Bach the Unknowable

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Bach the Unknowable


THE SOURCE: "J.S. Bach in the Twenty-First Century: The Chapel Becomes a Larder" by Harold Fromm, in The Hudson Review, Winter 2008.

THINK OF WOLFGANG AMAdeus Mozart and you might picture an abused little prodigy being ferried to performances across Europe by his greedy father. And many people can't conjure up Ludwig von Beethoven without seeing the irascible genius, completely deaf, having to be turned around to see the tumultuous standing ovation at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony. Compared with the fame of these two masters, the name Johann Sebastian Bach produces no popular image at all.

Yet Bach (1685-1750) is the "father of Western music," writes critic Harold Fromm. He's in the "very chemistry of Western musical blood, like red cells, white cells, and platelets in our material plasma." Bach fails to cut much of a human figure simply because, apart from enough music to fill 160 CDs, he left so little behind. It doesn't help that he lived in Leipzig, far from the great centers of European culture.

Because his only surviving correspondence lies primarily in church and municipal ledgers, the great composer comes off as an "aggressive businessman whining about maltreatment and underpayment,' though in fact he lived a rich professional, social, and family life and earned considerable recognition. Ten of his 20 children died before adulthood, but four lived to become famous musicians in their own right.

Bach was born in Thuringia in present-day Germany, lost both parents by the time he was 10, and by 18 was employed as a professional organist. …

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