By John Rizzo
At the peak of the Renaissance, when Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci were creating their immortal works of art, and Copernicus, Columbus and Magellan were changing the universal concept of the world they lived in, an obscure German priest named Martin Luther took umbrage with certain tenets and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, then the most powerful authority in existence. Luther didn’t plan it that way, but his struggle against dogma led directly to the Protestant Reformation, which cataclysmically redirected the course of history.
Luther was excommunicated for his views (mainly his opposition to indulgences) by Pope Leo X in January 1521. Some months later, at the Diet of Worms, his heresy was confirmed and he was declared an “outlaw,” but he could not be arrested on the spot because he had been guaranteed safe passage to and from the conclave by Emperor Charles V, who presided over the proceedings.
Soon after Luther departed Worms, he was accosted by a number of masked riders who whisked him away to Wartburg Castle in the small town of Eisenach. It was here that Luther translated the Bible from Greek into German and promulgated and articulated some of the key differences between his theology and Roman Catholicism.
One of the most earthshaking of these was that congregation members should participate in religious services by singing hymns to God.
Luther’s emphasis on music in the worship service prompted a new breed of musicians who specialized in the composition of church music.
About two centuries after Luther, in the very same town of Eisenach, where Luther founded his church, a man was born into a large, well-respected family of Lutheran musicians who would not only compose the most magnificent church music ever, but whose genius would impact Western music more profoundly than any other composer.
That man was Johann Sebastian Bach.
It is never easy to describe music with words. Indeed, answering the simple question, “What is music?” may lead to all kinds of contorted arguments and definitions. It is a cinch, however, to see how decidedly Western music is in demand worldwide, compared to any other kind of music.
The dominance of Western music is apparent if one considers the following: Is there an exponent of any other kind of music whose services are in demand a tiny fraction of those of, say, Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton?
This is illustrative of the regenerative power of Bach’s genius. Western music is not composed the same way as it was 300 years ago, nor is it played the same or sound the same. But Western music evolved over the centuries strictly according to rules and principles derived from the music of J. S. Bach.
Lutherans, many Protestants and an increasing number of Catholics are familiar with Bach from his religious music, as it should be, from someone who strove to produce a “well regulated church music to the glory of God,” as the Master put it.
When Bach was the kantor at Thomaskirche in Leipzig, he composed over 200 cantatas, mostly sacred, corresponding to the weekly lectionary cycle, one for every Sunday.
During that time he also composed the great “St. John’s Passion” and “St. Matthew’s Passion,” plus the “B Minor Mass,” the “Magnificat” and the “Christmas Oratorio.” Bach’s church music alone is enough to make him one of the greatest composers who ever lived.
But to truly appreciate his influence on future generations, his secular and theoretical works must be considered along with his sacred music. As a young man, he wrote his brilliant organ works, many of which have been arranged for every kind of ensemble imaginable over the years.
Then as court music director for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen he produced his marvelous violin concertos, his “Brandenburg Concerti” and his other-worldly “Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin.” It was also at this time that he composed “The Well Tempered Clavier, Volume 1” a set of 24 preludes and fugues.
What is meant by “well tempered?” For 300 years, the tempered scale has been taken for granted, but in the early 18th century, only Bach used it for anything important.
He did not employ a “pure” scale, which would result in jarring dissonances if a composer got too far afield from his tonic, and thus confined lesser musicians to keys with very few accidentals.
But by sacrificing a small amount of purity for tonal compatibility in his scale, Bach could be as inventive and adventurous as he wished.
As a matter of fact, using this scale Bach was the first-known composer to write in every key! In all his other compositions he could also modulate in any direction his genius would take him.
No other composer of Western music in history — not Mozart, not Beethoven, not Wagner, not Stravinsky, not George Gershwin nor Thelonius Monk — had a more complex harmonic system than Bach.
It cannot be left unsaid that Bach believed himself to be a humble servant of God, and that his incomparable genius was bestowed on him by his Creator.
That’s why, at the beginning and end of all his religious works and many of his secular and theoretical pieces, he inscribed the initials, “SDG,” which stood for “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone the Glory).