Beyond "Bach-Centrism": Historiographic Perspectives on Johann Sebastian Bach and Seventeenth-Century Music

October 1, 1993

Beyond "Bach-Centrism": Historiographic Perspectives on Johann Sebastian Bach and Seventeenth-Century Music1

In connection with the preparation of an article on Bach's early works,2 I recently have examined books and essays of all kinds, some intended for a scholarly audience and others for a more general readership, in order to discern the prevailing wisdom on the relationship between Bach's music and the works of older composers. To anyone who has studied or taught seventeenth-century music, the paradigms I encountered are doubtless familiar. What is surprising, however, is the extent to which they are embedded in the literature; indeed these ideas hold a virtual monopoly in the discourse of the last hundred years. I hope others will find this material unsettling, as I have, and that our discomfort will cause us to change some of the ways in which we write about and teach about Bach in relation to earlier music.

Let us begin at mid-century, just after the Second World War, with one of the most widely read surveys, Manfred Bukofzer's Music in the Baroque Era. Characteristically, the works of a number of seventeenth-century German masters, including Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel, are discussed at the beginning of the chapter on Bach. Though Buxtehude and Pachelbel are rightly portrayed as "the first important masters of the chorale prelude proper," we are also told that they "laid the ground for the future development of the form with Bach." And with this formulation, placed strategically within the chapter on Bach, the die is cast: Buxtehude and Pachelbel "laid the ground" for Bach. Bukofzer then states that "Buxtehude's preludes are of particular interest because they give a highly personal interpretation of the chorale—a trend that Bach led to consummation."3 The key word here is "consummation," defined in a standard dictionary as the act of finishing something by completing or fulfilling it, or the act of bringing something to the utmost point or degree.4 The implication, of course, is that the organ chorales before Bach were somehow less than complete. But this applies not only to organ chorales. Indeed, Bukofzer declares that "the brilliant development of instrumental and sacred music in the late baroque culminated in the works of Bach, the greatest genius of baroque music."5

The notion of Bach's music as "consummation" or "culmination"—the latter defined as "the act of attaining the highest point"—is, of course, not unique to Bukofzer's textbook.6 In Hermann Keller's The Organ Works of Bach, first published in German a year after Bukofzer, we are told that "Bach's works, within the organ music of the Baroque, represent a culmination never reached before or since."7And Keller's book includes a diagram (Figure 1) that is the most powerful graphic representation known to me of the view of Bach's music as culmination. Indeed, in this case, a picture is worth perhaps several thousand words.


From Hermann Keller, The Organ Works of Bach: A Contribution to Their History, Form, Interpretation and Performance, trans. Helen Hewitt (New York: C.F. Peters Corporation, 1967), 27.


Moving forward from the 1940s to more recent years, similar statements are legion. Let us examine just a few representative examples. Take, for instance, Corliss Richard Arnold's Organ Literature, a book that is used widely for survey courses. Arnold states that Bach "took the methods of treatment worked out by earlier masters and infused greater imagination and color into them, thus raising those same forms to even greater heights."8Or consider the following statement from David Ewen's Great Composers 1300-1900, a volume that is (and should be) ignored by most scholars but is just the sort of book likely to be pulled off the shelf by undergraduates and general readers: "The fantasias, passacaglias, toccatas, preludes, and fugues [Bach] produced in abundance brought these forms to their ultimate technical and structural perfection and enriched them with unparalleled poetic and dramatic thought . . . . He was . . . the summit of the polyphonic age in music, and as such the final development of the older forms and styles."9

Such utterances are found not only in textbooks and general reference works but also in the professional literature. For example, James P. Fairleigh writes: "The basic framework of fugal style was the achievement of Bach's predecessors, although it was Bach alone who elevated the fugue to its zenith of artistic perfection."10Likewise, given the title of a recent D.M.A. thesis, it is not surprising to be told that its purpose is "to show, in the light of fifteenth- to seventeenth-century keyboard developments in Italy and Germany, that Bach's early free organ works are, for the most part, an extension and, in some cases, a culmination of these developments."11

Lest we imagine that the notion of Bach as culminator of embryonic musical forms is unique to the latter half of the twentieth century, a brief glance at a few earlier examples will demonstrate that this paradigm has persisted in unbroken succession for 100 years; it has survived two world wars and numerous other disruptions, and it has unselfconsciously crossed national boundaries. In France, there is André Pirro's book on Bach and the organ, first published in French in 1895. The opening chapter, titled "The Precursors of Bach," features brief sketches of the life and works of Frescobaldi, Froberger, Pachelbel, and Buxtehude. Pirro not only casts these composers in the role of precursors but asserts that to them "belongs the proud distinction of having provided a medium for Bach."12A few years later, Pirro's view that the historical significance of seventeenth-century music resides in providing the forms that Bach later brought to perfection was echoed by the British composer and scholar C. Hubert H. Parry. His words are such an eloquent example of Bach chauvinism that they are worth quoting at length:

