8 min read

Bach’s boundless abundance: the making of a musical genius

This month is the 273rd anniversary of the death of history's most revered musician. Jeremy Begbie shares how Bach explored musical possibility.
A painting of a 18th century man who wears a wig, white neckerchief and dark collarless coat.
A portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by E.G Haussmann, 1746.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

What makes a genius different? I used to think a genius was someone who excelled at everything. With an IQ of around 150, whatever a genius does will be brilliant.  

In fact, most of the people we call geniuses excel at just one main thing, and it’s how they excel at it that makes them different. The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a good example.  

In all sorts of ways, Bach was unexceptional. He didn’t lead an especially dramatic life. He was a working musician, with a stint as a court musician, and much longer stints as a church music director, latterly in Leipzig. In this respect, there were many like him at the time.  

He travelled very little. Socially, he was fairly conventional and conformist for his day, certainly not the sort to rock any political boats. He produced a huge quantity of music, certainly, but then so did many of his contemporaries. He was a Lutheran Christian. That is, he belonged to a wing of Christianity that followed the teachings of Martin Luther, the reformer who ignited the Protestant Reformation. And as a Luthern he was devout, but not exceptionally so for this time. He knew his Bible well, but so did hundreds of others in his day.  

He wasn’t a great writer of words. Like many musicians, he could be grumpy. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and was a hard taskmaster: he hated it when people tried to get out of doing hard work. He was not particularly well known during his lifetime, certainly not an international celebrity.  

In short, if we had met him socially, I doubt if we would have found it a memorable experience.   

And yet he changed the face of Western music, not simply “classical” music but every musical style from concert to folk, jazz to bebop, early pop (Lennon and McCartney were huge fans) to hard rock. Nothing was the same after Bach. Over the last 300 years, there is hardly a single musician who has not been impacted by him in one way or another, even if they might not know it. 

So in what does Bach excel? Why is he the most revered musician in history? People answer this in different ways, but for me, it comes down to something very simple: he turns the Christian life into sound to a degree no one before or after has come close to matching. This is not to say he is always preaching at you. He does proclaim, certainly, but the musical sounds he generates do not generally send “messages”. Rather, they help you feel what it’s like to live in this world—and understand the world—as a Christian.  

Take for example his mammoth masterpiece that tells the story of the suffering and death of Jesus as told by Matthew in the New Testament: the St Matthew Passion

 Right from the start, you do not simply hear about or observe the drama; you are taken inside it. In the opening scene Jesus trudges on the via dolorosa to his crucifixion. String basses and cellos pound away on one note in a faltering, dragging rhythm; other instruments tug away from each other in fierce dissonance. All this is in a dark minor key. We are made to feel in our bodies the slow, lumbering, doom-laden march of this man to his execution. But that is not all. On top of this, two choirs enter, singing to each other: the one asks puzzled questions (who is this?) and the other replies by unfolding the meaning of this strange procession: the condemned man is carrying the weight of the world’s human guilt. But that is not all. Over this, a third choir enters (usually a boy choir in today’s performances). These are the singers of the heavenly Jerusalem, far above the action, intoning an ancient hymn (“Lamb of God...”). Fittingly, they sing in a secure rhythm, and in a positive (major) key. Here God is winning back, healing his broken world, our world. Bach piles all these layers on top of each other so we hear them all at once—something only music can pull off (it is impossible with words alone). We trudge with Jesus as he identifies with us at our worst, yet at the same time we are surrounded by an eternal assurance that here God is doing his climactic work.  

Listen to St Matthew Passion

Another especially pointed example of Bach’s “inside” view comes when Bach tackles one the most famous scenes in Matthew’s story. Peter, supposedly Jesus’ most loyal follower, has just publicly denied he ever knew him. And this despite pledges of unswerving loyalty. He retches inside as his beloved leader is led away to his trial and death. A tenor soloist sings Matthew’s simple sentence: “And Peter went out and wept bitterly.” That is about as terse as you can get. But Bach strings these words out over a tortured, tormented melody—close to the sound of a person wailing with grief. When we reach the word “out” (as in “Peter went out”), Bach has the tenor sing a top B, the highest note he sings in the entire work. A musical “going out” is linked to a physical and metaphorical “going out”. And all this happens over the most anguished, dissonant, harsh harmony. It’s painful to listen to—which is, of course, the point. Again, Bach is not depicting something at a distance. He doesn’t even want us to feel sorry for Peter, for this is not about someone else. It’s about us. He wants us to us to feel something on the inside: that we have betrayed the One who more than anyone else has been prepared to die for us. 

