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Johann Sebastian Bach,
Old Father of Fugues

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1746 (image)

Johann Sebastian Bach (by E. G. Haussmann, 1746)

There is only one Bach! Only one Bach!
-- Frederick the Great

Johann Sebastian Bach was Handel’s greatest contemporary.  Curiously enough, they never met nor even corresponded, though more than once they just missed meeting.  On one occasion Bach went to Halle, hearing that Handel was there and expecting to greet him, but Handel had left for England an hour or two before his brother composer arrived.  The two, Handel and Bach, are often spoken of as if they were a sort of Siamese twins of music.  They were both Germans, and they were born within a month of each other.  Both, again, were fine organists, both gave great religious works to the world, and both were stricken blind in their later years.  Beyond that, they had not much in common.  Handel, as we have seen, enjoyed a prominent place as a popular composer, and died rich after a residence of more than forty years in London.  Bach, a quiet, stay-at-home man, who married twice and had family of twenty sons and daughters, laboured with small resources in the little town of Leipzig for the last twenty-four years of his life, and outside a rather limited public in Germany he was hardly known at all.  Nevertheless, of all the works of that period, the ones which have real influence on art at the present time are those of Bach.

Handel’s influence was felt almost solely in oratorio and in England alone; whereas Bach had a real and lasting influence on all the great composers who followed him. All looked up to him, and took, as it were, their cue from his seriousness and his calm dignity. Beethoven was enthralled by his stupendous Mass in B minor, the chief monument of his genius. Mozart by chance heard some of his compositions and came away "deeply impressed and wondering." The first time he heard one of Bach’s hymns he said, "Thank God! I have learnt something absolutely new." Schumann exclaimed, "Only from one might all composers find ever-new creative power -- from Johann Sebastian Bach." Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner -- all revered Bach as their godfather in music. And that position is in nowise changed to-day. In spite of modern developments, "old Bach" remains the musician for musicians, just as Spenser remains the poet for poets. Still he commands the attention of the musical world, whether in church, in concert-room, or in study. Of him, more than of any of the other great composers, it may be said that he is "not for an age but for all time."

Bach is the best example that we have of the degree to which music may sometimes be inherited.  He bore the name of a Thuringian family, in which the pursuit of music was uniquely hereditary and carefully nourished from childhood.  In course of time the family held practically all the musical posts in Thuringia.  With its numerous branches, and many members in each branch, all dwelling in the same province, they spread in every direction, and it was a queer place where one did not find a Bach as cantor or organist or town musician.  The whole family lived on the most affectionate terms with each other.  They intermarried freely, and one day in the year was set apart for a grand Bach gathering, after the manner of the nobility.  In Erfurt, Eisenach, Arnstadt, Gotha, Muhlhausen, Bachs were established as organists; and still, at the end of the eighteenth century, the town pipers in Erfurt were called "the Bachs," although not one amongst them was a Bach!  Not that the musical Bachs had ceased to exist.  It was not until as late as 1846 that the great line, the most honourable in the history of music, became extinct, when Wilhelm F. E. Bach died.  Even now the name of Bach is quite common in Germany.  In 1899 no fewer than thirteen families of Bachs were living in Erfurt alone, and there were others elsewhere.

The genealogy of the Bachs has naturally given some trouble to the biographers, but it is now clearly proved that the root of the great tree was a certain Veit Bach, a miller and baker, who, after being chased from Germany to Hungary and back again on account of his Protestant faith, finally settled near the German frontier.  According to our composer, "Veit’s greatest pleasure was to play on a guitar which he brought back with him from his travels.  This he was in the habit of playing while the mill was in motion, and, notwithstanding the noise of the mill, he kept strictly to time, and this, I think, may be looked upon as the beginning of the musical feeling of his descendants."  About the year 1580 there was born to Veit a son, Hans, who inherited so much of the family gift that he threw up the mill and became a musician.  Hans married and gave his name to three more Bachs -- John, Christopher, and Henry-who also took up the profession of music.  Christopher was our composer’s grandfather.  This Christopher had twin sons, who were so like each other that even their wives could not tell them apart!  Nay, they "were exceedingly alike in temperament as well, so that when one suffered from any disorder, the other was almost sure to be afflicted in the same way."  One of the twins, Johann Ambrosius, became Court and town musician at Eisenach, and it was a Eisenach that his famous son was born, on the 21st of March 1685, just a month after Handel.

The little Johann did not long enjoy the protection of his parents, for he was left an orphan when only ten years old.  But already he had received indelible musical impression from hearing his father play on the violin, an instrument which he himself learnt very early.  When the father died, Sebastian was taken under the care of his elder brother, John Christopher, who was organist at a small village near Eisenach.  The brother, a hard and stern specimen, gave the boy lessons in music until he began to realise that the boy would soon outstrip himself, and then, with jealousy most contemptible in a brother, began to put all the obstacles in his way that he could think of.  There was one particular volume of music in the brother’s collection that Sebastian eagerly desired to get hold of for the purpose of study.  But the book was kept under lock and key, and it was a long time before he could lay his hands on it.  Then, at night whenever there was sufficient moonlight for the purpose, he managed by degrees to copy out its contents.  The task took him six months, and when the monster of a brother discovered what he had been up to he at once robbed the boy of his precious copy.  It was no doubt to this moonlight labour that Bach partly owed the blindness which came upon him in later life.

