University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Johann Sebastian Bach

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For nearly two centuries the genealogy of the Bach family presents an almost unbroken series of German musicians; but it is in Johann Sebatian Bach, whose magnificent gifts made its name immortal, that the genius of the race is concentrated as in a focus, to be diminished and dispersed through the line of his descendants. His great-great-grandfather, Veit Bach, miller and baker of Wechmar in Thuringia, was a man of musical tastes, of whom the legend survives that he enlivened the monotony of watching the grinding of his corn by playing to himself upon the cithara. His son Hans was a violinist, whose musical instruction was undertaken by another Bach who was then town piper at Gotha; and so on, through the widely spreading family, the talent for music spread and was fostered, till in the quiet Thuringian valleys the Bachs formed almost a musical guild among themselves.

This closeness of the family tie among the various branches not only afforded opportunity for mutual encouragement in their art, but was even more value as a moral safeguard at such times as lawlessness and corruption raged unchecked. To these predisposing influences, no doubt, was due the patriarchal simplicity of character which distinguishes the greatest of their line, his uprightness and devotion to his art.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born at Eisensach, Saxe-Weimar, Germany, March 21, 1685. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was one of twin brothers; a violinist; twice married and blessed with a large family—two conditions in which his son was destined to follow his example. Both he and his wife died when Sebastian was ten years old; and the boy, who had already acquired from his father the rudiments of the violin, was taken into the house of Johann Christoph, the eldest son of the family, who was then organist at Ohrdruf. Here the young Bach lived for five years, learning the clavier under his brother's tuition, and showing so marked an ability for music as to bring upon himself his instructor's jealous severity, to the point of injustice and hardship. A manuscript collection of contemporary music, belonging to his brother, was especially coveted by him, but was relentlessly kept from his sight. His pertinacity was, however, not to be daunted; he succeeded at night in dragging the precious manuscript out through the latticed door of the cupboard in which it was locked, and surreptitiously made a copy of its contents by moonlight, a task which took him six months. Discovery followed, and his copy, the result of so much labor, was ruthlessly taken from him; nor did he see it again until after his brother's death.

It must have been a welcome escape from this jealous supervision when, at the age of fifteen, his fine treble voice gained him admission to the choir of the Convent of St. Michael at Lüneburg. As a consequence he received free schooling, as well as a training in vocal music; he perfected his studies in the clavier and the violin, and what was dearest to him of all, he became a proficient performer upon the organ. During the three years that ensued, his attention was mainly centered upon organ music, practical and theoretical, his idol being Reinken, who was then organist at Hamburg.

After his voice broke he held for a few months (in 1703) the post of court violinist at Weimar, in the service of the brother of the reigning Duke; but a visit paid by chance to the town of Arnstadt, in the autumn of the same year, resulted, to his great joy, in his appointment as organist to the "new church" there. Here the reputation he acquired gained for him, although but a boy of eighteen, indulgences which are a proof of the estimation in which his skill was held. Various irregularities—such as laxity in his training of the church choir, and a too close devotion of unduly extended leisure to his theoretical studies—reached their climax in the unauthorized protraction (into an absence of three months) of a one month's leave granted to him to study the organ under the famous master Buxtehude at Lübeck.

On his return to Arnstadt his reprimand from the Consistory, besides laying stress upon his neglect of his duties, maintained that "the organist Bach" had, in his conduct of church services, "made sundry perplexing variations and imported divers strange harmonies, in such wise that the congregation was thereby confounded." The upshot of the matter was that in the autumn of 1707 he accepted an invitation to fill the vacant post of organist at Mühlhausen on his own terms. These he made modestly low, stipulating merely for the same sum that he had received at Arnstadt. He remained a year at Mühlhausen, during which time he was married to Maria Barbara, daughter of another Bach who was at that time organist at Gehren.

