He was born on March 21, 1685, at Eisenach, in the duchy of Saxe-Weimar. In the Cottahaus on the Lutherplatz the great reformer had lived as a boy; on a hill overlooking the town stood the Wartburg, the castle where Luther hid from Charles V (1521) and translated the New Testament; Bach’s works are the Reformation put to music.
His mother died when he was nine; his father died eight months later; Johann Sebastian and his brother Johann Jakob were taken into the family of their brother Johann Christoph. In the Gymnasium at Eisenach Sebastian learned much catechism and some Latin; in the Lyceum at neighboring Ohrdruf he studied Latin, Greek, history, and music. He stood high in his classes, and was rapidly advanced. His father had taught him the violin, his brother Christoph taught him the clavier. He took eagerly to these musical studies, as if music ran in his blood. He copied note for note a large number of musical compositions not regulary available to him; so, some think, began the impairment of his sight.
At the age of fifteen, to relieve the pressure on Johann Christoph’s growing family, Sebastian set forth to earn his own living. He found employment as a soprano singer in the school of the Convent of St. Michael at Lüneburg; when his voice changed he was kept as a violinist in the orchestra. From Lüneburg he visited Hamburg, twenty-eight miles away, perhaps to attend the opera, certainly to hear the recitals of Johann Adam Reinken, the seventy-seven-year-old organist of the Katharinenkirche. Opera did not attract him, but the art of the organ appealed to his robust spirit; in that towering instrument he felt a challenge to all his energy and skill. By 1703 he was already so accomplished that the Neuekirche at Arnstadt (near Erfurt) engaged him to play, three times a week, the great organ recently installed there, which continued in service till 1863. Free to use the instrument for his studies, he now composed his first significant works.
Ambition kept him always alert to improve his art. He knew that at Lübeck, fifty miles away, the most renowned organist in Germany, Dietrich Buxtehude, would give a series of recitals between Martinmas and Christmas in the Marienkirche. He asked his church’s consistory for a month’s leave of absence; it was granted; he delegated his duties and fees to his cousin Johann Ernst, and set out on foot (October, 1705) for Lübeck. We have seen Handel and Mattheson making a similar pilgrimage. Bach was not tempted to marry Buxtehude’s daughter as the price of inheriting his post; he wanted only to study the master’s organ technique. This or something else must have fascinated him, for he did not get back to Arnstadt till the middle of February. On February 21, 1706, the consistory reproved him for extending his leave, and for introducing “many wunderliche variations” in his preludes to the congregational hymns. On November 11 he was admonished for failure to train the choir adequately, and for privately allowing “a stranger maiden to sing in the church.” (Women were not yet permitted to sing in church.) The alien lass was Maria Barbara Bach, his cousin. He made what excuses he could, but in June, 1707, he resigned, and accepted the post of organist in the Church of St. Blasius at Mühlhausen. His yearly salary, exceptionally good for the time and place, was to be eighty-five gulden, thirteen bushels of corn, two cords of wood, six trusses of brushwood, and three pounds of fish.42 On October 17 he made Maria Barbara his wife.
But Mühlhausen proved as uncomfortable as Arnstadt. Part of the city had burned down; the harassed citizens were in no mood for wonderful variations; the congregation was torn between orthodox Lutherans who loved to sing and Pietists who thought that music was next to godlessness. The choir was in chaos, and Bach could transform chaos into order only with notes, not with men. When he received an invitation to become organist and director of the orchestra at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar he humbly begged his Mühlhausen employers to dismiss him.43 In June, 1708, he moved to his new post.
At Weimar he was well paid—156 gulden a year, raised to 225 in 1713; now he could feed the brood that Maria Barbara was hatching. He was not quite content, for he was subordinate to a Kapellmeister, Johann Drese; but he profited from the friendship of Johann Gottfried Walther, organist in the town church, author of the first German dictionary of music (1732), and composer of chorales hardly inferior to Bach’s. Perhaps through the learned Walther he undertook now a careful study of French and Italian music. He liked Frescobaldi and Corelli, but was especially charmed by the violin concertos of Vivaldi; he transcribed nine of these for other instruments. Sometimes he incorporated bits of the transcriptions into his own compositions. We can feel the influence of Vivaldi in the Brandenburg Concertos, but we feel in them, too, a deeper spirit and richer art.
