Do We Know Johann Sebastian Bach?

An interesting article:

Harold Fromm doesn’t think we see Bach as a man, a personality.

Bach is in the very chemistry of Western musical blood, like red cells, white cells, and platelets in our material plasma.

But if Bach is The Father, why hasn’t he fired the popular imagination? We have soppy movies about Mozart and Beethoven as well as proliferating biographies for the intelligent general reader, but nothing really comparable for Bach. … We have fairly localizable “feelings” about Mozart because the personal letters producing those feelings are voluminous. We learn about Wolfgang as a circus freak driven by father Leopold, about the Mozart family’s obsession with “shit,” about Wolfgang’s castigation of Constanze for exposing her ankles, not to mention purported mysteries surrounding the uncompleted Requiem, perfect grist for the mills of pop culture. For Beethoven, again, many autograph materials providing insights into his “spiritual development” (to use the subtitle of an early biography) and his medical problems, his patrons, his financial independence, his nephew, his deafness, his “immortal beloved.” But what is the feel we get from Bach? In fact, who is this seemingly generic father and why has he failed to solidify as part of our cultural ethos? When we hear “Mozart” or “Beethoven,” we think of a person behind the music. When we hear “Bach,” we think of music only.

So Bach is the father, but one of those distant fathers like the ones from the Greatest Generation. We do not have for Bach the kind of immense, first person record comparable to the correspondence of Mozart, Beethoven, etc. The fact that Bach left behind nothing but boring administrative documents is the stereotype hilariously sent up in the Bach Portait by  “P.D.Q. Bach” — it’s just like Copland’s Lincoln Portait, except the stentorian narration features Bach’s financial correspondence instead of Carl Sandburg’s poetry about Lincoln. And what we do have from contemporaries such as Bach’s children and students, “is not totally trusted by scholars.”

It would be cool to really get into how much a biographer goes about painting a picture of the person under these circumstances, but after this setup, the article has no choice but to give up and start discussing the major classes of Bach’s works, particularly the dramatic text setting of certain cantatas.