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.