Though up to [Bach's] time art of the kinds which came into being in the seventeenth century had been almost universally immature, and though, of more than a century of manifold creative effort, hardly any work remains to the world which has not to be taken with some qualification and allowance for its immaturity, [Bach] gathered into his grasp so completely all the methods and experiments which had been devised in different quarters and in divers countries, and so welded them by the consistent power of his artistic personality, that the traces of their origin are forgotten . . . . At the end of the seventeenth century things were more or less in a state of preparation; the appliances were ready in plenty, but they needed the gathering together and systematisation—the comprehension which only a man gifted with the highest faculties and perception of the widest range can command.13

Two final examples, from German musicology of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, round out our preliminary survey of the terrain. Although Fritz Dietrich's research was directed principally toward a book on the history of the German organ chorale in the seventeenth century,14 characteristically he was concerned to bring this information to bear on Bach's music, too. This he did in an important article with the revealing title "J. S. Bach's Organ Chorale and Its Historical Roots."15 Although the developmental model underlies this lengthy and detailed account of the so-called "roots" of Bach's art, to his credit Dietrich stresses Bach's debt not only to seventeenth-century traditions but to the influence of his contemporaries as well. Moreover, he locates Bach's originality in the ways in which he transformed this genre. A similar perspective is evident in Gotthold Frotscher's history of organ-playing and organ composition. According to Frotscher, Bach's intellectual significance is connected with his ability to achieve a synthesis that "over and above the shaping of a personal style symbolizes the union and culmination of the forces of his age and of days gone by."16



If it is evident that writing about Bach and seventeenth-century music has long been dominated by the paradigm of "prophecy and fulfillment," it is equally clear that this has not always been the case. Consider, for example, a passage from a polemical pamphlet published in Berlin in 1729, only six years after Bach had become Cantor of St. Thomas's and civic music director in Leipzig. Martin Heinrich Fuhrmann, himself the cantor of a school in Berlin, writes: "We have the learned musical trefoil in B, consisting of three incomparable virtuosi whose family-names bear a B on their shields: Buxtehude, Bachhelbel,17 and Bach in Leipzig; these men mean as much to me as Cicero did to the Romans."18 While the word "virtuosi" and a statement earlier in the pamphlet indicate that Fuhrmann is praising the keyboard skills of these three men rather than their compositional abilities, the appearance of Bach's name on an equal footing with Buxtehude and Pachelbel contrasts sharply with the formulations we have encountered so far.

Moreover, Bach's own attitude toward seventeenth-century music apparently was quite positive. From his obituary, penned by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his student Johann Friedrich Agricola, we know that as an adolescent Bach eagerly copied out keyboard works by "the most famous masters of the day," including Froberger, Kerll, and Pachelbel.19 Graphological evidence in a manuscript at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh suggests additionally that the young Sebastian probably helped his elder brother Johann Christoph prepare a manuscript of Buxtehude's Praeludium in G minor (BuxWV 148) during the same period.20 From the obituary we also know that while he was a student at St. Michael's in Lüneburg (1700-03) Bach had contact with Johann Adam Reinken, the famous organist of St. Catherine's in Hamburg.21 We are told further that at age eighteen, when Bach assumed the position of organist at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt, he "showed the first fruits of his application . . . to composition, which he had learned chiefly by the observation of the works of the most famous and proficient composers of his day and by the fruits of his own reflection upon them." The specific composers named as models are Bruhns, Reinken, and Buxtehude.22 This was also the time during which Bach made his famed journey to Lübeck to become acquainted with Buxtehude and his music at first hand.23 Finally, we have Emanuel Bach's letter to Johann Nicolaus Forkel in which he states that "besides Froberger, Kerl, and Pachelbel, [my father] heard and studied the works of Frescobaldi, the Baden Capellmeister Fischer, Strunck, some old and good Frenchmen, Buxdehude, Reincken, Bruhns, and the Lüneburg organist Böhm."24

From these documents and other bits of evidence—such as Bach's personal copy of Frescobaldi's Fiori Musicali (now lost), or his arrangement of a movement from Kerll's Missa Superba,25 not to mention his role in the compilation of the Alt-Bachisches Archiv, a collection of compositions by members of the Bach family—it is obvious that Bach did not view himself as the perfecter of imperfect inherited traditions. On the contrary, he apparently had the utmost respect for the work of his forebears who he attempted to emulate. As Friedrich Blume puts it, Bach "never felt that he was the 'consummator' of 'forerunners'. . . . In his youth he had fitted himself into the endless chain of masters before him, became himself a link in this chain and so remained up to the very end; a musician among musicians."26 How, then, did Bach change from a link in the chain of masters to the consummator of lesser forerunners?