His first position of real distinction was reached in 1708, when, at the age of twenty-three, he was elected organist to the Ducal Chapel at Weimar, a town already famous as a musical center. Six years later he was appointed Hof-concertmeister to the Duke. At the time of his going to Weimar Bach's musical studies were complete, and he was already famous as one of the first organists of his day. Now began his activity as a composer, the finest of his organ works being written during the nine years at Weimar. His compositions fall, roughly speaking, into three divisions, corresponding with the three chief episodes of his life: the organ works belonging to the Weimar period, the instrumental works to the six years subsequently spent at Köthen, and the choral works to the last twenty-seven years of his life, passed at Leipzig. He seems to have had but little direct instruction in composition, and to have arrived at the fullness of his powers by means of diligent study of the best existing models. Upon the result of this his original genius worked in such a manner as to win for him from posterity the title of the "Father of music," and to justify Schumann's saying that "to Bach music owes almost as great a debt as a religion owes to its founder."

Of the details of Bach's life at Weimar little is known. Its sober routine, eminently acceptable to one so essentially bound up in his home life, was broken by yearly visits to other towns—Halle, Cassel, Leipzig, and Dresden. In his double official capacity as organist and master of court music he was required, besides directing secular performances, to provide a certain number of Church compositions; to this we owe the magnificent series of organ works, as well as a few of his finest Church cantatas.

The last of his annual expeditions from Weimar was made to Dresden, where he was challenged to a trial of skill by a famous French harpsichord-player, Marchand. The challenge was accepted, and Bach duly presented himself for a contest which was awaited with eager anticipation by the musical world at Dresden. At the last moment, however, no Marchand appeared; and inquiry ascertained that he had hurriedly left Dresden that morning, tacitly according the victory to Bach. To the credit of Bach it is recorded that the incident in no way affected his generous appreciation of the graceful compositions of the French master.

What caused Bach to leave Weimar is not very clear, save that real or imaginary grievances as to his treatment at the Duke's hands seem to have irritated his naturally quick temper. In any case, he accepted in 1717 the post of master of music to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, who had been a frequent visitor at the court of Weimar. At Köthen Bach remained for six years. Being no longer organist, but director of the Prince's court music, his attention during this period was mainly directed to instrumental compositions; and to the period between 1717 and 1723 belong his concerti, sonatas, and suites for the clavier, as well as the first part of "Das wohltemperirte Clavier," the most masterly collection of preludes and fugues in existence.

In 1719 Bach was at Halle, whither he had traveled in the hope of making the acquaintance of Handel, who was there on a visit to his family. He unfortunately arrived just after Handel had left; a second attempt, ten years later, to meet his famous contemporary was equally unsuccessful.

It was while Bach was with his princely patron at Carlsbad that news reached him of the death of his wife, whom he had left in perfect health. He returned to Köthen to find her already buried. Only four of her seven children had survived their infancy, and to these their father's care was now mainly directed. Of the musical ability of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedmann, Bach had great hopes, and his "Clavier-Büchlein," "Inventions" for clavier, and the first part of "Das wohltemperirte Clavier" were designed as a progressive course of instruction for the youth.

Two years after his first wife's death, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wülkens, daughter of a court musician at Weissenfels. He was again entirely happy in his marriage. His wife, who bore him thirteen children, was a fine singer and a musician of cultivated tastes. In many details of his work, such as the copying out of his scores, she was of immense assistance to him.

While at Köthen, Bach had applied for the post of organist to the Jacobi Kirche at Hamburg, but was unsuccessful; the appointment was given to an entirely unknown musician who, as afterward transpired, had gained it through flagrant bribery. Pleasant as was his intercourse with his patron, Bach seems to have felt the need of a wider public and a wider sphere of work than was attainable at the Köthen court. Moreover, the Prince had followed his kapellmeister's example and taken to himself a wife. She had no taste for music, a fact which inevitably tended to breed indifference to Bach's efforts in that direction; and a year later Bach returned to the welcome atmosphere of Church music as successor to the famous Kuhnau, cantor to the Thomasschule at Leipzig.

This position, which he occupied for the rest of his life, Bach took up in May, 1723. His duties at Leipzig were not those of organist; but he had sole direction of the musical instruction, theoretical and practical, in the school, and also of the music at the four chief churches in the town. Despite the importance of his post, he seems to have enjoyed ample leisure for composition; and these last twenty-seven years of his life the world is indebted for the greatest of his works, including the Passions, the mass in B minor, the Christmas Oratorio, the Magnificat, and upward of two hundred Church cantatas.

