Originally published 10/27/ 2009
The death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 was a solemn occasion indeed. It would have to have been–it’s hard to imagine anything more solemn than a German funeral. Germany, and certainly all of Europe, mourned the passing of one of the greatest paragons of artistic achievement they–and, assuredly, the world–had ever known. Bach’s entire enormous family was there, including his wife Anna Magdalena and their twenty children, most of whom were probably half-occupied composing trio sonatas in their heads, hoping to remember all the counterpoint by the time they got home to write it down. His eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach stood off to the side, sneaking snootfuls of whiskey from a hidden flask, musing to himself that he was REALLY going to have a hard time living up to his father’s reputation now that the old man was dead. The pallbearers lowered the casket with unparalleled Teutonic solemnity into the grave.
And then, as they threw the first shovelful of dirt on top of the casket, the sky lit with fireworks! A trumpet fanfare sounded! Banners dropped from the eaves of every building in town, bearing in gaudy colors the message “Welcome to the Classical Era!”
Well, no. That’s probably not how it went at all. This idea of imposing labels onto artistic epochs is something that doesn’t happen until long after the epochs have passed, but this contrived practice is one that’s always fascinated me. Why do we have such a huge desire to categorize things? And who makes up the names? And why has this process spiraled out of all control since the 20th century?
It’s fitting, I think, that historians should mark the year of Bach’s death as the end of the Baroque era. He was probably the most important creative figure working in that period–and I feel pretty safe in asserting that, since I think he was probably just about the most important creative figure working in ANY period. (more…)