The answer can be found in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the rise of the critical-historical biography in Germany.27 The models for this new kind of biography were books such as Johann Gustav Droysen's Leben des Grafen York (1851-52) and Hermann Grimm's Leben Michel-Angelos (1860-63). The standard work for Bach, of course, was Philipp Spitta's Johann Sebastian Bach (1873-80). On the one hand, Spitta's efforts to view Bach's music in its historical context served as a powerful stimulus to the investigation of seventeenth-century music. Indeed, the bibliography for a number of composers—including Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and Georg Böhm—begins effectively with Spitta's detailed discussion of their works. At the same time, however, the historical premises upon which Spitta erected his monumental study led ultimately to a devaluation of the work of earlier composers. In Spitta's preface, one hears echoes of the kind of language that has become so prevalent in our own century. Bach is characterized as "a man who forms, as it were, the focal point towards which all the music of Germany has tended during the last three centuries, and in which all its different lines converged." Spitta's task, then, is "to disentangle, in the period that preceded him, the threads which united in that centre, and to trace the reasons why it should have been in Bach that they converged, and in none other."28 Although Spitta praises Böhm, for instance, as "an artist of deep feeling and learning" and "a great musical genius,"29 in the final analysis he was just one of the "threads" that converged in the great "centre." This is reflected in the equivocal character of Spitta's remarks about specific compositions. For example, he praises Böhm's Prelude and Fugue in G Minor as a "very lovely piece, which would of itself suffice to set its composer in the rank of the greatest creative talent of his day." But in the next breath he goes on to say, "We feel in it, in germ and bud, something which could only open to its intoxicating bloom and perfume in the hands of Sebastian Bach."30 The clear implication of this organicist metaphor—Böhm's music as bud, Bach's as bloom—is that the earlier work has not achieved its full potential; after all, who would rather smell a bud than a rose? Likewise, Spitta avers that Böhm's suites are "beyond question the best which I am acquainted with of the time before Sebastian Bach."31 But ultimately these works are significant because they "form the stepping-stone to those of Bach."32

An even more radical expression of these assumptions appears in Albert Schweitzer's study of Bach. Schweitzer views Bach's music in Hegelian terms as a manifestation of the zeitgeist. The following extract provides a flavor of his thought:

[Bach is a] universal personality. He profited by the musical development of three or four generations. When we pursue the history of this family, which occupies so unique a position in the art-life of Germany, we have the feeling that everything that is happening there must culminate in something consummate. We feel it to be a matter of course that some day a Bach shall come in whom all those other Bachs shall find a posthumous existence, one in whom the fragment of German music that has been embodied in this family shall find its completion. Johann Sebastian Bach—to speak the language of Kant—is a historical postulate.33

One is struck here by the early use of the language of "culmination," "consummation," and "completion" which, as we have seen, has dominated twentieth-century discourse on Bach's relation to his forebears. But Schweitzer goes on to make a set of even more astonishing claims:

Bach is . . . a terminal point. Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads up to him. To give his true biography is to exhibit the nature and the unfolding of German art, that comes to completion in him and is exhausted in him....This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul.34

This is the most explicit and extreme formulation of the view of Bach I have been describing. And it had truly catastrophic consequences for the reputation of seventeenth-century music. At the end of the chapter on "The Chorale Preludes Before Bach," Schweitzer writes: "All [Bach's predecessors] did was really only pioneer work. Perhaps we should not know that it was only such, if the greater spirit had not come after them."35 Whereas Spitta was able to derive aesthetic satisfaction from Buxtehude's music, Schweitzer's worship of Bach robbed him of the capacity to enjoy it on its own terms:

This is the experience of everyone who has been affected by the chorale preludes of Buxtehude and the other old masters. At first he is amazed at the artistic treasures he has discovered; when, however, he goes further into them, a more sober mood comes over him. [These works are] of historical interest, as the record of an aspiration towards a goal, [but they lack] the power of giving direct artistic satisfaction.36

In the end, Schweitzer uses almost the same words as his French and British contemporaries, Pirro and Parry, to describe seventeenth-century music: "The chorale preludes of the composers before Bach are finally . . . no more than what they are in themselvesforms that they created for the greater master who was to come after them, so that he might find them when he needed them, and make living things of them."37



