One of the most extraordinary things about history’s most extraordinary musician is the fact that this man’s music, which exerts such a magnetic attraction for us today, and against which we tend to measure much of the achievement in the art of music in the last two centuries, had absolutely no effect on either the musicians or the public of his own day.” (Glenn Gould)
Gould, Canada’s best-known classical musician, is exaggerating, but only slightly. He adds that Bach (1685-1750) was not ahead of his time. Rather, “according to the musical disposition of that day, he was generations behind it”. He used forms – particularly the fugue – that were unfashionable in the early 18th century. Mozart was born six years after Bach died, and when the baroque era in music gave way to the classical period – with the new form of the symphony at the helm – Bach’s legacy languished. It was not until 100 years after his death that his work was revisited, starting a revival that has never ceased. Today, Bach’s music – often programmed in recitals with the most demanding contemporary compositions – has a freakish ability to sound perpetually modern. It’s a miracle of timelessness.
In 1720 the composer and organist Johann Adam Reincken heard Bach improvise on an old Lutheran hymn: “I thought that this art was dead,” Reincken said, “but I see that it lives in you.” In the early 1720s others wondered whether Bach, still in his thirties, might be missing a trick by scoffing at new forms and shunning opera altogether. It was during this time, though, that he produced works now recognised as being among his most enduring and profound: the Brandenburg Concertos, Cello Suites, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, and, exactly 300 years ago this year, the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Sydney Brenner, talking about biology, remarked that it was important to be 180° out of phase with the research mainstream — ahead is OK, but behind is best.