Johann Sebastian Bach, His Life and Times

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Christoph, I wish you would let me have that book of manuscript music which you have in your cupboard—the one which contains pieces by Pachelbel, and Frohberger, and Buxtehude, and ever so many others—you know which I mean. I will take such care of it if you will only lend it to me for a little while.’

Christoph was about to leave the room, but he turned sharply to his little brother as the latter put his request.

‘No, Sebastian, I will certainly not lend you the book, and I wonder that you have the impertinence to ask me such a thing! The idea of your thinking that you could study such masters as Buxtehude and Frohberger—a child like you! Get on with what I have set you to learn, and do not let me hear any more of such fancies!’

With that Christoph shut the door behind him, and Sebastian was left to ponder sadly upon his elder brother’s harshness in refusing to accede to his simple request. The disappointment was very keen, for little Sebastian had been longing to get possession of that precious volume. For several days past he had spent hours in his brother’s absence gazing at its covers through the lattice doors of the cupboard, and feasting his eyes upon the names of the musicians which were written on the back in bold letters in Christoph’s hand.

What harm could there be in his trying to play the works of those masters? It seemed so unreasonable to the ten-year-old child, for he was passionately fond of music, and exceedingly quick at learning; yet Christoph persistently kept him to simple pieces such as he could master without the slightest difficulty, and which, therefore, afforded him no gratification whatever. He longed to be studying more advanced works,and there were times when this longing seemed insupportable—when the soul of this earnest child-musician rose in revolt against the tyrannical treatment of his elder brother. Christoph’s lack of appreciation of Sebastian’s capacity and gift for music was, moreover, so marked as to crush the feelings of love and respect which otherwise would have found a place in Sebastian’s heart for the brother whom the sad circumstances of his childhood had made his guardian.

Johann Sebastian Bach, as the young musician was named, was an orphan. Ten years before the period at which our story opens—on March 21, 1685—he had first seen the light in the long, low-roofed cottage, which is still standing in the little German town of Eisenach, nestling at the foot of the wooded heights which form part of the romantically beautiful district of the Thuringer Wald. It is a country abounding in legendary lore, which, taking its birth from the recesses of the interminable forest, and perpetuated in ballad, has for ages found a home in the sequestered valleys lying locked between the hills. On one of the latter, overlooking the town, stands the Wartburg, in which Luther made his home, and where he translated the Bible into the German tongue.

Sebastian’s father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, organist of Eisenach, was the descendant of a long race of musicians of the name who had followed music not merely as a means of livelihood, but with the earnest desire of furthering its artistic aims. For close upon two hundred years before Sebastian was born the family of Bach had thus laboured to develop and improve their art in the only direction in which it was practiced in the Germany of those days—namely, as a fitting accompaniment to the simple, but deeply devotional, services of the Lutheran Church. So greatly had the influence of this ancient and closely-united family made itself felt in regard to church music that at Erfurt, where its members had practiced the art for generations, all musicians were known as ‘the Bachs,’ although no Bach had actually resided in the town for many years.

That Sebastian should have shown a fondness for music at a very early age is not, therefore, to be wondered at; but, beyond learning the violin from his father, he had not progressed far in his studies when, in his tenth year, he found himself bereft of both his parents and taken into the charge of his brother Christoph, who filled the post of organist at the neighbouring town of Ohrdruff. Christoph, who was fourteen years older than Sebastian, possessed nothing more than an ordinary amount of talent for music, and in addition lacked the sense to appreciate the gift which his little brother at once began to display in response to his teaching. To give Sebastian lessons on the clavier and send him to the Lyceum to learn Latin and singing and other school subjects seemed to Christoph to comprise the full extent of his responsibilities; but that Sebastian possessed genius which called for sympathy and encouragement at his hands appears only to have aroused in him a feeling of coldness and indifference, amounting at times to stern repression.

Beneath this shadow of ill-feeling Sebastian suffered in silence, but, fortunately, the force of his genius was too strong to be crushed, and the spirit which was lacking in his brother’s lessons he supplied for himself. The injustice of the denial with which Christoph had met his request for the loan of the manuscript music-book had fired him with the determination to possess himself of the treasure at all costs, and even the drudgery of playing over and over again pieces which he already knew by heart appeared to him in the new light of stepping-stones to the attainment of his cherished desire. Yet for some time it was difficult to see how the book was to be abstracted without his brother’s knowledge.

