The New International Encyclopædia/Bach, Johann Sebastian

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The New International Encyclopædia
Bach, Johann Sebastian
Edition of 1905. Written by Gustav KobbéSee also Johann Sebastian Bach on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

BACH, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750). The greatest master of the Contrapuntal School of musical composition and the founder of German music. He was born at Eisenach, March 31 (Old Style 21), 1685. He came of a Thuringian family, which presented a remarkable example of the principle of heredity. (See Bach.) Bach's father, Johann Ambrosius, was a violin-player in the town-band of Eisenach. His mother was Elizabeth Lämmerhirt, daughter of a furrier of Erfurt, where Johann Ambrosius had held a position previous to that at Eisenach. The boy was his father's pupil in violin-playing until he was nearly 10 years old. After his father's death, in January, 1695 (two months after contracting a second marriage), he went to live with his elder brother, Johann Christoph, a pupil of Pachelbel and organist in the little town of Ohrdruf.

The Bachs held annual family and musical reunions. According to a description given by Bach's son, Karl Philipp Emanuel, to J. N. Forkel, one of Bach's biographers, these meetings opened with a chorale, which was followed by secular songs, until, at a convenient pause, some one of those present started a catch, in which each joined in proper turn with some humorous phrase, as likely as not hitting at a harmless family or individual failing; thus making a merry ending to the musical exercises of the reunion. The Bachs were a clan of working musicians; and quite as much as the violin lessons received from his father, the musical atmosphere of the Bach household and family traditions must have made their impression on Johann Sebastian. It was the homely life of people in humble circumstances, but it was permeated with music. To think in music was, from childhood, spontaneous — second nature with him. This, together with the scrupulous revision to which in his later years he subjected his earlier works, accounts for the sustained excellence of his vast production.

The Bach clan being so united, it is surprising that Bach's brother at Ohrdruf was moved more to jealousy than admiration by Sebastian's rapid progress. Johann Christoph taught him the clavichord, but kept from him a book containing works by Froberger, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and others, which the boy coveted. Not to be thwarted, however, he copied the book stealthily and laboriously on moonlit nights, only to be deprived of his copy when it was discovered. The anecdote is wholly in keeping with Bach's devotion to his art. At school, besides his general education, he was trained with the other boys for the church choir, and moreover sang at weddings and funerals. In April, 1700, Bach went to Lüneburg. where he was accepted at the school of Saint Michæl's for the choir of the church. His general education continued at the school; he took his commons at the refectory, and received musical training of much value for his future work, including high services with orchestra, choral singing, organ, and experience with a wider range of music. His fine treble voice, together with his knowledge of violin and clavichord, secured him immediate admittance to the advance matin choir. There was keen musical rivalry between the schools of Saint Michæl's and Saint John's; and when in winter the choirs went through the town streets to sing, separate routes had to be marked out for each, to avoid quarrelsome meetings. As the organ became in time Bach's instrument par excellence, and as he is regarded as its greatest master in composition and as one of its greatest masters in playing, it ia interesting to note that his serious study of it began in Lüneburg under George Boehm, a pupil of Reinken and a composer of distinction, who was organist at Saint John's Church; which shows that while the musical rivalry between Saint Michæl's and Saint John's was keen, it was also generous. The seriousness with which Bach went about the study of the organ is attested by the fact that he made several journeys to Hamburg to hear Reinken play and profit by his suggestions. Nearly twenty years later, when shortly before Reinken's death, Bach played in Saint Katherine's Church, Hamburg, an improvised elaboration of the chorale By the Waters of Babylon, the ‘father of North German organists’ exclaimed: “I thought this art was dead, but now I see it lives on in you!”

