In critique, then in praise of Bach

The dilemma of “old” versus “new” style is evident in the comments of the Johann Adolf Scheibe in reference to his elder fellow musician, Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1737, 29-year old Scheibe write in The Critical Musician:

A musical composition must naturally be pleasant and tickle the ear, it must also please the reason … Musicians must think naturally, reasonably and sublimely … This great man [Bach] would be the wonder of the universe if his compositions displayed more agreeable qualities, were less turgid, and sophisticated, more simple and natural in character. His music is extremely difficult to play because the efficiency of his own limbs sets his standard; he expects singers and players to be as agile with voice and instrument as he is with his fingers, which is impossible. Grace-notes and embellishments, such as a player instinctively supplies, he puts down in actual symbols, a habit which not only sacrifices the harmonic beauty of his music, but also blurs its melodic line. All his parts, too, are equally melodic, so that one cannot distinguish the principle tune among them. (1)

Two years later, though, Scheibe was considerably more impressed with Bach’s Italian Concerto, which, as befitting of the Italian style, is clear and eloquent:

It would take as great a master of music as Mr Bach, who has almost alone taken possession of the clavier, and with whom we can certainly defy foreign nations, to provide us with such a piece in this form of composition – a piece which deserves emulation by all our great composers, and which will be imitated totally in vain by foreigners. (2)

(1) Cited in: Dowley, Tim (1981) Bach. London: Omnibus Press, p.107.
(2) Cited in ibid., p.109.