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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin
The Bach Revival

ex. 7-16 J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, opening chorus, mm. 34–36

This was an event of immense cultural significance. It placed Bach in a new context, one in which the very aspects of his style that had led to his temporary eclipse—its complexity, its conservatism, its uncompromising religiosity, its very asperity, which caused it to be dismissed by some critics even during his lifetime as showing an “excess of art” and a “turgid and confused style”—could now be prized and held up as a model for emulation.21 The conditions that brought about this change in Bach’s status had a great deal to do with the burgeoning of Romanticism, to which we will return in a later chapter. There was another aspect to the reassessment of Bach, however, which needs our attention now.

The nineteenth-century Bach revival focused mainly on just a few works: the Passion oratorios, the B-minor Mass, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and a few later masterworks of an old-fashioned, abstract nature in which Bach gave full rein to his unrivaled contrapuntal virtuosity. This last group included the Goldberg Variations, a huge cycle of thirty keyboard pieces, including a series of intricate canons, all based on a single “aria” (ostinato) bass line. (The set is named—not by Bach but by posterity—after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, one of Bach’s pupils, who supposedly commissioned it on behalf of his patron, Count Kayserling, the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court, an insomniac who needed some engrossing music to divert him during sleepless nights.) For a really dazzling quick idea of Bach’s contrapuntal wizardry we might look, not at the Goldberg Variations themselves, but at a little extra that he tossed off one day, and that remained undiscovered until the 1970s. In the flyleaf of his own personal copy of the printed edition of the work (the fourth volume of the Clavier-Übung, issued in 1747), Bach inscribed fourteen riddle canons, all based on the first eight notes of the Goldberg “aria” bass. Ex. 7-17 shows the bass line, the last canon (“Canon à 4, per Augmentationem et Diminutionem”) as Bach wrote it, and a realization (by Christoph Wolff, who discovered and authenticated the canons). The first eight sixteenth-notes of the single notated line in Ex. 7-17b are an inversion of the Goldberg bass, transposed to the upper fifth and subjected to a threefold rhythmic diminution. The realization accompanies the notated part with its inversion at the upper fourth with note values doubled; with its literal transposition at the lower fourth with note values doubled again; and inverted at the lower fifth, with the note values doubled a third time, thus restoring the original bass.

The Bach Revival

ex. 7-17a Goldberg bass

The Bach Revival

ex. 7-17b Canon no. 14 as written by Bach

The Bach Revival

ex. 7-17c Canon no. 14 as realized by Christoph Wolff

It is probably fair to say that the sheer technical dexterity in the art of composition that Bach exhibits here has never been surpassed; it is all the more impressive in the context of little joke pieces like these, for only the truly learned can afford to wear their learning lightly. (Why exactly fourteen canons, by the way? Because the name Bach, if translated into numbers according to the positions of its constituent letters in the alphabet—a device called gematriya that goes back to Hebrew cabbalistic lore—comes out 2 + 1 + 3 + 8 = 14. Bach’s numerological virtuosity has only begun to be investigated. Some scholars suspect that it may rival his musical skills; others, favoring a more “Enlightened” view of Bach, remain skeptical.) A more formal exhibition of skill was the Musikalisches Opfer (“Musical offering”), a miscellany of canons, complicated ricercars (old-fashioned fugues), and a trio sonata, all based on a weirdly chromatic “royal theme” given Bach as a subject for improvisation by none other than Frederick the Great, the Prussian king, during a visit by Bach in May of 1747 to the Prussian court at Potsdam, where his son Carl Philipp Emanuel was employed. The ultimate “speculative” work, Bach’s intended final testament, was Die Kunst der Fuge (“The art of fugue”), a collection of twenty-one contrapuncti, including canons, double fugues, triple fugues, fugues with answers by augmentation and diminution, inversion, and cancrizans (“crab motion,” or retrograde), all based on a single D-minor subject.

Bach was working on this collection on the day he died, leaving unfinished the last Fuga a 3 soggetti, in which the musical anagram of his name was to be worked in as a chromatic countersubject (Ex. 7-18). The so-called B–A–C–H cipher has been a potent musical emblem ever since the Art of Fugue was published, in 1751, in an edition supervised by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who refrained from finishing the last fugue (as he could easily have done), but let it trail off into a sketch, followed by a note explaining the reason.

