Saturday, November 04, 2006

Will There Ever Be Another Bach?

Every time I attend a Bach Concert at Saint Luke Lutheran in Chicago, I find most every one of my senses stimulated. My hearing, of course, by the brilliance and beauty of Bach. My eyes by the space itself. My smell by the incense (which they use for evening prayer). If they served communion, my taste and touch would be equally employed. I also find myself wondering, "Will there ever be another Bach?" It seems a fair question to ask. Wasn't Bach just a genius, the kind of aberration that is entirely likely to appear again? And isn't the world of classical music due another such iconic figure? It has been a few hundred years, after all.

By no means could the discussion be limited to Bach. Others might site Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, or any other set list of composers. For me, none compare to Bach in brilliance of counterpoint, soul and sheer volume. But will there be another? I say no, for at least 3 reasons.

It's become kind of a cliche in the classical music world, but if eccentric geniuses like Beethoven or Mozart lived today, they'd be stuffed so full of anti-depressents or downers that their creative output would be greatly diminished. There is some truth to that; I think we simply have less tolerance for eccentricity and seek to medicate and stifle difference as soon as possible. (This is especially true in the West.) The reality is that eccentrics take a lot of patience. If the reports about Beethoven and Mozart are true, they can be unpleasant to be around. (They were also capable of incredible warmth and depth, which is often overlooked.) While Bach seems to have been a little cranky, he doesn't come across historically as eccentric, which is one more reason he is so rare.

Second, another Bach seems unlikely because of today's pervasiveness of media. Whereas Bach was largely able to work in obscurity (except for his fame as an organist, not composer, which wouldn't come until 1829), a genius today would probably be paraded on television, written about in books, and have his own blog that would occupy precious creative time. In spite of his 17 children and directing the pesky children's choir, Bach was able, forced even, to produce almost inhumane amounts of music because of his duties of Kapellmeister at Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig. No genius would have such a luxury today. There are simply too many distractions in today's world, too many temptations. Besides his enormous family, Bach had relatively few, to his advantage.

Third, and most importantly to me, Bach was a highly spiritual person. His enormous output, and the works themselves, were done with a higher purpose in mind. To say the least. And Bach was no theological slouch who just accepted the theology of the day. It turns out he had a pretty impressive theological library, and he was quite capable of theological insight. All of his works, even his secular works, famously bore the initials SDG for "soli deo gloria," or "To the glory of God alone." I realize my religious bias, but it is impossible for me to consider that anyone could create so much of anything so brilliant for so long without a firm understanding of humility, grace, and thanksgiving. God was the fuel for Bach's creativity, and in God revealed through scripture Bach found a never-ending supply of strength, sustenance, and ideas.

Allow me to contextualize all of this. I recently heard Cameron Carpenter play, who is simply unbelieveable as an organist, probably this generation's Virgil Fox and then some. But what I found lacking was a sense that his was a gift from God to be used for the glory of God. He is a product of a culture that says individuality and personal expression are more celebrated than humility, so it seems his career will be more about performing accomplishments than prolific output. The media temptation for him is also there, and not without good reason. He feels there is a huge market for his skills, and he wants to capitalize. Generally speaking, I can't blame him for that. He is refreshingly eccentric, I have to give him credit there. The irony is that he played a lot of Bach as well as I've ever heard it on the organ, with wonderful interpretative skill.

But will there be another Bach? I just don't see it. Unlike other great composers after him, or even great thinkers, writers or artists, the guy simply didn't produce any (and "any" is no exaggeration) bad music. He is the father of western music for so many reasons, and thankfully he is more popular now than ever. We should cherish him especially because no one will ever be able to compete.

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