Routes to Beethoven – J.S. Bach

by Ben Hogwood

As we plot a course towards listening to the complete works of Beethoven, I thought a good way to start would be by listening to composers who have helped shape his output.

While I am sure we will ultimately find Beethoven out to be one of the most original composers of all, every artist will have had their grounding somewhere, which is bound to have had a say in their eventual direction. The first composer to appear under the microscope is J.S. Bach.

There are some fascinating and very different viewpoints among Beethoven scholars on the extent of Bach’s influence. In his famous book The Classical Style, dissecting the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Charles Rosen is not convinced of much common ground. “It is worth noting, in this respect”, he says, “the extremely limited influence of the music of Bach in Beethoven’s works, in spite of the fact that his knowledge of Bach was considerable.”

Rosen goes on to note the facts – that Beethoven played both volumes of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in their entirety as a child, continuing to play it all his life, and that he copied out passages of Bach when approaching composition for the Hammerklavier Sonata. He had a copy of the Inventions for keyboard, two copies of The Art of Fugue, and was familiar with the Goldberg Variations. For Rosen, though, “…except for an obvious and touching reference to the Goldberg in the conception of the final variations of the Diabelli set, the use he (Beethoven) made of all his familiarity is very small, almost negligible in comparison to the continuous reference to Bach in the music of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. The classical style had already absorbed all that it could of Bach as seen through the eyes of Mozart in the early 1780s, and as Beethoven continued to work within these limits, his love for Bach remained always in the margin of his creative activity.”

Lewis Lockwood’s book Beethoven: The Music and the Life sees things very differently. On several occasions Lockwood highlights Beethoven’s desire to seek out the music of Bach for himself, specifically the Mass in B minor, as he approached the period of composition for the Missa Solemnis. He also focuses on Beethoven’s use of fugue throughout his later period. For in this ‘late’ period (with Beethoven still in his 40s!) it would appear he looked back at Bach for further inspiration, writing complicated but incredibly expressive fugues at key points in his music. The Grosse Fuge (the finale of his Op.130 string quartet), the Hammerklavier and several other piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony – these are all works where we will no doubt come back to this article and consider its implications.

To build up a basic impression of Bach, I listened to the pieces referenced above and some well-worn favourites of my own. Listening to The Well-Tempered Clavier, then The Art of Fugue, it is possible to marvel at the sheer inevitability of Bach’s music, its structure and lines – but also its profound emotion and moments of humour, joy and even despair. Despite his rigorous working methods Bach pours his heart into this music, including the Goldberg Variations, which are simply sublime – and as Rosen says point towards Beethoven’s massive, late Diabelli Variations, not to mention many other works in the variation form.

Bach’s music has an incredibly sure direction, its workings are so logical and secure, each note and melodic figure seems very closely related, and the end goal – when reached – is unbelievably satisfying. Listen to the Prelude no.1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier (the first item of music on this broadcast) and see if a single note is out of place or could be changed:

By contrast the forward thrust of the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor for organ is especially notable. Although Beethoven wrote virtually nothing for the organ, he surely will have picked up the discipline, application and adventure of J.S. Bach’s keyboard works. That sense of adventure can be heard in a work like the joyous Fugue in E flat major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, or even more in the standalone Toccata in C minor, below:

This shows how Bach can be unpredictable. His music is so sure of its own destiny, but that doesn’t stop it having a few emotional wobbles and flights of fancy along the way.

A work like the Brandenburg Concerto no.1 is a great example of this, where the beautifully argued lines of the first movement (above) are thrown into doubt by the extremely emotional second (below), the oboe floating above chords that are riddled with anxiety:

Moving to the larger scale works, Bach’s dramatic impetus becomes clearer. Whether Beethoven encountered the Mass in B minor is not known, but had he done so the contrasting solemnity of the Kyrie and outright exultation of the Gloria would surely have made a strong impression. Within the Credo section, when Bach reaches the moment of the Crucifixus, there is almost inaudible contemplation – after which the resurrection itself (Et resurrexit) literally bursts from the grave! The splendour of the Dona nobis pacem would seem to anticipate Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, also in the same key of D major.

It is interesting to note Beethoven did not take up Bach’s lead in writing for solo instruments, with no sonatas for solo violin or cello in his output. Nor did he write extensively for the church as Bach did – no realms of cantatas here. Yet that is perhaps a sign of where the commissioned work now originated in music, and Beethoven’s beliefs too, which remain largely unknown. But the two composers have much in common, being innovators and inventors in so many different musical disciplines. We look forward to spending much more time with their music!


Follow our route to Beethoven by listening along with this Spotify playlist, including the works by Bach discussed in the feature above. Please do follow Arcana here for further playlists in the series!

Next up

Routes to Beethoven moves swiftly on to the music of the ‘next generation’ Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel – Johann Sebastian’s second surviving son. Expect some fireworks!