On Air Now
Classic FM Drive with John Brunning 5pm - 7pm
Johann Sebastian Bach was and is the Baroque period's most notable export. Thanks to early organ lessons, a knack for melody and a timely renaissance, he's still as relevant today as he was at the time, if not more.
Master of the Baroque period, composer of some of the world's best-known music, organ-tinkler extraordinaire and father of 20 children - Johann Sebastian Bach was an impressive man in every sense. But what was so great about him apart from that? Why was it him and not the various other composers in his family that still enjoys a reputation today?
St Matthew Passion rediscovered
Well, it could easily have been someone else that enjoyed the notoriety Bach does today. Presumably, if he still were alive in 1829, he would have to give a gruff 'Danke' to Mendelssohn, who gave Bach's St Matthew Passion its first airing in over 100 years - before then, he was very much out of fashion, a relic. Mendelssohn (and others) helped to give Bach new context and, importantly, a new audience. But what his rediscovery proves is that, rather than being the Baroque equivalent of leg-warmers and tie-dye, he was very much ahead of his time.
Unlike his contemporaries, Bach's work has been held up as an almost therapeutic example of high art. Piano and keyboard students pore over his works, obsessively noodling their way through his reams and reams of perfectly constructed exercises and studies. His religious compositions can, given the right performance, produce transcendental experiences. Fervour and enthusiasm is still hot for this man who was essentially an orphan by the age of ten and spent his spare time on an organ stool. But why?
Well, let's take some of Bach's biggest pieces and see what makes them great. The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor will be familiar to everyone, but why do we continually refer to it as a high watermark in Bach's canon? For a start, there's that iconic opening, the Toccata (which you can hear in our playlist below). In a break from the rigidity that the Baroque period is famous for, there's some real room for colour and interpretation. Also, it sounds as evil as a Metallica guitar solo.
The following Fugue is more sedate and less declamatory, but there's an incredible tension to it that ensures you'll be chewing your bottom lip for the whole thing. Or, more academically, it ticks all the major boxes for a classic fugue without sounding boring. And that's the advantage that Bach continues to have over his contemporaries. Even though his work is supremely logical, ordered and well-constructed, there's always the sense that it was composed as much with drama and emotion as it was with an eye for detail.
Or how about the Brandenburg Concertos? Look at them as a mini-tour of the Baroque orchestra - Bach was clever enough to wangle in as many instruments as he could in this series of six works, which he presented as a kind-of prospective job application to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. He didn't even get a response from Ludwig, but thankfully the works have lived on (bet Ludwig's kicking himself now). Each of the concertos is a perfect paradigm of Baroque poise and exquisite construction - give the ridiculous string runs in the third movement of no. IV a whirl.
Obviously we're only dipping our toes in the water and there are literally hundreds of Bach nuggets to get lost in. But the key thing to remember is that, no matter how well-constructed it all is, it's just a really pleasurable listen. It's easy to think that listening to Bach is like completing a sudoku or putting a shelf up (satisfying but not too involving), but that's to ignore just how clever and dramatic his music is. Once you've got your ear attuned, there's nothing quite like it.
Have a listen to our playlist of Bach pieces below.