Welcome to
      Home    Listen    Site Index    BLOG  

006B < >

And now, another word from our friend, Mr. Bach:

People have been wondering for a long time what they can do to become not just better pianists or organists, but how they can become great. Because, after all, why settle for anything that won't get us worshipped by throngs of adoring fans, right? And who knows the secret alchemy to greatness better than our own Johann Sebastian Bach, possibly the greatest composer who ever lived, and certainly a great organist and harpsichord player as well. So let's ask him. Let's shove a microphone right up in his face as he's leaving St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, and see what he thinks it takes to become great. Are you just born with it? Do you need some special diet or workout, or can you pay some guru five installments of 88.95 for the secret so that you, too, can be the one everybody is talking about? Oh Mr. Bach,,,?

The Great Master: Ja!

Pianonoise: We would like to know what it takes to become great.

GM (translated, and brought to us courtesy of the New Bach Reader, available at fine bookstores everywhere): Anybody who works as hard as I did will achieve the same result.

(stunned silence, during which Mr. Bach rushes off to finish another cantata before the weekly deadline)

Wow. Hard work, is it? I mean, really, it can't be all that easy, can it? Just....work really hard??

Well, I suppose a case can be made that most of us have no idea just how hard this guy worked. That cantata he was rushing off to finish, another 20 to 30 minute composition for small (or large, depending on the week) ensemble, soloists, chorus, and continuo--he wrote one of those every week for at least three years. Some two-hundred plus survive. We aren't sure how many were lost. If I gave you a pen and paper and asked you simply to copy down what he had already written, no compositional decisions to be made, just copy it, you might get an idea how much labor it would be just to write the notes. And if I wanted to be mean and give you a quill pen and a bottle of ink so you could see how it really was done....

And those are just the cantatas. We aren't talking about the organ works, the harpsichord works, the orchestra works, the pieces of ensemble and solo instruments, the massive choral works like the passions and the B minor mass...Bach spent a lifetime turning out page after page, measure after measure, meeting deadline after deadline...

It was his standard practice, however, to spend hours at the organ, taking a theme, and carefully working it out, on the spot, improvising in one style, exploring every method in which it could be worked out, exhausting the possibilities, and then trying another one. Not a new theme, a new way of working out that theme. For hours. Bach was famous for doing this at the organ. It didn't just happen....well, I mean, it did just happen, but he spent hours, days, years, learning to make spontaneous music. You can practice that art and improve. There are secrets, if you have the patience to find them, and to make them your own through practice.

Bach's son said that Bach could tell, just from hearing a fugue subject, what ought to be done with it, what methods tried. And he would excitedly jab his son in the ribs when the composer they were listening to did any one of those things.

In rehearsal, Bach had to keep everyone together, now by singing their part with them, now playing the line for the violist, who was late on his entrance, now by shouting at the contralto to sing the right notes, now adding a florid counterpoint of his own...he must have really gotten a workout. The poor ensemble only got a day or two to learn every one of these difficult pieces and then....Sunday, you know. They keep coming. Like, every seven days. It's wild!

I think it is fair to say that we underestimate Bach's work habits. We have to. It might kill us to even think about it.

But there are going to be people who still insist that the only reason all this work paid any dividends is because of what was there to begin with. Lots of people work hard, they say (doubtless conflating people who work moderately hard with ...well, you know who), and never become Bach. Didn't people like Czerny just turn out reams of music and still not get to musical Valhalla?

Well, we might want to be careful assuming quantity automatically assures quality. I had a roommate who used to practice hours a day while watching television. On the one hand, he was working hard, and on the other, he wasn't really all that engaged. Hard work comes on many levels.

But I suppose that Bach still may have known, or guessed, that what he was saying might not have been entirely correct. Maybe there were some people, just as industrious, who tried with their pens and their minds and their hearts and their souls, and...just didn't have it. It doesn't really do much good insisting on the virtues of hard work to people who are equally sure that life has given them lemons and that, try as they might, they are just never going to get there. Life isn't fair, you know. And maybe, just maybe, the guy at the top of the heap feels that just as acutely as the guy at the bottom. And doesn't mind taking the air out of the situation. So when it is time for the profound oracle to speak, he lets himself just be a regular guy, mystified like the rest of us. I'm not great, I'm just some guy, you know?

I mean, It's possible that Bach was trying to be funny. You know, 'just hit a few keys and the instruments plays itself' kind of funny.

The thing is, Bach didn't seem to have much of a sense of humor.

I mean, the letter Bach wrote to the the council laying out the requirements for decent music in the churches isn't that funny. His complaint about not having enough funerals so he could feed his family with the extra compensation isn't that funny. Then there is the time he threw that kid out of the choir loft during a church service because he was in a fight with the school's headmaster. Not exactly the hallmarks of a guy who could laugh at himself.

On the other hand, there is this:


This is the penultimate variations from Bach's massive Goldberg Variations. It's a quodlibet, a mashup of popular songs. One of them is about turnips and kale aided the digestion, the other...I forget the other one. The point is this is a very silly thing to insert into what people regard as one of the great masterpieces of Western music. And it fits so well you wouldn't be able to tell he put it in there if you didn't know the tunes or somebody didn't tell you. There goes Bach letting the air out of a stuffy situation again.


I don't think we are going to settle this any time soon. We all know now that Bach worked really incredibly hard, and that none of us are Bach.

But then, I don't know why we should be. He left us enough great music to last us a while. Even listening to it all could be a mammoth undertaking.

You, however, are probably tired from whatever you've been doing. So when you get the time, the energy, give some of Bach's music the attention it deserves. In the meantime, relax, take a load off. Listen to one of the Brandenburg Concertos.

And be glad there once was a fellow who just didn't know when to stop. And that you don't have to try and live with him!


comments powered by Disqus