1902 Encyclopedia > Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach
German composer

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH was born at Eisenach in Thuringia, on March 21, 1685, the same year which gave birth to his great contemporary Handel. His father held a musical appointment from the town council, being himself those of some of the great Italian painters, may be cited as one of the most striking instances of hereditary artistic genius. Through four consecutive generations they followed the same calling, counting among their number no less than fifty musicians of more or less remarkable gifts. Even of the first ancestor of the family known to us, a miller and baker, who, owing to religious persecutions, had to leave Pressburg in Austria for the Protestant north of Germany, we are told that in his leisure hours he was fond of playing the rute, the sounds of which, as the old family chronicle naively adds, must have mixed sweetly with the clattering of the wheels of his mill. The accumulated artistic gifts and traditions of his forefathers were at last brought to their highest development by the genius of our master, who again transmitted them to his numerous sons.

Johann Sebastian Bach image

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann-Sebastian’s parents died before he had reached his tenth year, and he was left to the care of his elder brother, an organist at Ohrdruf, from whom he received his rudimentary musical education. According to a tradition the elder Bach was by means pleased with the rapid progress of his more gifted brother, and even refused him access to the sources of knowledge available at that primitive period; he was particularly anxious to withhold from him a certain collection, which, however, the younger Bach contrived to obtain surreptitiously, and which he copied at night in the course of six months. By practicing the music thus become his own on the pianoforte, he made himself master of the technique of an instrument, the capabilities of which he was destined to enlarge and develop by the works of his own genius.

In 1698 his brother died, and Bach, at the age of fourteen, saw himself thrown on his own resources for his further means of support. He went to Lüneburg, where his beautiful soprano voice obtained him an appointment as chorister at the school of St Michael. In this manner he became practically acquainted with the principal on the organ and pianoforte. A special teacher of any of these instruments, or, indeed, of the theory of music, Bach seems never to have had, at least not to our knowledge, and his style shows little affinity to the modes of expression in use before him. In some measure, indeed, it may be said that he new-created his own style, and, at the same time, that of modern music in general, a proof both of the originality of his power and of the autodidactic kind of his training.

Nevertheless, Bach was anxious to profit by the examples of contemporary masters of his art. We hear of frequent trips to the neighbouring cities of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Celle, at that time important centres of artistic life. In the first-mentioned city Keiser created sensation by the unrivalled splendour of his operatic productions, while at Lübeck the celebrated organist, Buxtehude, excited the enthusiastic admiration of the young art-aspirant. In Celle, on the other hand, a celebrated band, composed chiefly of French artists, offered an opportunity for the practical study of orchestral music. Such were the elements of his self-education, to which must be added his thorough knowledge of Palestrina and other masters of the grand old Italian school, of most of whose works Bach possessed copies written with his own hand.

At the age of eighteen Bach returned to Thuringia, where his executive skill on the organ and pianoforte attracted universal attention, and even obtained him various musical appointments, of which we mention as the most important that of court organist to the duke of Weimar. One, and not the least welcome, of his official duties was the composition of sacred music. One of his most beautiful sacred cantatas, Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss, was composed during his stay at Weimar.

An amusing incident of his otherwise quiet and eventless career also belongs to this time. We are speaking of his musical combat with the celebrated French organist, J. Louis Marchand, who had reached Dresden on his travels, and lorded it over his artistic colleagues at the Saxon court in the most sublime manner. The injured musicians, in their endeavour to humble the pride of the Frenchman, at last hit upon the idea of proposing a competition on the organ between him and Bach, whose fame at that time had begun to spread far beyond his place of residence. He was summoned to Dresden, and the day of the tournament fixed, at which the court and all the musical celebrities of the town were to be present. At first Marchand treated his young and comparatively unknown rival with scorn, but on hearing him perform at a preparatory meeting, he was so struck with Bach’s power that he ignominiously quitted the field, and vanished from Dresden before the day of the contest arrived.

This triumph led to Bach’s appointment as musical conductor (Kapellmeister) to the duke of Köthen, which he held from 1717-1723, after a previous stay at Weimar for nearly nine years. In 1723 he removed to Leipsic [Leipzig], where the position of cantor at the celebrated "Thomasschule," combined with that of organist at the two principal churches of Leipsic [Leipzig], was offered to him. It was here that the greater part of his works were composed, mostly for the immediate requirements of the moment. Several of them he engraved himself, with the assistance of his favourite son, Friedemann.

The further course of his life ran smoothly, only occasionally ruffled by his altercations with his employers, the two councillors of Leipsic [Leipzig], who, it is said, were shocked by the "unclerical" style of Bach’s compositions, and by his independent bearing generally.