One night, long after the other inmates of the house had retired, Sebastian stood at the open casement of his chamber, buried in thought. The moon was flooding the valley with her silvery light, rendering the most distant objects clear and distinct, and throwing into still deeper shadow the sombre hills which encompassed the town. But the boy had no thoughts to bestow upon the music of the scene thus spread before his eyes; his mind was absorbed by a great project which he was resolved upon carrying out that night, and to which the presence of the moon lent a promise of success. Perfect stillness reigned in the house, and Sebastian, deeming that the opportune moment had arrived for embarking upon his venture, closed the casement and crept softly downstairs to the parlour.

The moonlight shining into the room revealed the position of every object, and a glance sufficed to show him that the treasure he sought was in its accustomed place, but the cupboard, of course, was locked. He squeezed his little hands through the lattice-bars, and after much effort managed to reach the manuscript book. To draw it towards him required even more dexterity, but at length that was accomplished; and then came the crowning feat—to get it through the bars. During this time Sebastian had been tormented by fears lest his brother should have discovered his absence from his bedroom, and nothing but his firm determination to accomplish his purpose prevented him from quitting the room and returning to his bed.

For a long time his efforts to pull the book through the bars were in vain, but after trying each bar in turn he found one which was weaker than the rest, and having brought the book to this spot, he succeeded at last in forcing a passage for it by bending the bar, and the coveted volume was freed from its prison!

Breathless with exertion and excitement, the child hugged his treasure to his breast and stole back to his chamber. On gaining this haven of safety, he listened for some time to ascertain whether his movements had aroused the household, but finding that everything remained as silent as before, he drew a chair to the little table before the window, and by the light of the moon, which still streamed into the room, he feasted his eyes upon the pages before him. Then, taking his pen and some manuscript music-paper with which he had provided himself, he began his task of copying out the pieces contained in the book.

Well Tempered Clavier
Well Tempered Clavier

An hour or more slipped away in this absorbing occupation, and it was not until the moon had shifted her position, so that her rays no longer afforded the necessary light, that Sebastian ceased to ply his pen. Then, having hidden the book away and removed all traces of his work, the now wearied little musician sought his pillow and fell fast asleep.

This was but the beginning of endless nights of toil pursued whilst the house lay hushed in slumber. For six months, whenever the moon sent her friendly rays through his casement, did Sebastian prosecute his task, until the night arrived when he found himself at the last page. The fear of discovery had ceased to haunt him as time went on, and now he could only reflect with joy at the accomplishment of his long task, and creep into bed utterly unmindful of everything else—even of the precaution of putting his work out of sight!

Alas, for poor Sebastian! he was to pay dearly for this act of forgetfulness. As he lay sleeping—his dreams filled with the realization of the fruits of his untiring industry—the books lying open on the table where he had left them, and the moonbeams falling gently on the page whereon his fingers had traced those last passages but a few minutes before, the door opened, and a figure stole softly into the room. It was Christoph himself, who, fancying he heard sounds proceeding from Sebastian’s chamber, had come to seek the cause. His glance fell upon the open books. With a stride he was at the table, bending over them. The next moment he raised his head and darted an angry glance at the child’s sleeping figure. But Sebastian only smiled, and murmured something in his sleep, and the elder brother turned once more to examine the writing. As he scanned the pages which witnessed Sebastian’s heart-work throughout those long months his face hardened. There was no pity in his breast for the child who had thus displayed his devotion to the art which he himself must have loved after his own fashion—no sympathy for one who had spent so many hours snatched from sleep in acquiring that which he, Christoph, had had it in his power to bestow as a free gift—only anger and jealousy at the thought that he had been outwitted by his little brother. With his mouth curved into a cruel smile, Christoph seized the manuscript book and the copy, and, taking them from the room, hid them away in a new place where Sebastian could not possibly find them.

It was well for Sebastian that his love of music enabled him to overcome the bitter disappointment occasioned by his brother’s cruelty, and so to continue the struggle for knowledge in the face of such terrible odds. But there was one thing which served to comfort him in his hour of trial, and of which Christoph was powerless to rob him, and that was the memory of the beautiful music he had copied with such infinite pains. This in itself must have been a resource of priceless value to him in helping him to bear with his brother’s oppression.

A new life opened for Sebastian when, at the age of fifteen, he quitted his brother’s roof and, with a school-fellow from Ohrdruff, entered the Michael Gymnasium, or Latin School, attached to the Church of St. Michael at Lüneburg. The discovery that he possessed a beautiful soprano voice gave him a place at once amongst those scholars who were selected to sing the principal parts in the Church services in return for a free education. Lüneburg possessed two schools, attached respectively to the Churches of St. Michael and St. John, and the rivalry between the two was so keen that when, as was the custom during the winter months, the scholars were sent out to sing in the streets in order to collect money for their support, the respective routes to be traversed had to be carefully marked out so as to prevent a collision.