The main thing to be noted from the incident is, however, the zeal with which young Sebastian pursued his studies.  That zeal may be said to have continued with him to the end.  Some years later, when the ogre of a brother was dead, and when he had begun to make a little money as a choir boy (for he had a lovely soprano voice), he saved every trifle in order to get to Hamburg to hear the great Reinken, then the leading organist in the country.  Sometimes he traveled on foot.  He certainly did so when, later, he was at Luneberg, which is about thirty miles from Bamburg.  In his old age he was fond of telling a curious story connected with one of these trips.  He was half-way home after a feast of Reinken playing, and nearly all his money was spent.  He arrived at a country inn where the savoury odour of cooking made him hungrier than he already was.  He sat down by the road, musing on his hard fate.  Suddenly a window was opened and two herring-heads were flung at him.  He picked them up and found a Danish ducat in each of them.  Some kindly disposed stranger had observed him, and guessing the cause of his despondency, played this trick on him.  It enabled him to get a good dinner, and he resumed his way rejoicing.  Bach went, in 1720, a last time to hear Reinken, who was still as his post, though then ninety-seven.  The young man played to the veteran for two hours, and Reinken was so overcome that he shed tears of joy while he tenderly embraced Bach.  "I did think," he said, "that this art would die with me, but I see that you will keep it alive."  Here he referred especially to the young player’s gifts of extemporization.

Bach was eighteen years old when he received his first musical appointment.  It was as a violinist in the band of the Duke of Weimar.  But Bach had never taken very kindly to the violin.  The organ was his favourite instrument, first and last, and so we are not surprised to find him installed a year later as organist at Arnstadt.  Here he put in a quiet life of steady work for two years, writing some of his early church cantatas for his choir, and toiling at the organ like a galley slave.  He made long excursions to hear famous organists, and on one notable occasion he obtained leave of absence for a month that he might go to Lubeck and listen to Buxtehude, the greatest organist in that part of the country.  Lübeck was fifty miles from Anstadt, but Bach cheerfully performed the journey on foot.  His month of leave passed all too quickly, and the found himself so infatuated by Buxtehude’s playing that he resolved to extend his holiday at the risk of losing his place.

It was not, in fact, until he had been four months away that he took the road for Arnstadt.  Naturally on his return he was severely reprimanded for his behaviour.  It seems that the church authorities had not been entirely satisfied with his performance of the duties before he left, and this too was now made a matter of complaint.  A formal examination was held, and the local magnates reported: "We charge him with having hitherto been in the habit of making surprising variations in the chorales, and intermixing divers strange sounds, so that thereby the congregation were confounded."  Bach, one fears, lost his temper with these would-be-dictators, for we find that his answers, eight months delayed, though short, were not submissive.

By and by there arose a fresh ground for complaint against the young organist.  In one of the reports it is thus written: "We further remonstrate with him on his having allowed the stranger maiden to show herself and to make music in the choir."  Which means simply that Bach, who was described by Mattheson as "a constant admirer of the fair sex," had given his sweetheart a place among his singers.  This was very wrong of him.  In the older church cantatas women did not sing; so that Bach committed almost as great an indiscretion as the organists of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral would commit if they allowed a woman’s voice to be heard in their choirs.

Bach’s answer to the Arnstadt authorities was that he had "mentioned the matter to the parson."  Perhaps when he spoke to the parson he confessed his love and his betrothal.  At any rate, he was married a year later to this "stranger maiden," who bore his own name, and was indeed a cousin from a neighboring town.  Cousins, they tell us, should not marry.  But it is worth remarking that the most distinguished of Bach’s sons were all the children of his first marriage.  It was the "stranger maiden" who was the mother of Wilhelm Friedemann, the father’s favourite, and of Philipp Emanuel, whom the musical world long preferred to Sebastian himself.  There is an amusing entry of the composer’s marriage in the parish register.  "On October 17, 1707," it reads, "the respectable Herr Johann Sebastian Bach, a bachelor, the surviving lawful son of the late most respectable Herr Ambrosius Bach, the famous town organist and musician of Eisenach, was married to the virtuous maiden, Maria Barbara Bach, the youngest surviving unmarried daughter of the late very respectable and famous artist, Johann Michael Bach, organist at Gehren," and so on.  Only in Germany have the registrars time to cultivate such flowers of rhetoric.  Yet how we like to read it all of Sebastian, after these two hundred years have elapsed!

