The Well-Tempered Clavier’s Foul-Tempered Composer
John Eliot Gardiner looks at what we know if Johan Sebastian Bach's argumentative life.
One thing that's often overlooked when we try to understand musical geniuses is the extraordinary amount of time time they spent alone developing their artistry. Think of all the afternoon young Prince Rogers Nelson must've invested in becoming such a blisteringly hot guitarist before emerging in all his jaw-dropping purpleness. Often, music is a refuge from a world into which the artist doesn't fit. Whatever the reason, geniuses may become geniuses simply from an extreme degree of concentration: Their art becomes the only thing they know how to do well.
But surely this can't be true of an artist whose work is practically the epitome of polished craft, music that's structurally near-perfect and almost mathematically sublime. Someone like, say, Johann Sebastian Bach. Well, hoo boy, John Eliot Gardiner has dug into the revered composer's life and uncovered one of the most volatile, anti-authoritarian, and—dare I say it?—badass musicians ever. And that's saying something.
Bach's music is so calm and orderly, so lovely in its complexity and richness. Maybe it makes sense in way: It was the one thing in an otherwise maddening existence that he could control.
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