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

To the abyss and back. The art of Peter Howson

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. 

Painter Peter Howson captures personal conflict, toxic masculinity and horrific wars. Alastair Gordon reviews his work. Part of the Problem with Men series.
A painting shows a group of refugees waiting behind a barrier across a road, the background is intense yellow.
Barrier Sunset; 1995; oil on canvas; 122 x 183cm.
Flowers Gallery, London; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente.

“Everybody’s capable of doing wild things,” says artist Peter Howson, scratching his head as he looks pensively over his paintings.  He is talking about the events of his youth and how experiences of trauma, addiction and childhood bullying have influenced the way he paints the misfits, non-conformists and the overlooked.  

Howson is one of those rare breeds of artist who garners both public adoration and critical acclaim, an achievement celebrated in his recent retrospective at Edinburgh City Art Centre, an ambitious show spanning four floors and four decades of the painter’s career.  

I asked curator, David Patterson why Howson’s work continues to draw public interest. “People can see in every brush stroke how he pours his heart and soul into it,” he replies. “A lot of people are commenting on his honesty. He’s brutally honest and speaks what he feels in his heart.”  

Howson rose to public attention shortly after his graduation from Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s with a public commission for a series of wall murals for the Feltham Community Association in London. He became known for his visceral depictions of men caught in contradictory states often painted in monumental scale with his particular style of raw, fleshy realism, an approach influenced by his interest in German Expressionism. It was his tutor, Alexander Moffatt who first introduced Howson to the work of Otto Dix and Max Beckman, their brutal exposition of the German bourgeoises clearly making an early impact. From the hulking boxers and football hooligans of his early career to the bullish vulnerability of soldiers currently fighting in the Ukraine war, his characters are rendered with a raw realism, matched only by the brutal honesty of the artist himself.   

People misunderstand the meaning: they think that I’m making (those men) into heroes, when it’s not that at all. 

Howson was part of a group of male figurative painters known as the New Glasgow Boys, alongside Adrian Wiszniewski, Ken Currie and Steven Campbell, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art at a similar time in the 1980s. Later artists such as Jenny Saville and Alison Watt would continue the Scottish figurative tradition.  

It might be easy to misread his early work in particular as a kind of ode to masculine swagger but when Howson speaks of his work it becomes clear his intentions are more to dispel such toxic masculinity. “I was bullied a lot at school,” he reflects. “I felt so emasculated when I was young, I tried to build myself up: I became a bouncer and wanted to exact revenge on my bullies and I joined the army. All these things that are really not me. People misunderstand the meaning: they think that I’m making (those men) into heroes, when it’s not that at all. It’s a contradiction: I’m trying to get power into my work at the same time as taking the mickey. But some of the Bosnian work is my freest.”  

In 1993 Howson was appointed as official war artist to the Bosnian conflict where he witnessed first-hand the atrocities of conflict. This work culminated in a solo exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum with some of the most harrowing and empathetic works of his career so far. Barrier Sunset, painted in 1995, shows a line of Bosnian refugees, emaciated and restrained by a blockade that bars entry to safe land. Behind them, a burning sky speaks to the ravages of war.   

Howson is an artist who wears his past on his sleeve, speaking openly about his autism, childhood traumas, recovery from addiction and unnerving experiences serving in the army which he describes as “hell on earth”. Rather than dismissing these traumatic experiences, Howson finds way to manifest them in paint, a process that demonstrates profound empathy with his subjects, both villain and victim.  

“You’re always walking a tightrope and I always say I’m walking on the edge of the cliff,” says Howson as he reflects on the influence of traumatic memories. “The trick is not to fall off. But you can go to the edge and look over into the abyss and the abyss is frightening.” Howson takes us to the abyss and brings us back again. Like Dante, a key influence on the artist, Howson doesn’t shy away from the more macabre, morbid and sinister subjects of the human experience yet refuses wallow. His recent ink paintings depict the effects of corona virus and atrocities of the war in Ukraine. Rendered with biblical intensity, bodies writhe in a mass of human flesh pulling and straining as in battle or torment.  

His faith is as sincere as his painting, neither dogmatic or didactic, worn on his sleeve along with his experiences of trauma and addiction 

Unusually in British art, Howson also speaks openly about his faith, having converted to Christianity later in life. Indeed, a whole floor of the exhibition is dedicated to his religious paintings.  “There’s a part of me that wants that peace” he says. “It’s why I’m not frightened of the death thing. The real life is yet to come.” Howson acknowledges the unusual nature of his belief, not least in an art world where sincere religious faith is something of a novelty. 

“There’s hardly anyone believes these days but I don’t care if I’m wrong anyway because I’ll never know it anyway.” Even his faith is expressed with honest cynicism. “Religion in art is unfashionable,” he says yet Howson seems unfazed by fashions. His faith is as sincere as his painting, neither dogmatic or didactic, worn on his sleeve along with his experiences of trauma and addiction.  


2016; oil on canvas; 183.5 x 245cm; private collection; © the artist; photograph Antonio Parente.

A painting of a melee of many people across Christ on the cross.

This exhibition laments the broken nature of our world yet offers glimpses of hope in human empathy, compassion and ultimately in a redemptive God. In this way Howson describes his painting as “a warning of what’s to come”.  Howson refuses to be defined by his traumatic past and it seems evident he now sees the world through the lens of his Christianity, a perspective that clearly defines his understanding of human nature, masculinity and redemption. Whilst we might consider Howson a  chronicler of our times his painting that more than reportage.  He looks into the very soul of humanity, finding hope in the horror, making visible the invisible and giving voice to the unheard.