Supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music, a master comparable in greatness of stature with Aristotle in philosophy and Leonardo da Vinci in art.

No overstatement whatsoever attaches to this, the opening of the entry for Johann Sebastian Bach in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. So vast and stunning is his achievement that Beethoven believed him misnamed: Playing on the German word Bach (brook), he said that the composer should, instead, be called Meer (ocean).

Bach: A Musical Biography is Peter Williams’s third work about the life of Bach. It is his longest and his last: He died just months before its publication. Like the earlier two biographies, this one is organized around the composer’s obituary, written together by son Carl Philipp Emanuel and former student Johann Friedrich Agricola. Williams’s working plan throughout entails quoting excerpts from the obituary, then fleshing them out in considerable detail.

Born in 1685 in Eisenach, Bach came from a distinguished line of church musicians. His parents having died before his tenth birthday—his father possibly of diabetes—he went to live with an older brother, who taught him keyboard. While young, Bach engaged in a range of musical activities, including singing (he possessed a fine voice), tuning keyboard instruments (an endless task), and copying music (which Williams maintains was “crucial” to his development). Even in early attempts at composition, he was, as a teenager, “endeavoring to imitate the music of his Thuringian elders.” And not those elders only: Young Bach absorbed, and strove to incorporate for his own use, the distinctive musical styles of Italy and France. The acquisitiveness of his musical mind defies comprehension.

Bach was a master of counterpoint, a term referring to the relationship between two or more lines of music. Crucial to this relationship is a balance of dependence and independence. Contrapuntal dependence comes about when two lines—say a violin and a cello—move in lockstep, with the highs and lows in one instrument matched more or less exactly by those of the other. Independence, on the other hand, results when the violin pursues its own course—with its own rhythms, its own highs and lows—against a cello line pursuing a very different course, with a rhythm and contour all its own. Bach’s balance of these opposing forces is unparalleled, and this is why his counterpoint continues to be studied closely in leading conservatories, schools, and departments of music around the world.

Another hallmark of Bach’s work is economy of means. Seldom in a piece of his does a musical idea or motive appear only once. Much more often it is used repeatedly: It may appear upside down or in reverse; it may be passed imitatively from one instrument, or part, to another; its rhythms may be drawn out (a device called augmentation) or accelerated (diminution). A musical idea for Bach may appear in any of these ways or, just as often, in some combination thereof. For a relatively simple example of his thriftiness, consider the close of the Fugue in B-flat Major from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The idea in the melody six bars from the end returns four bars from the end in the bass; at the same time, the idea in the bass reappears in the melody. These two parts, melody and bass, pivot effortlessly around a middle part that remains essentially unchanged. Such thrift, such economy, however, is no mere end in itself: Rather, it is used to foster compositional unity.

Bach was single-minded in his dedication to the craft of musical composition, believing (as a devout Lutheran) that he owed it to God to make a good return on his gifts. As Williams explains:

Seriousness of purpose was a natural product of the kind of piety with which a Lutheran child was inculcated: the grateful reverence that could lead Bach in both youth and maturity to write J. J. (Jesu juva, “Jesus help”) on a manuscript. This he would do on any sort of music: on various “secular” cantatas in Leipzig, on an early church cantata (No. 71), on a manuscript of harpsichord concertos for the concert-room 30 years later, and later still on a set of chorale-preludes. When in the autograph manuscripts of the set of concertos and the set of chorales the first work of each is inscribed J. J., there is no reason to think it an empty incantation.

Behind his unceasing effort was a powerful combination of humility and devotion.

