04 February 2019

Is Bach Relevant?

Performances of the music of J S Bach in this part of the world are sufficiently few and far between to be regarded as something of a novelty, and are treated as special occasions.  Invariably when there is a Bach performance, you hear the familiar paeans of admiration for Bach and his music; how he is the “greatest composer” and a man who “speaks to all humanity”, how his music is “universal”, “timeless” and “beautiful”.  So common is this lavish deification of Bach that as often as not, such phrases are preceded by the words “of course”, as if they are unequivocal statements of unquestionable truth.  But do those who utter these phrases really believe them, have they really thought through the implications of what they are saying, or are they merely rehearsing empty platitudes because that’s what they think they are expected to say?

Let me put forward an idea which I have never heard anyone else utter in a public forum, but which is worth throwing into any debate on Bach and his music.  Most will regard it as stupid, several will regard it as mildly sacrilegious, while some will see it as such extreme blasphemy that I can almost see the death threats rolling in:  If Bach were brought back to life today and saw his music being performed in our concert halls, he would fly into one of his famous beer-fuelled rages (which got him into so much trouble during his own lifetime), physically assault those who play his music, and angrily rip to shreds every copy of his music he could find.

Many will find that notion laughable, yet I put it forward in all seriousness.  My argument is that Bach (like God) is so removed from our own time – historically, physically, culturally and ethically – that we cannot begin to understand him.  As with all “old” music, we compensate for our total lack of sympathy with the age and society in which the composer lived by imposing the ethics, culture and concepts of our own time.  With Bach (as with others) we do have some historical records which lead us to think that we might know a little bit about what he wrote, when he wrote it and for whom he wrote it, plus we might have an idea of what the instruments he wrote it for looked like, and we might have a picture of what the venue looked like in which the music was first performed.  But we have no idea whatsoever how Bach thought, what his own feelings were about the music he produced and, more especially, how those who were present at its first performance reacted. In short, because we don’t have any physical evidence about the psychology behind Bach’s music, we juxtapose our own assumptions based on our own ethical standpoint.

So why might Bach object so much to us playing his music?

The 21st century obsession with fame and celebrity status means that many of us find it inconceivable that somebody might not want any memory of them or their legacy retained by posterity.  Surely, our 21st century minds tell us, nobody would expend the sheer mental and physical work Bach did without secretly hoping it will make him famous and keep his name alive long after death?  Similarly, in our age when religious faith is a matter of personal conscience, we cannot get to grips with a society where a strict set of specific religious principles was imposed on a population who accept them without question, and we certainly cannot understand how individuals within that population could never have believed that there was any alternative to those religious principles.    

My argument is that if we can somehow consider Bach and his work without going through the prism of our own age, we find something very, very different.  Far from being “universal” and “timeless”, we find something which is so specific to a particular time and place that we cannot begin to comprehend it, let alone find that it “speaks to our age” (whatever that may mean).  In short, Bach’s music could be seen as being totally irrelevant to 21st century Singapore.

An academic acquaintance, whose views and opinions I admire even if I do not always subscribe to them, suggested that a Bach Cantata was not a musical work, but an integral part of a religious ceremony and therefore has no viability outside its original context.  Again, seen through the prism of our time when the church actively tries to go out into the community and spread its message beyond the walls of the physical institution, we understand sacred music to be something which has a proselytizing role; exposure to it can convert the unbeliever.  In Bach’s time, there were no unbelievers, there was no proselytizing, and it was not so much the duty as the natural instinct of the faithful to seek the sacred only within the walls of the physical church structure. 

We might hear of a Bach-like figure of our own time, and make the pilgrimage to his church in order to hear his latest cantata.  But that was not the case in Bach’s time.  He did achieve a certain amount of local fame and respect, and at the very end of his life he capitalised on that by publishing some of his music (none of which, I must add, was ever performed at the time in the form in which it was published), but that did not extend to people flocking to his church to hear his music.  You went to the church where you belonged, and you went for absolution from your sins and to pay homage to God – not to enjoy the sound of the music being performed.  The music was there to help support your endeavours in getting to contemplate the mysteries of God – it served no other purpose whatsoever.  Bach would be horrified to think his music was regarded not as superior to, nor separate from, but as anything other than integral to the sacred rites being performed.

