While you may have heard that the famous Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, he wasn’t. Well, that’s what the date was when he was born according to Old Style dating, but the calendar changed before he died, so he was born March 31, 1685 according to New Style dating. Is that as clear as mud? Let me muddy the waters more.
Julius Caesar established a reformed calendar in 46 BC. However, it lagged the astronomical calendar by 11 minutes a year. Hey, what’s a few minutes a year? By 1582, it amounted to 10 days, so Pope Gregory XIII did a quick-step and bumped the calendar up 10 days to correct that. However, only Catholic countries, i.e., Venice, the Papal States the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Portugal, and France made the change at that time. Although Protestant countries later fell in line, Bach’s Saxe-Eisenach only did so in 1700, making him born March 21, O.S. (Old Style), but March 31, N.S. (New Style). Since I was also born on March 31, I opt to use the N.S. dating, making him a birthday brother, so to speak.
The “Three B’s” are considered the premier composers, all beginning with the letter B. Although Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are now considered to be the three great B’s, it was not originally so. In 1854, composer and writer Peter Cornelius described the Three B’s at Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz in an article meant to elevate Hector Berlioz to the stature of the already-recognized greatness of Bach and Beethoven. If you’re not that familiar with Hector’s works, don’t feel like the Lone Stranger. Although considered influential in the Romantic period, he and his works are not well known to the general music listener. However, later that century the conductor Hans van Bulow replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (Mr. Lullaby) in his assessment of the great Three B’s and the rest is history.
Getting back to J.S. Bach, let me give a more personal note of why I am so proud to have been born on his birthday. I was not brought up in a household that listened to classical music. In fact, the only classical music I remember experiencing was in Warner Brothers cartoons. Who can forget Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Rabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in (click here) “What’s Opera Doc?” Or Bugs Bunny singing “Let Me Shave Your Mop” in the revised version of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” (click here) “The Rabbit of Seville?” Yet I had no idea these were but parodies of the great musical masterpieces lying in wait for me.
When I went to college, there were private listening rooms in the library where I could play records (I’m dating myself here) while listening to them on headphones while I studied calculus or fluid dynamics. One of the platters I played was (click here) “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by J.S. Bach. I was hooked. Perhaps it was because his intricate precision appealed to my engineering mind. Musicologist Hebert Anton Kellner considered Bach a mathematician because of this aspect of his music (click here). Whatever the case, this superstar of the Baroque era of classical music became a favorite of mine and remains so to this day. I can honestly say that Bach was a guiding light on my path of musical appreciation.
For those of you who remember the TV show M.A.S.H., when Hawkeye is giving Radar a crash course in classical music for a nurse he is dating, Hawkeye tells Radar to just say “Ah, Bach,” if the nurse brings up J.S. The reason is that Bach is the penultimate composer, about whom nothing needs to be said. Unfortunately, Radar doesn’t quite understand. (click here) Yet, the point is well made: the very name of Bach says it all.
Only a fool would deny the fact that J.S. Bach was a great composer. There are far better sites from far better musical historians who write on that, so I will not make any feeble effort to compete. I will only say that he is the greatest to me. I will also note that the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church has a (click here) feast day in his remembrance on July 28th every year (he died on July 28, 1750). As an Anglican myself, I find this most appropriate for a man who wrote some of the greatest musical works of all times, primarily for the Christian church. For an example, click here for a performance of “St. Matthew’s Passion.”
Happy 330th birthday, Bach.