|Some candidates: above, from left, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Mozart, Schoenberg, Haydn, and Stravinsky; below, from left, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, Handel, Bach, and Debussy.|
Apropos of Bach, here is how Tommasini introduces the Master of Baroque:
He would probably be the consensus choice among thinking musicians for the top spot. But why?
Bach came at an intersection in music history. He was born in 1685, when the Baroque period was thriving yet vestiges of the Renaissance age of polyphonic music were lingering. By the time he died in 1750, opera, for which he had no interest, was a century and a half old, music was getting hipper, and elegantly decorous styles like the Rococo were widespread. Even some of Bach’s sons, who revered their father, thought he was a little old-fashioned as a composer. Bach did not care how he was perceived. He was too busy being a working musician, a composer who wrote pieces to order for whatever his job at the time, whether in a church or a court, demanded.
Bach stood right in the middle of this historical crossroads. His music is an astonishing synthesis of what had been and what was coming. Elements of the high polyphonic tradition run through his work. Yet the era of simpler Baroque textures and clear, strong tonal harmony had arrived.
In just the collected Bach chorales — the four-part, hymnlike settings of church tunes that crop up in his oratorios and cantatas — he codified everything that was known about harmony and anticipated the future, including wayward chromatic harmony à la Wagner. In the opening measures of the chorale “Es Ist Genug,” the one Berg incorporated into his final work, the Violin Concerto, Bach even anticipates atonality.
The 48 preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” are the ultimate exploration of counterpoint in all its complexities, yet also a dazzling collection of quirky, sublime and sometimes showy character pieces.
What composer before or after Bach could have written the opening Kyrie of the Mass in B minor? It begins with choral cries of “Lord have mercy” (“Kyrie eleison”) as harmonically wrenching as anything in Brahms or Mahler. Then, with transfixing calm, the winding Kyrie theme is heard in the orchestra over a steady tread of a bass, as the inner voices build up. One by one the sections of the chorus enter, until Bach has constructed an intricate web of counterpoint at once intimidating in its complexity and consolingly beautiful.