I want to start with this interpretation of BWV 922:
This is a very good Youtube recording by Brendel although I couldn’t find my favourite which I listen to on Spotify, which is performed by Joao Carlos Martins. The latter is much slower and over minute longer then the former. The beauty of the Martin’s version is he plays the opening at full throttle, supremely, then comes to a grinding halt almost when the first subject appears, and what a tear jerking job he makes of it, too. Bach has written this piece to give the impression that it is constantly descending when it is doing little in the way of that. Bach is tricking the listener (and the performer come to that) into feeling a perpetual but accepting sense of depression and despair. The second subject is an elaborative more complex version of the first but still done the way only Bach could have done. I feel no other composer can give this conjuristic effect in music. I have laid awake at night pondering this prelude over and over, listening to its nuances and trickery and just,well, marvelling at it. I now realise that nothing quite compares and life becomes as pointless as it is must be to a multi billionaire.
If I have heard the greatest that the greatest can offer and nothing really comes close then what is the point? Beethoven’s third symphony ‘Eroica’ is the methadone to Bach’s toccata heroin. But why is it that nothing comes close to JS Bach? Everything feels so resignedly second best after a JS Bach composition. So you just seek out Bach, after Bach, after Bach. Even his incredibly talented sons CPE Bach, and WF Bach don’t really cut the mustard the way their father did.
I haven’t mentioned Handel yet, or other contemporaries of JS Bach. Was Handel as good as Bach? No, but close, but just no (even though Beethoven held him in high esteem which is a good reference to have!). I like and admire some of Handel’s keyboard Suites and they can get close to JSB but then flop into a whimsical mess not being worth a mention. Although one in particular, in F minor, is one I hold in high regard. What about Domenico Scarlatti? Yes and no. There are some very moving and powerful sonatas amongst Scarlatti’s oeuvre, but like Handel some of the 555 written, an impressive amount, are rather flat and have little or no emotion attached to them. But in mitigation to Scarlatti he did write them as a tutorial aid for his royal pupils. I cannot really comment too much on Purcell as I haven never properly studied his music, of which the same could be said for Buxtehude. There were many musicians during the period that Bach was active but strangely very little came out of Britain. Britain and Ireland produced many scientists and authors but lacked in composers. The only one worth mentioning was Thomas Arne who wrote Rule Britannia. His other output is a bit of keyboard work but nothing to really get excited about. A little later in the 1700s a composer came from Ireland called John Field. He was taught by Muzio Clementi when the family moved to London and became a useful pianist attracting attention across Europe. He wrote a series of Nocturnes that are bloody delicious. His other output, piano sonatas, are okay-ish sort of similar to Clementi and not too hard to master. The poor chap died in Russia while trying to flog pianos for Clementi, and there is little information beyond that. So Britain had Arne, Clementi, Purcell, and Handel. Although, Handel was German born and came to England in 1712 and eventually became a British Citizen, like Clementi did who was born in Rome.
So what has all that got to do with Bach? Well I am trying to paint a picture of what music was like in the 50 or so years that JS Bach had to compose in. How much influence did he have on future music? Well that is the key question. He has had neverending influence on every musical note that has been written since 1750. He is omnipotent across the vast spectrum of music even if you no nothing of his collection as it was that collection that influenced Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms. Brahms makes a fine qute about this piece of music:
He said this:
“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.“
Brahms who was born into absolute poverty in Hamburg; Brahms who became a famous international pianist and composer, some say his first symphony was Beethoven’s tenth; Brahms who offered residence and money to the relatively poor composer Dvorak; and Brahms the atheist, Dvorak said ‘He believes in nothing!’. This piece of music is extraordinarily important and if Brahms could still feel Bach’s verve over a hundred later imagine how powerful it would have been and the time of its inception.
I will discuss this further in Part III. Thank you for getting this far.