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Bach’s Legacy: Stinson explores composer’s influence in new book

A Lyon College professor has published a new book exploring the musical legacy of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Josephine E. Brown Professor of Music and College Organist Dr. Russell Stinson has been working on Bach’s Legacy: The Music as Heard by Later Masters for about eight years. The book was published this year by the Oxford University Press.

Bach’s Legacy examines Bach’s influence on composers in realms beyond composition, such as performance, scholarship and criticism, and includes a significant amount of material never before published in English.

Stinson said seeing the book published was “immensely satisfying.”

“A great deal of work went into this, but at the same time, it was a labor of love,” he said. “This music by Bach, which is immortal, is a legacy I’ve been paying tribute to ever since I was a teenager learning to play the organ.”

The finished product was a collaborative effort. Stinson was assisted by archivists in Germany and the United Kingdom, and Lyon student Tyler Brightwell prepared the musical examples for the book. His daughter-in-law, who is German, helped him translate some of the more challenging German passages for the book.

“Thanks to Lyon and the University of Louisville, where I was doing a guest stint, I was able to travel to various European archives and do on-site research.”

The biggest challenge while working on the book was organizing his time. In addition to being a full-time professor, Stinson is the organist and choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“What I’ve discovered is that you have to be slightly obsessed to see a book from conception to fruition.”

He continued, “However, it was not this laborious thing that I felt I had to do as an academic to further my reputation. This is music that I continue to be inspired by.”

Stinson enjoyed learning more about Bach and later masters, like Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, who were hugely influenced by Bach.

“You really learn about them as human beings and not just as later composers who copied aspects of Bach’s music.”

He continued, “We know so little about Bach the man. There’s really only one letter that’s revealing about the man’s personality.”

However, 19th Century figures like Mendelssohn and Schumann grew up during a time when letter-writing was a large part of the culture.

“In the case of Mendelssohn, you’re so impressed with how dear his family was to him.”

Stinson said he continues to perform Bach’s music at church and for recitals.

“The magic of the music is a combination of supreme unsurpassed craftsmanship with the spiritual profundity of his art.”

Bach was a devout Lutheran, and Stinson said he did not distinguish between “the sacred and the secular” in his music.

“One of his favorite slogans was ‘Soleil deus gloria,’ which means ‘To God alone be the glory.’ I think that’s an important way to think of Bach.”

He continued, “You can think of all of his music as religious but in two broad categories: music written for actual church services and music for the greater world, which still has this aim of religious edification.”

Stinson regularly refers to his research on Bach during organ and piano lessons and in classes.

“I’ll read a passage verbatim from one of the books if it ties into the subject we’re discussing.”

He concluded, “It’s not for vanity’s sake. I think our students need to realize that we are learners also. I think publishing a book is like teaching, but in a very different realm.”