Saturday, September 16, 2023

Is Bach the greatest achiever of all time?


       My Arno Schmidt-book 

       I (self-)published my Arno Schmidt: a centennial colloquyalmost a decade ago, and when I did I hoped to sell fifty copies in the first year, and figured that when John E. Woods' translation of Bottom's Dream appeared (as it then did in 2016) interest in that would lead to a hundred or so additional sales. 
       As it turned out, the book sold exactly fifty copies in the first year -- but, while the appearance of the Bottom's Dream-translation did make for renewed interest, it took quite a while for the book to reach 150 copies sold. Surprisingly, however, it's proved to have a decent long tail, with something of a surge (relatively speaking) in sales the past year or two, and this summer has now passed 200 copies sold in all. 
       These aren't very impressive sales-totals, but more than I expected -- and I've even made some money off it (a profit of over US$500.00 to date), which is, after all, more than many books manage. 
       What I'm particularly/most amused by is that the book has thirteen reader-ratings at (much appreciated), while my commercially (well, university-press) published The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction -- which has, of course, had an order of magnitude greater sales -- has only garnered ten. 

       Anyway, it's nice to see the book has beat my expectations, and that it's found readers who seem to enjoy it. Go, Arno ! 

Is Bach the greatest achiever of all time?

I’ve been reading and rereading biographies of Bach lately (for some podcast prep), and it strikes me he might count as the greatest achiever of all time.  That is distinct from say regarding him as your favorite composer or artist of all time.  I would include the following metrics as relevant for that designation:

1. Quality of work.

2. How much better he was than his contemporaries.

3. How much he stayed the very best in subsequent centuries.

4. Quantity of work.

5. Peaks.

6. Consistency of work and achievement.

7. How many other problems he had to solve to succeed with his achievement.  For Bach, this might include a) finding musical manuscripts, b) finding organs good enough to play and compose on, c) dealing with various local and church authorities, d) migrating so successfully across jurisdictions, e) composing at an impossibly high level during the four years he was widowed (with kids), before remarrying.

8. Ending up so great that he could learn only from himself.

9. Never experiencing true defeat or setback (rules out Napoleon!).

I see Bach as ranking very, very high in all these categories.  Who else might even be a contender for greatest achiever of all time?  Shakespeare?  Maybe, but Bach seems to beat him for relentlessness and quantity (at a very high quality level).  Beethoven would be high on the list, but he doesn’t seem to quite match up to Bach in all of these categories.  Homer seems relevant, but we are not even sure who or what he was.  Archimedes?  Plato or Aristotle?  Who else?

Addendum: from Lucas, in the comments:

I’m not joking when I say I have thought about Bach in this light every week for the last 20 years.

His family died young, and his day job for much of his life was a school teacher! In addition to the daily demands on him to teach Latin and theology and supervise teenage boys and so on, there was the thousand small practical challenges of life in the eighteenth century. No electric lighting. Crappy parchment and quills. The cold, the disease, the lack of plumbing, the restricted access to information, talented players, and the manual nature of every little thing.

And, perhaps most of all, to continue such a volume of high-quality output when the world seemed not to care. Yes, he had a local reputation among those in the know, but there were never any packed concert halls or grand tours to validate his efforts. He seems to have been entirely internally driven by his genius and his commitment to the eternal and divine.