The Significance of Bach

  • Nov 25, 2010
IntroductionInterpretation TodayBach's Concept of Himself Bach's Church MusicMy Own Position © 1985 by Helmuth Rilling Translated by Gordon Paine At a reception in Stuttgart celebrating his recording projects, Helmuth Rilling delivered the following speech, in which he explores Bach's significance to the world today and explains his philosophy of the performance of Bach's music. Why does the music of Johann Sebastian Bach hold such great interest for us today? Why do people of utterly different religious and even ideological persuasions listen to it and become involved with it? Among the numerous possible answers to this question, four seem to me to be of particular importance. The first has to do with the systematic, orderly quality of Bach's music-something one can perceive and experience instantly, without special background or training. Nearly everyone who hears this music is struck by its musical organization and the structural thinking behind it. This musical order, however, does not signify any limitation on the creative quality, the inventive strength, or the imagination of the music. A second answer seems to lie in the fact that Bach's music has its origins in a variety of utterly different sources. First is the church music of the Reformation, with its roots in the chorale of Martin Luther, and the vocal forms and organ music that developed from it. In Bach's works we also find structural and stylistic elements that come from the Catholic church's musical tradition. Of the greatest significance in this area is the vocal polyphony of the sixteenth century, as embodied in the works of Palestrina. A further significant influence came from the concertante instrumental music of Bach's time-particularly from the most significant representative of this genre, Antonio Vivaldi. Further influences were the Italian madrigal and, most especially, the developing form of opera as it spread all over Europe from Italy after Monteverdi's pioneering activities. Finally, the dance music of Bach's time, in all of its variety, is to be found in numerous forms in Bach's music. Bach's output, with its fusion of all of these influences, is thus the summation of thoroughly different eras and currents of thought in the history of music. The question of Bach's significance has also been posed by earlier generations. Following a period in which he was almost totally forgotten, the interest in his work increasingly grew during the nineteenth century and then in this century; no lover of music, no musician, and certainly no composer could avoid his influence. This, Bach's legacy, his influence upon the development of music after his time, is a third answer to the question about the reasons for his significance. The fourth answer seems to me to lie in the basic theme of Bach's life's work. This theme, the Christian message of faith, hope, and love, has in many ways become distant from us today. But can we and do we want to isolate ourselves from the spiritual,historical dimension of the Christian West, and exclude ourselves from this continuum of growing human consciousness? There exists a variety of widely differing thoughts on this question. But it is certainly true that for many people today, the Christian dimension of Bach's work is neither viewed with uninvolved disinterest nor merely accepted as something one must put up with as an inevitable concomitant to good music. On the contrary, this spiritual core to Bach's works seems to be the starting point of a searching for direction in the contemplation of the basic problems of humanity that seem neither rational nor emotionally tangible. Next: The State of Bach Interpretation Today IntroductionInterpretation TodayBach's Concept of Himself Bach's Church MusicMy Own Position Read All