His chief duty at Weimar was to serve as organist in the Schlosskirche, or Castle Church. There he had at his disposal an organ small but fully equipped. For that instrument he composed many of his greatest organ pieces: the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, the best of the toccatas, most of the major preludes and fugues, and the Orgelbüchlein, or Little Book for the Organ. His fame thus far was as an organist, not as a composer. Observers, including the critical Mattheson, marveled at his agility with keys, pedals, and stops; one declared that Bach’s feet “flew over the pedal board as if they had wings.”44 He was invited to perform in Halle, Cassel, and other cities. At Cassel (1714) the future Frederick I of Sweden was so impressed that he took from his finger a diamond ring and gave it to Bach. In 1717, at Dresden, Bach met Jean Louis Marchand, who as organist to Louis XV had achieved an international renown. Someone proposed a contest between the two. They agreed to meet in the home of Count von Flemming; each was to play at sight any organ composition placed before him. Bach appeared at the appointed hour; Marchand, for reasons now unknown, left Dresden before that time, giving Bach an unpleasant victory by default.
Despite his industry and his growing fame, he was passed over when the Weimar Kapellmeister died; the office was transmitted to the dead man’s son. Bach was in a mood to try another court. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen offered him the post ofKapellmeister. The new Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Wilhelm Augustus, refused to let his organist go; Bach insisted; the Duke imprisoned him (April 6, 1717); Bach persisted; the Duke released him (December 2); Bach hurried with his family to Cöthen. As Prince Leopold was a Calvinist, and disapproved of church music, Bach’s function was to direct the court orchestra, in which the Prince himself played the viola da gamba. Consequently it was in this period (1717–23) that Bach composed much of his chamber music, including the French and English suites. In 1721 he dispatched to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg the concertos that bear that name.
Those were mostly happy years, for Prince Leopold loved him, took him along on various journeys, proudly displayed Bach’s talent, and remained his friend when history parted their ways. But on July 7, 1720, Maria Barbara died, after giving Bach seven children, of whom four survived. He mourned her for seventeen months; then he took as his second wife Anna Magdalena Wülcken, daughter of a trumpeter in his orchestra. He was now thirty-six, she was only twenty; yet she acquitted herself well of the task assigned to her—to be a faithful mother to his children. Moreover she knew music, aided him in his composition, copied his manuscripts, and sang for him in what he called “a very clear soprano.”45 She bore him thirteen children, but seven died before reaching the age of five; there were many heartbreaks in that wonderful family. As his children grew in number and years, the problem of their education disturbed him. He was a hearty Lutheran; he disliked the gloomy Calvinism that reigned in Cöthen; he refused to send his offspring to the local school, which taught the Calvinist creed. Besides, his beloved Prince married (1721) a young princess whose demands upon Leopold lessened his interest in music. Once again Bach thought it time for a change. He was a restless spirit, but his restlessness made him; if he had remained at Cöthen we should never have heard of him.
In June, 1722, Johann Kuhnau died, after filling for twenty years the post of cantor in the Thomasschule at Leipzig. This was a public school with seven grades and eight teachers, giving instruction especially in Latin, music, and Lutheran theology. The students and graduates, under the direction of the cantor, were expected to provide the music for the churches of the city. The cantor was subject to the rector of the school and to the municipal council, which paid the salaries.
