Here's the final version of the description that I submitted to LIFE:
Johann Sebastian Bach is a towering figure in the history of music. But for the better part of a century after his death, his music was rarely heard in public. Musicians like Mozart and Beethoven studied his music and learned from his example, but the music didn’t win public performance. That changed as the 19th century advanced. Today, Bach is a shining example for many classical and popular musicians. This six-session course will examine the context from which his music arose. The focus will be on the almost endless variety of ways his music can be performed and can be used in the service of music and musical styles far removed from the Baroque. The larger goal will be to provide ways in which we can deepen our understanding and appreciation of the contribution of J. S. Bach. Much of the music to be heard will be drawn from YouTube. We’ll sample the music together; links will be provided so that interested class participants can enjoy full performances at home. This course will be presented in lecture format, with class participation actively encouraged.
Bach has always been a towering musical presence in my life, ... and that sense has increased as I get older. One of the LIFE courses I offered examined the musical context in Europe during Bach's life. A second examined his successors, from his sons to today's musicians. This course began in my mind as a way to examine the various and sundry ways in which Bach's music can be performed. First off, there are questions about "authentic" performance. Can we, should we, attempt to reproduce the music just as it would have been heard in Bach's day? That's an interesting approach and may help us better appreciate his music, but we will never be an 18th century audience. And then there are questions about the wide range of ways in which Bach's musical ideas, his "inventions", are best realized. One frequently asked question is: Should we normally listen to his keyboard music played on a harpsichord or a piano? The oft cited answer is "Yes".
All of this could be assembled into an interesting LIFE course. But I realized while thinking about the course that what really intrigued me was a question about what makes Bach's music so fascinating, so timeless and so adaptable. I find a kind of deep similarity between the use of patterns in Bach's music and the ever so satisfying interweaving of patterns found in the best oriental rugs. Patterns are really important for us as human beings. We "see" the world through a pattern driven eyes. We "see" a chair, not a disconnected jumble of lines, colors and shapes. Indeed, we understand the world though the patterns and the stories we necessarily use to explain it. It has been argued that Bach's music cycles, but Mozart's music progresses (Karol Berger's recent Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow (2007) makes the point forcefully). These Bach cycles go some ways towards situating Bach between the heavenly presence of medieval music and the progressing music of the Classical period. One consequence is that the ideas, the inventions, are timeless and equally at home in a cathedral or a jazz club.
The challenge is to figure out how to present entertaining examples that will illustrate and inform these ideas. Bach himself used his two part inventions as a way for aspiring musicians to begin to hear two interweaving musical patterns. Maybe the class would find those an understandable example of musical counterpoint in action. And then there are the keyboard fugues. The "same" Bach fugue can be played on a massive pedal organ in a cathedral, or on a harpsichord in a salon, or on a piano in a concert hall, or on a clavichord a music room. The undergirding idea or pattern is the same, but the impact can be quite different. Looking beyond the keyboard works, I found an interesting example of reuse. Bach's Christmas Oratorio is spectacular in original form and is successfully reborn through the WDR Big Band's efforts. Playing musical selections from both versions makes two points: Bach's patterns can be endlessly reused, but when simplified they lack the timeless quality of the original.
There is no dearth of material that could be presented. But it's still a couple months before I will face the first class. I've got time to sort through examples that make the right points in enjoyable ways. I can't pretend that I'm knowledgeable enough to provide a definitive explanation for what makes Bach's music so great, so timeless and so reusable. Indeed there are any number of definitive explanations, most of which disagree with each other. My goal is much more modest. I hope to provide enough examples and enough theory that class participants can develop their own understanding about what makes Bach great, or maybe not so great.