So taking Bach out of the church is to rip out his very heart.  Would we - could we - expect it to keep on beating?  We might enjoy the spectacle of having Bach’s heart preserved in aspic in our time, but what purpose does it serve?  Lots of people (myself included) derive an enormous amount of satisfaction, both emotional and intellectual, from Bach’s music, so even if that was not Bach’s original intention, is it wrong for us to hear his music today, especially if we try to make it sound like we think it might have sounded in Bach’s day? 

Think of it like a cat playing with a small bird.  We assume that the cat is enjoying itself, having a lot of fun.  Lucky Pussy – what’s wrong with that?  But in playing with the bird the cat is not only demeaning the bird, but defacing and, possibly ultimately, destroying it.  Whose side are we on?  Do we let the cat carry on enjoying itself with the bird, or do we stop it out of sympathy for the bird which, certainly, will not stay around long enough to thank us for our concern?

That may seem an extreme argument, especially when Bach’s music is so “beautiful”.  To our ears, accustomed as they are to the hideous noises and cacophonies of 21st century existence, the sense of calm, inner reflection and emotional uplift we experience when hearing Bach’s music means that it can reveal to us a degree of beauty we otherwise find elusive in life.  Again, that surely, renders performances of it valuable and important, even if the more enlightened among us recognise that our enjoyment of it is nothing other than selfish self-gratification.  Yet Bach lived in an age where “beauty” did not exist beyond the “beauty” of God, and self-gratification was a mortal sin.  Bach only ever used terms equivalent to beauty when referring to God.  He would be appalled to think that we see in his music something which, for him, was the sole preserve of God.  He would be even more appalled to think that we were likening his music to the outward and entirely superficial appearance of objects encountered in our daily secular lives.  To call Bach’s music beautiful, is to belittle it and to misunderstand its purpose.

If we can expunge our 21st century ethics from appreciating performances of Bach, we should realise that we are seriously defacing a Cantata by performing it out of its context, and that the simple fact that we like it, is not sufficient justification for us to carry on performing it.  If we can accept that Bach was writing, not for musical gratification, but out of profound, inner religious duty, perhaps, we might begin to realise that there is a strong case against us attempting to perform it today.

There is an argument that in its very Christianity Bach’s music transcends the limitations of musical performance and thereby becomes a universal possession.  Yet there are some places which ban Bach’s music for the very reason that it is so unequivocally Christian.  In Malaysia during the 1990s and 2000s, I had to fight very hard to get a Bach performance past the Islamic censor, and then it had to be purely instrumental music.  And we must not be so arrogant as to assume that Christian ethics are shared by others.  There are communities where peace, love and sacrifice are not welcome; and with it, Bach’s music which has long since assumed those qualities, even if Bach never intended it to. One thing Bach’s music can never be is “universal”.

I could take almost every one of my arguments, turn it around, and with equal authority and conviction, argue the case for the opposite point of view.  But the fact remains that to blindly rehearse the usual laudatory comments on Bach and his music, shows a basic failure to comprehend a society and age other than our own.  The story of Bach and his music is far too complex to be reduced to a series of glib platitudes.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. This was an accidental deletion - can you please repost? Many thanks

  2. Keep the comments rolling in, but remember this is an argument not a belief. Note also that I put my name to it, so please do us the courtesy of putting your name to your comments. It is the ultimate act of the ignorant to hide behind the cloak of anonymity Your comments thereby deserve no consideration or reply.

  3. Hi Marc,
    You object to the questions above because they are anonymous. I think they are good questions, and I think you are a good thinker/writer about music so I'd like to hear your answers. I am not anonymous, so I am not ignorant to ask these questions. Will you consider and reply ? Thank you for your help.
    Donald Lee C S.