Bach had not been long at St. Michael’s, however, ere his wonderful voice, which had attracted much attention at the services of the church, began to break; but, fortunately, his knowledge of the violin and clavier enabled him to retain his place in the school and to enjoy the educational advantages which it offered. He was working hard at his musical studies, spending a portion of each day in the convent library, where the works of the best composers were to be found. But all his thoughts and aspirations were beginning to centre themselves upon the instrument which, before all others, had the power to stir his musical soul to its depths. His love for the organ soon developed into a passion which overcame every obstacle offered to its gratification. The extremes of hunger and bodily fatigue were alike powerless to restrain his desire to study the capacities of the organ as these were brought forth by the ablest hands. His poverty forbade the hope of his receiving instruction on the instrument, though later on he gained much valuable help from his friendship with the organist of St. John’s Church at Lüneburg. In those early days, however, Bach was almost entirely self-dependent—a penniless scholar, fortunate in finding his services rewarded by the plainest and meagrest of fare, yet swayed and urged forwards by a fixed determination to conquer and attain the knowledge upon which he had set his hopes.

Hamburg, which in those days merited the description applied to it of the ‘Paradise of German music,’ is situated at a distance of about twenty-five English miles from Lüneburg; but when Bach was told that the renowned Johann Adam Reinken, the ‘father of German organists,’ played the organ at St. Katherine’s Church in the city, he seized the first opportunity that presented itself of tramping the whole way thither in order to hear him. With Bach to listen was to learn; but to enjoy this privilege he had to secrete himself in a corner of the church where he could not be seen, for he had been warned that such great players as Reinken resented the intrusion of strangers whilst they were practising.

The deep joy of listening to such a master must have seemed to Sebastian a fitting reward for his long tramp, and we may picture him on his homeward journey, weary and footsore, but with his mind stored with the memories of what he has heard. This visit to Hamburg was the precursor of many others, though, of course, such expeditions could only be undertaken when, by means of street singing, or in some other way, he had contrived to save a few shillings to pay for food and lodging. But he often went short of food rather than deprive himself of a chance of hearing his beloved Reinken. On one occasion he had yielded to the temptation of lingering at Hamburg until his funds were almost exhausted, and he was confronted by the prospect of a long walk with no means of satisfying his hunger until he reached the end of his journey. Nevertheless, he set forth with a light heart, for his stock of knowledge had been greatly enriched by the prolonged visit, and, after all, what were five-and-twenty miles to the young musician, possessed of limbs replete with strength and a head full of glorious dreams?

He had not proceeded many miles, however, ere the keen wind made his want of food painfully apparent, and the music within him became drowned by the clamourings of Nature. At this juncture he found himself opposite a small hostelry, from the open door of which a most savoury odour was issuing—an odour so rich in the promise of all that he needed that it brought him to a standstill. The kitchen window was nigh, and he could not resist the temptation of peering into the room to ascertain what was in preparation. At that moment he heard a window above him thrown open, and a couple of herrings’ heads were tossed into the road. Probably some benevolent guest, attracted by the youth’s starving looks, had taken this means of bestowing upon him the remains of his repast. The herring was a favourite article of food in Germany, and poor Bach was only too glad to avail himself of this feeble chance of satisfying his cravings. But what was his astonishment, upon pulling the heads to pieces, to find that each contained a Danish ducat! The acquisition of so much wealth fairly took his breath away, and for a moment he almost forgot that he was famishing. On realising his good fortune, he lost no time in entering the inn and regaling himself at the expense of his unknown benefactor. The money did more than this, however, for it enabled him to reckon upon another visit to Hamburg in the near future.

That distance formed no obstacle to Bach’s ardent desire to obtain knowledge is proved by the fact that he performed several journeys on foot to Celle, which was distant some forty-five English miles to the south of Lüneburg, in order that he might hear the band at the ducal Court. The Duke’s musicians were chiefly Frenchmen, and French instrumental music formed the principal part of their work. There was but little opportunity in Germany of hearing this important branch of music, and Bach seized upon the first chance that presented itself. He was now making rapid progress with his studies, and his friendship with Böhm, the organist of St. John’s Church at Lüneburg, was a great incentive to him in his love for the organ.

