The Genius They Didn’t Know
Sometimes fame comes late to an artist—even decades after his death. And, surprisingly, it’s sometimes not fame for what people thought were the artist’s strength, but instead for some totally different type of work. This tardy recognition is just what happened to Johann Sebastian Bach. Today, people worldwide consider him one of the greatest composers of instrumental music. Yet Bach, no superstar during his lifetime, was known by his German countrymen mostly as an organist and, somewhat less, as a composer of vocal church music. The man whose compositions fill volumes today published only handful of works in his lifetime!
What made today’s musical giant so un-famous in his day? For one, Bach never spread his name traveling across Europe, as did his contemporary, George Frideric Handel. And he stayed close to “home” artistically, too: Bach wasn’t interested in the breaking with musical tradition. Even though the Classical style was developing before he died, Bach stayed with the existing forms of the Baroque period, such as suites, cantatas, or minuets and other dances. Others found fame rubbing shoulders with royalty or writing popular operas, but that was not the style of this pious man. Bach’s Protestant faith attracted him mostly to professional work in churches—as an organist, choir director or music director.
Well after Bach’s death, Felix Mendelssohn conducted performances that rescued his compositions from obscurity. Bach has stayed in style ever since. Seen as old-fashioned in his day, Bach’s music, always inspired by his strong religious beliefs, shows genius in its stunning beauty and depth. Yet today’s favorites generally aren’t the church music into which Bach put so much effort. In fact, many of the best-loved instrumental works come from a single period in his life, when Bach served as music director to a prince in Cöthen, Germany. From six busy years come the Brandenburg concertos, many keyboard compositions, the solo cello suites, and the violin partitas.
Interestingly, Bach may not have written some of the Suzuki repertoire pieces that carry his name. Minuets II and III are among the popular works found in two notebooks that Bach gave to his second wife, Anna Magdalena. As father Bach taught music to his large family, her notebooks grew filled with keyboard music by a variety of composers. In some cases, the composer is still unknown. Perhaps Bach, the artist who didn’t get enough credit during his life, is in this way getting just a bit too much credit today!