    1. If you have a question, do please ask it. The blog gets overwhelmed by anonymous comments so these are deleted as a matter of course; it's not that I don't think they are worth answering, but I do need to know whom I am addressing!

  4. Dr. Rochester, I've been a big fan of your blog for some time. This is my first comment, as this is perhaps the most interesting post I've read of yours to date.

    You referenced Bach's cantatas - what about his pedagogical pieces? You mentioned them in passing, but I would like to hear your thoughts on those pieces with respect to the rest of your post.

    I am speaking of the pieces commonly studied by piano students - Inventions, Sinfonias, Suites/Partitias, and of course the Well-Tempered Clavier.

  5. Thank you for writing and reading - even though I don't know who or what you are!! It's worth noting your use of the word Pedagogical. That in itself implies these were never intended for public performance. On top of that, we know that many of them were assemblages of earlier pieces and never ever intended to be performed in public as entities in their own right (that is also the case with the "Brandenburg" concertos). And, of course, since they are assigned no specific instrument (clavichord, harpsichord, piano, organ, guitar, lute, harp???) we cannot begin to know what Bach expected them to sound like. My personal belief is that those works which were published were largely intended to be read, not played.

    1. I don't know why my comment showed up as "Unknown". At any rate, I'll introduce myself. As for the "who," I am Austin Rogers, PhD. As for the "what," I am a music teacher, primarily focused on piano and theory.

      > "we cannot begin to know what Bach expected them to sound like"

      To me, that's part of the charm of these works, and what keeps them fresh and relevant. Regardless of instrumentation, many of those works are absolutely brilliant. My idea of a good time is picking apart a fugue from the WTC and marveling at Bach's genius.

      The cantatas, masses, and religious works, on the other hand... I just can't relate to them. There's a language barrier, a bigger cultural barrier, and an even bigger religious barrier. I suspect more and more people will have trouble relating to those works as western culture gets more and more secular.

      The Coffee Cantata, on the other hand... that's something I can really get behind!

  6. Jonathan Curzon20 March, 2019 10:36

    What do you mean when you say Bach's music is or is not relevant ? I can listen to music and say whether I like it or not, but what would be the criteria by which I would assess its "relevance" to me (or to someone else, or to audiences today) ?
    Jonathan Curzon.

  7. A good point. But should we diminish the original function of music merely by defining it through our own 21st century tastes? Music is more than sound, and my thoughts are that unless we appreciate that - unless it has some relevance to our existence beyond giving us a short-term fillip - we are in danger of losing one of the precious art forms which defines human civilization.

  8. Jonathan Curzon22 March, 2019 08:32

    Thank you. I understand the point you are making and your suggestion that something beyond merely sounding nice is needed. But you used the term "relevance " again in your explanation. What do you mean by this expression ? What properties are you referring to that would make music relevant to a listener ?

  9. By relevant, I mean that we find something in this music which speaks to us in our time and lives; something more than just the noise it makes. Is the essence of Bach's original still something we can recognize and understand today?

  10. Jonathan Curzon22 March, 2019 19:44

    What you describe, although still in metaphor, seems to be a subjective response - it is relevant if it speaks and means something *to me*. The title of your article "is Bach relevant " suggests something objective, otherwise the answer would simply be "as long as I (or somebody somewhere) hears something in it, then yes". But that's not what you meant was it ?

  11. My blog posts (like almost everyone else's) are wholly subjective!! I commit to print my objective researches.

  12. Jonathan Curzon28 August, 2019 19:26

    Having agreed that your heading "Is Bach Relevant" relates to your subjective judgement, I am still unclear whether your meaning was "Is Bach Relevant to me ?" or "Do I feel that Bach is Relevant to others ?", or something else. Dr Roger's comment picks up both the *relevant to me* aspect and the *I suspect not relevant to others*.

  13. I keep coming back to this thought-provoking post and the comments thereon.

    I forgot to mention the chorales in my earlier posts - these are an excellent resource for studying four-part harmony. But then again, what portion of the populace (or even of musicians) cares to study four-part tonal harmony? And perhaps this is an example of how relevance has changed over time.