On March 31, 1685, an artist was born that would give Western music a kick in the pants. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, may have enjoyed success as a musician during his life, but his significant influence can still be heard more than two centuries later.
Bach lived in the Baroque period (~1600-1750), the music of which could be characterized as dramatic, elaborate, and a little over-the-top. Just as the Renaissance before it was about evolving instruments and sounds, the Baroque period evolved music with the creative use of keys, vocals, and melodies with greater and greater complexity. Bach was a gifted organist and wrote an extensive body of religious music. Perhaps his greatest contribution is his innovative style, which layered melodies to become more than mere accompaniment, but an actual unification of sounds. Mozart and Beethoven, by far the two greatest composers of the following Classic Period, grew up with Bach’s music and practiced his arrangements. Perhaps even more telling is the lengthy list of popular composers of the Romantic Period who have churned out so many excellent and timeless works, and so close together–I think of all the rock bands of the 1990’s who cite Led Zeppelin as a big influence.
Bach certainly closed out the Baroque era with an exclamation point when he passed in 1750. I’m no musician, so I certainly can’t speak on the technicalities of Bach’s compositions, but I can speak to the emotion that oozes from each work of thoughtfully constructed notes. When I hear Toccota and Fugue, I’m a little sad, a little crazy, and incredibly intense. Air on the G String does just the opposite, but in a very good way.
Whether or not you listen to Classical music, any art requires a respect for that which came before. Step Bach and think what the world might have sounded like without him.