Nearly three centuries after his death in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach is widely considered to be one of the most influential musicians in history. His works are heard today in churches, concert halls, practice rooms, cars, elevators, and showers in every corner of the globe. One suspects that since at least the midtwentieth century not a single second has gone by during which someone, somewhere on earth was not hearing something by Bach. And why stop at just one planet? In 1977 a recording of the prelude and fugue in C major from part 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier was placed aboard the spacecraft Voyager 1 in the hope that inhabitants of other solar systems too might acquaint themselves with the best that planet earth had to offer.
Bach’s commanding presence in the world of classical music today should not blind us to the fact that he had plenty of competition while he was alive. In 1722, the Leipzig town council set about finding a replacement for the recently deceased Thomaskantor, Johann Kuhnau. Georg Philipp Telemann, who was then serving as music director in Hamburg, auditioned and was offered the post. He turned it down, however, when his employers gave him a counteroffer he could not refuse. The Leipzigers next offered the position to Christoph Graupner, but he opted to stay in his current position as Kapellmeister in Darmstadt. Only after both of these men had refused the appointment was it offered to Bach. To be sure, nonmusical factors played a critical role in the city council’s decision-making process. Both Telemann and Graupner had attended Leipzig University; they had more impressive academic credentials and were better-known locally. Still, the fact that Telemann and Graupner were selected first reveals that, for many eighteenth-century listeners, their music was an acceptable, if not preferable, alternative to Bach’s.
How is it that the judgment of Bach’s contemporaries could differ so radically from the judgment of music lovers since 1800? This volume offers direct and indirect answers to this question. Wolfgang Hirschmann’s essay critiques a line of scholarly reasoning that has treated Bach’s music as timeless and universal, ignoring his contemporaries as irrelevant to an understanding of his genius. He proposes an ethnographic approach that would contextualize Bach’s works, addressing the aesthetic paths he took as well as those he did not take. In a series of well-chosen examples, Hirschmann presents avenues of musical composition ignored by Bach but explored extensively by Telemann. Steven Zohn’s essay considers Telemann’s contribution to the orchestral Ouverture genre on the basis of an original print recently rediscovered in Moscow. Telemann can be seen to have developed an approach to integrating the national styles of his time quite distinct from, but no less rich than, that adopted by Bach. My own essay (p.viii) compares settings of Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust by Bach and Graupner. I argue that Graupner, like Bach’s other German contemporaries, focused on clear diction above all, an approach that depends for its effectiveness on listeners being moved by the text itself. Bach, by contrast, opted for an approach that emphasized instrumental music; he sought to make listeners feel the emotions of the text without depending too heavily upon the text. Alison J. Dunlop’s essay presents valuable primary research on Gottlieb Muffat, the most commonly cited keyboard-music composer in Vienna during Bach’s lifetime. She has been able to greatly illuminate the biographies of Muffat and his close family members through archival research and has also compiled a thematic catalog of Muffat’s music for the first time. Finally, Michael Maul’s essay sheds new light on the Scheibe-Birnbaum controversy, contextualizing the most famous critique of J. S. Bach’s compositional style by revealing the names of the other composers Scheibe critiqued. Maul’s research makes possible a reevaluation of Scheibe’s remarks about J. S. Bach, who was clearly not the primary target. The passages Scheibe wrote scandalously critiquing other musicians appear here for the first time in English.
Bach and his music remain subjects of intense interest to scholars and the general public alike. The authors represented in this volume have sought to outline some major issues and open avenues for further research. It is our view that countless pioneering studies about Bach’s life and music have yet to be written, most of them right here on planet Earth.