In common with nearly all great minds, Bach was in many respects in advance of his age. We are now able to appreciate the extent to which he anticipated (in elementary fashion, it is true) many of the developments which his art was afterwards to undergo. To take a single instance: a suite, written at the time of the departure of a favorite brother from home, is one of the earliest examples of what is now known as "programme music." The united laments of the family are heard in protestation at the traveler's farewell, but their efforts are useless, and the music changes to a bustling finale of departure through which is heard the call of a postilion's horn. In the Passions—even in the great Mass—occur what one is tempted to call operatic effects; and it may have been this tendency to descriptiveness (engendered, no doubt, by Bach's close study of contemporary opera) that led to his being obliged, before entering upon his duties as cantor at Leipzig, to subscribe to a variety of conditions, one of which required him not to make the music in church too long, nor "too operatic," but rather "such as to encourage the hearers to devotion."

Bach's years at Leipzig, fill as they were of musical activity, were also full of feuds and friction with the authorities, who seem to have been incapable of understanding the greatness of the man with whom they were dealing; while he adopted toward them an independent attitude little calculated to smooth away points of difference. At the time of his going to the Thomasschule, affairs in that institution were falling from bad to worse. Bach threw himself heart and soul into the task of reorganization, but neither his work in that quarter nor his attempts to widen his musical influence in Leipzig met with their due recognition.

Whatever were Bach's relations with the outside world, his own home continually furnished him with consolation and content. With the aid of the musical talents of his wife and children he had made of his house a renowned musical center, and there amidst his family and his friends he found an encouragement ever ready to counteract any external disappointment. Nor was he without formal honors. He was presented with honorary court appointments by the Elector of Saxony and the Duke of Weissenfels, and three years before his death received and accepted a flattering invitation to visit the court of Frederick the Great at Berlin, where his son Emanuel held a musical post. The King, who held no mean opinion of his own musical powers, received Bach with marked respect and kindness, as a return for which Bach subsequently worked out in considerable elaboration a theme given him by the King, and dedicated it to him as a "Musicalisches Opfer."

From the little we know of his personality, Bach's character seems to have been, like his genius, the concentration of those of his ancestors—deeply religious, of marked probity, simplicity and singleness of purpose, contented with his lot, genial and encouraging to his pupils, and happy in his large family and the quiet blessings of his home circle. The combined firmness and sweetness of his nature is closely reflected in his music, where the severest regard for beauty of form is tempered by an unerring instinct for emotional effect.

During the later years of his life, Bach withdrew a great deal from society. His eyesight, always weak, was becoming defective; indeed, so much did this incapacitate him for the discharge of his duties that in the year before his death the municipal council seriously considered the advisability of appointing a successor to him at the Thomasschule. His eyes were operated upon, but unsuccessfully, by an English oculist of the name of Taylor, who, by a curious coincidence, some years later operated (also unsuccessfully) upon Handel.

Bach died quietly in his sleep July 28, 1750. We hear nothing of his funeral, of musicians and friends flocking to the grave to do honor to the great master who was gone from them; all we are told is that he was buried in St. John's churchyard at Leipzig, but no cross or monument marks his resting place. His end was like that of Mozart, who lies in an unknown grave in the churchyard of St. Marx at Vienna. Men cared very little then for the memory of one whose fame has in after days gone out into all the earth. The only record that we have is in the register of deaths preserved in the Leipzig town library, which runs as follows: "A man, age 67, Johann Sebastian Bach, musical director and singing master of the Thomasschule, was carried to his grave in the hearse, July 30, 1750."

His death attracted but little notice, his family unable to afford the expense of the customary funeral oration at the grave. The master of the Thomasschule made no reference to the event in his annual speech, nor was mention of it made in any Leipzig newspaper. The Musical Society of the town, however, did not let it pass quite unnoticed, and one of its members communicated to the Berlin press a paragraph to the effect "that the loss of this extraordinarily gifted man will be regretted by all true musicians."

