Opera, unlike many other art forms, did not emerge organically. It is therefore instructive to understand its early form as what Richard Dawkins calls a 'replicator,' "an organism that mutates through successive generations, sometimes with enough success to perpetuate the line and, at others, falling away as expendable and non-regenerative."
In today's lesson, the British conductor John Eliot Gardiner utilizes Dawkins's concept to solve one of music's great mysteries - why Johann Sebastian Bach never composed an opera. According to Gardiner, Bach seized upon an emergent genre, that of mutant opera, in order to infuse his church music with drama, and humanism.
The rhetorical question went like this: "I do not know why operas alone should have the privilege of squeezing tears from us; why is that not true in the church?" Bach's music provided the answer, Gardiner argues, by bending the genre and "realizing a dramatic potency in music beyond the reach of any of his peers."