Seven generations of Bachs were professional musicians and their north German dynasty can be traced back to the early 16th century and beyond. None of them earned more than a local reputation and, surprising as it may seem, ‘the supreme arbiter and law-giver of music’, Johann Sebastian himself, achieved only limited fame during his lifetime. Music was in the blood, his musical gifts taken for granted by his family and himself. He never saw himself as exceptional, just a pious Lutheran artisan doing his best with a gift that was as much a part of him as his unquestioning religious belief.
Bach had little systematic training in his youth. It’s said that at nine he almost ruined his eyesight from secretly copying out by moonlight an entire library of instrumental music to which he had been denied access. He was nine when both his parents died (his father was a respected violinist) and he was sent to live with his older brother Johann Christoph. None too happy at having an extra mouth to feed, Johann Christoph treated his new charge peremptorily and without much sympathy, though grudgingly gave him lessons on the harpsichord.
At 15, Johann Sebastian gained a position in the choir at Lüneburg where he was able at last to indulge in every possible musical pursuit, soaking up scores, composing and studying the organ, clavichord and violin. Several times he tramped the 30 miles to Hamburg to hear the greatest organist of the day, Johann Adam Reincken, and he travelled the 60 miles to Celle for his first experience of French music. Though Bach led an unadventurous and parochial life, his thirst for every musical experience open to him, his curiosity and his willingness to absorb what other practitioners of the art were involved in, played an important part in the extraordinary diversity of the great music he was to write. His most famous journey was to Lübeck where the celebrated organist Dieterich Buxtehude gave recitals and a weekly instrumental concert.
At the time, Bach had obtained an appointment as organist at Arnstadt, aged just 19. He obtained leave of absence and, so legend has it, walked to Lübeck, a distance of 213 miles. The outcome, anyway, was a prolonged absence of four months which did not endear him any to the burghers of Arnstadt; neither did the strange music that young Bach returned with, for, perhaps recalling Buxtehude’s playing, he began interpolating elaborate cadenzas and variations into the staid chorales.
Soon he was off. In June 1707 he went to Mühlhausen as organist and four months later, at the age of 22, married his cousin Maria Barbara. The following year saw the very first publication of a piece of his own music, the cantata Gott ist mein König; at the same time he left Mühlhausen to become court organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar. Here he stayed more or less contentedly, was made Konzertmeister (conductor) of the court orchestra in 1714 and composed some of his finest organ works including the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and many of the great preludes and fugues. Here, too, the future King Frederick I of Sweden heard him, recording that Bach’s feet ‘flew over the pedalboard as if they had wings’. In 1717 came further advancement when he accepted the position of music director to Prince Leopold of Anhalt in Cöthen. Duke Wilhelm, for some reason, at first refused to allow Bach to take up his new post and held him under arrest for a month. When at last Bach arrived in Cöthen, it was the start of one of his most fruitful periods as a composer, one which saw the appearance of theBrandenburg Concertos and the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. In 1720 he accompanied the Prince on a visit to Karlsbad and it was there that he learnt of his wife’s death.
He lived as a widower for a year with his seven children before marrying his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a daughter of the court trumpeter at Weissenfels, now immortalised in The Little Clavier Book of Anna Magdalena, the short pieces which Bach wrote for her study of the harpsichord. Is there a budding young pianist anywhere who hasn’t played at least one of them? During their happy married life, she bore him a further 13 children, though no fewer than six of Bach’s 20 children did not survive into adulthood.
In 1722 the cantor of Leipzig died and Bach applied for this prestigious post. The authorities first offered it to Telemann (who declined it) and then to Christoph Graupner (who was unable to take up the appointment). Third choice Bach succeeded to the title in April 1723. This was the job he retained for the rest of his life. His arduous duties as cantor involved playing the organ, teaching Latin and music in the Thomasschule, writing music for the services of two churches (Nikolaikirche and Thomaskirche) and directing the music and training the musicians of a further two. The living conditions were cold and damp, the salary parsimonious and Bach found himself fighting a running battle with the church authorities who were always trying to defraud him. Yet the music that flowed from his pen – and there was a great deal – is some of the greatest spiritual music ever written, including the Mass in B minor, the St John and St Matthew Passions and the Christmas Oratorio, as well as nearly 300 church cantatas. From this period, too, come the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto, the Partitas and the Second Book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
One of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was Kapellmeister to King Frederick the Great and Bach visited him in Potsdam in 1747. The story goes that when Bach arrived, Frederick broke off the music-making and exclaimed, ‘Old Bach is here!’ and without permitting him to change his clothes, plonked Bach down at the keyboard. Later, Bach composed a six-part fugue on a theme of Frederick the Great – this was The Musical Offering, written in gratitude for his welcome.
By the end of his life, Bach’s eyesight was failing due to cataracts. In the spring of 1749 he was persuaded to have an operation performed on them by the same British optician, John Taylor, who had earlier treated Handel for the same affliction unsuccessfully. It left Bach almost completely blind. His sight then miraculously returned (possibly the cataract receded spontaneously), allowing him feverishly to copy and revise what was to be his final work, The Art of Fugue. Ten days later he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 65 years old.
Bach was buried in the churchyard of St John in Leipzig. No identification marked the spot. Then, in 1895, his body was exhumed and photographs taken of his skeleton. On July 28, 1949, on the 199th anniversary of his death, Bach’s coffin was transferred to the choir room of the Thomaskirche.
Bach is to music what Leonardo da Vinci is to art and Aristotle is to philosophy, one of the supreme creative geniuses of history. The amazing fact is that he was essentially a self-taught, provincial musician; he did not write music in a fever of inspiration like Beethoven, say, nor was he motivated by the same holy dedication to art as Wagner. For Bach, it was always ‘For the glory of the most high God alone’, as he wrote. ‘I was obliged to work hard; whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well.’ He wasn’t considered to be anything special in his day. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel referred to him as ‘old peruke’ – he was an old fogey, writing in a style that was already going out of fashion, the Baroque polyphonic school. He made little impression in the way of developing existing forms or inventing new ones. Little of his music was published or performed after his death and, though it was by no means completely ignored as is often stated (we know that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for instance, all played his keyboard works), it was not until Mendelssohn’s revival of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829 that the gradual reassessment of Bach’s true worth was begun.
It wasn’t as though he was a sophisticated intellectual either. Far from it. His letters and notes betray an uneducated hand and mind – his German is littered with grammatical mistakes, he knew little of the other arts and read mainly theological books. It is one of the most extraordinary paradoxes in musical history that a mind of such low culture could produce music of such unparalleled assurance, beauty and, yes, complexity. As the critic Ernest Newman observed: ‘Truly, we have as yet barely the glimmer of an understanding of what the musical faculty is, and how it works.’
What makes Bach the great composer that he unarguably is? If we say that the Baroque era began (roughly) in 1600 with Monteverdi and ended in 1750, then Johann Sebastian represented the inevitable culmination of all Baroque styles: the contrapuntal German school, the melodic, singing Italian school and the elegant dance-based French school. As a young man he had absorbed the works of Palestrina and Frescobaldi, knew the more recent works of Vivaldi and Albinoni, of Froberger, Pachelbel and Buxtehude, and, as we’ve seen, made strenuous efforts to acquaint himself with all the great German musicians of the day. It is not just his extraordinary capacity to think in counterpoint (its combined musicality, ingenuity and unforced complexity are of a different order to anything else being written) but his superior harmonic sense that set him apart. A Vivaldi concerto bowls along on fairly predictable lines; Bach was daring, taking the music into unexpected areas. It made people complain, so curious did it sound to contemporary ears.
The word ‘Bach’ itself means ‘stream’ in German. Hence Beethoven’s famous saying: ‘Nicht Bach aber Meer haben wir hier’ (‘Not a stream but a whole ocean’). Two further curiosities: Bach’s very name is a musical theme. Our note B natural is the note H in German nomenclature; our note B flat is known as B in Germany. Thus the surname produces its own four-note motif. In The Art of Fugue, Bach produced an encyclopaedic work using every contrapuntal device imaginable based on a single theme. It was calculated to appeal to the visual senses as well as the aural and it’s a moot point whether Bach ever intended the cycle to be performed. The work remained unfinished at his death. On the very last page, Bach had begun a fugue adding his name as one of the themes - B flat, A, C, B natural. It was the final thing he wrote.
Unlike Handel, who wrote for his patrons and his public, Bach was motivated only by a need to express himself. It is deeply personal music which yet speaks to mankind at large and the amount he wrote is simply staggering. When the task of gathering together and publishing all his music was undertaken, the project took 46 years to complete. Someone once calculated that if a present day copyist were to write out all of Bach’s music (including all the parts, as Bach did) it would take 70 years. How he did it, with all his other duties of conducting, teaching, playing the organ and (an old but pertinent chestnut) fathering 20 children, he explained himself with characteristic modesty: ‘I worked hard.’ Jeremy Nicholas