After remaining three years at the Lüneburg school, Bach obtained a post as violinist in the private band of Prince Johann Ernst, brother of the reigning Duke of Saxe-Weimar. This, however, was merely to fill up the time until he could secure an appointment in the direction in which his affections as well as his genius were guiding him. The opportunity for which he sought was not long in coming. A visit to the old Thuringian town of Arnstadt, in which three members of his family had successively filled the post of organist in past years, took him to the new church to inspect the organ which had just been erected by the consistory. Arnstadt, in fact, was one of the centres in which the influence of the Bach family had made itself felt, and whence several of its members had gone forth to other parts of the country. The savour of the former presence of the Bachs was still fresh in the minds of the townspeople; the consistory of the new church, moreover, were on the look out for a thoroughly capable organist, and Bach’s request to be allowed to try the organ was, therefore, willingly granted.

No sooner had they heard him play than they offered him the post, and, furthermore, stated their willingness to augment the pay attached to it by a contribution from the town funds. Bach, therefore, found himself installed as organist with a salary of fifty florins, with, in addition, thirty thalers for board and lodging—equivalent in all to about eight pounds thirteen shillings of English money—a small enough salary indeed! but one which in those days was considered to be a fair emolument for the services of a young player. On August 14, 1703, Bach, who was then eighteen years old, entered upon his duties, having previously taken a ‘solemn pledge of diligence and faithfulness, and all that appertaineth to an honourable servant and organist before God and the worshipful Corporation.’

The requirements of the post left him plenty of leisure in which to pursue his studies and improve his playing. Up to this point he had done very little in the shape of actual composition, his aim having been to perfect himself in a knowledge of the requirements of the instrument on which he had fixed his heart’s choice, to which end he had spared no diligence in studying the works of the greatest masters. Now, however, he set about teaching himself the art of composition, for which purpose he took a number of concertos written for the violin by Vivaldi, and set them for the pianoforte. By this means he learnt to grasp the connection of musical ideas and the manner in which they should be worked out, and as this exercise implied the rewriting of many passages in order to adapt them for the piano, he gradually attained facility in expressing his own musical thoughts on paper without first playing them on an instrument. Thus, without assistance from anybody, he worked on alone, very often till far into  the night, to perfect himself in this

Bach's organ, Amstadt
Bach’s organ, Amstadt

important branch of his art.

From the outset, however, his playing at the new church excited attention and admiration, and that it should, nevertheless, have failed to entirely satisfy the authorities was due, not to any lack of power, but simply to the extraordinary manner in which the services were accompanied. The fact is that Bach had no sooner seated himself at the organ than he straightway forgot that choir and congregation were depending upon him, and began to indulge his fancy to such lengths that the singing soon ceased altogether, and the people remained mute with astonishment and admiration. Naturally, these flights of genius were not exactly in accordance with the wishes of the consistory, who, moreover, saw little prospect of their choir becoming efficiently trained under the circumstances. Yet, notwithstanding there were frequent disputes between Bach and the elders of the church with regard to his vagaries, so marvellously were the authorities influenced by the power and beauty of his playing that they overlooked his faults for the sake of his genius.

That Bach must have tried their patience sorely cannot be denied. On one occasion, being specially desirous of visiting Lübeck, in order to hear the celebrated organist Buxtehude  perform on the organ at the Marien-Kirche during Advent, he obtained a month’s leave of absence for the purpose.

Fifty miles lay between Arnstadt and the town which formed his destination, but Bach resolutely performed the entire journey on foot, so eager was he to profit by the playing of this master. Once at Lübeck, he became so wrapped up in the musical attractions of the town that he completely forgot his promise to return to his post until reminded by his empty purse of the fact that he could no longer prolong his stay. By this time he had gratuitously extended his leave from one month to three! Hence it is not surprising that on his return to Arnstadt the consistory should have expressed serious displeasure at his neglect. On the other hand, it affords a striking proof of the esteem in which his playing was held that the authorities should have allowed him to retain his post in spite of all that had happened.

 

It was not long before the services of the young musician were sought by the Church authorities of several important towns, whither the fame of his organ-playing had spread. He longed to find a wider scope wherein to prosecute his aims for raising the standard of Church music. Arnstadt had become too narrow for his desires, and, consequently, when, in 1707, he was offered the post of organist of St. Blasius’, at Mühlhausen, near Eisenach, he accepted it at once. The invitation was coupled with a request that he would name his own salary—a compliment to his powers to which he modestly responded by fixing the sum at that which he had lately received; but, in addition to pay, his emolument comprised certain dues of corn, wood, and fish, to be delivered free at his door. His post at Arnstadt was filled by his cousin, Johann Ernst, to whom, as he was very poor, and had an aged mother and a sick sister to support, Bach generously handed over the last quarter’s salary which was due to him on leaving.

