His times: In Bach’s Germany, music was centred on the church which was unfailingly where its finest practitioners were found. Accordingly, and as strange as it might seem today, Bach was revered in his own time more for his skills as an organist, instrumentalist and conductor than for the music he wrote himself. He was born into a politico-religious climate that shaped his creative life: the great reformer and hymn-writer Martin Luther translated the bible just a few miles from Bach’s birthplace, and the composer was subjected to a rigorous Lutheran education.
His music: Bach’s highly intellectual development of harmony laid the harmonic foundations for centuries’ worth of subsequent music, from that created by his direct offspring to that written by Wagner, Schoenberg and even The Beatles. He mastered ‘counterpoint’ – the relative weaving of different musical lines – like no other composer. His music was written out of need: as director of the court orchestra in Cöthen he created concertos, orchestral and instrumental suites; in his next job at St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig he gave birth to an astonishing cycle of sacred choral music. No matter how technical it sounds, Bach’s music rarely lacks an inherent emotional poetry in the right hands.
Himself: Bach was deeply religious but not altogether pious, getting into altercations throughout his career. He was also fascinated by technology and travel; one well-known organist recently suggested that were Bach alive today, he would fly and maintain his own private jet, finding time to write cantatas between take-off and landing, presumably a strong coffee in hand (caffeine was another of his passions).