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The Well-Tempered Mind of J.S. Bach

Thomas Jefferson played violin and was familiar with the music of Vivaldi, Handel and Mozart, but it’s unlikely he ever heard of Johann Sebastien Bach. Outside of the provincial village of Leipzig, Germany, few knew of Bach’s music.

Known as Old Bach to the good people of Leipzig, he played organ in their church, wrote cantatas for the choir, taught school, was married twice, and fathered 21 children. Bach lived in obscurity, while writing some of the greatest music the world would ever know.

In 1850, 100 years after his death, Bach’s music was rediscovered by another German composer, Felix Mendelssohn. Today, Bach stands with such luminaries as Beethoven, Michelangelo, Mozart, and Shakespeare, at the peak Western culture. Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” is considered by many to be the greatest musical composition ever written.

Today, many people are bored to tears by Bach’s music. Why? Says the late Leonard Bernstein: “We have been so spoiled by music written since Bach’s time, which is essentially dramatic in nature, that we have come to expect drama of one sort or another in music, and we’re disappointed and bored when we don’t see it.”

“Drama,” in this case, is contrast: two themes, two contrasting ideas or emotions, competing with each other, within a single movement--black and white, good versus evil, grief and joy. Bach’s music is linear; it follows a single line, like jazz. Any single movement is always concerned with a single idea, without contrast--that’s Baroque, and that’s Bach. When Bach died, Baroque died with him.

In comparison, Beethoven presents as many as four themes, competing all at once. For example, in the opening minutes of Beethoven’s third symphony, a beautiful strain is introduced, interrupted by a clashing theme, followed by yet two more original themes, before the first beautiful strain returns. The only thing the four themes have in common is that they are written in the same key. Beethoven made his reputation by contrasting the deepest gloom with the greatest joy; his fifth and ninth symphonies are classic examples.

Bach’s genius was not at all constrained by the Baroque idiom. Indeed, today’s musicologists place Bach’s music ahead of Beethoven’s and Mozart’s. Bach’s music is perfection itself, like a mathematical formula, which is why mathematicians love it. Listen to Bach while balancing your checkbook, or computing your taxes. Bach is tonic for the mind; his music restores order, like running the defrag program on your computer.

Go ahead. Refresh yourself. Listen to Bach.

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