Bach and Mozart: The Epitomes of Their Eras

Great composers, no matter their individual brilliance, reflect their particular worlds; they are shaped and controlled by contemporary forces in addition to their genetic endowment. Our upcoming holiday and spring concerts feature signature works from two composers who embody the music of two distinctly different cultural eras in Western European history: Johann Sebastian Bach and his Christmas Oratorio, representing the High Baroque; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Requiem, representing the Classical period.

Bach was born in 1685 and died in 1750. Mozart (1756 –1791) was not even born until after Bach had died. Bach was 50 when he fashioned the Christmas Oratorio. A man at the height of his powers, he had two more decades of fruitful work ahead of him. Mozart’s Requiem was the final effort of a dying 35-year-old opening the doors to the next world. While both the Oratorio and the Requiem are religious works, they were written from very different perspectives. Bach cobbled together his Oratorio by converting parts of music dramas he had written earlier and adding new and previously composed hymns and arias. Mozart was commissioned to write a traditional mass for the dead, and he created startlingly innovative music within that structure.

How did the different perspectives of the High Baroque and the Classical period affect these two composers and their compositions? The spirit of the Baroque was infused with a feeling of community and collectivity. While a composer’s effort was certainly recognized, his talent was expected to serve the accepted musical style. In keeping with Baroque practices, each movement of the Christmas Oratorio is monothematic; major contrasts occur between and not within movements; and single themes return in predictable cycles in what was known as ritornello form. Rhythms are repetitive, insistent, and relentless, and even dance forms are composed within strict limits.

Bach was the greatest musical representative of the Baroque era. He came from a long line of musicians who had found employment in German churches, towns, and courts for three centuries. (He was the 15th member of his family to be named Johann!) Religion was the family’s dominant focus. Bach, a devout Lutheran, composed only a small amount of secular music. Since he was employed mostly by the Church, its liturgical requirements dictated the nature and purpose of his compositions. Bach’s religious beliefs were undoubtedly strengthened by the psychological effects of the many deaths and losses he endured, beginning with that of a brother when Bach was two years old and followed by his mother and father when he was nine and ten, respectively.

After his parents’ deaths, he was sent to live with a much older brother whom he barely knew, in another town. It is easy to imagine this precocious musical genius as a lonely and frightened orphan, searching for meaning through his developing art. As an adult, his losses continued: his first wife and 12 of his 20 children died during his lifetime. While death was an ever-present and painful reality, it was also the portal to eternal life; in his compositions, Bach strove for music that both represented and celebrated a divinely ordered universe, one whose aesthetic beauty encompassed and surpassed the painful vicissitudes of human existence.

New compositional methods heralded the Classical music period of the Age of Enlightenment. The sonata form, invented at this time and perfected by Mozart, was its ideal expression. The emphasis was on drama and contrast within each movement through the introduction of multiple themes and rhythms, dynamic changes and discontinuities, and an emphasis on development of the musical elements. Together with the primacy of melody and solo voices, these changes gave composers new tools for the creation of dramatic effects and musical dialogues.

The Enlightenment’s emphasis on individualism was coupled with a philosophy that emphasized a new egalitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. Music had to appeal to the many, and this required melodies, rhythms, and harmonic structures that were pleasing even to the less-educated ear. The term used to describe this new music, “Classical,” actually referred to ancient Greece’s idealization of balanced beauty and pure forms.

In contrast to Bach’s world, Mozart was raised in the comparative freedom of this new age of individualism. Salzburg, his birthplace, was a cosmopolitan town, and nearby Vienna throbbed with novel fashions and rapidly evolving arts. Biographers say little of Mozart’s religious strivings. His identity was forged within his small family: his mother, father, and older sister Anna Maria, also a musical prodigy and his closest companion. His father, a well-known musician and teacher and a composer in his own right, supported the family by showcasing his gifted children. Mozart and his sister grew up travelling through the courts of Europe, performing as keyboard prodigies.

Comparisons between the effect of Mozart’s and Bach’s worlds on the two composers’ musical compositions and opportunities are striking. Mozart became an independent musical entrepreneur dependent upon pleasing patrons and audiences rather than the Church and crown. His was the financially insecure life typically led by so many professional musicians, before and since. He was far less dependent on the styles of the religious collective than Bach was and freer to indulge his passion for the dramatic, particularly with opera. Although Mozart died at such an early age, he composed a large body of masterworks in all genres. Befitting the preferences of his time, he was a great melodist and was partial to the human voice; even his instrumental compositions highlighted the melodic line. His Requiem is redolent with melodies, and its arias not only carry its emotional center but interweave with the chorus, a technique he originated and developed for sacred works as he pursued his operatic style. Mozart even turned to Bach for inspiration, immersing himself in Bach’s liturgical techniques. The fruits of these efforts are most evident in his religious compositions and certainly in the fugues in his C-minor Mass and in the Requiem.

In contrast to Mozart’s relative freedom to express himself, Bach’s creative imagination required endless accommodation to the demands of his employers (mostly St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where he worked almost all of his adult years). These compromises were fraught with acrimony though never outright rebellion. The Christmas Oratorio is an excellent example of Bach’s struggle to express his creativity within theological requirements, being, as it is, a piecing together of previously composed chorales and arias into a work that would fit the requirements of the Christmas season. Bach’s genius lay in his ability to capture the joy of the nativity story as a general celebration of new life and hope for all mankind, regardless of religious or cultural beliefs.

Mozart, facing illness and poverty, accepted the Requiem commission from a Count Walsegg-Stuppach, who wanted to honor the death of his young wife, and Mozart even agreed to let the count claim the composition as his own! Mozart composed his masterful last operas, The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, at the same time as the Requiem. While he lay mortally ill, he dictated notes to his apprentice Franz Xaver Süssmayr, carefully explaining how to finish the uncompleted parts of the Requiem after his death. Mozart is said to have died mouthing the sound of the timpani part in the “Lacrimosa.”

The cultural differences between the world of the High Baroque and the Classical Enlightenment, between the “antiquarians” and the “gallants,” as they were then called, were embodied in the greatness of Bach and Mozart. Bach demonstrated his great ease in composing in the “gallant” style in his keyboard masterpieces published in the Clavierübung, while Mozart produced flawless contrapuntal “antiquarian” music in both his secular and religious works. These composers’ extraordinary genius, while shaped by their eras, also transcended their times.

— Pilar Montero & Arthur Colman

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  2. Geck, Martin. Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work. Harcourt, New York, 2000.
  3. Glover, Jane. Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music. Harper Collins, New York, 2005.
  4. Greenberg, Robert. The Great Courses: The Concerto, Lectures 5 and 6. The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia, 2006.