Ninety-three years after his death, Felix Menselssohn-Bartholdy, to whom we are so much indebted for the study of Bach at the present day, erected a monument to the memory of the grand old cantor of Leipzig, opposite the house in which he had lived, and under the windows of the study where he had worked so long.

Bach's widow died ten years later in complete poverty. Several of his children managed to make their way in the world unaided; but his youngest daughter was eventually compelled to accept the assistance of a fund to which Beethhoven was proud to subscribe, but toward which the Leipzig authorities contributed nothing. Though the name of Bach was still held in reverence by a few admirers, his works gradually dropped out of performance, and it was not until nearly a century had passed that the world of music once more awoke—thanks chiefly to the efforts of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schumann abroad, and Wesley in England—to a recognition of the supremacy of his genius.

Bach's range of thought was relatively narrow, but by its very restriction it gained in intensity and concentration. His mind was typical of his time and place. He had imbibed to the full the Lutheran view of the relations between God and man. The thing seen to him had no glory, save as it shadowed the truths of his creed. A primrose by a river's brim he valued not as a thing of beauty, but as a symbol of his Creator's beneficence. This view of things permeates his music. He was more a moralist than an artist. His music was not to him an end in itself, so much as an engine for the saving of men's souls. He sings his Maker's praise, not for the joy of singing, but as an act of thankfulness due from man to God. He tells the story of the Passion not as the most tragic and moving episode in the world's history, but as the means of grace to lost sinners.

The moral view of life colors Bach's music as it has colored that of no other great composer, and it is the complete and entire sincerity of that view which gives to his music its piercing poignancy of appeal. The story of Haydn praying before beginning to compose may or may not be true of Haydn, but would be much truer of Bach. Never did composer take himself and his mission in deeper earnest. The tenets of Christianity were hard facts to him, not subjects for elegant musical embroidery. Life was a bitter struggle against definite powers of evil, heaven a place of splendor to be attained only by ceaseless warfare. Beauty for its own sake seemed to him an unworthy object for a Christian to pursue.

Springing from this view of life, or at any rate closely allied to it, is the curiously vivid realism of Bach's music. Never has composer visualized his subject with such intensity. There are no half-lights, no subtle effects of chiaroscuro in Bach; he saw his subject with extraordinary definiteness and gave it musical realization. We talk lightly of the incomplete means of expression at the command of old composers. Incomplete they would probably be in the hands of modern musicians, but they were amply sufficient for the men of their day. A man like Bach, gifted as he was with unequaled clearness of mental vision, coupled with complete command of his material, could often do more with a few strings and hautboys than our modern composers can accomplish with all the paraphernalia of a Wagnerian orchestra. There has probably never been a musician more adept than Bach at picturing a scene in music. It would be easy to quote a hundred instances of his masterly command of the picturesque, but a few will suffice.

Let us take the opening of the cantata "Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen," the words of which are read by the faithful as prophetic of the journey of the Magi to Jerusalem. With a touch Bach gives us the whole scene, the long procession passing over the desert, the solemn march of the caravan, the tinkling of the camel's bells. Or let us turn to the instrumental movement in another cantata, "Wachet auf," which describes the wise virgins going forth to meet the bridegroom. See how the train of girls dances out into the night, swaying hither and thither to the sound of strange Eastern music, while the lamps twinkle in the darkness! How is it done—with a few violins and an organ? Ah, that is Bach's secret!

This gift of Bach's of extracting the utmost conceivable amount of picturesque expression from the words he had to set, was one which sometimes led him perilously near the verge of disaster. He inherited from his German predecessors a taste for quaint musical devices, which he sometimes indulged unduly. Occasionally he condescended to something very like a musical pun, as in the song "Ach mit gedämpft und schwachen Stimme," where the fact that the word "Dämpfer" happens to be the German for a mute led him to adorn the song with an obbligato for muted violin, or in the "Crucifixus" of the B Minor Mass, where he pictures Christ hanging on the Cross by a series of suspensions! There is a suggestion of provinciality in this, which a wider knowledge of the world would probably have corrected.