He was married twice, and had by his two wives a family of eleven sons and nine daughters.

In 1747 Bach made a journey to Potsdam by the invitation of Frederick the Great, who, himself a musical amateur, received the master with distinguished marks of regard. He had to play on the numerous pianofortes of the king, and also to try the organs of the churches of Potsdam.

Two years after this event his sight began to fail, and before long he became perfectly blind, a circumstances which again coincides with the fate of his great contemporary, Handel. Bach died of apoplexy on the 18th July 1750.

His loss was deplored as that of one of the greatest organists and pianoforte players of his time. Particularly his powers of improvisation are described as unrivalled by any of his contemporaries. Of his compositions comparatively little was unknown. His MS. works were at his death divided amongst his sons, and many of them have been lost in the course of time; only about one-half of his greater works were recovered, when, after the lapse of nearly a century, the verdict of his neglectful contemporaries was reversed by an admiring posterity.

The history of this Bach revival is closely connected with the name of Mendelssohn, who was amongst the first to proclaim by word and deed the powers of a genius almost too gigantic to be grasped by the receptivity of one generation. By the enthusiastic endeavours of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and others, the circle of Bach’s worshippers has increased rapidly. In 1850, a century after his death, a society was started for the correct publication of all of Bach’s remaining works, to which music owes the rescue from oblivion of some of its sublimest emanations.

Amongst those who have vastly contributed to establish the rapport between our master’s genius and modern lovers of art, we also mention Dr Robert Franz, himself one of Germany’s greatest lyrical composers, who has edited and adapted to the resources of the modern orchestra several of Bach’s most beautiful works.

Of these works, comprising almost all the different forms of music, vocal and instrumental barring the opera, we can enumerate only the most important ones, referring the reader for further information to the biographical and critical works by Bach’s son, Phillipp Emmanuel [Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach], by Forkel, and more recently by Bitter and Spitta. The last-mentioned book has appeared quite lately, and exceeds its predecessors both by comprehensiveness of research and critical appreciation.

Of his numerous and sacred oratories, cantatas, and similar choral works, we name the so-called Christmas oratorio (1734), the Passion music to the words of St John, and that infinitely grander to the gospel of St Matthew (1734), also his Mass in B minor, one of the greatest masterpieces of all times, and the Magnificat in D. Another cantata is constructed on Luther’s grand chorale, Ein’ feste Burg. The most celebrated amongst his pianoforte compositions is the so-called Woltempierte Clavier, a collection of preludes and fugues in the different keys of the scale. For the orchestra we name the Grande Suite in D, and for his favourite instrument, the organ, the so-called Chromatic Fantasia.

It remains to add a few words about Bach’s position in the history of musical development. By Marx, a well-known critical writer, he has been called the "Founder and Father of German Music;" and it cannot be denied that no other German composer before him had attained a specifically national type of musical utterance as distinguished from that of other nations. This applies both to matter and manner.

Bach has frequently founded his grandest conceptions on the simplest tune of old chorales, that is, of purely popular effusions of pious fervour, such as had survived in the living memory of the nation from the time of Luther and his great revival of religious feeling. Sometimes these tunes were adapted for religious purposes from still older songs of a secular character, being thus thoroughly interwoven with the inmost feeling of the German people.

In raising these simple creations of popular growth to the higher sphere of at, Bach has established his claim to the name of the creator of the Germanic as opposed to the Romance phase of musical art. This spirit of German, or to speak more accurately, North German nationality, thoughtful yet naive, earnest yet tender, has also reached on the form of Bach’s creations.

Bach’s counterpoint, compared with the polyphonous splendour of Palestrina or Orlando di Lasso, is, as it were of a more intense, more immediately personal kind. In his sacred cantatas, the alternate exclamations of the voices sometimes rise to an almost passionate fervour of devotion, such as is known only to the more individualized conception of human relations to the Deity peculiar to Protestant worship -- applying that term in a purely emotional, this is, entirely unsectarian sense. It is thus that Bach has vivified the rigid forms of the fugue with the fire of individual passion.

About the peculiarities of his style, from a technical point of view, we can speak no further. How his style and his genius, neglected by his contemporaries, and obscured by other masters, like Haydn and Mozart, starting from a different basis and imbued with a different spirit, have ultimately been destined to exercise a potent spell on modern art, we have indicated already. (F. H.)

The above article was written by Francis Hueffer, Ph.D., formerly musical critic of The Times; author of The Troubadours: a History of Provençal Life and Literature in the Middle Ages and Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future; editor of Great Musicians.

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