Williams is quite good in portraying the prosaic conditions of Bach’s everyday life. We learn, for example, of his search for positions of greater prestige with commensurately higher salaries. (Why this search came to an end once he reached Leipzig, the city where he spent his last 27 years, has never fully been answered.) We read of his nearly lifelong work as an inspector of organs at nearby churches. (The going expectation was that an inspection be followed by a recital.) He encountered difficulties throughout his career with his employers, especially when they saw fit to promote a musician of whom he disapproved. (He objected in these cases that his musical authority was being compromised.) In one of his few surviving letters, Bach complained to an old friend about the high cost of living in Leipzig, a town that between 1700 and 1750 underwent a 60 percent increase in population. Sometimes, when he played for a parish wedding, he would receive part of his fee in wine.

The most provocative stretch here deals with an extended criticism of Bach’s work leveled by the music journalist Johann Adolph Scheibe. Writing in 1737, Scheibe claimed that Bach’s music “[discards] nature” in favor of “a turgid and confused manner.” Worse, it contains “too much art” and thereby “[obscures] beauty.” Its intricate contrapuntal writing bears the evidence of “heavy labor.” Bach’s defense was mounted—“rather longwindedly,” according to Williams—by J. A. Birnbaum, a professor of rhetoric at Leipzig University. Birnbaum countered that Scheibe’s charges were “indiscriminate,” that Bach’s counterpoint is far from confused, and that nature can never be compromised by too much art. Williams notes that “a few more replies and counter-replies” followed, but one can assume, in keeping with critical arguments then as now, that few minds were changed. And certainly not Bach’s.

Without explicitly taking Scheibe’s side, Williams holds that certain particulars of his criticism “were not very well answered.” He writes, “Though finding fault with Bach’s music rather goes against the grain of the last two and a half centuries, a rounded picture of it emerges only from taking into account its less appealing moments.” Citing two works composed at virtually the same time—just months, in fact, after the publication of Scheibe’s criticism, a coronation anthem by Handel (“My heart is inditing”) and a cantata by Bach (BWV 198)—Williams writes that “one can see what Scheibe meant and how he would feel his opinion of the two composers to be totally justified.” Bach’s general “tendency towards the abstract, the transcendental and the economical” forbids, or makes exceedingly rare, moments of “compensating whimsy or charm.”

Exactly. There is an openness—a sense of space, an absence of clutter, a lightness or agreeableness—in the best of Handel’s music that simply isn’t found in Bach’s. And the clinching point is this: Not a single work of Bach’s is more beloved than Handel’s Messiah—and this is owing to that oratorio’s undeniable, ineffable charm.

The reigning tone of Bach is cautiously authoritative. In one place, Williams warns against “projecting Enlightenment sensibilities and assumptions back to an earlier time,” something that present-day readers are prone to do, especially when it comes to music. In another place, he impugns a “superficial reading” of a complex matter—the deference shown by Bach in his dedications to members of the nobility—put forward by Edward Said, a “politically committed” writer. Elsewhere, asserting that the effect on the composer of the early death of his parents is a “big unknown,” Williams adds, with devastating efficiency, “except perhaps to Freudians.” Repeatedly, one reads of “questions to which there will never be an answer,” learns that “virtually nothing is known” about this or that pertinent detail, is told that there “must be gaps in the record” here, is urged not to make “fanciful conjectures” there. The best Bach scholars, to their credit, are nothing if not a scrupulously careful breed. Peter Williams was one of their number.

Bach’s influence is so vast that it is impossible to conceive of the music of Beethoven, Brahms, and others without him. Interesting, then, how a percipient critic, writing more than 125 years before his birth, foretold a figure of his magnitude. Gioseffo Zarlino, the greatest music theorist of the 16th century, wrote at the close of his third book of the Harmonic Institutions (1558) that he looked forward to a day when music would be “so well established and perfect” that composers would see no reason for deviating from the examples of the best masters:

I say this because I do not see that it is now in such a perfect state as may come. This I cannot describe but can imagine. It may come when music is embraced by some noble spirit whose goal will not be the mechanical one of gain but honor and immortal glory.

Zarlino’s prophecy would be fulfilled in the noble spirit, and immortal work, of Johann Sebastian Bach.

John Check teaches music theory at the University of Central Missouri.