With this improvement in his worldly prospects Bach deemed that he might prudently marry. He had been contemplating this step since the time, some months before, when he had incurred the displeasure of the Arnstadt authorities by introducing a ‘stranger maiden’ into the choir—a proceeding altogether contrary to rule, but one which, like the rest of his faults, was condoned for the sake of hearing him play. The ‘stranger maiden’ was no other than his cousin, Maria Barbara, the youngest daughter of Michael Bach, of Gehren, with whom he had fallen in love, and to whom he was married on October 17, 1707.

It was customary in those days for organists to maintain their instruments in repair, and Bach’s first duty on entering upon his new post was to undertake some extensive alterations in the organ committed to his charge. The completion of these repairs, however, was left to his successor, for Bach did not retain his position at Mühlhausen for more than a year. He was filled with a desire to raise the standard of Church music, reverently desirous of clothing the old services in a new dress—one which should elevate the thoughts of the worshippers to a higher plane by giving to the words of Scripture a fuller and more sympathetic interpretation. In this longing for freedom from the old modes of Church music, by which, owing to the rigid simplicity of the Lutheran services, the truths of religion were trammelled and obscured, Bach hoped to have secured the support and sympathy of his congregation; but he soon found that his efforts were unappreciated. For us, who now see this longing for the first time clearly expressed in his life, and who know what important fruits it was destined to bear in the future, this stage in the career of Sebastian Bach possesses a peculiar interest. In his letter to the town council announcing his resignation he explains that he has ‘always striven to make the improvement of Church music, to the honour of God, his aim,’ but that he has met with opposition such as he sees no chance of being enabled to overcome in the future. Moreover, he states that, ‘poor as is his mode of living, he has not enough to subsist on after paying his house-rent and other necessary expenses.’

The shortness of his means, with a wife and the near prospect of a family to provide for, no doubt had a good deal to do with Bach’s decision to resign his post at St. Blasius’ at once. He had, in fact, already received the offer of a more important engagement. An invitation to perform before Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar early in the year 1708 had been seized upon in the hope that it might lead to an appointment at the Court. The hope was not disappointed, for the Duke was so delighted with Bach’s playing that he immediately offered him the post of Court and Chamber Organist. Bach had always been on the best of terms with the elders of St. Blasius’ Church, however, and the separation was accompanied by marks of friendliness on both sides. Thus we see Bach acting once more on his own initiative—choosing his path deliberately as he saw the opportunity for furthering the great objects he had in view.

The wider scope for which he had been longing was now within his grasp, and from the date of his appointment at Weimar he began to compose those masterpieces for the organ which in after-years were to help to make his name famous. Hitherto we have followed the fortunes of Sebastian Bach as a zealous student, self-dependent, and almost entirely self-instructed as regards his art, battling against poverty with stolid indifference to the drawbacks and discomforts that fell to his share, unmindful of fatigue, seeking neither praise nor reward, but with his mind wholly set upon the accomplishment of his life-purpose—the furtherance of his beloved art. The promise of his childish days had been largely sown in sorrow and disappointment. He had not been hailed as a prodigy of genius. No crowd of wondering admirers had gathered to listen to his childish efforts, and to prognosticate for him the favours of fame and fortune in the near future. Not even his parents, loving him as they doubtless did, could have done more than dared to entertain the hope that he would do honour and credit to the musical name which he bore ere they sank into their untimely graves, and left him to fight the battle of life alone. No; the childhood and youth of Sebastian Bach were stages in the life of a genius which were entirely destitute of the advantages of either wealth or the patronage of the great, and as such they command our interest and respect.

Henceforth we have to picture Bach as settled in his Weimar home, no longer as a student, but as a player and composer whose fame was gradually spreading throughout the country. So rapid had his progress been both on the organ and the pianoforte that he was even led to overestimate his own powers, and one day remarked somewhat boastingly to a friend that he could play any piece, however difficult, at sight without a mistake. The friend, disbelieving his statement, invited him to breakfast shortly afterwards, and placed several pieces on the pianoforte, amongst them being one which, though apparently simple, was in reality extremely difficult. He then left the room to prepare breakfast, and Bach, seating himself at the instrument, began to play over the pieces. Coming to the difficult work, he struck into it very boldly, but after proceeding a little way he came to a stop, then tried it again from the beginning, and once more halted at the same place. His host then appeared bringing in the breakfast, and Bach, turning to him, exclaimed, ‘You are right. One cannot play everything at sight—it is impossible!’