The "Bach-centrism" that arose in the late nineteenth century and that still persists has had decisive consequences for research on several seventeenth-century composers. Take, for instance, Georg Böhm. In Johann Gottfried Walther's Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732), Böhm is described simply as "a worthy composer, and organist at St. John's in Lüneburg."38 Similarly, the brief article in Ernst Ludwig Gerber's Neues historisch-biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler (Leipzig, 1812) treats Böhm and his music without a single reference to Bach, praising Böhm's chorale preludes as "among the best of his time."39 Since Spitta, however, research on Böhm has been conducted largely in the shadow of Bach. In the bibliography at the end of the article on Böhm in the The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the next three items after Gerber and Spitta are all from the Bach-Jahrbuch.40 Gustav Fock's 1950 monograph on Bach's Lüneburg years contains a long section concerning Böhm's influence on Bach.41 The most important full-length study of Böhm's music, by Henning Müller-Buscher, was originally published in 1973 as a dissertation under the title "Studien zu den Choralbearbeitungen Georg Böhms (1661-1733)" [Studies of Georg Böhm's Chorale Settings]. But here, too, Bach lurks subtly in the wings. For in the 1979 edition, which the author acknowledges is largely unchanged, a subtitle was added, apparently for commercial reasons: "Georg Böhm's Chorale Settings for Keyboard Instruments: A Contribution to the Prehistory of J. S. Bach's Chorale Settings."42 Even in the New Grove, perhaps the most widely consulted musical encyclopedia, Bach is inextricably bound up with Böhm. The entry for Böhm begins: "German composer and organist. He is specially important for his influence on the young J. S. Bach and for his development of the chorale partite." And one cannot help but notice that the article is divided into the traditional "Life" and "Works," plus a third section: "Influence on J. S. Bach."43 Finally, the most significant recent addition to the literature on Böhm, which includes a detailed biographical account, is an extensive essay by Jean-Claude Zehnder, titled "Georg Böhm and Johann Sebastian Bach: On the Chronology of Bach's Stylistic Development," again in the Bach-Jahrbuch.44 Admittedly, Böhm is an extreme case. But given the shape of the bibliography, one begins to wonder whether Böhm would be remembered at all had Bach died as an infant!

The situation is better for Dietrich Buxtehude. Since the late nineteenth century, and especially in the last three or four decades, there has been a fairly steady flow of scholarly prose about Buxtehude. And research on this composer, unlike Böhm, has long since acquired an identity of its own, apart from Bach. But even here the pernicious influence of Bach-centrism has been felt. The following quotation, attributed to Parry, exemplifies the type of backhanded compliment found all too often in writings on Buxtehude:

The breadth and scope of [Buxtehude's] works, his power of putting things in their right places, his daring invention, the brilliancy of his figuration, the beauty and strength of his harmony, and above all a strange tinge of Romanticism which permeated his disposition . . . marked him as one of the greatest composers of organ music, except the one and only Johann Sebastian Bach. And in Johann Sebastian Bach's organ works the traces of the influence of Buxtehude are more plentiful than those of any other composer. It is not too much to say that unless Dietrich Buxtehude had gone before, the world would have had to do without some of the most lovable and interesting traits in the divinest and most exquisitely human of all composers.45

Even scholars whose ostensible purpose is to stimulate interest in Buxtehude are guilty of complicity. For example, in his tercentenary essay on Buxtehude, Walter Buszin introduces the composer as "a member of the triumvirate (Pachelbel, Böhm, and Buxtehude) which established the forms of the chorale prelude and chorale fantasia, adopted and developed to their highest point by Johann Sebastian Bach."46 With unwitting irony, Buszin then remarks that "Buxtehude himself, according to all available indications, never dreamed that he would go down in musical history as the most eminent precursor of the greatest composer of German Protestantism."47 And at the end of the article, he predicts that "the day will come when our musicians generally will delve more deeply into the treasure [Buxtehude] has left. Their ever growing worship of Bach will lead them to occupy themselves increasingly with the choral and instrumental music of his forerunners and contemporaries."48 This prediction has assuredly come to pass in the intervening fifty-odd years. But one still awaits the day when the music of Buxtehude and other seventeenth-century masters will be studied and performed because of its intrinsic worth rather than its connections with Bach.

Even in recent years, Buxtehude scholars have felt compelled to argue the composer's case. For instance, Kerala Snyder concludes her superb article on Buxtehude in the New Grove with the observation: "100 years after Spitta's work it is evident that both [Buxtehude's] vocal and instrumental music are eminently worthy of performance and study on their own merits."49 Is it too much to hope that by the time the next edition of Grove is published, the importance of Buxtehude's art will be so widely accepted that such a statement will be unnecessary? Likewise, one cannot fail to notice a certain amount of hand-wringing about Buxtehude's reputation, or lack thereof (especially in comparison with Bach's), in Friedhelm Krummacher's brilliant address at the Lübeck Buxtehude Symposium in 1987.50 That Krummacher apparently was at great pains to justify a single international festival organized around Buxtehude chafes all the more when one remembers that hundreds of such events have been devoted to Bach, and that Bach festivals are standard fare, year in and year out, in cities, towns, and villages both within and outside of Germany.

