ON the face of it, Johann Sebastian Bach is a paradox. This ambitious, cranky, sententious composer held low-paying church jobs most of his life, fathered 23 children, and calculated his career steps with ruthless precision, willing even to offend wealthy patrons and church officials alike to get what he wanted. He was often mired in family and professional problems, overburdened in his later years with the responsibility of providing music in four major Lutheran churches in Leipzig.
But through it all he remained one of the outstanding keyboard virtuosos of his day. Through it all he poured out music of genius and beauty that has spoken eloquently to generations of listeners of all sorts -- even to those today, in the 300th year since his birth, who have no idea what a fugue or a canon really is.
His Mass in B minor, which he worked on in one way or another for more than 20 years, was never performed in its entirety in his lifetime. Yet it is considered one of the two or three towering musical achievements in the history of the Western world. And then there is the gamut of inspiration from the ``St. Matthew Passion'' to the Brandenburg Concertos, from the violin concertos to the greatest cantatas, from the mighty organ works to the sublime music for various solo instruments. And this little list but scratches the surface of the output. It is estimated that two-fifths of the cantatas he actually wrote are lost; the German catalog that lists all his known works includes some 250 entries in the cantatas alone.
Bach produced not only incomparable liturgical and secular music, but works for his own satisfaction. ``The Art of Fugue,'' his abstract study of fugues of every sort, left incomplete at his death, was probably meant to be a final documentation of his insights and understandings of the complex musical form that he brought to perfection in his lifetime.
But much of Bach's keyboard music was specifically written to maintain his reputation as the leading virtuoso of his day. In fact, for nearly a century after his death it was his reputation as a virtuoso that kept his name alive, but in only the rarest of musical circles. So complete was the oblivion Bach had fallen into -- even though Mozart was influenced by the music, and Beethoven had mastered the 48 preludes and fugues of the so-called ``Well-Tempered Clavier'' by the time he was 12 -- that Felix Mendelssohn's Leipzig performance of the ``St. Matthew Passion'' in 1829 was a sensation. In fact, the Bach renaissance had had its first milestone event.
That renaissance has gone through many transmogrifications over the ensuing century. Whereas once the mighty choral works were performed by hundreds, today the B-minor Mass has been recorded with a total of 28 performers. Whereas cuts were once deemed crucial to public appreciation, now every last repeat is programmed and even expected. Today an increasing public audience prefers to hear Bach performed on original rather than modern instruments.
But the issue is not so much how performance practices have changed, but rather that the essential Bach has spoken throughout the ages under all sorts of conditions: The vision, the spirit, has shown through -- the fundamental qualities that make Bach unique are to be heard when the music is played on a synthesizer or in a recital, or when a theme is incorporated into a pop song, or bowdlerized on a canned, elevator-music sound track.
Bach's solo compositions are the musical and technical building blocks for professional instrumentalists and composers. His creative genius in the musical forms he honed into definitive statements of the genre -- fugues, inventions, canons, cantatas, suites, concertos, etc. -- have become the collective foundation and rule book for composition and all forms of musical creativity today.
Many people have ridden to fame on Bach's coattails. Minimalist composer Philip Glass freely admits his debt to the composer. Throughout this century, disparate virtuosos the likes of organist Virgil Fox, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, cellist Pablo Casals, Moog synthesizer composer Wendy Carlos, and harpsichordist-conductor Trevor Pinnock have established themselves with the help of Bach.
To the late pianist Glenn Gould, there was no more extraordinary keyboard work than the ``Goldberg Variations,'' which remains one of the definitive statements on the notion of variations in the musical literature. Mr. Gould recorded it twice, and by the second time he had come to see the piece as a massive but unified cycle.
Janos Starker, the only cellist to have recorded the Unaccompanied Cello Suites four times (the latest is due out on Sefel Records within the month), states very simply: ``He was a universal genius who has found the way to speak to all mankind. Whether it was in the religious works or worldly music, he found the melodies, the rhythms, the structure, that appeal -- timelessly -- to anyone.''
Flutist Carol Wincenc waxes quite personal on the subject: ``Bach to me is the epitome of transcendence, because he appears so richly to me spiritually first and foremost. . . . I can't begin to comprehend it, because I really think he's gone beyond a certain level of humanness.''
And yet, Bach would not have this universal appeal if all that his music projected was an otherworldly vision. On the one hand, Mr. Starker can declare: ``I consider religion to be the understanding of the infinite, and speaking to the infinite. Bach speaks -- at least the way I hear and conceive and perceive him -- to the infinite.'' On the other hand, Miss Wincenc can exclaim: ``It's just so fundamental. He's so jazzy, so humorous, so light, so gay . . . you have all the colors of the rainbow there.''
John Bayless, whose improvised recording ``Happy Birthday, Bach'' interweaves familiar themes with the famous tune in a clever, skillful tribute to the composer's enduring contemporaneity, states quite simply that he would not have gotten started but for Bach. ``In the improvising process -- it has been such an incredible part of my musical growth and career -- Bach's music was the illuminating and emotional stimulus that brought me to music and playing the piano. I improvised first in the style of Bach, when I was 4 or 5.
``There are very few composers,'' Mr. Bayless continues, ``that I'm always in the mood to listen to. If I'm ever sad, or not in the greatest of spirits, that [listening to Bach] always does it. I can't explain it.''
Mr. Starker tries to explain what it is that fascinates him with the music. ``All music -- and Bach established the rules -- consists of what I speak of as the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal. The horizontal is the melody line, the vertical, the rhythm and the harmonic structure, and the diagonal I call the emotional content which manifests itself in timing and colors, tensions, non-tensions, and so on.''
Bach had an uncanny ability to write superbly for all instruments. In the book ``Conversations with Igor Stravinsky,'' written with Robert Craft, the Russian composer vividly described this skill: ``What incomparable instrumental writing is Bach's. You can smell the resin in his violin parts, taste the reeds in the oboes.''
One can chart the course of this master's life and draw general conclusions, but Bach's enduring significance is that he will go on communicating as long as people are interested in performing, composing, learning about, or just plain appreciating music.