By indexer
2 years ago

The legacy of J S Bach

“That’s my tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach”, said my friend Steven, and it was soon quite clear what he meant. This was a school friend of mine who had a passion for jazz and was also very good with the paintbrush and easel.

The painting he was showing me was an abstract piece, a mass of whirls of colour, but each whirl was painted in a framework bounded by straight lines. Movement and vivacity were strictly controlled and related to each other, just as in a piece of music by Bach, where the time structures and rhythms control the beast that is trying to escape. I mentioned above that Steven was a jazz enthusiast, and is noticeable how Bach’s legacy has affected the world of jazz every bit much as it has influenced what we laughingly refer to as “serious” music.


Bach was the ultimate master of harmony and counterpoint, especially the latter. Counterpoint is about how two or more themes, or melodies, can have a separate existence but sound even better when played at the same time. That is what the best jazz musicians do brilliantly; one player starts off a tune and another improvises a countering tune that sometimes runs with the first one, sometimes against it, but always achieving a balance that enhances the whole performance. It’s a good metaphor for life; do your own thing, but listen to what the other guy is up to. Together you will produce something that is far better than either of you could manage alone.


Bach’s particular genius was a form of counterpoint called Fugue, which is at heart a very old musical form in which the same theme is repeated by different musicians, or singers, but at different times. A “round” is a sort of fugue, whereby a simple four-line song, such as “London Bridge is Falling Down” is started by one group and a second group starts just as the first group is starting the second line, then a third group joins in, and so on.

Fugue reached its apotheosis with Bach, which is not surprising given that Bach was a genius at the organ, which, with its multiple keyboard manuals, plus foot pedals, is the ideal instrument for fugue, especially as each manual can be given its own characteristics through combinations of stops that affect the tone.

Indeed, one of Bach’s greatest works, although little heard in its entirety, unfinished though it was, is “The Art of Fugue”, in which a single tune is taken and re-presented in hundreds of different ways. Again, the legacy of this is found in jazz, and also in the “theme and variations” style of musical work that many later composers have taken forward; Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” owes a lot to Bach.

One interesting aspect of the final part of The Art of Fugue is a four-note motif that spelled the letters of his own name, because in German musical notation B is B flat and H is B natural. Many later works by other composers have used the same theme as a tribute to him.

Probably Bach’s best known fugue is the second part of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, written for organ, which has been heard at countless weddings and has also found its way into film and rock music, video games and ring tones.

However, in one sense it could be said that Bach’s perfection at fugue marked an end rather than a beginning. Bach’s was the last word on fugue, as nobody could do it better. Sonata form now took over, as Baroque became Classical and the Romantics followed on.

His greatest works?

Summarising Bach’s legacy in a short article is an impossibility, as there was a lot more to him than just fugue. He was a profoundly religious man, and some of the greatest sacred works of all time came from his pen. Apart from writing a cantata (short oratorio) for virtually every day of the year, and huge amounts of organ music, he also produced such stupendous choral works as the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion and the Mass in B Minor, the latter despite his staunch Protestantism.

And let’s not forget the Brandenberg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering, the Air on the G String, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the cello suites, and much, much more.

Other legacies

One fascinating aspect of Bach is his influence on styles of music which only emerged centuries later. A noted example would be the a cappella group The Swingle Singers who produced albums entitled “Jazz Sebastian Bach” and “Back to Bach”.

The Moog synthesizer was used to great effect by Wendy Carlos on her (it was “his” at the time) 1968 album “Switched-On Bach”, which was the first of several albums with similar names.

Bach themes have appeared in a number of songs by pop and rock bands, most notably Procul Harem’s 1967 “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (although this is a case of inspiration rather than direct copying).

Another sort of legacy left by Bach was produced jointly with his two wives (not married at the same time!), namely a crop of sons who each made their own mark on European music, although none could hope to rise to their father’s achievements. The Bach dynasty included Johann Christian (the “English Bach”) and Carl Philip Emmanuel, both of whose works are still heard today.

In compiling a list of the ten greatest composers of all time, problems arise as to who to include and who to leave out. It would be hard to imagine a list that did not include J. S. Bach.
2 years
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2 years