How does he do it? How does Bach conjure such perfect expressions of joy, anguish and everything in between out of thin air, out of vibration, of all things? There is some pretty good Baroque music around, as we heard yesterday evening in Anghiari, written by the likes of Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau, but then we hear the opening of JSB’s Magnificat and suddenly the sun comes out, brightening everything while casting shade over lesser efforts. The balance, the poise, the sheer emotional depth of it all, from the elation of the opening movement to the overlapping beauty of Et misericordia to the humour of that final note of Esurientes it is all so – what’s the word? – perfect, and that’s without mentioning the structural concerns, the balanced symmetry that is not so mechanical that it destroys the whole but instead progresses with utter satisfaction from movement to movement.
Douglas Adams, who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, thought that Bach was the greatest genius ever to tread the earth, while others have said that sending his music into space as a lasting token of our civilisation’s achievements would be akin to boasting. I am happy for others to mention Dante, Shakespeare and so on, but it is the unremitting quality of Bach’s writing across such a vast number of notes that makes the achievement so, so staggering. You might well expect that, by cantata number two hundred, scribbling furiously at the rate of one a week over a five year period, he might have started cutting corners, “phoning it in”, as they now say, but not a bit of it.
For me, even in its most desolate moments, such as that crushing final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach represents joy of the most profound, most embracing measure. It is possible as a human being, that music says, to create something transcendent and near everlasting – his music speeds out of our Solar System as I write, on the Voyagers, and will outlast us all by hundreds of thousands of years…and yet people still say that it is all mathematics. Well, mathematics has a soul and beauty, just as music has a soul and beauty, so maybe we should begin to take that remark as a compliment rather than just a sign of wanton obstinacy. Bach, after all, knew his mathematics well, thank you very much, but his music is the surely the finest expression of the purest beauty of proportion, form, but human expression too, and if you want to reduce that to numbers and not talk about the impact of it all, then go unweave the rainbow as well.