Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/128

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116
BACH.
 

full decision and typical clearness:—a deeply religious sentiment which, though in many points closely approaching to the pietism then developing itself, yet adhered with a certain naive severity to the traditional, orthodox, family views; a truly wonderful moral force, which, without any show, embraced the problem of life in its deepest sense; and a touching patriarchal spirit, which was satisfied with humble circumstances, rejoiced in the blessing of an unusually numerous family, and regarded the family life as the chief raison d'étre. With and above all this there was an artistic striving, founded exclusively on ideal views, and directed with complete self-forgetfulness to ideal aims alone. His art and his family,—those were the two poles around which Bach's life moved; outwardly, simple, modest, insignificant; inwardly, great, rich, and luxurious in growth and production. His activity was extraordinary and unceasing. Besides his official duties and his actual labour as a composer, which in themselves alone are astonishing, he made copies for himself of other composers' works, including those of the Bach family; he sometimes engraved on copper, and even occupied himself with the manufacture of instruments. He invented an instrument between the violoncello and viola, which he called viola pomposa, and devised a piano with catgut strings which he called lauten-clavicymbalum. At the same time he was a model paterfamilias, made the musical education of his sons his especial and peculiar care, wrote educational works for his pupils like the 'Klavierbüchlein' for his son Friedemann, and the famous 'Kunst der Fuge,' and also trained a great number of pupils who afterwards themselves became famous, such as Johann Caspar Vogler, Agricola, Altnikol, afterwards his son-in-law, Marpurg, Kirnberger, and Ludwig Krebs. Bachs development points to a steady and indefatigable pursuit of a definite and fixed aim, guided by his genius alone. He had a clear insight into his artistic mission; developed himself out of himself with a perfect unity of purpose, holding aloof from external influences in the field of art, but rather drawing them to himself and so appropriating them through the power of his genius as to mould them into a complete whole. If in a measure he ran counter to the continual encroachments of Italian opera, this may be attributed less to his artistic than to his moral and religious views.

Bach's importance for the history of music lies in the fact that, starting with instrumental music, and adhering to the spirit of it, he developed all forms and species of composition in an entirely new and independent manner. The old vocal style, which was founded exclusively on polyphony, was exhausted. Bach created an entirely new vocal style based on instrumental principles, carried it to the summit of perfection, and there left it.

Bach's masterly counterpoint is generally spoken of as the special mark of his genius; and unapproachable as he is in this branch, his real power lies less in the almost inconceivable facility and dexterity with which he manages the complicated network of parts, than in that formal conformation of the movements which resulted from this manner of writing; in this he exhibits a consistency, fertility, and feeling for organic completeness which are truly inimitable. His melody, his harmony, and his periods all seem to be of one mould: an indestructible spirit of severe logic and unalterable conformity to law pervades the whole as well as the parts. These formal principles are governed, pervaded, and animated from first to last by the idea of the musical composition; so that the materials, though in themselves void of expression, become imbued with an inexhaustible depth of meaning, and produce infinite varieties of form. This wonderful unity of idea and formal construction gives the stamp of the true work of art to Bach's compositions, and explains the magical attraction which they exert on those who make them their earnest study. Besides these less obvious qualities, Bach's importance in the history of music shows itself in the immediate influence he exerted in various ways towards its greater development. He first settled the long dispute between the old church modes and the modern harmonic system; in his chorales he often makes use of the former, but the harmonic principle is predominant in his works, just as it still lies at the root of modern music. Connected with this was the 'equal temperament' which Bach required for instruments with fixed intonation. He put this in practice by always tuning his pianos himself, and moreover embodied his artistic creed in relation to it in his famous 'Wohltemperirte Klavier,' a collection of preludes and fugues in all keys. Bach's influence on the technical part of piano-playing must not be forgotten. The fingering which was then customary, which hardly made any use of the thumb, and very seldom of the little finger, was inadequate for the performance of his works. But he stood entirely upon his own ground, and formed for himself a new system of fingering, the main principle of which was the equal use and development of all the fingers, thus laying the foundation of the modern school; on the other hand he laid down many rules which, though no longer binding, to a certain degree reconciled the old and the new schools, and gave the whole system a thoroughly personal stamp, making it appear, like everything else of Bach's, unique.

Bach wrote unceasingly in every form and branch, and the quantity of his works is enormous. A tolerably complete catalogue (by Emanuel Bach and Agricola) is given in Mitzler's 'Musikalisches Bibliothek' (1754), of which the following is a summary:—

1. Vocal Works. Five sets of Sacred Cantatas (Kirchen-Cantaten) for every Sunday and Holy-day in the year, besides many single ones, such as 'Gottes Zeit ist die beste Zeit'; and others for special occasions, such as the 'Trauer-ode' on