Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bach Birthday Bash

"When I hear Mozart, I understand what it is to be a human being; when I hear Beethoven, I understand what it is to be Beethoven; but when I listen to Bach, I understand what it is to be the universe." – Douglas Adams

Today is Johann Sebastian Bach's 324th birthday. Organist, composer, church music director. The man who gathered all the different stylistic strands of the Baroque period and wove them together to bring about the maturity of the music, the "Golden Age of Baroque Music", as it were. And the man who set the standards for Western art music which stand even to this day. The rules of composition, things like harmonic relationships, counterpoint, and tonal center, were all set and standardized by J.S. Bach and are still the standard today, even if it's a standard against which we rebel.

Bach composed for every combination of musical resources available in his time: solo instrument, keyboard (harpsichord and organ), small chamber ensemble, orchestra and chorus with soloists. Personally, I think Bach's greatest writing was for full choral ensemble, orchestra and chorus. His masses, oratorios, cantatas, the two Passions (St. Matthew and St. John), all just soar into the heavens. Indeed, the St. Matthew Passion set the standard for future ensemble composition, and he set that standard very, very high. Mozart's Requiem gets close, as does Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. I think only Brahms' Ein Deutsche Requiem actually reaches that high standard. This is music at its holiest - not in the religious sense, but in the sense of lifting us up, transcending human limitations and carrying us into the cosmos. This was what Douglas Adams meant when he said that Bach's music makes us understand what it is to be the universe.

So in celebration of J.S. Bach's birthday, I give you this chorale from the St. Matthew Passion - "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder" (We sit with tears falling).

Happy Birthday, Maestro Bach! May your music last as long as there are ears to hear it.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. ...a beautiful post!! One of my favorites also. My son and I play cello and really appreciate his Cello Suites. They are without compare.

  2. I've not much ear for classical music, but I know quality when I hear it...


  3. One of my favorite albums is a two disc Bach set and "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder" is one of my favorite pieces. So powerful!

    Happy Birthday Mr. Bach!

  4. To me, Bach is the most optimistic of classical composers. Everything I've ever heard of his sounds at root to be a case for a world of natural order, harmony, and good will.

  5. bach would be someone I'd like to invite to one of those fantasy dinner party games..... you know the one - if you could invite 10 historical figures over for dinner, who would you invite!

    happy birthday j.s. baby!!