Johann Sebastian Bach is the great prism of European music history. A keen student of musical traditions and styles, Bach studied all the major trends in western music that preceded him. He synthesized various aspects of those genres, forging his own distinct musical language from the raw material of a tradition that he venerated. Even if we are not familiar with the models he studied, we encounter through Bach the many facets of the European Baroque: the sober counterpoint of the North Germans, the florid ornamentation of the French, the brilliant virtuosity and melodic invention of the Italians. But going further back, we also encounter in Bach’s music the stolid chorales of Martin Luther’s Reformation, the strict polyphony of the Italian Renaissance and even the ethereal beauty of Roman plainchant—music from the dawn of the common era. Johann Sebastian Bach was the keeper of the flame, a natural encyclopedist whose ability to synthesize all forms of western music ensured that his legacy would be forever entwined with his heritage.
In the same way that all earlier musical styles were refracted by Bach’s compositional prism—reinterpreted, renewed and reinvigorated—so too has Bach’s music been refracted by the prism of each successive generation of composers. J.S. Bach has remained the touchstone of western music for two and a half centuries, the authority figure that composers would either seek to please or defiantly reject. From the time of Bach’s own sons until today, musicians have grappled with Bach’s legacy. Many have been drawn to his mastery of counterpoint; others have been attracted to his depth of musical expression, his ability to convey a wide range of emotions, his peerless melodies, and the sheer joy of his music. By exploring Bach’s legacy through the music of the past 260 years, we are experiencing at once Bach’s reflected genius and the musical Zeitgeist of every generation.