Johann Sebastian Bach: The Utterable Scholarly Account and the Unutterable Greatness of Music


  • Jurij Snoj



Bach's music, whose characteristics were well recognized in his own time as can be seen from Scheibe's writings, became regarded as the work of an outstanding composer only a century after his death; yet in the process of his becoming a musical oracle of the past, Bach began to be understood and conceptualized in terms foreign to his own historical surroundings. As a consequence, a gap between the real historical Bach on the one side and his canonized picture on the other came into being. In scholarly literature on Bach there are various suggestions and observations in respect of the exceptional value of his music. A closer, scrutinizing examination of such observations reveals that they may point to the outstanding characteristics of his music, whose aesthetic essence, however, still cannot be conveyed in terms of logical verbal expressions. There is nothing in Bach's life that could be considered particularly outstanding, and his music, having been composed for the most part for special occasions, cannot be understood as the expression of the inner self of an exceptional human being. A historical approach to his music does not have the means to measure its value as compared to his predecessors and contemporaries apart from subjective critical judgement. The alleged religiosity of his music pales when juxtaposed to the standards of ordinary church music making in his own time. Rather, it is only from the standpoint of the modern secularized society that the religious quality of his music becomes evident. The hidden messages of his musical symbols do not impact the aesthetic qualities of his music; attesting rather to the composer's attitude towards himself they do not convey anything to the listener. As for the analytical approach, it was the Schenkerian analysis that promised to reveal the depths of Bach's music; yet according to Scruton 's critical judgement, the Schenkerian analysis might be understood as an analysis of the experience of Bach's music rather than an objective analysis of the music itself. Thus the music of Bach cannot be comprehended and appreciated except within the domain of purely musical experience.


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How to Cite

Snoj, J. (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Utterable Scholarly Account and the Unutterable Greatness of Music. Musicological Annual, 36(1), 41–64.