It was no accident that the German musicians who created the Bach revival in the early nineteenth century fastened on just these pieces—the Passion oratorios and the encyclopedic, testamentary works. The Passions were the only vocal works by Bach that could find any sort of place in early nineteenth-century secular musical life. Their revival took place within the nineteenth-century German “concert oratorio” movement, something that had nothing to do with Bach or with the Lutheran tradition. Rather, it went back to Handel, or (more accurately) to the London Handelian tradition, both a prime fosterer and a beneficiary of British national sentiment.

As we will later observe in greater musical detail, the Handelian oratorio (the earliest type of oratorio meant expressly for concert performance) had been imported to the German-speaking lands by the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), who had encountered Handel’s work on a visit to England, been bowled over by it, and emulated it in two oratorios of his own, “The Creation,” first performed in 1798, and “The Seasons” (1801). Like most of Handel’s oratorios, and like the German oratorios that followed them, Haydn’s oratorios were performed in theaters and concert halls, not churches.

By the time Bach’s Passions were revived, the main German venue for oratorio performances had become the music festival, first instituted in 1818. As the critic and historian Cecilia Hopkins Porter has shown, these festivals transformed the German musical establishment and created a new public—the first “mass public”—for music.22 Their other main achievement was the creation of a sense of German national identity through music. It was Bach who provided a focal point for that, as Handel had done in England. (Of course, Handel—or rather, Händel—was “repatriated” and “reclaimed” by the Germans as well, and given back his umlaut, during this period.)

So burgeoning nationalism, perhaps the nineteenth century’s signal contribution to European politics and culture, which had turned Handel into an institution in England a bit ahead of schedule thanks to British “national” precocity, caught up with Bach and turned him into a competing institution just when the familiar institutions of modern concert life were being established.

The Bach Revival

ex. 7-18a The B-A-C-H cipher

The Bach RevivalThe Bach RevivalThe Bach Revival

ex. 7-18b B-A-C-H cipher at end of The Art of Fugue

The specific nature of German nationalism also favored Bach’s canonization. Where the British prided themselves on their commerce and industry, and on their liberal political institutions, the Germans, then lacking political unity, very backward industrially, and economically ruined by the Napoleonic wars, prided themselves on “art and learning,” as the composer and critic Carl Kossmaly declared shortly after the Bach revival had got underway. Their nationalism was a nationalism of culture. “In the realm of ideas,” Kossmaly averred, “in everything concerning intelligence and spiritual capacity, not only inner unity and national independence but also a decided superiority must be granted to the Germans.”23 In music, Bach was the proof. His profundity and complexity were all of a sudden national treasures; and the abstract musical speculations of his late years became harbingers of “absolute music,” the highest of all the arts, where the Germans most vehemently asserted their supremacy.

This appropriation of Bach to the politics of German secular nationalism was already evident in the earliest biography of Bach, by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749–1818). This book, which appeared in 1802 (one year after Haydn’s Seasons), was a landmark: it was not only the first biography of Bach, it was the first full-scale scholarly biography of any composer and one of the earliest books to be recognizably a work of musicology in the modern academic sense. It is dedicated to “patriotic admirers of true musical art.” Its preface declares that “Bach’s works are a priceless national patrimony; no other nation possesses anything to compare with it.”24 And this is its final paragraph:

This man, the greatest orator-poet that ever addressed the world in the language of music, was a German! Let Germany be proud of him! Yes, proud of him, but worthy of him too!25

So modern academic musicology, the tradition out of which (but also, in certain ways, against which) this book is written, originated, like the Bach revival and the musical canon of which Bach is now regarded as the cornerstone, as a by-product of German nationalism.


(21) Johann Adolph Scheibe, “Letter from an Able Musikant Abroad” (1737), in David and Mendel, The Bach Reader, p. 238.

(22) See Cecelia Hopkins Porter, “The New Public and the Reordering of the Musical Establishment: The Lower Rhine Music festivals, 1818–67,” 19th Century Music III (1979–80): 211–24.

(23) “Musikalische,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (19 February 1841), quoted in Cecelia Hopkins Porter, The Rhine as Musical Metaphor: Cultural Identity in German Romantic Music (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), p. 66.

(24) Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work (London: Constable and Co., 1920), p. xxv.

(25) Ibid., p. 152

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07011.xml