Bach and Beethoven - Great minds, different lives

In the small pantheon of the greatest composers of all time, the names of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven stand out between the most dazzling. Starting from this fundamental joint destiny, one can see how their personal life histories and creative careers showed both similar and divergent characters.

First, the similarities: both composers had an enormous impact on music in the Western world and worldwide, starting from a Germanic socio-cultural context.

Their influence had already been important for the development of music in their own time. It also reverberated on numerous other composers in later eras – even though Bach was considered by some contemporaries to be more tied to the past (especially as regards technical and poetic aspects), only to retrieve all his bursting genius during the following century.

The differences, however, stem mainly from the different periods in which the two composers lived: Bach was born in 1685, almost a century before Beethoven, while the latter was supposedly born in 1770. Therefore, Bach lived during the stylistic period known as the Baroque, while Beethoven experienced the transition between Classicism and Romanticism during his lifetime.

Another fundamental difference emerges from a common element: the relationship with the keyboard, which was essential for both. Bach's keyboard was that of the organ or the harpsichord, while Beethoven's was strictly – especially in his mature phase – the piano. In terms of works, alongside the colossal keyboard repertoire, Bach concentrated mainly on vocal compositions with a sacred character, whereas Beethoven identified himself with the development of the symphonic form and the string quartet. These specialisations can also be explained by the different professional contexts in which the two musicians were productive: Bach worked mainly for the ecclesiastical establishment, whereas Beethoven worked alongside nobles and monarchs. However, he maintained a certain autonomy and a conflictual relationship with authority.

Finally, Beethoven's relational sphere was also conflictual: his impulsive and sometimes irascible character led him to live a rather isolated life. He had only a few brief love affairs, no children, and his relationship with his family (parents, siblings and grandchildren) was rather contentious. Instead, Bach was described as a reserved and pious man, the proud head of a large family and very considerate in private life.