Happy 327th Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach
Over the next three Sunday mornings on my show Classical Sunrise (6 to 9 AM EDT), I will be featuring J.S. Bach’s monumental works: Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 (The Art of Fugue); the Mass in B minor, BWV 232; and the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244; three of the greatest classical works of all time.
Bach was the undisputed master of fugal writing, and the Art of Fugue is the culmination of his skill and artistry. The work consists of 14 fugues and four canons. The inventiveness and genius of the piece is breathtaking. It was his last major composition; Bach died before he could complete it. The abrupt ending in the middle of the last fugue, and the profound silence thereafter, speaks to my soul in a way that no other single piece of music can match.
Bach’s Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, is in some ways the vocal equivalent of the Art of Fugue: the Mass was his last choral composition, representing the crowning achievement in this genre. He completed it in 1749, the year before he died, although parts of it were composed decades earlier.
Bach’s setting of the Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, was composed for Good Friday 1727 in Leipzig. Every year at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, a Passion traditionally was performed on Good Friday. It was the high point in the church calendar, particularly coming as it did after Lent during which no music was performed in the church. Bach, as a cantor at St. Thomas church, had earlier composed the St. John Passion, BWV 245, but it lacked the unity that Bach achieved in the St. Matthew Passion. Only these two Passions survive of the five passions that were mentioned in his obituary. The St. Matthew Passion, known as the “Great Passion,” in Bach’s family, according to Christoph Wolff, surpassed all that Bach had previously composed in sacred music.
Bach’s compositions were all intended for the glory of God. Perhaps nowhere is Bach’s intention more evident than in these three grand-scale pieces.