Sunday 26. September 2021
#217 - July-August 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach – a European composer

Music is a particular jewel in the crown of European culture. In this series of articles on the European Year of Cultural Heritage, music scholar and theologian Meinrad Walter looks at Johann Sebastian Bach as a European composer.

He rarely travelled; he never saw Italy or even France. And yet the choirmaster of Leipzig’s St Thomas Church, Johann Sebastian Bach, was thoroughly familiar with the national musical styles of Europe. He heard them in numerous works and learned all that was behind them. Above all, he contrasted them with one another, while melting them down and assimilating them into his own unique style.


Little travel, but plenty of international contacts


Bach’s geographical horizons were very narrow, yet his inquisitiveness about anything related to music knew no limits – he was not bound by denominational considerations, nor national borders. He probably received his first taste of internationalism from his teachers of keyboard instruments. In his youth he moved from central Germany to the north, going on foot as far as Lübeck, where over several months he undertook private masterclasses with the famed Dietrich Buxtehude. Soon afterwards, he sought a position in Hamburg, but in vain. He spent several months during the early summer of 1720 with his patron, Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen, in the Bohemian city of Carlsbad. This period ended in tragedy, since on his return, Bach was greeted with news of the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara.


Bach made very few subsequent trips to the south, although in 1732 he went to Kassel, accompanied by his second wife, Anna Magdalena, to examine the organ in the church of St Martins. Bach was paid travel expenses of 26 Reichstaler, a considerable amount of money. Even national newspapers featured reports of Bach’s visits to Frederick the Great in Berlin and Potsdam.


But all in all, he was not a composer who liked to travel. His contemporary, Georg Friedrich Händel, got about rather more: he held auditions for singers in Italy and eventually settled in the city of London. Bach and Händel discussed meeting on several occasions, but never succeeded, maybe because of Bach’s reluctance to travel.


European traditions and innovations


And yet Bach was passionately interested in the typical “musical landscapes” of Europe, with their traditions and innovations. As organist at the Weimar court, Bach transcribed organ pieces from France and Italy in order to familiarise himself with their styles. He was also affected by the “Vivaldi fever” that was raging at the time, becoming an aficionado of the red-headed Venetian priest. His patron, the duke, used to visit Amsterdam, a prime location for discovering and obtaining sheet music, and would bring him the latest orchestral works by Vivaldi, which Bach would arrange for the organ. Later, he made several journeys from Leipzig to Dresden, where at the Catholic court he studied traditional vocal polyphony, after Palestrina, which formed the basis for his great Catholic Mass in B Minor. In the later years of his life, Bach’s international contacts were also increased by his membership of the “Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences”, which also included the Swabian composer and Benedictine monk Meinrad Spiess.


Italian concerto and French overture


The extent to which Bach did not simply copy the national styles, but truly adopted them as his own by kind of “melting” them into his own personal style, can be seen from the titles of certain works and movements. The Fantasy in G major (BWV 572) is subtitled “Pièce d’Orgue”, and the movements are annotated in French: “très vitement, gravement, lentement”. The second “Clavier-Übung” (keyboard practice) volume comprises the famous “Italian Concerto” and the “Ouverture in the French Style”. Here, Bach showed how much he had not only mastered the leading national styles of Europe, but at the same time was able to compare and contrast them.


This musical contrast begins with the keys, since the F major of the Italian Concerto forms a strong harmonic tension with the B minor of the French overture. The Concerto conjures the colours of the orchestral sound from the keys of the harpsichord, emerging as gallant, melodically catchy and harmonically accessible. The Ouverture, a suite in several movements, is inspired by several French influences. In this piece, Bach reined in the level of difficulty, because it was intended to appeal not only to “experts”, but also to “music lovers”. He was committed to the “entertainment” of the latter group, as shown on the title pages of the two works.  


To Bach, music was also always the language of faith. In an increasingly secular Europe, the spiritual music of Bach preserves and aptly conveys the Christian heritage, giving renewed topicality to Albert Schweitzer’s designation of Bach as “the fifth Evangelist”.


Meinrad Walter

Honorary Professor at the University of Music, Freiburg


Translated from the original text in German



The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

Teilen |

Published in English, French, German
COMECE, 19 square de Meeûs, B-1050 Brussels
Tel: +32/2/235 05 10

Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.