The unfortunate consequences of Bach-centrism are observable in writings about other seventeenth-century composers as well. For example, Johann Pachelbel has been labeled "an important predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach" and "the spiritual ancestor of Johann Sebastian Bach."51 But the grand prize for Pachelbel-bashing goes to Parry, who wrote in his Bach biography: "Though Pachelbel often seems to lack depth and sincerity he was one of the most important pioneers of style in his time, and his instinct for effect was so great that it has sometimes been sufficient to deceive the very elect into thinking there really was something behind it."52

Some may prefer that we not dignify statements of this kind by taking them seriously. But such utterances reflect deeply-held convictions that are not swiftly and easily overcome. If we aspire to teach and write responsibly about these repertories, it is essential that we have a clear idea of what we are up against. Furthermore, overt or thinly-veiled value judgments sometimes crop up in the most unlikely places. For instance, in a chapter on "Froberger's Significance for the Music of Bach," Henning Siedentopf paraphrases (and apparently assents to) Forkel's view that "the old music is not yet completely expressive, not yet fully capable of representing feelings musically." Siedentopf's philosophical viewpoint percolates to the surface shortly thereafter: "The dialectic of historical progress, which is only possible on the basis of or against the background of that which is handed down, is confirmed in an impressive manner."53

The notion of "progress," that sacred cow of historical narrative, is also invoked in an essay on Bach and one of his contemporaries, the Baden Kapellmeister Johann Kaspar Ferdinand Fischer. Regarding the unique qualities of Bach's suites in relation to earlier French and German examples of this genre, Ichiro Sumikura writes: "[Bach's] is a type that really signifies the end of the Baroque keyboard suite and with it also suggests its disintegration, as is also the case with Bach in other areas. In the perfection of a style or an artistic medium there is always a moment of disintegration, and that is what always drives forward the history of music."54



By now it should be clear that the view of history that has informed most writing about the relationship between Bach and earlier music is a teleological model: the idea that history is moving toward a definite end. A corollary to this notion is the conviction that the historical endpoint—in our case, the music of Bach—possesses virtually unlimited aesthetic value, and that the aesthetic value of other repertories is a function of their degree of proximity to the endpoint. The most extreme example of this point of view (known to me) is a quotation attributed to the British scholar A. Eaglefield Hull: "As John the Baptist was to Christ, so was . . . Buxtehude to Bach."55 Here the relationship between the two composers is likened to the relationship between God Incarnate and the archetypal Forerunner. For it was John the Baptist who said of Jesus: "After me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry" (Matthew 3:11b) and "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30).

Of course, this model is not unique to the Bach literature. In fact, Leo Treitler has observed that what he calls the "developmental doctrine" is "a prominent feature in the philosophical background of historical musicology."56 Treitler's trenchant analysis of music-historical writing helps us to understand better the value judgments inherent in this mode of thought:

Can we say "ripe Classical style" without implying a higher order of musical achievement than is suggested by "nascent Classical style?" Surely not, for all statements of this type are supported by a theory of history that imposes a hierarchy on their subjects. Every stage in a developmental process is a step nearer to the realization of potentials, hence what is is an improvement over what was . . . . What lies at the end of the development is the perfection of the form, the full realization of its potentials; last is best.57

One of the problems with the model Treitler is scrutinizing is that, of course, last is not always best. Sometimes both first and last are good, albeit in different ways. Or last may even be worse, as in the case of a poor imitation of an earlier form.

Whatever one may believe about the larger contours of human and cosmic history, clearly the "developmental doctrine" is inimical to the aesthetic appreciation of certain repertories, such as the music of Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and Böhm. What is ironic, however, is that the view of Bach as "focal point" (Spitta's term) or "terminal point" (Schweitzer's formulation) is not axiomatic; rather, as we have seen, it is itself an historical construct whose origins are traceable to the late nineteenth century. Carl Dahlhaus's concise characterization of the concept of "Viennese Classicism" applies equally well to the overly-exalted view of Bach that has both stimulated interest in and hindered the reception of seventeenth-century music: "[It is] a nationalistically tinged concept of stature shaped by the German bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century and imposed upon the rest of Europe [and not just Europe, one might add] through the prominence of German musicology."58



Before concluding with a brief look at some positive role models, as it were, let me clarify one or two points. First, I am not for a moment calling into question the quality or greatness of Bach's art. To do so would be the height of folly, for Bach's music is indisputably among the best in the Western tradition. What bothers me rather are the ways in which unbridled enthusiasm for Bach has marginalized a number of very significant seventeenth-century figures. Not much has changed since 1950, the 200th anniversary of Bach's death, when Paul Henry Lang observed that "the music teachers, the music histories, and the performances of the Passions and the Mass worshipfully honor [Bach] as the teachers of literature, the literary manuals, and the theaters honor Shakespeare or Goethe: the embodiment of greatness in art, beyond reproach and beyond criticism." And I am inclined to agree with Lang that "after two hundred years this greatness seems oppressive."59 Indeed, Bach's greatness has been oppressive to the extent that it has cast the works of the seventeenth-century masters in a negative light.