If Bach, like Dante, shrank from no touch, however grotesque, that he thought would heighten the impressiveness of his picture, he could also, like Dante, soar to regions of such imaginative splendor as few composers have ever attained. Curiously enough for a composer so essentially German in feeling and attitude, we find Bach at his greatest in music written to Latin words, such as the B Minor Mass and the Magnificat, where the associations of the text drew him for the moment from his favorite chorales toward a more Italian form of thought and expression. It is one of the most signal proofs of Bach's musical genius that in setting the words of the Latin Mass he put off to a great extent the narrower Protestantism which colors so strongly his German sacred works. There is nothing in the Mass that could not have been written by a Catholic. There is hardly a trace in it of the love of dwelling on the physical aspect of things.

More striking proof of Bach's genius than his modification of his usual mental attitude could not be desired, but though the Mass unquestionably represents the climax of his achievement, it cannot for this reason be taken as a typical work. It is rather in his Passion according to St. Matthew that we find Bach's normal view of things represented in its fullest and most transcendent development. The Passion Music as treated by Bach is a typically German art-form, but like most other musical developments it can be traced to an Italian source. The recitation of the history of the passion by three priests, representing respectively the narrator, Christ, and the other personages of the sacred drama, was an ancient custom in the Roman Church. During the palmy days of the polyphonic period the service was further developed by setting the cries of the crowd as short choral movements. The Lutheran Church borrowed the form of the service from Rome, and characteristically added to it reflective and explanatory passages designed to impress upon the congregation the spiritual meaning of the story, and hymns which gave the congregation and important share in the service. The result, however admirable as a religious exercise, was artistically deplorable, the unity of the action being disturbed no less by the moralizing solos introduced at every turn than by the devotional hymns of the congregation.

Despite Bach's moralizing habit of mind, however, in his settings of the Passion, of which two out of five survive (for it is not easy to accept the feebly sentimental Luke passion as his), we find his genius displayed with consummate dignity and splendor. Of these two works, the verdict of the ages has chosen the Matthew Passion as incomparably the greater, great as the John Passion unquestionably is. A comparison of the two works is deeply interesting, and has a special value to the student of Bach's character. No one who has studied that character will be surprised to find Bach in keener sympathy with St. Matthew's version of the Passion story than with that of St. John. To a man of Bach's markedly realistic tendencies the dramatic value of St. Matthew's version made a special appeal. The agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the sleep of the disciples, the servant's recognition of Peter by his Galilean accent, the death of Judas, the dream of Pilate's wife, the bearing of the cross by Simon of Cyrene, the mocking of Christ on the cross by the scribes and the people, the darkness, the rending of the veil of the temple, the earthquake, and the apparition of the dead—all these incidents appear only in St. Matthew's version; and it is these, illustrated as they are by the poignant realism of Bach's music, that gives to his St. Matthew's Passion its amazing vitality of expression.

It is worth noting that the rending of the veil of the Temple appeared to Bach so important a feature in the history of the Crucifixion that he actually incorporated it into his setting of St. John's version, though it does not, of course, appear in St. John's gospel. The John Passion is earlier than the Matthew, and apart from its widely different treatment of the sacred story, the highly colored narration of St. Matthew being replaced by a far profounder conception of the character of Christ, which obviously appealed less potently to Bach's precise and realistic genius, its treatment is in many ways more experimental and less successful than that of the later work. The vocal writing of many of the solos is crabbed and harsh to a degree rarely surpassed in the history of music, and the utterances of the crowd are treated more in the manner of oratorio, that is to say they are epic rather than dramatic in style, and lack the vivid force of the Matthew choruses.

