​Celebrating J.S. Bach's birth in subways around the world

NEW YORK -- New York City's subway system is, perhaps, the last place one would expect to hear the work of the well-famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach. But for classical musicians, it has become the birthplace of an international movement.

"There's something about Bach that has this unique universal appeal where everybody is drawn to it," said Dale Henderson, 38. "It consistently breaks down barriers and crosses borders."

Henderson, originally from Newton, Massachusetts, organized the first Bach in the Subways performances in 2010, simply as a commemoration of the German composer's birthday. But at that point, it was just him playing solo Bach cello suites. And unlike other musicians in the subway, he refused to take money.

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Cellist Dale Henderson began Bach in the Subways in 2010.
CBS News

"The reason I was down in the subway hundreds of times had nothing to do with money," he said. "It had to do with human value and, it had something to do with sharing something undeniably positive."

Because of that effort, Bach's birthday has become a day where many all over the world celebrate the composer in subways with solo and group performances of his work.

This year, musicians are filling the world with his music in at least 129 cities and 39 countries. A Kickstarter campaign to offset the cost of larger performances, many of which are outside the U.S., has raised more than $6,200.

But why Bach and not other musical titans like Mozart, Beethoven or Dvorak?

Many musical scholars believe the work of Bach, who lived from 1685 to 1750, is second to none. His music is widely revered for its intellectual depth, technical demands and artistic beauty. Most of his compositions are explicitly Biblical. Yet every possible human feeling shines through his music.

In his book "Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven," English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner wrote Bach's music "carries a universal message of hope that can touch anybody regardless of culture, religious denomination or musical knowledge. It springs from the depths of the human psyche, not from some topical or local creed."

The philosophy that Bach's music touches all no matter their background or cultural upbringing is why violinist Jude Ziliak has participated in Bach in the Subways for the past three years.

"It makes a ritual of collective joy in our cultural heritage, and it makes a populist case for deeply serious and artful music," Ziliak said. "I love the moment when a curious listener looks at a card and realizes that there are similar things going on simultaneously all over the world -- it makes the world seem just a bit more interconnected."

Flutist Sylvain Leroux doesn't play in subways often, but decided that playing on the composer's birthday was something he couldn't miss.

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Sylvain Leroux performs a Bach two-part invention for flute with fellow musician Eric Dialo on the First Avenue subway platform in New York City, March 21, 2015.
Matthew Vann/CBS News

"Music should be where the people are," Leroux said. "Most people are rushing through the station listening to music on their iPhones. But if they stop and hear this music, Bach, I hope it does something meaningful for them."

Henderson considers Bach in the Subways as just one of many needed remedies to revive and energize the classical music industry, which has suffered a decline for several years.

"It's absolutely a blatant attempt to revive an art that's too obscure for its quality," he said. "When you're in the subway, you're not exactly expecting a moment of pause and tranquility. This music draws people in."