Bach's eagerness to leave nothing undone that would aid his progress in his art was again shown a few years later, when he walked 150 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck for a brief course of study with the famous organist Buxtehude. Bach had left Lüneburg in 1703, and for a few months was a member of the band of Prince Johann Ernest at Weimar. Chancing to visit Arnstadt, where his granduncle, Heinrich, had been organist, and where an organ lately had been installed in a new church, he played on the instrument. Although the trial is not believed to have been official, he was, at 18 years of age (August, 1703), engaged for a position similar to that which his granduncle had filled with honor. Bach went to Lübeck in 1705, and remained with Buxtehude three months, deliberately extending his month's leave from his Arnstadt duties for this purpose. Whatever the personal consequences might be, he was determined to derive the greatest possible artistic profit from his contact with the justly famous organist. The result was a great advance in organ technique, especially in new insight into the resources and use of the pedal, in which Buxtehude was a master. Naturally, the authorities were displeased at this unceremonious extension of his leave from one month to three; although, with characteristically Bachian honesty of purpose, he pleaded as an excuse his desire “to perfect himself in certain matters touching his art.” Further, however, he was rebuked “for that he hath heretofore made sundry perplexing variations and imported various strange harmonies, in such wise that the congregation was thereby confounded.” He had returned to Arnstadt in February, 1706. In June, 1707, he accepted the position of organist of Saint Blasius's Church, at Mühlhausen with the same salary as at Arnstadt, and “the accustomed dues of corn, wood and fish.” In October he married his cousin, Maria Barbara, whose father, John Michael Bach, had been organist at Gehren. June, 1708, he resigned from Mühlhausen to become organist in the Ducal Chapel at Weimar. Conditions at Weimar were such as to quicken Bach's already active musical faculties. The life of the court was decorous, influenced by Duke William Ernest, a man of serious temperament, a patron of arts and letters and wisely active in bringing the music of the Ducal Chapel up to a high standard. He in fact laid the foundation of that culture which made Weimar the centre of German letters in Goethe's time, and gave it a ‘golden period’ of music when Liszt resided there. In addition to his duties in the chapel, Bach played the violin or accompanied on the harpsichord in the Court Orchestra, wearing a Hungarian uniform, in which it is difficult at the present day to realize the appearance of the great master of the Contrapuntal School, whose perruqued portrait has come down to us. Bach's growing fame as an organist brought him many invitations to try or inspect organs and to play at various courts. For playing a pedal solo on the organ at Cassel with an agility “which few could equal with their hands” he received from the Hereditary Prince a precious ring which the Prince drew from his own finger.

Bach remained at Weimar nine years. In 1717 he accepted from Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen the office of kapellmeister at Köthen. The Prince, who sang bass and played violin, viola de gamba, and clavichord, warmly welcomed Bach into musical fellowship and made him his companion on various trips. It was the kapellmeister's duty to compose for the instruments on which the Prince played. Accordingly, as Bach's Weimar period is distinguished for his organ compositions, including several of his greatest works for that instrument; so that to his Köthen period belong much of his chamber music and works for clavichord and for orchestra. In a general way, it may be characterized as a lighter period in his life — a temporary relaxation in his self-imposed, severe course of artistic development before entering, in 1723, on the final and greatest epoch of his career as cantor of the School of Saint Thomas at Leipzig, when he achieved the logical results of a genius trained during thirty-two years of rigid preparation; a prelude which alone would have been a sure foundation for his fame, had he not, later, accomplished so much more in larger musical forms. It was during the Köthen period that Bach's first wife died. Of the 20 children born in his two marriages, the two who achieved greatest fame as musicians, Wilhelm Friedemann and Karl Philipp Emanuel, were of the first. His second wife, Anna Magdelena Wülken, whom he married in December, 1721, was a singer at the Köthen Court, and proved herself, both in his domestic and musical life, a help-meet in the truest sense of the word. Bach's first marriage is known to have been happy, but artistic unions as mutually helpful and felicitous as his second are among the rarities of history.

The post of cantor (or choirmaster) of the School of Saint Thomas in Leipzig was made, through Bach's incumbency of it, one of the most famous in music. The school, which was five centuries old when, in 1723, Bach entered upon his duties, included a choir and a grammar school; and the cantor was supposed to teach in both. Bach, however, assumed the latter duties only when the substitute whom he was allowed to engage was unable to act. Besides teaching the pupils vocal and instrumental music, the cantor had supervision not only of the music in the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and in less degree in those of Saint Matthew, Saint Peter, and Saint John, but also of the organists and other musicians of the municipality. He was, in fact, Musical Director of Leipzig. But the actual dignity was not so great as this enumeration of his duties would imply. During nearly his whole incumbency of the post, this past-master of his art was harassed by the Town Council, to which he was responsible, and which sought to undermine his authority.

The result was that Bach found his usefulness as a teacher continually hampered. The Council even went so far as to accuse him of being slack; and this shortly after he had produced one of his greatest works, The Passion According to Saint Matthew. On another occasion, when he had nine vacancies to fill among the choristers of his school, from which he supplied the various choirs under his supervision, the Council rejected four of those whom he had examined and nominated, and appointed others whom he had rejected. He was assigned a residence in the left wing of the Thomas building, and received also the sum of 700 thalers annually. But the Council claimed that he was so unproficient an instructor in music that he must take part in the teaching of the school; and though he avoided this, the Council suspended some of the perquisites of his post. Those who are unfamiliar with Bach's life, or who form an opinion of the Leipzig cantorship from the fame that has come to it through Bach, are apt to imagine that for thirty-seven years he occupied an exalted and congenial position, active as teacher and composer. In point of fact, neither Council nor city appreciated the genius they had within their walls, and not only wholly failed to honor Bach, but even thwarted him in his work. The position of this great man, who was so wholly devoted to his art that the attitude of the Council simply seemed to him ‘wonderful,’ and puzzled while it irritated him, was, if not downright pitiable, at least deserving of deep sympathy.