It is therefore in the Matthew Passion that we find the completest and most typical expression of Bach's genius. It is necessary in considering the work to remember that it is essentially a religious service. As a narrative it would be improved by the excision of all but the words of the gospel; the different points of view introduced by the chorales and the reflective solos are fatal to its unity as a work of art, but regarded as a service they take the place of the sermon and the hymns in the modern office. The work is a complete exposition of the Lutheran view of the Passion, and it must be confessed that Bach has expressed it with a completeness and fervor of conviction that make his work one of the most overwhelming masterpieces in all the history of music. The qualities displayed in the Matthew Passion are found in a greater or less degree throughout the long series of cantatas which Bach wrote for performance in church during his sojourn as organist in Leipzig and other towns. Another striking feature of the cantatas, and one which is also found in Bach's organ music, is the splendid use made of the chorales or hymn-tunes which played so important a part in Lutheran worship. We can form but a faint idea of the effect on a devout congregation which Bach's magical treatment of the well known melodies must have exercised. To hear a tune familiar from childhood enriched and varied by new and wondrous harmonies according to the sentiment of the words, as is done repeatedly in the two settings of the Passion Music and in the cantatas, must have brought home to those who heard it the meaning of what they were singing in a novel and irresistible fashion.

Sometimes a whole cantata, such as "Christ lag in Todesbanden," is in effect a series of variations upon one well-known tune, each variation corresponding in its treatment to the special sentiment of each verse. A cantata such as this resolved itself into a series of devout meditations upon a familiar theme. The beauty and ingenuity of the thing delights us still. Bach's nature inclined to seriousness, if not to gloom, and this particular cantata is a strangely somber one for Easter. In another cantata the famous tune "Ein' feste Burg" is treated with amazing wealth of resource and imagination. One of the verses beginning, "If all the earth with fiends were filled," is an astonishingly vivid piece of realism, the orchestra giving a highly colored picture of an orgy of demons, while the splendid old tune is thundered out by trumpets through all the tempestuous confusion—a curious anticipation , by the way, of the general scheme of the "Tannhäuser" overture.

One of the surest tests of a man's mental fiber is his attitude toward death, and here the nobility of Bach's nature is manifested in the most incontrovertible manner. He lived in a sturdy age. The Lutherans of his time had none of that horror of death characteristic of a later epoch. Many of their hymns, a legacy, no doubt for times of persecution, speak of death as a friend. In all of them breathes an air of pious resignation and sometimes of that curious rapture, an echo of which occurs in Walt Whitman's wonderful lament for President Lincoln. Bach's treatment of the subject is always dignified and exalted, one of his earliest cantatas, "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," being conspicuous in this respect. At times his imagination carries him toward a more definitely picturesque handling, as in the cantata "Liebster Gott, wann werd' ich sterben," the opening chorus of which has been likened to a peaceful country churchyard, blossoming in the spring, through which a funeral procession winds to the accompaniment of the little bell ringing throughout the movement in the upper register of the flutes. More imposing and no less truthfully realized is the ceremonial splendor of death, as pictured in the "Trauer Ode," a work written for the funeral of a patroness.

Bach's imagination was often exercised by visions of the Judgment Day, a subject especially dear to the Lutheran mind. In his two cantatas on the tune "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort," he uses the contrast between the terror of sinners and the faith of the righteous with tremendous musical effect; and in the shorter setting, which is a curious dialogue between Fear and Hope, the mysterious voice of the Holy Spirit uttering from heaven the words, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord," is employed with a suffen beauty that hardly has a parallel in music. But for concentrated imagination and sheer power of expression nothing in Bach's works surpasses the passage in the B Minor Mass, which describes the sleep of the dead and their awakening at the sound of the trumpet.

Many critics have said that Bach is the greatest in his organ music, as he was likewise the supreme organist; and there, it is true, we find him more of an artist and less of a preacher than in any of his choral works. Freed from the trammels of a set subject, his genius here soars aloft with incomparable majesty and splendor. No one has ever understood the organ as Bach did. It is in a sense the foundation of all his music, and in his hands it speaks with the tongues of angels. Abstract music has nothing grander and more dignified to show than some of his "mountainous fugues," as Browning calls them, and the soul of man has never been poured forth in tones of purer or more exalted rapture than in such a work, to quote but one of many, as the great Fantasia in G.

Bach spoke through music as few have spoken. It is a commonplace to say that every man lives in his work, but Bach lives in his as hardly another musician has done. His personality was tremendously powerful, and we feel it in every bar that he wrote. If his range of vision was not wide, what he saw he saw steadily and saw it whole.