Two or three years ago, while having lunch with Samuel Adler (faculty 1996-2014) and Derek Bermel, I mentioned that numerous composers say Bach is their favorite composer, and I asked for their thoughts. Sam immediately answered, “Whether or not he was the favorite composer, he was the greatest one.” It is of particular interest to note that Beethoven, not often given to praise, referred to Bach as “the father of harmony.” Brahms and Bartók, among many others, paid homage to Bach.
Why Bach? I believe that no one has ever depicted the human spirit through music more deeply. I often compare him to Shakespeare: Styles and language may change, costumes may change, stagecraft may change, but his words and characterizations are forever. So too with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Whether it’s written in a sacred or secular mode, vocal or instrumental, serious or lighthearted—and whether it’s played on original instruments or ones that didn’t exist in his lifetime— Bach’s music speaks of eternal truth.
Bach is a requirement at virtually all string and keyboard competitions and auditions. This may indeed be a reason to study his music, one that leads to dutiful and often sterile performances. But it seems to me that the fundamental and overriding reason for studying Bach is to seek an understanding of what he is saying, his deeply felt religious convictions, his frequent reference to numbers and their architectural relationships. His music, although complex, speaks emotionally to the audience in simple terms. Perhaps most importantly, to know Bach is to be forever inspired by him. That is why Bach. —Violin and chamber music faculty member Lewis Kaplan (BS ’58, MS ’60, violin) is the director of the new Portland (Me.) Bach Festival