Saturday, May 19, 2007


by Malcolm Boyd

It occurred to me one day that while I could recite the biographies of every member of Pink Floyd past and present to anyone who would listen, I knew next to nothing about the lives of most of my other favourite musicians from a little longer ago. While I might personally attribute roughly equal musical merit to both Bach and Pink Floyd, I am aware that from a more objective view point knowledge of the former probably makes a more important contribution to one's artistic education.

For roughly half of this book I found myself wishing I had bought a biography of Syd Barrett instead. Recalling Bach's life is a little soporific for two reasons. Firstly, there's just not that much historical source material detailing his personal life. His private behaviour and his personality are mostly a complete mystery to us. As a result his biography becomes just a list of towns he lived in and jobs he held. Secondly, from what we can tell he didn't really do much that was exceptional (besides the obvious). Here's a guy who grew up, moved to the city, got a job, got married, had some kids and then died, and just happened to compose the most amazing, transcendent music ever written along the way.

On the other hand the rest of this book is the story of his artistic development and that's a whole other subject. While his contemporaries may have sadly forgotten to record what Bach ate for breakfast most days, they were sharp enough to recognise that future generations might be grateful to have access to his music. While I found these sections hard to follow a lot of the time (the author of this book assumes a basic familiarity with the forms and conventions of Baroque and Classical music that I just don't have) I found it interesting, and the later sections were especially fascinating. Towards the end of his life it is obvious from his work that Bach recognised his gift and became concerned with leaving a legacy that would do it justice and act as a summation of his achievements. In fact, his last composition (The Art of Fugue) was not even intended to be performed (which is not to say it's not OK to perform it), but to be appreciated in the abstract, in the mind of the skilled musician reading the score. The esoteric and almost superhuman nature of his later work is frankly a little frightening, but in a good way. It's both humbling and inspiring to realise that the chubby, smirking visage looking out at you from the cover of this book contained a mind capable of producing the most transcendent and complex music ever written.

In a way, Bach's music represents a pinnacle of human artistry. Up until him the styles of music (triggered into rapid progressive development by the invention of the printing press) became more and more complicated. After him music became simpler and simpler (perhaps reaching it's nadir with punk rock). While it's impossible (and misguided to even try) to argue whether Bach was 'better' or 'worse' than say Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner, his genius stands out from the rest as, while the others represent major milestones along the linear path of musical development, Bach was a unique aberration, writing music that uncovered something that never occurred to his contemporaries and has never been reproduced by those who came after. It stands alone as something unique and untouchable.

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