Leda & the Swan    

Table of Contents    


Illuminating Manuscripts

About the Author

Novel Thoughts

Leda's Online Library



The Harpsichord

History of Harmony

Johann Sebastian Bach

Man of Genius


Alessandro Scarlatti



A Lecterphile in Florence

Do You Know Florence?


Fine Art

Museo Virtuale

Faces of Leda

Every Vermeer in the World



Leda & The Swan - An Online Literary Journal   

Classical Music

Bach - Man of Genius

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Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685 - 1750Throughout the annals of history certain men and women have shown themselves to people of great intellect and ability.  For lack of a better term we dub these people “geniuses”.  But, what is the very essence of being a genius?  Certainly, we have no problem including Isacc Newton and Albert Einstein in that category but what about the philosophers and composers than blend together thoughts and ideas, notes, and chords.  The true definition of a genius isn’t found in IQ or in proofs, but in people who can blend together juxtaposed ideas into flawless harmony.  By that new definition the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach is truly a genius.  Found within Bach’s music is a magnificent blend of technical skill and technique that blends to form music that can reach to the depths of the human soul.


Bach’s music is marveled for it’s raw beauty and sweeping emotion but it is also important to look beyond what the affect is.  Beneath such music as The Goldberg Variations and Mass in B Minor lies a formal, complex technical structure.  It is within this structure that Bach uses to bring to the surface the vast array of human emotion and human thoughts.  Bach used many techniques of his time and incorporated them into his music.  For now, let us examine one or two things that Bach is renowned for in the compositional techniques.  


Bach dominated and revitalized the musical technique of “counterpoint.”  Simply counterpoint is the practice of “note against note.”  In other words counterpoint is taking an individual harmonic line and combining it with a rhythmic line.  For example in most music the Soprano sings the part of the harmony while the other parts form the rhythm.  The point of the blending adds to the beauty and depth of the music.  It isn’t just used for technical purposes.  What made Bach different is that he often used this tension and blending to great affect in his music.  Counterpoint lended itself to making Bach’s music sound and seem more “complicated” to the listener’s ear and to the musician.  Bach used counterpoint to great affect in his secular works.  But perfected the use of counterpoint in liturgical music. 


A part of counterpoint that is interesting and important to know is the “contrapuntal” melody.  It is the use of a single line of music (melody) with only one note seeming to jump back and forth between more than one melody.  It tricks the listener’s mind into believing each note is sustaining the other when in fact there is only one melodic line.


Now, let us examine the musical concept of “fugue.”  Fugue is an important aspect of Bach’s music.  Bach was and is, the undisputed master of fugue.  Put simply fugue is the entry of successive musical voices into a contrapuntal melody.  One musical part (on instrument or vocal) comes into the music.  Each part enters by stating the subject of the music.  For simplification Bach’s liturgical music and chorale music is much easier to view this.  Bach’s piece Dona Nobis Pacem from his Mass in B Minor is a prime example of this.  The bass part sings "Dona Nobis" Pacem and then the soprano, being the next part in the fugue, joins in and the rest join in.  This continues on and on.  Fugue is often called “equal” music.  Each voice part doesn’t overpower the other.  Bach was the last great composer to use it as the basis of most of his work.


Bach was a prolific composer, composing over 300 cantatas, several oratorios (including St. Matthew and St. John’s Passion), many concertos, sonatas, and other compositions.  He wasn’t limited to a certain instrument either he wrote music for flute, harpsichord, generic keyboard, cello, and a host of other arrangements. 


The genius of Bach lies in his ability to touch the human soul with all of his music.  He was a devoutly religious man that left as church composer because he believed the church was limiting his ability to worship God through music.  On all of his manuscripts one will find the Latin abbreviations S.D.G., means literally, “To the Glory of God.”  There is no question that Bach thought of his music as a divine gift and used his music to glorify what he saw as his God, and savior of mankind.


I would be remiss not to encourage those who read this to listen to some of Bach’s sacred music.  The most amazing thing about Bach’s sacred music is that one doesn’t have to be a Christian or of any religious proclivity to enjoy the sweeping grandeur and quiet awe expressed within his cantatas and oratorios.  Music is to be a blend of poetry and music, Bach found this balance and it is best experienced through his sacred music.  Don’t let theological differences or disagreements stand in the way of listening to arguably Bach’s best music.  In no other of his music will you find more of the man than expressed through the voices giving praise to his God.  Bach’s music transcends time and doctrine, belief and faith.  It is simply Bach at his best.


Many reasons have contributed to Bach’s popularity today.  Musicians still play Bach because of the beauty and technical challenge of his work.  People listen to his music sheer joy and emotions evoked.  Bach is considered the greatest composer of all time for a number of reasons.  But, one overall reason comes to mind.  His music has the ability to reach out to every human soul and connect us to something greater within and without ourselves.  Don’t be intimidated by Bach.


If you refuse to listen to Bach because you think classical music is boring or intimidating then you are missing out.  This composer has the ability to captivate master musicians, mathematicians, and to the average listener.  Give Bach a try and understand why he is considered the greatest composer and a genius of all time.  The music isn’t hard to understand, simply let it flow over you and don’t be afraid of the feelings it evokes.


To get a true understanding of Bach try listening to some music on either end of the “easy” and “hard” spectrum.  I recommend Bach’s Two and Three Part Inventions these pieces of music were written as exercises for keyboard students.  From a musicians standpoint they really aren’t that difficult to play.  But, they sound so rich and complex, because they are.  Now, also I would recommend Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy this is arguably the hardest piece of music to play on the piano (or harpsichord).  If one listens to the Goldberg Variations you will see the whole range of human emotion expressed.  In the Variations death and resurrection are explored and life and celebration are exalted.  Bach’s music is a celebration to all aspects of human life.


Dear readers, listen to Bach, if nothing else for your own edification.  There is a reason why he remains so popular and why so much music and technique is based upon his work.  It is because people have connected with his music on some level.  Bach at some level; can speak to all of us.  Perhaps because he poured himself into his work.  Yes, listen to Bach’s compositions.  Within his music you might just see a reflection of what your heart and soul cannot speak.  But, that which was given voice in the souring harmonies and mournful melodies, and the whole range in between.


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