Times Staff Writer

Today is the 300th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's birth--and the musical world is celebrating it.

Still, "in his lifetime, Bach and his music were known only to a limited number of people, and he was not particularly appreciated," says Bach scholar Karl Geiringer, discussing the steady growth of Bach-consciousness since the composer's death in 1750.

"The lack of appreciation was at least partly, I believe, because performances of his music must have been extremely bad," speculates the 85-year-old musicologist, who is the author of three books on Bach and his family, as well as a number of other volumes dealing with, among other subjects, Brahms, Haydn and the history of musical instruments.

"At that time (1723-50), Bach was responsible for church music in the whole of Leipzig, although he himself worked mostly in two main churches.

"But he had to keep an eye on the musical activity in every Lutheran church, and provide music for each one.

"At St. Thomas's, he had to come up with something new every Sunday. Many Sundays, the ink was hardly dry on the new piece, rehearsals had been inadequate and the performance could not have been polished."

From his home in Santa Barbara, where he has taught at the University of California since 1962, Geiringer says he is going to celebrate the composer's birthday today by teaching a class in Bach's instrumental works. Then, tonight, he says he plans to listen to a program on KUSC-FM (at 9 p.m.) featuring some of the new Bach organ chorales that were discovered at Yale University in December.

Professing "no opinion, since I haven't seen them," Geiringer said of the chorales, discovered by Harvard University scholar Christoph Wolff, that "we knew they existed. What Wolff has done is to authenticate them. I don't know if history will agree with Wolff that they are authentic.

"In any case, our ideas about authenticity are constantly changing."

The Vienna-born musicologist pointed out that autograph manuscripts are a complicated matter.

"Naturally, Bach used music by other composers in his church posts. That use has caused much confusion in our time," Geiringer said. "For example, Bach copied out a number of cantatas by his cousin, Ludwig Bach, cantatas which were then attributed to Johann Sebastian, since the copies were in his hand.

"In the 20th Century, and particularly in the past 50 years, scholars have become much more cautious about attributing works to Bach. A great number of pieces earlier thought to be by him have been removed from the catalogue."

Is it possible, in our increasingly secular world, that Bach's music might become outdated, or extinct?

"Extinct? No, there is no danger of its becoming extinct. The appreciation of Bach's music is constantly increasing. Since his death, that appreciation has grown steadily," Geiringer said.

"This is partly due to the fact that the style of his sacred music is extremely similar to that of his secular music. In the 20th Century, we consider sacred and secular music as completely different. But in the 18th, there was no difference at all.

"Repeatedly, Bach changed German cantatas into Latin and secular texts into sacred, without the slightest compunction. As far as he was concerned, music was music--it could be played in the village as a dance, or in church as a sacred piece."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World