In August, 1712, Zachau, the organist of the Liebfrauen-Kirche at Halle, and Handel’s old master, died, and Bach, whose knowledge and practical skill in the matter of organ construction had now become widely known, was asked to plan a new instrument for the church. He accordingly made his plans, and then, induced by the thought of having a fine organ under his control, he applied for the vacant post. The elders of the church, having heard a sacred cantata which he composed for the

St. Mary's, Lubeck
St. Mary’s, Lubeck

occasion performed under his direction in the following year, were most willing to accede to his application, but Bach, fearing that his independence would be threatened by the conditions attached to the position, withdrew at the last moment. Nevertheless, so great was the appreciation in which his abilities were held that when the new organ was completed he was invited to Halle for the purpose of inspecting it and testing its capabilities.

In 1714 Duke Wilhelm Ernst raised him to the position of Hof-Concertmeister—a step which afforded increased scope for the exercise of his powers. Every autumn for several years he utilised his leave of absence by journeying to the principal towns in order to give performances on the organ and clavier, by means of which his reputation was greatly enhanced. It was on one of these tours that he found himself in Dresden at a time when expectation was rife concerning the powers of a remarkable French player who had just arrived in the town. Jean Marchand, as the Frenchman was named, had achieved a great reputation in his own country, where, in addition to filling the post of organist to the King at Versailles, he was regarded as the most fashionable music-master of the day. His conceited and overbearing manners, however, had led to his banishment from the French Court, and he had undertaken a tour in Italy with triumphant success before coming to the German capital. Bach found everybody discussing the Frenchman’s wonderful playing, and it was whispered that he had been already offered an appointment in Dresden. The friends of Bach insisted that he should engage Marchand forthwith in a contest in defence of the musical honour of his nation, and as Bach was by no means indisposed to pit himself against the conceited Frenchman, he gave his consent to the challenge being dispatched. Marchand, for his part, showed an equal readiness to meet Bach, foreseeing an easy victory over his antagonist. The King promised to grace the contest with his presence, and the time and place were duly fixed. It was agreed that the contestants were to set each other problems to be worked out on the piano, the victory to be adjudged by the connoisseurs who were present.

The day fixed for the trial arrived. A brilliant company assembled, and at the appointed time Bach made his appearance; but his adversary had not arrived. The audience awaited his coming for some time with impatience, and at length the news was brought that Marchand had left the city suddenly that morning! It transpired that on the previous day Bach had been performing on the organ in one of the principal churches of the town, and Marchand, attracted by the crowd, made his way into the building and listened to Bach’s wonderful playing. So greatly had the music impressed him that, when he learnt who the player was,

he began to tremble for his success at the coming contest. As the time approached his fears grew apace, and at length, without a word to anybody concerning his intentions, he fled from the city.

The year 1717, in which the above event took place, was marked by a further advancement in Bach’s fortunes, for on his return from Dresden he was appointed Capellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. His new position left him abundant leisure in which to follow the bent of his genius in regard to the composition of instrumental music, and many of his finest works were written at this time. His relations with the Prince were of the most cordial character. The latter was an enthusiastic lover of music, and on his frequent journeys to various towns in order to gratify his taste he insisted on having Bach as his travelling companion. Thus, for several years Bach continued to lead a life which in every respect brought him much happiness, and added not a little to his fame. Then a great sorrow befell him, for during one of these expeditions with the Prince, when, owing to their movements, he was unable to receive news from home, his wife died suddenly, and when he returned to Cöthen it was to find the family plunged into grief, and the mother already buried.

The close of the year 1721 saw Bach married to his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wülkens, a daughter of the Court trumpeter at Weissenfels. Anna Magdalena was in every way suited for the wife of a musician, for she had a deep love for music, in addition to possessing a beautiful voice. Moreover, as time went on, her reverence for her husband’s genius, which she used every effort to promote and encourage, did not fail to make itself felt in influencing the musical tastes of her children.

Life, meanwhile, at the Court had not proceeded so happily for Bach as heretofore, and in the year of his marriage he made a journey to Hamburg with the object of competing for the post of organist at the Jacobi-Kirche. His playing on this occasion excited the greatest admiration, though, as a matter of fact, this was not the first time he had awakened the enthusiasm of Hamburg audiences by his performances; but the organ on which he now played was an exceptionally fine one, and responded so perfectly to his touch as to assist in imparting to his improvisation the character of an inspired performance. When the trial came to an end, every one present felt certain of the result. Not one of the competitors had approached Bach in feeling or execution. Yet, notwithstanding the popular verdict in his favour, the prize was snatched from him and given to another—younger, unknown, and even insignificant man, who, however, was enabled to offer four thousand marks for the position, whilst Bach could only present his genius.

