As a conductor and composer, I am constantly asked the question, "Who is your favorite composer?" The truth is that my answer changes every day. If we've just performed a Beethoven symphony, then he gets my vote. If asked after a Brahms concerto or a Mozart opera, then I lean their way. But what if someone asks, "Who is the composer who has influenced your life the most?" That answer has always been the same: Johann Sebastian Bach.
Millions of people have heard of J. S. Bach. There are many Bach Societies, Bach Festivals, even entire orchestras and choruses dedicated to performing his works. Thousands of concerts and hundreds of CDs present his matchless music. Yet in his day, Bach was virtually unknown as a composer, at least outside of the German towns where he quietly lived and worked.
J. S. Bach was never attracted to stardom, fame, or fortune. This unquestionable genius was refreshingly modest and unassuming. He told a student, "Just practice diligently, and it will go very well. You have five fingers on each hand just as healthy as mine." Once, when an acquaintance praised Bach's wonderful skill as an organist, Bach demonstrated his characteristic humility and wit by replying, "There is nothing very wonderful about it; you have only to hit the right notes at the right moment and the instrument does the rest."
Perhaps one has to have worked in the performing arts world as long as I have to fully appreciate the rarity of such humble sentiments. In today's competitive music world, the temptation is always to make yourself look better by tearing down the reputations of others. As a young man in music school, I was often surrounded by the clash of egos, and, it must be admitted, I had my own struggles in this area. Bach ...1