Three hundred years ago, when Harvard Square was a peaceful field and Increase Mather was the President of Harvard, Bach was born in Germany.
Today, there are daily traffic jams in Harvard Square, Derek C. Bok is Harvard's President, and Harvard is celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach's 300th birthday.
Beginning Saturday, Harvard will sponsor the only week-long festival devoted to Bach in the Boston area.
The festival, the brainchild of Christoph Wolff, Chairman of the Music Department, will feature styles ranging from Baroque to electronic music. "I felt that it was an ideal opportunity to coordinate all of the normally uncoordinated musical activities on campus," Wolff explained.
Harvard is not alone in its tribute to Bach. On March 21, Bach's actual birthday, St. Matthew's Passion, one of his major works, was broadcast worldwide from Leipzig, the city where Bach spent most of his life. A number of other universities have also celebrated Bach's birth, but mostly with one-day celebrations.
"Our festival is more ambitious. We're expecting to do quite well--not because of anything we've done, but because Bach draws crowds," said Daniel Melamed, coordinator of the event.
But why is Harvard--and everyone else--bringing back Bach? This year also marks Handel's 300th birthday, as well as Scarlatti's, but neither of these has drawn nearly as much attention.
At Harvard, this is partially explained by the types of works each excelled in. "You can't really have a major Handel festival without paying attention to his operas, and the difficulties for undergraduates in putting together an opera are nearly insurmountable," Wolff explained. "If you look at Bach's works, you have an ideal repertoire that can be tapped by chamber music, choral and orchestral groups."
On a scale beyond the University, Jameson N. Marvin, director of choral activities at Harvard, said Bach's birthday is receiving more attention than Handel's because "the level of Bach's genius as a composer is so constant, and there are such pinnacle works in all categories, where as Handel only has them in a few."
But Bach was not acclaimed as a genius composer in his own time. "If you look at Bach's obituary notice in 1750, they praised him as the greatest organist and clavier player of all times, but they had very little understanding of him as a composer," Wolff explained. Marvin added that in Bach's time, other composers, like Handel and Telemann were more acclaimed.
Yet, Wolff said, there are hints that Bach was aware of his own talents. "I think he did recognize his own greatness," Wolff said. "He composed the Mass in B Minor with an eye toward posterity."
And today, Bach is still considered great. "[He is] easily the most well-known and frequently performed composer," Wolff said.
He attributed Bach's recent surge in popularity to technology's growth. "It has been primarily the recording industry which has made people aware of the enormous wealth of, say, cantatas. Previously, only selected ones were available," Wolff expained.
"Right now, in general, people who love music but aren't professionals are particularly interested in the Baroque period, and that's first and foremost Bach," Marvin added.
But even if Bach realized that his music would last, he surely could not have imagined the changes posterity would make. Director of the Electronic Music Studio Ivan A. Tcherepnin said, "Bach showed a lot of foresight by not specifying instruments, tempo, or dynamics in some of his works. It's as if he was saying, in three hundred years, you can experiment with these things."