, it is said, Bach put all his strength and consecrated every resource of inspiration and art, every possibility of voice and instrument. To quote again from Poole, "Words, however, can give but a very faint impression of this masterpiece of universal Christendom; and daring with forced fingers rude, to touch its perfect outline, I leave inviolate the lyrical tenderness of the Agnus Dei and the yearning desire of the Dona nobis pacem, the restful consummation of the whole, nor can I describe the infinite fertility of the design, the happy frequency with which, in the arias, a single instrument, violin, flute, hautboy or horn, is made to enhance the delicacy of the human voice; or the splendor of the grouping of the orchestra, equally noble in sonorous magnificence and in chastened softness. Whether in its art or in its religion, the High Mass stands among the creations of Bach's master-spirit, first and alone, and for its sole equal the Passion according to Saint Matthew."