I cannot accept Krummacher's blanket statement that "for the critical listener, who orients himself less by historical than by qualitative criteria, the music of his contemporaries [and, by extension, his predecessors] pales in comparison with Bach."60 Until we have a better grasp of Froberger, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and Böhm in their own historical and cultural contexts, and in relation to one another, I suspect we will have difficulty making accurate comparisons between their music and Bach's. And as we become better acquainted with his early works in particular, we will come to realize that, like all mortals, Bach learned by doing; that some of his youthful compositions are less successful than others; and that often there is a very thin (sometimes almost imperceptible) line between Bach's style and that of the composers after which he patterned himself.

By the same token, it is not difficult to understand how Bach's music could be regarded as "the culmination of centuries of development." For as Arno Forchert points out, it exerted relatively little direct influence on the next generations of composers: "The genres in which Bach created the major part of his masterpieces—free and chorale-based organ works, keyboard suites, preludes and fugues, cantatas, and oratorios—became without exception insignificant after his death and were superseded by other, new ones in whose emergence Bach did not take part."61 Not only the main genres but, indeed, the entire aesthetic and intellectual climate shifted during Bach's lifetime, so that in some respects he was an "outsider," both musically and philosophically.62 (How many composers were still writing canons and fugues in the 1740s? And how many retained an essentially precritical [i.e., seventeenth-century] approach to Biblical interpretation in the face of the Enlightenment's exaltation of reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth?) Finally, both the vast quantity and the remarkably high quality of Bach's music have contributed to the perception that it did indeed constitute a nodal point in the history of Western culture.

But, to come to the nub of the issue, is it possible to write about the relationship between Bach's music and earlier music without either denying his indisputable greatness or denigrating the work of those who came before him? Willi Apel apparently thought this was not possible. For he claims that his decision not to include Bach in his monumental History of Keyboard Music to 1700

was based not only on the limitations of space . . . but also on the realization that his work would put the rest of the book in the wrong light—earlier compositions would not be seen in the full brilliance of their own value but in the lesser light of a preparation or of first steps. It was exactly this that had to be avoided. My task is not only to give a historical overview but to show (and, I hope, to convince the reader) that in the field of keyboard music personalities like Schlick, Cabezón, Byrd, Frescobaldi, and others cannot be passed over as mere precursors of Bach any more than Josquin, Palestrina, Monteverdi, or Schütz can be regarded as such in vocal music.63

So, one way to solve the problematic relationship between Bach and earlier composers is simply to eliminate Bach.

Fortunately, however, there are also a few successful recent studies that do not dodge the issue. For instance, in his essay on Bach and the North German organ chorale, Werner Breig states: "To include the chorale-based organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach in our examination does not mean accordingly to interpret and to justify as meaningful the history of the genre as a sequence of steps on the way to Bach."64 And in his contribution to the 1987 Buxtehude Symposium in Lübeck, Breig turns the usual formulation on its head by portraying Buxtehude as the culminator of the monodic organ chorale and Bach as a successor of Buxtehude. Moreover, he interprets Bach's "Das alte Jahr vergangen ist" (BWV 614) as a kind of "Homage to Buxtehude."65

Christoph Wolff also has opened new possibilities with important essays on Bach and Johann Adam Reinken, and Bach and Buxtehude. Though Spitta had downplayed his role, Wolff argues that "Reinken represents a major, perhaps even the major, figure in young Bach's life."66 By calling attention to Reinken's involvement with the Hamburg opera, his theoretical interests, and his extensive knowledge of musical literature, in addition to his more familiar reputation as a virtuoso and organ expert, Wolff illuminates his significance for Bach while simultaneously enhancing Reinken's reputation. In his article on Buxtehude and Bach, Wolff portrays the elder composer as a role model for Bach in the scope of his interests, both practical and theoretical, and in his wide range of activities. Likewise, in the compositional realm, "the Buxtehudian manner of extreme diversity and individuality was a decisive precedent for Bach . . . . Bach's compositional solutions, like Buxtehude's, stress the principle of individuality and resist the tendency toward conformity and regularity . . . . Bach, in this sense, preserved the Buxtehudian spirit, just as Buxtehude had in his own right foreshadowed a later ideal."67 One arrives at the end of these essays with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Reinken and Buxtehude, both as significant figures in their own right and in relation to Bach. At the same time, however, Bach never relinquishes his position as undisputed master.68

The intent of this essay has been to urge greater caution and deeper reflection in the ways we discuss seventeenth-century music in relation to Bach. I have, of course, been preaching primarily to myself, keeping in mind George Santayana's dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."69 Lest we think we are powerless to set right the excesses of the past, however, let us also take note of the words of another turn-of-the-century skeptic, Samuel Butler: "It has been said that though God cannot alter the past, historians can; it is perhaps because they can be useful to Him in this respect that He tolerates their existence."70

1I wish to thank the University Research Committee of Emory University for supporting this study. A shorter version was read at the Annual Conference of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music, Washington University (St. Louis), April 1993.

