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Was there any reason Bach didn't follow the trends of the times? He was surely very much in touch with contemporary composers, and knew of Handel's and Scarlatti's works specifically. Amazingly, he composed not a single opera in his life. Did his influences lead him to focus on perfecting the existing High Baroque style, or were there other reasons for not following the rapidly changing style? I am tempted to say that as a very cerebral man, the Baroque style (in particular the fugue) better suited him, but I know few of the musicological facts here. Also notable is the high volume/proportion of religious music Bach composed, when the tendencies were increasingly secular everywhere. (He composed many great masses, despite the lacks of operas.)

J. S. Bach was positioned at an interesting period in musical history, without doubt. Born when the Baroque style was still predominant and flourishing, most of his later life represents the beginning of the Classical period. In fact, his birth year of 1685 was shared with both G. F. Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, the latter in particular who adopted (and indeed helped develop) the early Classical style. It is perhaps less surprising then that Bach's style was often deemed "turgid" and somewhat outdated in his own day. There is no doubt he was a "culminator" rather than an "initiator" of styles however. His true genius was recognised and his works acclaimed from around the start of the Romantic period.

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I swapped your paragraphs around to get to crux of the question. This edited version sounds more "Q&A"-like and less soliloquy. Feel free to rollback if you don't agree. –  Robert Cartaino May 7 '11 at 18:42
@Robert: I did ramble a bit, so fair enough! I'm happy to leave it this way. (There's a valid question in there either way, but perhaps it's more obvious now.) –  Noldorin May 8 '11 at 13:14
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2 Answers

Much of Bach's education in composition came from him making hand copies of many musical scores, as music was not mass-printed at the time. Having mastered the Baroque notions of counterpoint and developing motives, combined with his known skill at improvising in the style, why would he seek to give up mastery of a style to be mediocre at a new one?

As to the nature of his works, such as not writing operas, Bach spent much of his life employed by Lutheran churches, where he was obligated by his position to supply service music. Bach went above and beyond at this--at his Leipzig post alone, he wrote cantatas for every Sunday service, as well as for every church holiday. Much of his secular music such as the Brandenburg Concertos originated while he was instead serving as a court music director for the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, who used simpler music for worship services due to being Calvinist, leaving Bach to focus on the secular end of things during that and other similar periods. Based on the religious beliefs of both Bach and his employers, it is also probable opera was considered far too worldly.

So between religious and teaching obligations and just being so good at what he was already doing, I rather think Bach didn't really take the time to ever worry about what was "in style." He certainly wanted to continue his musical growth, exploring different techniques and learning from other musicians, but I don't think he spent any real effort at following trends to the extent of some other long-lived composers.

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I think there's some truth in this, indeed. Bach was no doubt an intellectual and probably followed his mind and spirit more than his job or the fashion. (Not that he was ever really poor.) As far as I know however, Bach is generally only considered to have become the ultimate master of counterpoint in his later life's works (post 1720-ish)... But yeah, some useful info in this answer, so +1 and thanks. –  Noldorin Jul 6 '11 at 22:58
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You could say the same about Beethoven. Rossini was off inventing 19th-century opera, and Weber was applying those operatic innovations to instrumental music, and what was Beethoven doing? Putting fugues in his major works. Beethoven's late style was completely uninfluenced by the new trends, and even became a dead end until it influenced later composers like Brahms and Bruckner.

On the other hand, take a look at Luigi Cherubini. Listen to his first Requiem (1816). Strictly old-fashioned. Cherubini spent the next 20 years thwarting Hector Berlioz in every possible way. Now listen to the second (1836). It sounds like a copy of the Berlioz Requiem. Clearly Cherubini saw a reason to follow the trend of the times, if Bach and Beethoven did not.

Many of the composers we respect most highly do not bring their music to our level. We must go to their level.

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Most great people don't follow trends. Einstein, Edison, you name it. –  musicwithoutpaper May 7 '11 at 23:05
I'm not one to down-vote answers my own questions, but I'm afraid this doesn't really answer the question! Also, I have to disagree about Beethoven. Beethoven was a superb culminator and initiator. He was one of the founders of the Romantic style in music. Also, he heavily influenced Schubert, a contemporary of his later life. Mozart would be a better example of a pure culminator. –  Noldorin May 8 '11 at 13:16
Also, Mozart and Beethoven, while both having unique styles (obviously), were more or less in agreement with the contemporary musical styles. –  Noldorin May 8 '11 at 13:25
The answer to the question would have to be "We'll never know why Bach didn't follow the trend of the times. It's too late to ask him." –  Mark Lutton May 30 '11 at 2:35
Unless he was already asked and it was written down. At minimum I would expect there to be some discussion of this in a musicological publication. Even if it was educated speculation, it's better than "I don't know." –  Matthew Read Jun 9 '11 at 16:11
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