Today, Bach is easily one of the top three most revered composers (along with Beethoven and Mozart), but that wasn’t always the case.
In fact, after Bach died his music wasn’t considered valuable at all. His estate listed a number of different instruments and a few books. None of his music was included as a valuable asset. And much of it disappeared in the years that followed, as his eldest son sold it off piece by piece.
Eighty years after Bach died, composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" and began a Bach revival.
In 1890 cellist Pablo Casals discovered a tattered copy of the Cello Suites in a secondhand sheet music store. He spent 13 years practicing these little-known suites before performing them and ultimately recording them.
In the 1940s, conductor Leopold Stokowski introduced Bach to millions of people through his organ transcriptions and by including Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in the Disney film "Fantasia."
And in 1955, pianist Glenn Gould stunned the world with his recording of a then-obscure piece "The Goldberg Variations."
In many ways the Bach revival continues with fresh interpretations of what are now standard pieces like the "Goldberg Variations," and also new arrangements of Bach pieces for unusual instrumentation (something we think Bach would have loved).
There are many reasons to love Bach’s music. Here are five of our favorite quotes about Bach and his incredible pieces:
"For the past 80 years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine, but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house.
"But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle."
"I think that if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would almost certainly be Bach.
"I really can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that — its humanity."
"Most contemporary music is about love between two people. What makes Bach's music particularly striking is that it's about the love of God. This should present a hurdle to someone who, like me, doesn't believe in God — but it doesn't.
"What I appreciate in Bach is his ability to suggest to me what a belief in God feels like. His music seems to me to be about devotion to a perfect ideal — something purer, better, higher..."
"The greatest music in the world…
"If life had taken hope and faith from me, this single chorus would restore all.”
And a quote from J.S. Bach himself:
It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself."
Karla Walker hosts weekday afternoons from 4 to 7 p.m. on CPR Classical.