Listen to Peter's story

Two glimpses of a Christian mind in action. But just as remarkable is what Bach can do without any words at all. He gave birth to hundreds of instrumental pieces, and he seems to have believed these were just as important as his vocal works. That’s because he believed musical notes—melodies, chords, motifs, riffs, harmonies—carried their own power to help us sense what it feels like to live in a world brought into being by the Christian God.    

From the most unpromising motifs, the most unremarkable clusters of notes, he can weave music of astounding richness. 

A lot of Bach’s music for instruments comes alive when heard in this light. It is as if we are being invited to listen to a cosmos in sound. A towering example is his famous Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin. Most scholars recognise that more than any other musician before or since, Bach knows how to get the most out of the least. From utterly unpromising motifs, unremarkable clusters of notes, he can weave sounds of astounding richness. In this piece he weaves fifteen minutes of music from a simple four-bar chord pattern, a seemingly endless series of variations of every mood and colour. The impression is of an infinity of possibilities, a boundless abundance. Even when he does eventually draw things to a close, as many scholars have noted, we are left with the impression this could have gone on ad infinitum

Listen to Chaconne, played by Itzhak Perlman

Very much the same applies to the even longer Goldberg Variations for keyboard, whose breathtaking overflow is evoked well in words from the distinguished Bach scholar, John Butt:  

“There is something utterly radical in the way that Bach’s uncompromising exploration of musical possibility opens up potentials that seem to multiply as soon as the music begins. By the joining up of the links in a seemingly closed universe of musical mechanism, a sense of infinity seems unwittingly to be evoked.” 

Bach is, in effect, giving us a musical imagination of something basic to Christian faith: that we live in a world in which the Creator God is constantly at work, drawing a potentially infinite number of options out of even the most unpromising material: which of course, we should take to include ourselves—ordinary, frail, and stumbling human beings.    

Not only that, Bach invites us to hear the interweaving of radical consistency and radical openness. Listen to a minute or two of the Chaconne and press pause at almost any point; it’s very hard to predict what will happen next, even if you know the style well. And yet what does happen makes perfect sense. In other words, it sounds as if it’s being improvised. This is why jazz musicians are so intrigued by Bach’s music. There is nothing deterministic about it: we are not inside a machine, or something that must unfold in the way it does. And yet it is anything but arbitrary or absurd-sounding. Bach seems to have sensed what many contemporary physicists will confirm: we don’t live a fixed universe in which the future is simply the unwinding of the past, and yet the world has a regularity to it, a dependability—it makes sense. In Bach’s imagination—as in the Bible itself—God is not arbitrary or fickle. God is the improvisor, we might say: faithful and surprising at the same time. 

Finally, we mention one other striking feature of Bach’s sound world that is hard to miss: the way it can encompass extreme joy and extreme pain. Bach was no stranger to grief and death. Both his parents died before he was ten years old. He fathered twenty children, but seven of those died immediately after birth or in infancy. He was out of town when his first wife, Maria Barbara, died; he was never able to say his farewells.  

To hear Bach at his most dissonant, taking us to the very edge of coherence, listen to Variation 25 from the Goldberg Variations (used in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film “The Silence”).    

Listen to Variation 25

We do not know if he was thinking of the crucifixion of Jesus here (he openly tackled this theme elsewhere in music of extraordinary sorrow) but in this piece he plumbs such dark depths it is hard to believe there is no connection at all. For Lutherans, the death of Jesus was the very centre of God’s engagement with the world, the point where God identified most intensely with us in our darkest depths.  

And yet, even in pieces of this kind, as Bach scholars have often noted, and as we hinted above, Bach will often “overreach”, spill out of the parameters he sets for himself. The ecstasy you will hear in the "Et Resurrexit " of the Mass in B Minor is a good example: where the raising of the crucified Jesus from the dead is translated into music that might well be called hyper-energetic. Again, Bach doesn’t allow us to observe and contemplate things from a safe distance. He is trying to catch us up into a life that by its very nature is uncontainable. As with so much of Bach's music, dance is the fundamental dynamic here: it is hard to keep still when surrounded by the cascading momentum. With a twinkle in his eye, he adds an orchestral postlude that by the conventions of his time was wholly unnecessary, gratuitous, excessive—a fitting testimony to the superabundant character of what he believed happened on Easter Day. In the midst of a society surrounded by the brute physical reality of death, including the deaths of members of his own family, Bach carries us into an overspill of energy that pulls against the downward, contracting “running down” of the physical world, evoking a “running up”—in his imagination, the life of the resurrection body to come. 

Listen to the Et Resurrexit

1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 


Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.