Nevertheless, Bach, with his characteristic indifference to fortune, made no protest against this unfair treatment, but went quietly on with his work at Cöthen, waiting for a fresh opportunity to present itself. He had now become personally known to the famous and aged organist of Hamburg, Reinken. At one of his visits he improvised on a theme composed by the master in the latter’s presence, and when he had finished, Reinken seized him by the hand, and as he shook it exclaimed with emotion, ‘I thought that this art was dead, but I see that it still lives in you!’ This was the last meeting between Bach and the organist from whose playing he had derived so much profit, for shortly afterwards Reinken died at the age of ninety-nine, holding his post up to the last.

His life at Cöthen was largely devoted to composition. His only pupils appear to have been his wife and his sons, in whose musical education he evinced the deepest interest, and for whose benefit he wrote many works, including several books of studies and his famous ‘Art of Fugue. Another of his great works, the ‘Wohltemperirte Klavier’ (Well-tempered Clavichord), better known in England under the title of ‘The Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues,’ was begun at this time. It is, perhaps, the most popular of all Bach’s works, and the idea of writing it is said to have occurred to him whilst staying at a place where no musical instrument of any kind was available. That he should have sat down to write the first part of this monumental work (the second part was not completed until twenty years later) in a place where from sheer force of circumstances his fingers would otherwise have been condemned to idleness is not surprising when we consider the mental activity by which Bach’s character was distinguished. He could not, in  fact, be idle.

St. Thomas' Church, Leipzig
St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig

When not playing, or composing, or teaching, he would often be found hard at work engraving his compositions on copper, or engaged in manufacturing some kind of musical instrument—at least two instruments are known to have been of his own inventing. The one idea which seems to have pervaded his whole life from beginning to end was to be of the greatest use to the greatest number of his fellow-creatures, and it was this noble purpose which was urging him at this time to discover a wider sphere of work. The Cöthen post, while it gave him abundant leisure for composition, did not satisfy his longing to be of greater use in the furtherance of his art—a longing which can only be appreciated when we study the works which at this period were occupying his mind. Moreover, the Prince, who had recently married, no longer showed the same devotion to music as heretofore—a change of feeling that necessarily produced a corresponding slackening of the ties of friendship and interest which had formerly existed between the Prince and his Capellmeister. The opportunity which Bach sought came at length when, in 1723, he was appointed cantor of the Thomas-Schule at Leipzig, and director of the music in the Churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas in the town.

With this appointment Bach entered upon the final stage of his career, for he retained the Leipzig post until his death. The story of his connection with the Thomas-Schule is one that redounds to his honour, for, in spite of considerable opposition at the hands of the authorities, who failed to appreciate his genius and hampered his activity by petty restrictions and accusations; in spite, also, of the poverty of the material with which he was called upon to deal, he laboured unceasingly to raise the standard of efficiency in the scholars whose training was committed to his charge, and from whose ranks the choirs in the two churches under his control had to be furnished. Apart from his duties, however, those twenty-seven years of Leipzig work and intercourse are marked out for us as comprising the period during which he wrote and dedicated to the service of the Church those masterpieces of undying beauty—the Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John. In these works, and in the ‘High Mass in B Minor,’ which also belongs to this time, but more especially in the first-named work, we seem to witness the crowning-point of those generations of striving for the advancement of the art which have indissolubly linked the name of Bach with the history of music. Bach himself stood on the top step of the ladder: with him the vital forces of the race exhausted themselves; and further power of development stopped short.’

 

The life at Leipzig was distinguished by the simplicity which had always been Bach’s chief characteristic. That he was imbued by deeply religious feelings is evidenced by the works to which we have just referred; his genius, in fact, found its highest and noblest expression in the interpretation of the spirit of the sacred writings. Next to his art—if, indeed, they can be considered apart—came his devotion to his family, in the training and welfare of whom he took an absorbing interest. Outside these twin centres of attraction he hardly ever ventured, and though his fame brought him notice, and to some extent honour as well, his desire for retirement became stronger as the years went on.

