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GUEST BLOG: "J.S. Bach is Alive and Well" by Thomas M. Scott

J.S. BACH IS ALIVE AND WELL by Thomas M. Scott
The other day, I was writing a woodwind arrangement of NUN DANKET for an upcoming Sunday service. As the piece unfolded, while scoring a progression between two chords (a minor 5 in first inversion to a tonic seventh in third inversion), it suddenly struck me how much I had been influenced by the two years my classmates and I spent in undergraduate school studying Bach Chorales and Inventions.
I don’t know if students these days spend much time on this kind of work anymore, but for most of us, it was our first real exposure to Bach. It made a permanent impression on us. We had to use a black Vis-a-Vis marker on a piece of plastic with staves on it, to write four measures of what we hoped would be perfect SATB part-writing. We put it up on the overhead projector (!) in front of the whole class, and if someone found a mistake in our example, they got a point added to their example and we got a point deducted from ours. That, of course, created extra incentive to be especially vigilant both while writing and critiquing.
Oh, and one caveat: If you had been especially “creative” with your example and someone called you out on said creativity, you could skate if you found the exact version of your questionable item somewhere in a Bach Chorale (and they got a point deducted for their false accusation!).  This did two things; it encouraged creativity, and it made us dive deeply into the Chorales to dig out the most obscure voice-crossings, weird doublings and strangely-resolved altered chords so we could lure our classmates into a compositional trap.
Since that immersion into Bach’s greatness, two, part writing has absolutely fascinated me. It is one of the reasons why I have worked for the church all my life; I mean, where else can you get that kind of exposure to four part choral music every week?  A colleague said to me recently, “Isn’t it amazing that a diminutive church musician now centuries removed can still have such an incredible impact on us?” Amazing, but true.
on December 3, 2013 8:39am
Thank you for this reminder.  I was just thinking of Bach while commuting this a.m. and the local classical radio station was playing some C.P.E. Bach.  I kept thinking that "Yes, I suppose his sons would want to break away from the thoroughly developed Baroque style of their father, but J.S.'s stuff still reigns."  The sheer volume of actual musical material involved in every measure of every work is staggering to me.  What a gift to our world his craftsmanship was and still is!