The core repertory of Western classical music is dominated by a small number of composers, mostly German and Austrian, mostly of the 18th and 19th centuries. In their work, perfection - of form, melody, harmony and rhythm - is common; in fact it occurs in their music with a frequency unimaginable in painting (except perhaps for Raphael) or literature. Yet even in such extraordinary company Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) stands in solitary eminence, at the very pinnacle of the art. A large number of his works are still quite regularly performed and, since last year marked the 250th anniversary of his death, he is guaranteed to feature on every hall and church programme. There is also a vast outpouring of Bach recordings, which, until DGG curtailed the series, included John Eliot Gardiner's amazing cantata performances. One of these took place every week for a year all over Europe and North America - the intention was to match the composer's own Sunday series for the churches he served as choirmaster and organist. Yet even this enormous quantity of work is not the totality of Bach's output. According to Christoph Wolff, his most recent and thorough biographer, at least half of Bach's church oeuvre has been lost, along with many instrumental and ensemble pieces. The sheer density and quality of what remains is all the more staggering.
LRB 19 July 2001 | PDF Download