There was a brief respite for him of four years during which Johann Matthias Gesner, who seems to have appreciated the genius of the cantor, was rector of the school. In 1729 Bach was made conductor of the Musical Society — a position which he held until 1736, and his connection with which doubtless accounts for the composition of his secular cantatas. In one of these, The Contest of Phœbus and Pan, he took occasion to change the wording of the libretto so as to convey covert satirical allusions to the hostile rector who had succeeded Gesner, and to one Scheibe, a mediocre musician, whose application for a position as organist Bach had rejected, and who, in consequence, showed his ill will in every way possible. When the quarrels which so harassed Bach are analyzed, it appears that the School of Saint Thomas suffered from the double government of rector and cantor, the one in matters of general education, the other in music; and that in asserting what he deemed his prerogatives, the rector probably went to work more practically than the musician whom his art so deeply engrossed. Moreover, Ernesti, who succeeded Gesner, was a son of the Ernesti who was rector at the time Bach became cantor, so that in a measure he had inherited the quarrel. How little influence Bach had in the musical life of Leipzig is shown by the fact that while the Society of Musical Sciences made Handel an honorary member, Bach was admitted only as an ordinary member, and even that not until he had sent in a trial canon. Nor when, in 1743, the concerts from which developed the famous Gewandhaus concerts were inaugurated, was his advice sought. Yet to this master, whose qualifications as a teacher the Town Council of Leipzig impugned, pupils flocked from outside, and no musician of the day thought of passing through the town without paying his respects to the cantor. Besides his most eminent pupils, his two eldest sons, the list included men like Krebs, Agricola, and Kirnberger, and Altnikol, who became his teacher's son-in-law. His activity as teacher and composer, and, above all, the happiness of his home life, must have offered Bach the needed respite from his worries with the authorities. His wife helped him copy his music. As his pupil she became an apt player on the clavichord; both she and his eldest daughter sang, and there were the sons and pupils from among whom to make up an orchestra in his own household. Bach possessed at his death five instruments of the clavichord family, and many stringed instruments. It is likely that his two concertos for three pianos were written for himself to play with his two eldest sons; several of his church cantatas doubtless were written for his wife and daughter, and there can be no question that the opportunity for music in his congenial household greatly stimulated his faculties for composition. Thus at least part of that famous work, The Well-tempered Clavichord, had its origin in Bach's desire to give his sons a thorough course of instruction; and the so-called French Suites are among the pieces he wrote for his wife while he was teaching her the clavichord. It was Emanuel who, after becoming a kapellmeister in Berlin, brought about, in 1747, the famous meeting between Bach and Frederick the Great. As soon as the King heard of the composer's arrival, he exclaimed, “Gentlemen, old Bach is here!” and Bach, in his traveling clothes, was immediately summoned into his Majesty's presence. The King had 15 pianofortes in different rooms, and on these Bach improvised and developed in various ways a theme proposed by the King. The composer, who was treated with great distinction, wrote as a souvenir of his visit his Musical Offering, a series of compositions on the King's theme. Bach's labors were unremitting almost up to his death. His Art of Fugue, begun probably in 1749, was barely finished when he set to work at a fugue planned on a colossal scale and introducing as one of the subjects his own name in German notation (B. A. C. H., corresponding to our B-flat, A, C, and B). An affliction of his eyesight which soon resulted in total blindness, stopped the work. Ten days before he died, his eyesight suddenly was restored for a short time. His blindness returning, he called his son-in-law Altnikol to him and dictated music for the chorale, When We Are in the Depths of Need. Later, feeling the hand of Death upon him, he had Altnikol change the inscription to Herewith I Come Before Thy Throne. He died Tuesday, July 28, 1750. The only public notice of the event was a brief minute of the fact entered by the Town Council. His widow was allowed to die a pauper; and when Saint John's churchyard, where he was buried, became part of a road, his bones were exhumed and scattered.

