Schweitzer on Bach as “objective art”
April 6, 2013
This is from Albert Schweitzer’s famous two-volume study of J. S. Bach, which lead the Bach renaissance of the early 20th century:
Some artists are subjective, some objective. The art of the former has its source in their personality; their work is almost independent of the epoch in which they live. A law unto themselves, they place themselves in opposition to their epoch and originate new forms for the expression of their ideas. Of this type was Richard Wagner.
Bach belongs to the order of objective artists. These are wholly of their own time, and work only with the forms and the ideas that their time proffers them. They exercise no criticism upon the media of artistic expression that they find lying ready to their hand, and feel no inner compulsion to open out new paths. Their art not coming solely from the stimulus of their outer experience, we need not seek the roots of their work in the fortunes of its creator. In them the artistic personality exists independently of the human, the latter remaining in the background as if it were something almost accidental. ….
The art of the objective artist is not impersonal, but superpersonal. It is as if he felt only one impulse, — to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, — it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him. …
Whatever path we may traverse through the poetry and the music of the Middle Ages, we are always led to him.
The grandest creations of the chorale from the twelfth to the eighteenth century adorn his cantatas and Passions. Handel and the others make no use of the superb treasures of chorale-melody. They want to be free of the past. Bach feels otherwise; he makes the chorale the foundation of his work. …
This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul. Centuries and generations have laboured at this work, before the grandeur of which we halt in veneration.
Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, vol. 1, trans. Ernest Newman (London: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1911), 1-4.