It was not at Arnstadt but at Muhlhausen that Bach was married.  Perhaps he found Arnstadt uncomfortable after the above-recorded incidents.  Even now, Arnstadt does not seem to be sufficiently appreciative of her greatest organist.  Quite recently the chief music-seller there told a well-known English musician that Bach’s music is out of date. "No one has now any interest in such old-fashioned stuff," he said.  Bach seems to have had no trouble at Muhlhausen, but he stayed there only long enough to set up house.  His salary was about £7 year, with certain et ceteras, including "three pounds of fish a year."  A paltry inheritance of £4 presently came to him.  But alas! "modest as is my of life," he wrote, "with the payment of house rent and other indispensable articles of consumption, I can with difficulty live."  Thus, to better himself, he was soon on the move again -- this time to Weimar, as organist, of course.
We are now of his reputation as an executant, as a composer, and as an extemporiser spreading all over Germany. There was no need for him making tiresome journeys to hear great organists any more, for he was now among the greatest himself, and lesser men were soon coming to hear him. By and by he removed to Cöthen as kapellmeister and organist to the Prince of Anhalt. Here was produce what is perhaps the most generally known of all his works, the collection bearing the title of the Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues. Bach called it The Well-Tempered Clavier, well-tempered being a synonym for well or correctly tuned. The title requires some explanation. In olden times, when fewer keys were used in composition than now, it was considered enough if a key-board instrument had one or two keys in tune. Keys with several flats and sharps were never in strict tune. In this way, owing to a curious scientific fact, the few keys could be "better in tune and sound better in some ways than if all the keys were equally considered." Gradually, however, composers desired to use more keys, and it came to be a question whether it were better to endure some keys which were out of tune for the sake of the few which were in perfect tune, or to make all the keys alike.

Bach foresaw clearly that the time must come when composers would write in every possible key, and so he made himself a beginning in this Well-Tempered Clavier. The famous work has not only been "the constant source of happiness and content and comfort to most of the musicians of any standing in the world since the beginning of last century, but it has all the elements of the most lasting value imaginable. In it men find almost all the shades of feeling they can desire, except such as are tainted with coarseness or levity. The very depths of pathos and sadness are sounded in some numbers, in others there is joy and lightness, in others humour and merriment, in others the sublimest dignity, and in others that serenity of beauty which seems to lift man above himself, and to make him free for the time from the shadows and darker places of his nature, and all pieces alike are cast in a form of most perfect art, and in that scale which can be realised completely at home with no more elaborate resources than one little keyed instrument." Every virtuoso of the piano knows the value of the matchless "Forty-eight." When Chopin was to give a recital, he never practised the pieces he was to play, but shut himself up for a fortnight and played Bach. "Let the Well-Tempered Clavier be thy daily bread," said Schumann; and better advice could not be given. Whether for technical practice, intellectual enjoyment, or spiritual nourishment, the "Forty-eight" are of priceless worth. They are perfect little cameos of art, and if Bach had written nothing else, he would still have endeared himself to us.

But there is more to be said in this connection.  We must never forget Bach’s reforms in the matter of key-board fingering.  Before his day players hardly used the thumb and fourth finger at all.  Scales used to be played by turning the second and third fingers over one another, and only now and again would the fourth finger be used, to get over peculiar difficulties.  Bach changed all this, and so we may, in a sense, regard him as the father of modern piano playing.  Of his own style of fingering an early biographer says: "He played with so easy and small a motion of the fingers that it was hardly perceptible.  Only the first joints of his fingers were in motion; his hand retained, even in the most difficult passages, its rounded form; his fingers rose very little from the keys, hardly more than in a shake, and when one was employed, the others remained still in their positions."

At Cöthen one of Bach’s most serious domestic calamities befell him. He had been from home, and when he returned to get, as he expected, the glad greetings of his wife, he found that she was already dead and buried.  Bach was a man of deep emotions and few words, and he suffered keenly from this bereavement.  But he was essentially a family man, and it was not long before he married again, this time a lady of musical taste and accomplishment, who helped him appreciably in his professional work.  She sang and played well, and she had, besides, a beautiful hand for copying music.  Bach taught her the harpsichord, and a good deal of his music was expressly written for her. The new wife, who bore her husband thirteen children, made the Bach home a little musical paradise.  Seven years after the marriage the composer wrote of his family: "They are one and all born musicians, and I assure you that I can already form a concert, both vocal and instrumental, of my own family, particularly as my wife sings a clear soprano, and my eldest daughter joins in bravely."  A pretty picture that is, to think of!

In course of time Bach got tired of Cöthen, and the office of cantor to the school of St. Thomas in Leipzig falling in his way, he accepted it, and settled down to what was his last appointment.  This was in 1723.  He now turned his attention chiefly to church music, and produced those magnificent settings of the Passion which have given him a place as a religious composer beside Handel himself.  To the end his life went on in the same placid and uneventful way in which his earlier years had been spent.  True, his post at St. Thomas did not prove a bed of roses.  It is recorded in a Leipzig paper of 1749 that the officials had then actually chosen a successor, "when Kapellmeister and Cantor Herr Sebastian Bach should die."  It was also contrived to perform an elegy over Bach ere he vacated the post, in the shape of a cantata entitled "The rich man died and was buried."  There were other annoyances.  But Bach took them all calmly and philosophically.  He loved his own fireside and his art, his friends and his family better than anything else in the world, and these were his consolation amid all the troubles and vexations of his career. 

Author of this page: David Paul Wagner

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