His modest, retiring disposition is well illustrated by an incident which marked the latter period of his busy life. His third son, Carl Philip Emanuel, had entered the service of Frederick the Great, and was acting as cembalist in the royal orchestra. His Majesty, who was exceedingly fond of music, and a considerable player on the flute, had repeatedly expressed a wish to see Bach, and from time to time sent messages to this effect to the old composer through the latter’s son. Bach, however, intent upon his work, for a long time ignored these intimations of royal favour, until at length, in 1747, Carl brought to him an imperative demand from his royal master which Bach saw that he could not disobey without incurring the King’s displeasure. Accordingly, he set out for Potsdam with his son Friedemann. The King was about to begin his evening music when a servant brought to him a list of the strangers who had arrived at the castle that day. Frederick glanced at the paper, and then turned to his musicians with a smile. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, ‘old Bach has come!’ and down went his flute. Bach was immediately sent for—he had not time even to change his travelling-dress—and with many excuses he presented himself to the King. His Majesty received him with marked kindness and respect, and when the courtiers smiled at the old musician’s embarrassment and his somewhat flowery speeches, Frederick frowned his disapproval. He then conducted Bach through the palace, showing him the various points of interest, and insisted on his trying his Silbermann pianofortes, of which he had quite a collection. Bach extemporised on each of the instruments, and then Frederick gave him a theme which he reproduced as a fantasia, to the astonishment of all present. The King next requested him to play a six-part fugue, and Bach extemporised one on a theme selected by himself. The King, who stood behind the composer’s chair, clapped his hands with delight, and exclaimed repeatedly, ‘Only one Bach! Only one Bach!’ It was a visit replete with honours for the old master, and when he returned home he expressed his gratitude by writing down and elaborating the piece which he had composed on the King’s theme, dedicating it to His Majesty under the title of ‘Musikalisches Opfer’ (Musical Offering), and sending it to Potsdam with a letter begging its acceptance.bach

Late in life, and just after he had completed his great work, ‘The Art of Fugue,’ Bach became totally blind—the result, no doubt, of the heavy strain to which he had subjected his sight when, in order to educate himself, he had copied out entire many of the works of older masters. Nor can we overlook the fact that, when a child, his sight must have been injured by the long, self-imposed task of copying music by moonlight. He suffered a great deal in consequence of the drugs which were administered in the hope of restoring his eye-sight, but, notwithstanding, he continued to work up to the last. On the morning of the day on which he died—July 28, 1750—he startled those about him by suddenly regaining his sight, ‘but it was the last flickering of the expiring flame. He was allowed to see the light of this world once more before leaving it for ever.’ A few hours later he became unconscious, and passed away in his sleep.

Considered apart from his works, the life of Sebastian Bach stands out as a noble example of untiring industry and perseverance; but we miss the brilliancy and fire which in the case of many other great musicians have served to render their lives so outwardly striking and marvellous. The genius of Bach was a mighty power working unseen, buried beneath a simple exterior. Unlike Handel, that other great master of his time with whom he has been so often compared, Bach lived a life of comparative retirement, never travelling beyond the confines of his own country, making no bid for popularity, and to the last remaining unaffected by praise or censure. All his life long he was seeking knowledge and truth, never contenting himself with a belief in his own unaided powers or judgment, but always showing the keenest interest in the progress of his art as evinced by the works of other musicians of his day. One little instance will serve, perhaps, to bring out clearly this marked difference between these two great men: Bach was truly desirous of making Handel’s acquaintance, and tried on several occasions to gratify this wish. On the last occasion he travelled to Halle on learning that Handel was revisiting his birthplace from the scene of his triumphs in London, only to find on his arrival that his contemporary had departed for England earlier in the day. Handel, on the other hand, is not known to have expressed the least desire to meet the man whose fame rested upon so solid a foundation of excellence. The one was self-centred, the other wholly centred upon art for art’s sake—yet both were great.

It is convenient to speak of Bach’s life as having been divided into three stages or periods, each marked off from the rest by the nature of the works to which it gave birth. Thus, the Weimar period is that to which is assigned the major portion of his organ music. The Cöthen period, on the other hand, produced few compositions for the organ, but was mainly devoted to instrumental chamber music; whilst to the Leipzig period belongs the production of nearly all his finest Church compositions.

Bach was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. John’s Church at Leipzig, but neither stone nor cross exists to mark the spot. Only the register of deaths preserved in the town library remains to tell us that ‘A man, aged sixty-seven, M. Johann Sebastian Bach, Musical Director and Singing Master of the St. Thomas School, was carried to his grave in the hearse, July 30, 1750.’

From STORY-LIVES OF GREAT MUSICIANS by  Francis Jameson Rowbotham

 

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