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’m mainly using this as an excuse to link to yet another recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, my favorite work of his:

Yes, it has both German & Japanese captions. It’s a recording from 1971, Karl Richter conducting.

One of my favorite “jokes” from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was the time-traveling character (oops, spoiler) who takes the music he hears from the spaceship and gives it to Bach… and makes a remark that someone might notice that the volume of great music is a bit too much for one person in one lifetime…

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ah, Bach

but I would lean to Da Vinci - not sure how to check if all criteria apply

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So Leonardo – the issue I have with him is he NEVER FINISHED HIS STUFF (okay, I jest) and often failed (which is not necessarily a bad thing)

The Last Supper was actually a kind of technical failure, as he didn’t know how to do a fresco. It keeps having to get repaired.

And the bit I like about Leo is his tiffs w/ Michelangelo, and in particular how he ended up skedaddling to France to avoid the up-and-comer. I believe one of Mikey’s retorts was “Aren’t you the guy who couldn’t get a horse statue to work?”

So Leo had a lot of good stuff, but screwed up a lot, too. And left a bunch of patrons pissed off, and kept having to flee cities because of various turmoil (whether political fortunes changing… or the unfinished biz). I mean, it’s far more tumultuous than Bach, who was pretty unsung in his lifetime, that’s for sure.

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No operas?

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I’m not a fan of using lack-of-competition as a measure.

But if so, how about Chaucer? Medieval literature is like 500 years of dreck and 1 clever dude.

Bach was a little too cis for me tbh

Stu argues that the oratorios/cantatas are operas, and they kind of are

The Coffee Cantata is a fun one

Chaucer is a good one, for accomplishment – he was accomplished outside of literature, too. He was a diplomat, though a minor one. And he wrote in Latin and French as well as English.

pretty sure a pun on unsung

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What? Me? Pun? Never! (On days that don’t end in “y”.)

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Dante is dreck?

It’s okay for bible fanfic w/cameos.

With things like this I always wonder how many of the metrics were chosen (possibly subconsciously) specifically so that Bach would win.

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As for Leo, I was not just thinking art, but his technical achievements.

Would we include sports? Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky

I think Tom Brady qualifies as the greatest over-achiever in history.

He just proves that if you take middle of the road talent & middle of the road athleticism, and mix in the right amounts of cheating, you can develop stats that make you look well above average.

Not sure. I’ll have to research and get Bach to you.

There were also a lot of solid Arthurian legends in Medieval literature, although like Dante not in English (e.g., Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach)