Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Weimar, Germany, March 21, 1685
The musician destined to render the family name of Bach immortal was Johann Sebastian, who opened his eyes to the light on the 21st of March, 1685, at Eisenach, where his father was a musician of the court and the city. (Sebastian Bach descended from a race of musicians. The family name Bach, is his day, dated back to Veit Bach, a Hungarian. This man, a miller by trade, was so fond of music that he took his cithern to mill with him; and, while the corn was grinding, he played a melodic accompaniment to the uniform rhythm of the mill. The cithern, an instrument of different sizes, with four, five, or six metallic strings was much used in the sixteenth century. The successors of Veit Bach, all musicians, held family gatherings yearly at Eisenach, Arnstadt, or Erfurt. Their festivities always commenced with a choral song, and were continued with mirth and jollity interspersed with humorous music, some of which was improvised for the occasion.) Left an orphan at ten years of age, he was placed under the care of his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, an organist at Ordoff, who gave him some instruction on the clavichord. The child, through inclination and capacity for music, promptly learned its elements; and, precocious as he was, he did not hesitate to undertake the interpretation of the most celebrated masters of the time. One would think that the less gifted elder brother was jealous of the child’s brilliant powers; for he refused to allow him the use of a music book containing several pieces of the masters. However, the young Sebastian contrived to get by stealth the precious book, for which he had in vain plead so earnestly, and set himself to copy it from beginning to end. To do this without awaking the distrust of his brother, he was obliged to work by moonlight, and it took him full six months. Such patience and perseverance surely deserved to be rewarded. Was his brother capable of appreciating the child’s zeal? We think not; for, when he found Sebastian secretly studying, he took the copy which had cost so much labor away from him, and the boy did not see it again till after Christoph’s death.
The youth, thrown upon his own resources, went to Luneburg, where he obtained a situation as singer in the choir of the Church of St. Michel; there he learned practically what sacred music is. He could not easily have chosen a more favorable place than Luneburg, at whose excellent gymnasium he studied. Besides, its proximity to Hamburg and Zelle enabled him to make frequent visits to those cities so renowned for their schools for singing, organ, and orchestra.
As a youth of eighteen, Bach returned home, a well instructed, richly gifted disciple of art. In 1703 we find him as court musician at Weimar, 1704 as organist at Ahnstadt, 1707 in the same capacity at Muhlhausen, 1708 court organist at Weimar, and 1714 director of concerts also.
In the meantime he wrote two great church cantatas, both masterpieces; also “Gott ist mein Konig,” and “Ich hatte viel Bekummernitz.” Indeed, the love for art, that sacred flame which creates the great artist, was never for a moment extinguished in his heart.
One day in 1705 or 1706, Bach left his pleasant home in Ahnstadt, and directed his steps to the North. The object of his longing was Lubec, where he studied the organ for three months with the celebrated Buxtehudde. Bach was not sufficiently forehanded to take very long journeys: he never say the skies of Italy; yet he became better acquainted with, and learned to appreciate the celebrated masters of Italy, more than most of those who make pilgrimages thither. He worked assiduously, copied a number of the works of Palestrina, Lotti, and other; edited and transposed music, that of Vivaldi, for example. (And thus made himself master of French and Italian music, that he might judge of the best they contained, though he was no imitator of either.)
The name of Bach was becoming generally known, and his presence desired at several of the German Courts. What the Italy of the Renaissance was for art, that was Germany in the time of Bach. There was no capital or free city in this feudal and municipal country, which had not a focus of artistic rays more or less intense. A sort of emulation, useful to general progress, animated all the smaller German princes.
The ardor of Bach for study increased with his success, and his persevering efforts were fully appreciated. (About this time he married Maria Barbara, youngest daughter of John Michel Bach, an able composer. By his wife he had two daughters and five sons.)
Augustus II., Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who had been conquered by Charles XII., and re-established by Peter the Great, was one of the most magnificent sovereigns of Europe. As if this prince wished to indemnify himself during the second part of his reign for the humiliations and misfortunes suffered in the first part, he neglected nothing to make the little court of Dresden the asylum of joy and pleasure. Artists were his chosen guests; and when Louis Marchand came as an exile from Paris, to seek refuge in Dresden, the king, delighted by the lightness and brilliancy of his performance, offered him a considerable salary if he would settle at his court. Marchand, a distinguished virtuoso, challenged a competitor. Volumier, the Saxon concert master, sent for Bach; and it was agreed that each should improvise upon a theme proposed by the other. The day for trial came, but the French organist did not appear. On inquiring, it was found that he had left the city, thus acknowledging the superiority of his opponent.
The king ordered a hundred louis d’or to be presented to Bach; but the officer to whom the order was given thought best to appropriate the money, and let the honor suffice for the artist.
Whilst Bach held the directorship of Prince Leopold d’Anhalt Coeten’s chapel, he had much leisure, which he employed in study. The old Reincke, who had inspired him with enthusiasm since his early youth, was then living at Hamburg. In 1722 Bach went, as on a pilgrimage, to see this venerable man, now nearly a hundred years old; and improvised, at his request, on the choral, “Upon the Rivers of Babylon.” The old athlete, about to disappear from the world’s theatre, was still interested in the fate of music. He tenderly embraced his young successor; and, shedding tears of joy, he said, “I did think that this art would die with me; but I see that you will keep it alive.”
Frederic II. was one of the great admirers of Bach. The passion of this conqueror of Rossbach for music, a passion which had nearly cost him his life while his father lived, is well known to us. No sooner was he the king, however, than he remained faithful in his devotion to music. Every evening one of the halls of the palace of Potsdam was turned into a concert hall; and the king, an able flutist, did not disdain to take a part in his select orchestra. He wrote to Bach several times, inviting him to his court; finally the master accepted, and went thither accompanied by his oldest son. When Frederic read his name among the arrivals at Potsdam, he turned to those about him, saying, “Gentlemen, Bach is here!” and ordered him to be sent for immediately. So impatient was he, that he would not wait for the artist to attire himself in court dress. Grateful for the king hospitality which he received from the Prussian monarch, Bach wrote a fugue in three parts, and dedicated it to the king, under the title of “A Musical Offering.” He also wrote some canons, and a trio for flute, violin, and base.
But the joy of father and son was soon turned to sadness; for on their return home they found the devoted wife and tender mother sleeping her long sleep in the quiet churchyard.
She was his second wife, an excellent soprano singer, the daughter of a court musician. She became the mother of six sons and seven daughters. All the sons of Sebastian Bach, like their male predecessors for a hundred and fifty years, displayed more or less musical talent. Even the unfortunate David, though incapable of learning to read or write, played with so much tenderness and expression, that those who listened to him could scarcely refrain from weeping. David died before attaining the age of manhood.
Bach may be said to have educated a large class of excellent composers, organ and piano players, which spread over the North of Germany. K. Ph. Em. Bach, Cramer, Clementi, Hummel, and others, these all, though they may differ in some details, have in their general system not been able to say anything new; for their knowledge is all based upon Sebastian Bach’s instruction. Although there is no doubt that the influence of Bach was a decided and long continued one in the theory and practice of music, and that he deserves the title of “father of modern music,” yet his compositions, as rich treasures of music, secure for him the grateful souvenirs of posterity, without reference to their influence on contemporaries and descendants.
Bach lived but three years after the ovation which he received in Potsdam. Blindness, brought on by too great labor, saddened his last days. An English oculist operated on his eyes at two different times, to the detriment of his health, which had previously been very vigorous. He languished for some time, and died July 30, 1750, at the age of 65. The inflammatory fever which finally carried him off had been preceded by a sudden recovery of sight, which singular phenomenon led his friends to hope for his recovery. But ten days after, Germany and the musical world had to mourn the loss of one of the greatest geniuses which had honored both.
He was a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. Twice married, the father of twenty children, he did not flag under the heavy burden which the education of such a large family imposed. He was never known to make use of the favors of the rich for his own pecuniary interest. If he had done what many others do, he might have been rich; but he was content with a sufficiency, and in truth he was well satisfied with a comfortable living. Conscious of his genius, he was very modest; and, when anyone asked what was the secret of his great power, he invariably answered that he owed all that he was to industry. We cannot judge absolutely of the temper of Bach in the ordinary commerce of life by the austere and grand character of his music. Like many kind people, he willingly yielded to an occasion, and was always ready for a pun. For example, in a play of words upon his own name, Bach, which in German means “brook,” and the name of a favorite pupil, Krebs, which means “crab,” he used to say, “I have never taken but one crab in my brook.” When he joked it was always with delicacy, and his playfulness never wounded the feelings of anyone.
Despite his great reputation while living, it may be said that the glory of Bach is in a measure posthumous. Generally speaking, his contemporaries say in him only the skillful organist, the wonderful improviser, the learned musician. Probably Bach’s extreme simplicity and aversion for vain popularity were more or less injurious as to the bringing out of his works in a proper light during his lifetime.
The “Matthaeus Passion” for two choruses and two orchestras, one of the greatest masterpieces in music, waited nearly a century before it was brought out; condemned, as it were, from its birth, by the modesty of its author. Mozart had the glory of promoting the grand movement in favor of our great master towards the end of the eighteenth century; and he continued a persevering research of his unpublished works. Whilst Mozart was at mass in Leipzig, 1788, he heard one of Bach’s hymns, which produced such an effect upon his ear, that he cried out, “Thank God, there is something new now! I learn something.” This something new dated back some seventy years; but the admiration of Mozart was sufficient to bring it out from obscurity.
Among the numerous compositions of Bach, we must mention his fugues and preludes, the “Oratorio of the Nativity of Jesus Christ,” that of “The Passion,” of which we have already spoken, his grand masses, and series of compositions. Speaking of his merit as a composer is not saying all. Bach in the judgment of contemporaries was extraordinarily gifted with the qualities of a virtuoso, qualities of which posterity cannot judge. The invention, or rather the constant and systematic application of fingering, applied to organ music, is due to him. He was well versed in the construction of organs.
The sons of our immortal artist never attained the paternal glory, though some among them were well skilled musicians. The eldest, William Friedmann, who was unfortunate, and who was little appreciated during his lifetime, wrote sonatas, fugues, and concertos, displaying sufficient talent to give him a reputation as a musician, if he had not been a Bach.
Emanuel, the creator of the modern sonata, had the fate of many precursors. The kind which he invented having been carried to a high degree of perfection by Haydn and Mozart, very little gratitude has been shown him for opening the way which others illustrated after him. It becomes the duty of the historian to protest against the injustice of posterity. We should mention two other sons of Bach, Johann Christoph, distinguished in counterpoint, and Johann Christian, who was the first of the family to write dramatic music. He wrote many operas, some of which became very celebrated.
He died in Leipzig, July 28, 1750