Music research is in the news again. A couple of old manuscripts, copies of works by German Baroque composers Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reinken, have been found in an archive in Weimar. The twist is that they are hand copies made by a fifteen-year-old organist named Johann Sebastian Bach. So a familiar picture presents itself: musical archaeologists scouring dusty archives for what are likely to be insignificant scraps left by Great Men. How important is this, after all?
Few things tell us as much, biographically, as who a young musician’s gods are, what he or she burns the midnight oil to study. These two choral fantasias were, according to the foundation, of cutting-edge difficulty: “Technically highly demanding, these organ works document the extraordinary virtuoso skills of the young Bach as well as his efforts to master the most ambitious and complex pieces of the entire organ repertoire.” The young Bach was from a family famed for musical accomplishment already, and he was willing to travel long distances–at a young age, remember–to find out more about the North German organ school.
Certainly, it is not news that Bach was a die-hard, nor is it news that he was one of a very, very small number of supremely gifted musicians. What is easily forgotten is that virtually all musicians have something of this die-hardism in them, and that all go through youthful phases similar to this–practicing and rehearsing for hours every day, listening obsessively to records to learn instrumental solos, laboring in archives and in front of computer screens, making do with *very* little so that they can continue to follow the flame. This can be as true of undergraduate opera nerds and band geeks as it is of budding soloists in big-name conservatories (and the 99% who are also-rans in those same conservatories. In popular music, think of the myriad electric guitar virtuosi who are literally transforming the instrument and its technique at warp speed, before our very ears. (The guitarist playing the Pachelbel Canon in D on a YouTube clip, recently identified in a New York Times article, is a perfect example.) Examples are literally numberless, in all musical genres: Liszt (and Chopin and Schumann) transformed by an encounter with Paganini, Chopin immersing himself in opera, British musicians of the early 1960s immersing themselves in American R & B and popular song, Americans immersing themselves in the music of the British Invasion. One of the real gifts of music history as a discipline, ultimately, is that it enables this kind of musical growth to be chronicled and studied.
The newly discovered Bach manuscripts are snapshots of a unique moment of a unique individual, but they also resonate with an experience universal to those who devote their lives to music in any capacity. Those are only two of many reasons that the discovery of two manuscript copies made by of other men’s works by a fifteen-year-old German in 1700 are not mere historical footnotes, but very important indeed.