2"The Early Works and the Heritage of the Seventeenth Century," in The Cambridge Companion to Bach, ed. John Butt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

3Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1947), 267.

4Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2d ed., s.v. "consummate."

5Bukofzer, Baroque Era, 270.

6Webster's, s.v. "culmination."

7Hermann Keller, The Organ Works of Bach: A Contribution to Their History, Form, Interpretation and Performance, trans. Helen Hewitt (New York: C. F. Peters Corporation, 1967), 1.

8Corliss Richard Arnold, Organ Literature: A Comprehensive Survey, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1984), 1:95.

9David Ewen, Great Composers 1300-1900: A Biographical and Critical Guide (New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1966), 19, 22.

10James P. Fairleigh, "Pachelbel's Magnificat Fugues: Models for J. S. Bach," The American Organist 14, no. 6 (June 1980): 34.

11Monica Johanna Umstaedt, "The Early Organ Preludes, Fugues, Toccatas and Fantasias of Johann Sebastian Bach as a Culmination of Italian and German Organ Literature of the 15th to 17th Centuries" (D.M.A. thesis, Ohio State University, 1980), 1-2.

12André Pirro, Johann Sebastian Bach, the Organist and His Works for the Organ, trans. Wallace Goodrich (1902; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1978), 26.

13C. Hubert H. Parry, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story of the Development of a Great Personality (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1909), 19, 23.

14Fritz Dietrich, Geschichte des deutschen Orgelchorals im 17. Jahrhundert (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1932).

15Fritz Dietrich, "J. S. Bachs Orgelchoral und seine geschichtlichen Wurzeln," Bach-Jahrbuch 26 (1929): 1-89.

16Gotthold Frotscher, Geschichte des Orgelspiels und der Orgelkomposition, 2 vols. (1935; reprint, Berlin: Verlag Merseburger, 1959), 2:850. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

17This spelling occurs frequently in eighteenth-century sources.

18Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1966), 441.

19Ibid., 216.

20Hans-Joachim Schulze, "Bach und Buxtehude: Ein wenig beachtete Quelle in der Carnegie Library zu Pittsburgh/PA," Bach-Jahrbuch 77 (1991): 177-81.

21David and Mendel, Bach Reader, 217.


23Ibid., 217-18.

24Ibid., 278. This passage is quoted almost verbatim in Forkel's biography of J. S. Bach; cf. ibid., 317.

25See Peter Wollny, "Bachs Sanctus BWV 214 und Kerlls 'Missa Superba'," Bach-Jahrbuch 77 (1991): 173-76; Hans T. David, "A Lesser Secret of J. S. Bach Uncovered," Journal of the American Musicological Society 14 (1961): 199-223.

26Friedrich Blume, "J. S. Bach's Youth," The Musical Quarterly 54 (1968): 30.

27"New Perspectives on Bach Biography," in Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 4.

28Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, trans. Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller-Maitland, 3 vols. (1889; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1951), 1:i.

29Ibid., 196.

30Ibid., 210.

31Ibid., 209.

32Ibid., 210.

33Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, trans. Ernest Newman, 2 vols. (1911; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1966), 1:2.

34Ibid., 3-4.

35Ibid., 49.

36Ibid., 50, 49.

37Ibid., 50.

38Johann Gottfried Walther, Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig: Wolffgang Deer, 1732; reprint, Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1953), 98.

39Ernst Ludwig Gerber, Neues historisch-biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler (Leipzig: A. Kühnel, 1812-14; reprint, Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1966), 446.

40The articles are: Richard Buchmayer, "Nachrichten über das Leben Georg Böhms, mit spezieller Berücksichtigung seiner Beziehungen zur Bachschen Familie," Bach-Jahrbuch 5 (1908): 107-22; Werner Wolffheim, "Die Möllersche Handschrift: Ein unbekanntes Gegenstück zum Andreas-Bach-Buche," Bach-Jahrbuch 9 (1912): 52-55; Dietrich, "Bachs Orgelchoral" (see n. 15).

41Gustav Fock, Der junge Bach in Lüneburg: 1700 bis 1702 (Hamburg: Verlag Merseburger und Co., 1950), 83-97.

42Henning Müller-Buscher, Georg Böhms Choralbearbeitungen für Tasteninstrumente: Ein Beitrag zur Vorgeschichte der Choralbearbeitungen J. S. Bachs (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1979).

43Hugh J. McLean, "Böhm, Georg," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1980), 2:852-53.