The council asked Telemann to take the vacated post, for it favored the Italian style which characterized Telemann’s compositions, but Telemann declined. It then offered the place to Christoph Graupner, Kappellmeister at Darmstadt, but Graupner’s employer refused to release him from his contract. On February 7, 1723, Bach presented himself as a candidate, and submitted to various tests of his competence. No one doubted his ability as an organist, but some members of the council thought the style of his compositions unduly conservative.46 One proposed that “as the best musicians are not available, we must take a man of moderate ability.”47 Bach was engaged (April 22, 1723) on condition that he would teach Latin as well as music, that he would lead a modest and retired(eingezogen) life, subscribe to the Lutheran doctrine, show the council “all due respect and obedience,” and never leave the city without the burgomaster’s permission. On May 30 he was installed with his family in the residential wing of the school, and began his official tasks. He stayed at that burdensome post till his death.
Henceforth most of his compositions, except the Mass in B Minor, were composed for use in the two main churches of Leipzig—St. Thomas’ and St. Nicholas’. Church services on Sunday began at 7 A.M. with an organ prelude; then the minister intoned the Introit, the choir sang the Kyrie, the minister and the choir—and sometimes the congregation—sang the Gloria in German, the worshipers sang a hymn, the minister chanted the Gospel and the Credo, the organist “preludized,” the choir sang a cantata, the congregation sang the hymn “Wir glauben all’ in einem Gott” (We All Believe in One God); the minister preached for an hour, prayed, and blessed; there followed Holy Communion, and another hymn. This service concluded at ten in winter, at eleven in summer. At eleven the students and faculty ate dinner in the school. At 1:15 P.M. the choir returned to the church for vespers, prayers, hymns, a sermon, and the German form of the Magnificat. On Good Friday the choir sang the Passion. To perform the music for all these services Bach trained two choirs, each of some twelve members, and an orchestra of some eighteen pieces. Soloists were part of the choir, and sang with it before and after their arias and recitatives.
For his complex services at Leipzig Bach received a salary averaging seven hundred thalers per year. This included his share of the students’ tuition fees, and his honorariums for providing music at weddings and funerals. The year 1729, which gave us The Passion according to St. Matthew, was reckoned by Bach as a bad year, for the weather was so good that there was a dearth of deaths.48 Occasionally he earned some extra thalers by conducting public concerts for the Collegium Musicum. He tried to improve his income by claiming control over the music in the Paulinerkirche attached to the University of Leipzig; some competitors objected, and for two years he carried on a controversy with the university authorities, achieving at last a compromise unsatisfactory to everybody concerned.
He fought another long battle with the municipal council, which appointed students to the Thomasschule; the councilors tended to send him scholars chosen through political influence rather than for musical capacity; he could make neither treble nor bass out of such newcomers, and on August 23, 1730, he lodged a formal protest with the council. It retorted that he was an incompetent teacher and a poor disciplinarian, that he lost his temper in scolding the students, that disorder was rife in the choirs and the school.49Bach wrote to a friend at Lüneburg for help in finding another post. None being open to him, he appealed (July 27, 1733) to Augustus III, the new King of Poland, to give him a court position and title that might shield him from the “undeserved affronts” that he received. Augustus took three years to comply; finally (November 19, 1736) he conferred upon Bach the title of königlicher Hofkomponist— composer for the royal court. Meanwhile the new director of the Tomasschule, Johann August Ernesti, contested with Bach the right to appoint, discipline, and flog the choir prefects. The dispute dragged on for months; Bach twice ejected Ernesti’s appointee from the organ gallery; at last the King confirmed Bach’s authority.
So his life as cantor in Leipzig was not a happy one. His spirit and energy were absorbed in his compositions and their performance; little remained for pedagogy or diplomacy. He found some consolation in his spreading fame as composer and organist. He accepted invitations to play at Weimar, Cassel, Naumburg, and Dresden; he received fees for these incidental performances, and for testing organs. In 1740 his son Karl Philipp Emanuel was engaged as cembalist in the chapel orchestra of Frederick the Great; in 1741 Bach visited Berlin; in 1747 Frederick invited him to come and try the pianofortes recently bought from Gottfried Silbermann. The King was astonished by “old Bach’s” improvisations; he challenged him to extemporize a fugue in six parts, and was delighted with the response. Returning to Leipzig, Bach composed a trio for flute, violin, and clavier, and sent it, with some other pieces, as a Musical Offering—Musikalisches Opfer— dedicated to the royal flutist as “a sovereign admired in music as in all other sciences of war and peace.”50 Aside from such exciting interludes, he gave himself with exhausting devotion to his duties as cantor, to his love for his wife and children, and to the expression of his art and soul in his works.
