Some people, and I’m not saying everyone here but some people, have this image of composers as these quiet, timid guys who sit holed up in front of a piano or locked away in a recording studio all day, barely relating with anyone except for other musicians, and even then, only awkwardly. Now, I’m not saying that some composers aren’t actually like that; I’m sure there are music writers out there who find it hard to relate to people in non musical terms, or really are quiet and reserved, or can’t go Number Two in public because one time at Target the guy in the stall next to me wouldn’t stop crying and trying to talk to me about how he’ll “never find anyone like Cynthia again” and I was all like “CAN WE ALL JUST FOCUS ON OURSELVES FOR A BIT.” I mean, not me. A different person.
Anyway, not all composers are like that. Some of us might be jerks, or insane, or John Mayer, but we have personalities. So to highlight that, I’ve started a new feature on the blog here called “Original Gangsta,” because saying things in 90’s hip-hop slang when you’re whiter than Alan Rickman is the height of comedy, I guess. This week: Bach rocks your socks, and I rhyme unintentionally.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Background: Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685. He was an insane organist and keyboard player, worked for a number of different patrons, and created and released musical works faster than James Patterson releases increasingly awful books. He wrote stuff so awesome that the entire Baroque period (characterized by intricate, highly ornamented contrapuntal music) pretty much tanked with his death in 1750.
Most Famous Work: He had tons, but probably his Goldberg Variations are the most well known. They can in symphony halls, PBS documentaries, and in the background while Hannibal Lector totally goes bananas on some guy’s trachea.
Note: The video below is not safe for work, or children, or security guards.
Top Three Reasons Why he’s OG:
#1. He wrote one of his most famous pieces in prison.
Some people do a lot of working out, or watch bad TV or eat their jailors (see above) when in prison. Bach wrote the entire first book to one of his most famous keyboard compilations: The Well-Tempered Klavier. I don’t have confirmation on it, but I like to imagine he did it by carving notes onto the planks holding up his mattress with a sharpened toothbrush.
#2. He was a narcissist, and kind of awesome about it.
Bach got his first conducting job when he was only 17, so many of his performers were older than him, and resented being bossed around by a teenager. Instead of being gracious to his elders, and respectfully suggesting they all work together, Bach told them to suck it and said disparaging things about their moms (presumably). At one point, he called one of his musicians a Zipplefagottist (which, because German has a word for everything, means “a female goat that plays the bassoon”) and it was on. He ended up getting into a fistfight with the guy in the town square. Awesome.
He also wrote his own name into his music. In The Art of the Fugue, he composed a them made of the notes B-flat, A, C, and B-natural. In German notation, B-flat was written with a “B” and B-natural with an “H.” Many composers of the time looked to nature, or even God for their inspiration. Instead, Bach wrote the “This is Why I’m Hot” of the 1700s.
At one point, when he was working as a court musician in Weimar, he was offered a much better job at a noble court somewhere else. He complained so hard about not being let out of his contract with the Weimar court early that they threw him in jail for a month, which is how he ended up in prison in #1. above. I’m sorry, but that rules. If you complained about how much you’d rather work across the street at Dunkin’ Donuts than at Starbucks loud enough, they’d put you on suspension, then fire you. But if you’re awesome enough at being negative that they actually send you to jail? Hardcore.
#3. He was so great at improvisation that the French feared him.
At one point, when Bach was on a visit to Dresden, he was invited by the local leadership to compete in a contest against one of France’s leading organists, Louis Marchand. Whoever could improvise the greatest keyboard piece on the spot would be the winner. Unfortunately for Marchand, Bach was to making up insanely complex and amazing pieces on the spot what Mel Gibson was to destroying his own career and making it really hard for me ever to watch Lethal Weapon again. The contest never took place; Marchand merely overheard Bach warming up and he freaked out and hopped the fastest carriage he could back to France before anyone even realized he was gone.
Can you imagine being so awesome at something that people aren’t just jealous of you, but they actively flee from you? Bach was pretty much the Godzilla of improvisation. If he were alive today and playing outdoors on a college campus, ever stupid hipster jerk sitting in the nearby grass trying to impress the girls with the three chords he learned yesterday wold burst into flames.
That’s it for this week, but I’ll be highlighting another composer at some point in the future, so if you like this one, stop by again, won’t you?