In his brilliant ethnography of the typical North American Music Building, Bruno Nettl identifies two poles of classical music mythology: Mozart and Beethoven. Not necessarily the actual human beings, but the concept of them, what they represent. Mozart was born a genius, and composed without effort; he was a “natural". In contrast, Beethoven struggled his entire life, worked hard, and his compositions betray the scars of that labor.
Neither of those descriptions are particularly accurate, and in fact the life and work of any composer is never fully served by these kinds of generalizations. But the fact remains that for many music lovers, the Mozart/Beethoven duality embodies the two sides of the mystery of making art: is it talent or hard work? or both? Mozart and Beethoven provide role models, though of very different stripes. We can see ourselves in one or both of these men, even though their accomplishments seem beyond mere mortals.
And yet, after the events of the Ogden Bach Festival in which I participated, a number of audience members approached to tell me that Bach was their favorite composer. This set me to wondering what it might be about Bach that appealed to them so much.
Bach’s isn’t a particularly compelling story: he was not famous during his lifetime, and pretty much wrote the kind of music he was employed to write (mostly in provincial towns). His music was old-fashioned by the time of his death and was not championed in a broad way until it was revived in the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth-century Bach revivalists re-cast his music in their own image, substituting outdated instruments, thickening the orchestrations, and applying their present-day performing practices to his scores. Historicism was on the rise during the nineteenth-century, particularly among Germans, who found ways to trace their own musical lineage back to Bach.
But Bach was not a nineteenth-century composer. His musical value system, his working environment, and his relationship to his compositions were thoroughly grounded in the early eighteenth century, but his music was easily adaptable to the needs of the new century and he was held up as a master. (It might be worth noting that while Mozart was revered in many musical circles of the nineteenth century, it was usually his more “Romantic” scores that were held up as evidence of his genius — Don Giovanni, or his 40th symphony for instance; not pieces like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which was actually more in line with the bulk of Mozart’s output.)
In the wake of the two World Wars, when the artistic climate turned away from the expressive individualism of the nineteenth century and toward an emphasis on calculated craftsmanship, Bach’s music and its forms again found a home. What early modernists such as Schoenberg and Webern saw in Bach was the internal logic of his works — not their expressiveness, but their architecture. The calculated nature of Bach’s music served the early 20th century well as a model for “pure music.”
Here we sit, in the 21st century, still lauding JS Bach. Our postmodern musical landscape fully embraces music from all eras and all styles (supposedly), but what is it that Bach means to us, today? If we are re-shaping Bach in our own image as previous centuries did, what does that look like in an environment where anything goes?
I’d argue that in today’s age of musical abundance, Bach has come to represent control, order, even a kind of conservatism or at least conservationism. It is a celebration of discipline, both on the part of performers and audiences. Bach’s music is neither easy to play well nor to listen to carefully, and perhaps that's the point. In this time of instant gratification, Bach makes us work.