How shall we be excused for venturing, without professional competence, to survey the magnitude and variety of Bach’s production? Nothing is possible here except a catalogue graced with affection.
First of all, then, the organ works, for the organ remained his abiding love; there he was unmatched except by Handel, who was lost beyond the seas. Sometimes Bach would pull out all its stops, just to test its lungs and feel its power. On it he disported himself as with an instrument completely under his control, subject to all his fantasies. But in his imperious fashion he set a limit to the willfulness of performers by specifying, through underlying numerals, the chords to be used with the written bass notes; this is the “figured” or “thorough” bass that indicated the continuo by which the organ or harpsichord should accompany other instruments or the voice.
During his stay at Weimar Bach prepared for his oldest son and other students a “little organ book”—Orgelbüchlein— composed of forty-five chorale preludes and dedicated “to the Highest God alone for His honor, and to my neighbor that he may teach himself thereby.” The function of a chorale prelude was to serve as an instrumental preface to a congregational hymn, to outline its theme and set its mood. The preludes were arranged to form fit sequences for Christmas, Passion Week, and Easter; these events of the ecclesiastical year remained to the end the proccupation of Bach’s organ and vocal music. And here at the outset, in the chorale “Alle Menschen müssen sterben”—All Men Must Die—we meet one of Bach’s recurrent subjects, always tempered with the resolution to face death with faith in Christ’s resurrection as a promise of our own. Years later we shall hear the same note in the somber chorale “Komm, süsser Tod”—Come, Sweet Death. Along with this enveloping piety there is in these preludes, and generally in Bach’s instrumental compositions, a healthy humor; sometimes he runs friskily over the keys in a merriment of variations that recalls the complaints of the Arnstadt Consistory.
Altogether Bach left 143 chorale preludes, which students of music rank the most characteristic and technically perfect of his works. They are his lyrics, as the Masses and Passions are his epics. He ran the gamut of musical forms, omitting opera as alien to his place, his temperament, and his conception of music as primarily an offering to God. To give his art freer range he added a fugue to the prelude, letting a theme in the bass run after the same theme in the treble, or vice versa, in an intricate game that delighted his contrapuntal soul. So the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor begins with inviting simplicity, then soars to an almost frightening complexity of richness and power. The Prelude and Fugue in D Minor is already Bach at his best in structure, technical workmanship, thematic development, imaginative exuberance, and massive force. Perhaps finer still is the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. The Spaniards gave the name pasacalle to a tune played by a musician “passing along a street”; in Italy it became a dance form; in Bach it is a majestic flow of harmony, at once simple, meditative, and profound.
For the organ or the clavichord Bach wrote a dozen toccatas—i.e., pieces that could exercise the “touch” of a performer. Usually they included rapid runs over the keyboard, brave fortissimi, delicate pianissimi, and a fugue of notes playfully treading upon one another’s heels. In this group the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has won the widest audience, partly through orchestral transcriptions more congenial than the organ to the modern unecclesiastical ear. Of the seven toccatas for clavichord or harpsichord, the Toccata in C Minor is again Bach in all his confident mastery of technique—a frolic of counterpoint followed by an adagio of serene and stately loveliness.
It is difficult for us, with underprivileged fingers and half-illiterate ears, to appreciate the pleasure that Bach took and gave in his compositions for the clavier—which for him usually meant the clavichord. First of all, we should have to understand the principles of structure that he followed in developing a few notes of theme or motive into a complex but orderly elaboration—like the arabesque which, in a Persian carpet or a mosque mihrab, wanders from its base in seeming abandon, yet always with a logic that adds an intellectual satisfaction to the sensual enjoyment of the form. And again, we should have to borrow Bach’s manual magic, for he invented a playing technique that called for the full use of all the fingers (including the thumb) of each hand, whereas his predecessors had seldom used or required more than the middle three in their compositions for the clavier. Even in the position of the hand he caused a revolution. Players had tended to keep the hand flat in striking the keys; Bach taught his pupils to curve the hand, so that all the finger tips would strike the keys at the same level. Without that technique Liszt would have been impossible.