Bach is the fountain-head of German music. It is due to him that German music is polyphonic; that its ideals have been lofty; that its masters have shown an intellectual grasp of their art which has given a certain sameness to their method of expressing their emotions; and that they have aimed at the sublime and profound rather than at the superficially, though immediately, effective. In all the qualities which go to make up a serious, self-sacrificing, and deeply conscientious devotion of genius to art for art's sake. Bach set an example which has been as a guiding star to his successors. No man was better qualified than the Leipzig cantor to lay broad and deep the foundations of a great school. To him German music owes the richness of harmony, the skillful leading of parts, which, without interfering with melodic beauty, are among its characteristics. Gathering up all the threads of the Contrapuntal School, developing all its forms until he obtained complete mastery of them and carried them to a point beyond which they could not be advanced farther, Bach forms in himself the sum and substance, the very climax, of his school and epoch. The great masters who came after him inherited the technique of his school complete, and applying it to new forms brought their own schools to perfection. Wagner has voiced his admiration for Bach. Even Chopin, the most romantic of composers, was a close student of Bach. Brahms's knowledge of Bach is too obvious to need more than mention; so that Bach's influence is seen to extend to the composer whose music constitutes the very latest inspired utterance in established musical forms. Nor have the great masters of German music, besides Wagner, been slow in expressing their admiration of the Altmeister. Mozart gave utterance to his high opinion of Bach's music; Beethoven eagerly embraced the opportunity to subscribe to a fund for the support of one of Bach's daughters. The movement which led to a more general public appreciation of Bach was started by Mendelssohn with a performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829; and Schumann was prominent in founding the Bach Gesellschaft for the collection and publication of the master's works. The erection of the Bach Monument in Leipzig in 1842 was due largely to Mendelssohn's efforts.

Bach is regarded by organists as the greatest composer for their instrument. In the Lutheran Church, while the congregation sustained the melody of a chorale, the organist was supposed to vary the harmonies. Bach's skill at this was prodigious. He collected no less than 240 chorales for use in his household; 138 have come down to us in print, besides those found in his church cantatas and other large works. His fame as an organ composer rests chiefly, however, upon his preludes, toccatas, fantasias, and fugues. Among these organ compositions should be mentioned the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (‘Giant’), probably played by Bach in 1720 in Hamburg in Reinken's presence; the D minor Toccata and Fugue (Doris); the E minor Fugue which is built upon chromatic intervals; and the E Flat or Saint Ann Fugue; besides the Passacaglia in C minor. No less an authority than Guilman has expressed the opinion that there has been no progress in organ composition since Bach, because Bach's achievements in that branch are the highest possible, and as modern to-day, both in the technical equipment they demand of the player and in the effect they produce, as when they were composed. Bach's most generally known works probably are the D minor Toccata and Fugue, arranged by Tausig; the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (D minor) for pianoforte, and the Well-tempered Clavichord (Wohltemperirtes Clavier): the two former because they are found in the repertory of every great pianist, the last (48 preludes and fugues through all the major and minor keys), because some acquaintance with it is considered indispensable to a pianist's education. Beethoven mastered it at the age of 11. This famous work, composed partly in 1722, partly about 1740, did not see publication until 1799, nearly 50 years after Bach's death, when it was brought out in London. Art of Fugue, begun the year before Bach's death, consists of 15 fugues and 4 canons upon a theme in D minor. Besides a fairly long list of other works for pianofortes, including the charming French Suites and English Suites and the pretty Inventions, showing with how light a touch Bach could handle the smaller forms of his school of composition, in composing chamber music and for the orchestra. It is notable that while organ-playing usually ruins the pianoforte touch, Bach appears to have been equally proficient on organ and clavichord. Bach's greatest fame among musicians rests on the religious works composed during the Leipzig period of his career. It is noteworthy that these were composed for the Protestant Church, the Church of Saint Thomas being Lutheran; and that, in consequence, their majesty is enhanced by an august severity in keeping with the simpler forms of Protestant worship. Bach has been compared with Milton, and not inaptly, except that the composer could unbend, as witness his Coffee and Peasant's cantatas and his ditty upon his tobacco pipe. The Edifying Reflections of a Tobacco Smoker, which he composed as a bit of pleasantry for his wife. Of church cantatas he is understood to have composed nearly 300, a complete cycle for 5 church years. Of these cantatas some 200 are extant. All except about 30 date from the Leipzig period. He greatly developed this form of church music by freer treatment of the instrumental portions, as well as by his mastery of vocal composition. The chorales are especially rich and beautiful. Of the two Passions it has been well said that the Saint John Passion is the perfection of church music; the Saint Matthew ‘reaches the goal of all sacred art’ (Poole). The latter, composed in 1720, so much overshadows the former that it is always meant when ‘Bach's Passion Music’ is spoken of; and it is a question whether the majority of musicians consider this Passion (composed at intervals during 1733-38) or the B minor Mass the greatest of Bach's works. Bach also composed an Ascension Oratorio (usually classed with his cantatas), and Easter and a Christmas Oratorio, the latter in 6 divisions for performance respectively on Christmas and the two days following, New Year's, the first Sunday of the year, and Epiphany. Mozart, while on a visit to Leipzig in 1789, hearing one of Bach's motets, exclaimed, “Here is a new thing from which I may learn!”

Bibliography. For the most authoritative biography of Bach, consult Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, English trans. (London, 1884-85), a monumental work. Consult, also: Forkel, Ueber J. S. Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke (Leipzig, 1802), which is interesting because the author was a pupil and friend of Bach's sons Friedmann and Emanuel; and Poole, Bach: His Life and Works (London, 1882), a good short biography.