44Jean-Claude Zehnder, "Georg Böhm und Johann Sebastian Bach: Zur Chronologie der Bachschen Stilentwicklung," Bach-Jahrbuch 74 (1988): 73-110.

45Ewen, Great Composers, 71 (emphasis added).

46Walter E. Buszin, "Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707): On the Tercentenary of his Birth," The Musical Quarterly 23 (1937): 465.

47Ibid., 466.

48Ibid., 490.

49Kerala Johnson Snyder, "Buxtehude, Dietrich," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1980), 3:532.

50Friedhelm Krummacher, "Dietrich Buxtehude: Musik zwischen Geschichte und Gegenwart," in Dietrich Buxtehude und die europäische Musik seiner Zeit: Bericht über das Lübecker Symposion 1987, ed. Arnfried Edler and Friedhelm Krummacher (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1990), 9-30.

51Ewen, Great Composers, 279.

52Parry, Johann Sebastian Bach, 30.

53Henning Siedentopf, Johann Jacob Froberger: Leben und Werk (Stuttgart: Stuttgarter Verlagskontor, 1977), 72.

54Ichiro Sumikura, "Johann Sebastian Bach und Johann Kaspar Ferdinand Fischer," in Bericht über die Wissenschaftliche Konferenz zum III. Internationalen Bach-Fest der DDR Leipzig, 18./19. September 1975, ed. Werner Felix, Winfried Hoffmann, and Armin Schneiderheinze (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1977), 234-35. In an earlier contribution on the same topic ("Über Joh. Kasp. Ferd. Fischers Einfluß auf Joh. Seb. Bach," Bach-Jahrbuch 7 [1910]:63-69), Reinhard Oppel employs remarkably poetic language to convey the difference in stature between Bach and Fischer: "For the naive observer, who takes them in without any ulterior geographic or historical motives, besides their sublimity there is at the same time something cold, in a way divinely unapproachable, about the great rivers in the plains and the masters who lead certain musical periods to their summit and conclusion. But if one leaves the plain and in the mountains sees all the smaller and larger tributaries working to gather and to secure life, strength, and growth for their proud big brother in the plain, then the immense giant just seems more human. It is no different with the geniuses of music, if one tracks down their sources, their tributaries: in the process the genius loses some of his natural coldness; on the other hand, his predecessors gain infinitely.
"Johann Kaspar Ferdinand Fischer is among the predecessors of Johann Sebastian Bach." (p. 63)

55Ewen, Great Composers, 71.

56"On Historical Criticism," in Leo Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 88.

57Ibid., 92-93.

58Carl Dahlhaus, "The Eighteenth Century as a Music-Historical Epoch," College Music Symposium 26 (1986): 6.

59Paul Henry Lang, "Editorial," The Musical Quarterly 36 (1950): 574.

60Friedhelm Krummacher, "Pachelbels Bedeutung für Bachs Musik," in 48. Bach-Fest der Neuen Bach-Gesellschaft, 30. Mai - 3. Juni in Nürnberg (Nuremberg: n.p., 1973), 124.

61Arno Forchert, "Johann Sebastian Bachs Verhältnis zur Tradition," in 51. Bachfest der Neuen Bachgesellschaft in Berlin (West) vom 25. bis 30. August 1976 (Berlin: Herbert Großmann, 1976), 5.

62Dahlhaus, "Eighteenth Century," 2.

63Willi Apel, The History of Keyboard Music to 1700, trans. and rev. Hans Tischler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), xiv-xv.

64Werner Breig, "Der norddeutsche Orgelchoral und Johann Sebastian Bach: Gattung, Typus, Werk," in Gattung und Werk in der Musikgeschichte Norddeutschlands und Skandinaviens (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1982), 87.

65Werner Breig, "Die geschichtliche Stellung von Buxtehudes monodischen Orgelchoral," in Dietrich Buxtehude und die europäische Musik seiner Zeit: Bericht über das Lübecker Symposion 1987, ed. Arnfried Edler and Friedhelm Krummacher (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1990), 273.

66"Bach and Johann Adam Reinken: A Context for the Early Works," in Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 57.

67"Buxtehude, Bach, and Seventeenth-Century Music in Retrospect," in Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 54-55.

68Another noteworthy contribution is Wolff's article on "Pachelbel, Buxtehude und die weitere Einfluß-Sphäre des jungen Bach," forthcoming in the proceedings of a conference on Bach's early works held in Rostock in 1990. I am grateful to Professor Wolff for supplying me with a copy in advance of its publication.

69George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 2d ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932), vol. 1, Introduction and Reason in Common Sense, 284. The first edition of this work appeared in 1905.

70Samuel Butler, Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited (New York: Modern Library, 1955), 468-69. Quotation from Erewhon Revisited, originally published in 1901.

9114 Last modified on October 22, 2018