02/25/2014 01:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014

The Brilliance of Bach Remains Relevant

My son, who is learning to play piano, just turned eight and he thinks the world of Bach as a composer: he adores his music, especially the Well-Tempered Clavier. We have heard several hundred hours of this music as rendered (best) by the legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. He loves Bach's music so much that he often fantasizes about meeting him, learning to play organ with him, and substituting his current babysitter-slash-piano coach (a fellow pianist who thinks Bach is the greatest) with Bach himself. He imagines co-composing with the maestro, awed by his amazing note progressions and multi-melodic themes, and overall musical ability.

When I ask him what he thinks of Bach's music, he tells me that his music excites him, and makes him feel like jumping around happily. We often end up watching hours of Bach tutorials on YouTube. Sometimes these searches for particular pieces go off on a tangent, and during one of these searches another video caught my eyes. In one, a Polish musician was playing Bach on the guitar using a finger hammering technique (in itself a very difficult skill: I have dabbled in classical guitar so I have some inkling). He did a fantastic job of rendering something on strings that was written for a keyboard instrument. There were many complimentary remarks left in the comments section, but one flippant comment in particular angered me.

The commenter suggested that, great guitar playing aside, essentially Bach's music was boring and he preferred Ives and Zappa: much more interesting in his view for its atonality. While my first instinct was to counter his assertion with some less-than-kind verbal sparring, I am no musicologist and I know music is subjective: of course his comment too may fall in this category. Yet, I viscerally feel this comment is beyond the scope of subjectivity. The commenter's dismissal of a celebrated musical genius and a virtuosic organist, dead for 264 years and revered by all notable composers who followed him, was beyond the pale.

When I worked at a local record store, Leopold Records, I had the good fortune to be aurally immersed in a multi-genre sea of music that was unknown and foreign (literally) to my ears. I had been woefully oblivious to the cornucopia of music that existed, and Leopold Records had in offering. Throughout my time there, the musical exposure continually astonished me, like feasting one's eyes on mesmerizing new scenery while riding a train.

I was raised on a steady diet of Bollywood film music from yester years. I had also been exposed to some Indian folk music, Ghazals (poetic music), Indian classical, and some Qawwali (Sufi devotional music). But my western classical music exposure was non-existent to say the least.

While at Leopold, I was very much into U.K. alternative rock and American indie music because that is what I listened to on FM radio. Leopold was known for its eclectic collection, and they had some of the most knowledgeable staff in the business. One area where it lacked grievously was classical music, yet my classical music education began in earnest at Leopold Records.

One of my colleagues, Jeff, was studying to be a conductor at U.C. Berkeley.
Jeff was a Bach fanatic, and would never stop talking about the Goldberg Variation and the complete Well-Tempered Clavier by Glenn Gould. After innumerable iterations of his Bach sermon, I finally ceded and bought the Goldberg Variations on Jeff's advice. The first time I listened to it, I was quite underwhelmed and thought to myself, Why all the fuss? But Jeff assured me that I would come to see the light. Then a cut-out box set (millennials may want to look this term up) of the entire Well-Tempered Clavier by Glenn Gould arrived at Leopold: Jeff immediately urged me to buy it.

Those of you who were born after 1990, hold on to your seats. The moment the needle on my record player hit the grooves, I was mesmerized by the simplicity and elegance of the piece, and the first thought that crossed my mind... well this sounds quite modern: something Britten could have composed. I ended up listening to the entire side, and then the other side. The subsequent pieces had more of a Baroque feel, yet are not too florid, and the ebb and flow of the notes had a naturalness and urgency which kept me on the edge of my seat with their playful lilt and compositional bravura.

I have heard other Baroque composers, and I am fond of this era. But sometimes the music can sound quite whimsical -- verging on ephemeral even -- but still enjoyable. Even very well-known composers of the era fall prey to this effect, but Bach somehow manages to avoid that trap, and sustains a compositional flare that never sounds too ornate. Bach's music has a deceptively simple complexity, and this is why he is so well renowned even after two and half centuries. Once his music was mostly forgotten, and Schumann revived him. But if it wasn't Schumann, his music was bound to be revived.

Bach was a prolific composer who wrote for several instruments. His choral works
(B Minor Mass, St. Mathew Passion, oratorios, Magnificat) are compositional tours de force, just as are his keyboard works -- still the standard bearer to this day: a work written in all 24 keys as instructive to aspiring musicians today as it was for Mozart. His cantatas, partitas, English Suites, Art of Fugue with its sublime contrapuntal movements, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and Brandenburg Concertos, are all impressive examples of his brilliance. His unaccompanied Cello Suite is quite daring for an instrument that is usually showcased against a backdrop of other instruments, and listening to Pablo Casals render it sumptuously is meditational. His system of temperament still is subject of much discussion. Bach's ability to achieve all this within the discipline of tonality is akin to someone doing the hundred meter dash under ten seconds with their hands tied behind them.

I am not suggesting that every eight year old will have the same reaction to Bach's music as my son: but there is something intrinsic in his music that inveigles his musical psyche. I want to take nothing from Zappa's or Ives' music: they are accomplished composers in their own right, but I can't help but wonder if their music will be as poignant a quarter millennium from now. I am sure if one were to play the best compositions from each of these composers to a group, Bach will be recognized immediately by most. Whether tonal or atonal, Bach's body of work stands apart as a beacon of musical brilliance which is anything but dull.

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