I read, with a chuckle, that some of the writers here have been called Beethoven-only, a tongue-in-cheek, but ironically inaccurate nick. Actually, some of us believe Western music began to go wrong with Beethoven, but let me not divert matters. I understand the idea behind the title. Scott has dealt elsewhere with the straw-man argument that we represent some fond allegiance to the great composers, believing Bach or Beethoven are the only examples of excellence in music, and in an ideal world, the great composers of bygone eras would be all we’d listen to.
My response? While Bach and those in his train do represent timeless examples of truth and beauty, my view is that we will never experience them as their generations did. Culture is a transmission of judgment, which has been irrevocably broken in the West. While we will always admire, love, and use the great works, we do not think that they are the closed canon of great music, nor do we think that worship should take place in a museum. (Not even Bach is the “standard” of worship; God Himself is the standard of our worship.) We should learn from, and if possible, build upon, the greats, not attempt to pickle them.
But I think we should emphasize that in order to build upon them, we ought to recognize them as great, and spend time learning what makes them great, not merely parrot those who say they are. Gerald Cragg, in The Church and the Age of Reason, gives us some idea of what made Bach great.
Bach’s greatness is compounded of many elements. He could combine the sacred and the secular without jeopardizing the mystical wonder of the one or the dramatic intensity of the other. He could fuse in one the popular elements supplied by the chorales and the aristocratic elements represented by consummate technical skill. He could carry realism to its utmost limits, yet he never overstepped the bounds of liturgical propriety. He was at once a daring innovator and a ‘perfect formalist’ – the master of both his subject matter and his form. He showed that Palestrina’s beauty (always mystical but often vague) and Handel’s vigour (forceful but somewhat material) could be fused in an art which surpassed the farthest reach of either. He accomplished it with an authority which imparted a touch of finality to almost everything he wrote. The firm assurance is more than a product of supreme skill. Bach offers an interpretation of life which transcends the limitations to which the work of lesser men is subject. The central thread which unifies the amazing skill, subtlety, and penetrating insight of his works is the motif of faith. He was fundamentally a religious man. To compose music was an act of faith; to perform it was an act of worship.
Bach was the greatest of church musicians. In a sense he was also the last…In religious music Bach represents the summit of achievement; after him the descent was rapid.