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The Greatest Composer of All Time: Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Greatest Musician of All Time
Johann Sebastian Bach

What do Beyoncé, the Police, the Beatles, Lady Gaga, Yngwie Malmsteen, Nina Simone, Béla Fleck and Pat Metheny — pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass and metal artists — all have in common (besides being renowned musicians)? They have all been influenced by a single, genius composer from over a quarter of a millennium ago: the greatest composer of all time.


If you ask AI, a friend or family member who the greatest composer of all time is, you’ll get a range of answers. You will often get a list of names — including the likes of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach.


People have preferences. It’s a subjective question. So they say.


But if you put the same question to subject-matter experts — contemporary musicians and composers from different genres and backgrounds — you’ll likely get a more definitive answer.


Johann Sebastian Bach.


The German Master


Johann Sebastian Bach was born in the late seventeenth century (AD 1685) during the Baroque period of music in the northern part of deeply protestant Germany (then the Duchy of Saxe-Eisenach). 


Bach’s family were devout Lutherans — and he was surrounded by musicians in his family from a young age.


His father likely taught him the basics of music; however, by the time Bach was ten years old, his parents had both tragically passed away.


Bach held various positions under the patronage of German nobility before being appointed director of church music in Leipzig, where he provided four churches with music and taught musical education at the St Thomas School.


A prolific composer, by the time he died Bach had written some 1128 works (with an additional twenty-three or so unfinished or lost) — works of complexity and beauty unrivalled in modern times.


On top of being perhaps the greatest organist of all time, Bach is believed to have also mastered the violin, horn, brass, contrabass, cello, oboe, bassoon, flute and recorder. He is renowned for his technical ability mathematical genius and emotional depth — both as a master musician and as a composer.


But is he really the greatest composer of all time?


Bach: The Greatest Classical Composer of All Time



When BBC Music Magazine asked 174 leading contemporary classical composers to name the best classical composers of all time, Bach unsurprisingly took the top spot:

“All hail JS Bach, whose spirit dwells in practically every note written since his death. With supreme contrapuntal skill, Bach sculpts music of perfect form and balance, bestowing it with an emotional power that has echoed through the centuries. From the aching beauty of the cello suites and the bewildering ambition of the keyboard works to the dramatic force of the cantatas, no one has, and could possibly, come close to Bach's genius.”

But it’s not just classical composers who look up to Bach as the greatest of all time.


What Musos Hear That You Don’t


In March this year, multi-instrumentalist and music producer Rick Beato, whose YouTube Channel has over 4 million subscribers, released a video entitled, “The Bach Effect: What the GREATS Hear That You Don’t”.


“Imagine a world where the echoes of a single unparalleled genius resonate through the ages,” Beato begins, “influencing not just genres, but the very heart and soul of the greatest musicians we’ve come to adore.”


In the video, Beato explores portions of his interviews with some of the most acclaimed contemporary musicians — from a range of genres: bluegrass, jazz, heavy metal, rock — noting how often Bach’s name comes up in the conversations.


The musicians he interviews include the likes of seventeen-time Grammy-award-winning artist Sting (and his sideman and guitarist Dominic Miller); seventeen-time Grammy-award-winning banjo player Béla Fleck; Swedish heavy metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Peter Frampton.


Bach's impact on each of these artists — and their admiration towards his work — was clear.


Bach’s Enduring Legacy in Western Music


Twenty-time Grammy-award-winning jazz guitarist Pat Metheny summed it up this way: 

“I've never looked at the guy next to me like, ‘maybe I'm doing a little better than that guy,’ — compared to Bach, man, we all suck.”


 

Bach’s music transcends his own time period in a way that few — if any — other composers’ work has. 


To quote Beato: 

“Bach's compositions are not just masterpieces of the Baroque era. They are the very foundation on which much of modern music is built.”

This includes not only modern classical but jazz, pop, rock — even bluegrass, country and heavy metal — among other genres.


As Sydney-based writer and musician Ria Andriani explained in a recent piece for ABC Classic, “Many Beatles songs, including All You Need is Love, Blackbird and Penny Lane, were inspired by [Bach’s] music. Lady Gaga sampled his harpsichord in her hit song Bad Romance.”


Similarly, Beyoncé’s cover of Blackbird in her country-inspired album COWBOY CARTER — released in March this year — preserves Bach’s influence as found in the original 1968 Beatles song.


Musical and Mathematical Genius


Musicians and keen listeners have always known that JS Bach was a master mathematician as well as a genius composer.


Bach Akademie Australia founder and violinist Madeleine Easton told ABC Classic she would often find "clever little devices" hidden in the score:

"I'd look at the notes on the page and it would form a cross."

On other occasions, she would see that Bach had used note patterns to write his own name in the musical score.


However, researchers are only just beginning to use information theory to uncover the full extent of Bach's mathematical genius.


A study published this year by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania explored the mathematical patterns in Bach's music, which help to convey information.


Scientific American wrote the following about the research:

Baroque German composer Johann Sebastian Bach produced music that is so scrupulously structured that it’s often compared to math. Although few among us are emotionally affected by mathematics, Bach’s works—and music in general—moves us. It’s more than sound; it’s a message. And now, thanks to tools from information theory, researchers are starting to understand how Bach’s music gets that message across.

Not only was Johann Sebastian Bach an expert composer who could convey feeling and emotion through his music. He was also an incredibly gifted mathematician — as is evidenced by the degree of complexity, structure and order in his music.


Conclusion


Whether one believes that Bach is truly the greatest composer of all time — or simply recognises that he is indisputably among the greatest — is perhaps a relatively unimportant distinction.


What is galling, however, is the dismissive attitude that some people have towards him — as though the fact that they do not personally appreciate his music somehow reflects poorly on Bach!


To those people, I would simply quote Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s (perhaps harsh) observation: “When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?” 


The same applies to great composers.


Bach was a musical genius unrivalled in his own time — and arguably in all of history. But what was it that motivated Bach to produce the music that he did?


I'll explore that question in a forthcoming piece.


Recommended reading:


  • Gant, Andrew, Johann Sebastian Bach: A Very Brief History, SPCK Publishing, 2018.


 

Image courtesy of Wannapik Studio. Also published on The Daily Declaration.

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