Finally, adopting a system proposed by Andreas Werckmeister in 1691, Bach demanded that the strings in the instruments be tuned to equal “temperament”—i.e., that the octave be divided into twelve exactly equal semitones, so that no dissonance might occur in modulation. In many cases he insisted on himself tuning the clavichord that he was to play.51 So he wrote Das wohltemperirte Klavier, or The Well-tempered [properly tuned] Clavichord (Part I, 1722; Part II, 1744): forty-eight preludes and fugues-two for each major and minor key—“for the use and practice of young musicians who desire to learn, as well as for those who are already skilled in this study, by way of amusement’” as the original title read. The pieces are of great technical interest to musicians, but many of them, too, can convey to us Bach’s gay caprice or meditative feeling; so Gounod adopted the Prelude in C Major, in a corrupted form, as the obbligato for his “Ave Maria.” Some profound spirits, like Albert Schweitzer, have found in these preludes and fugues a “world of peace” amid the turmoil of human strife.52
Endless in fertility, Bach issued in 1731 the first part of the Klavierübung, which he described as “exercises consisting of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabands, gigues, minuets, and other galanteries, composed for the mental recreation of art lovers.”53 In later years he added three further installments, so that this Clavier Practice finally included several of his most famous compositions: “inventions,” “partitas,” sinfonie, the “Goldberg Variations,” the “Italian Concerto,” and some new chorale preludes for the organ. The “inventions,” said the manuscript, were offered as “an honest guide by which lovers of the clavier … are shown a plain way … not only to acquire good ideas (inventiones), but also to work them out themselves, … to acquire a cantabile style of playing, and … to gain a strong predilection for composition.”54 By these examples the student could see how a theme or motive, once found, might be elaborated, usually by counterpoint, through a logical development to a unifying conclusion. Bach played with his themes like a jolly juggler, throwing them into the air, turning them inside out, tumbling them upside down, then setting them soundly on their feet again. Notes and themes were not only his meat and drink and atmosphere, they were also his relaxation and his holidays.
The partitas were similar diversions. The Italians had applied the term partita to a dance composition in several diverse parts. So the Partitas in D Minor and B Major used five dance forms: the allemande, or German dance, the French courante, the saraband, the minuet, and the gigue. The influence of Italian performers appears here, even to the crossing of hands, a favorite device with Domenico Scarlatti. These pieces seem slight to us now; we must remember that they were composed not for the mighty pianoforte but for the frail clavichord; if we do not ask too much of them they can still give us a unique delight.
More difficult of digestion are the “Goldberg Variations.” Johann Theophilus Goldberg was clavichord player for Count Hermann Kayserling, the Russian envoy at the Dresden court. When the Count visited Leipzig he brought Goldberg along to soothe him to sleep with music. On these occasions Goldberg cultivated the acquaintance of Bach, eager to learn his keyboard technique. Kayserling expressed the wish that Bach would write some clavichord pieces of a character “that would brighten him up a little on his sleepless nights.”55 Bach obliged with the “Aria with Thirty Variations,” which has proved to be a specific for insomnia. Kayserling rewarded him with a golden goblet containing a hundred louis d’or. It was probably he who secured for Bach the appointment as court composer to the Saxon Elector-King.
Bach’s art was in these variations, but hardly his heart. With more feeling and pleasure he dedicated to the clavier seven toccatas, many sonatas, a wonderfully lively and lovely “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue” in D minor, and an “Italian Concerto” in which, with amazing vitality and spirit, he tried to transfer to the keyboard the effects of a small orchestra.
One form found its way into nearly all his orchestral compositions—the fugue. The fugue, like most musical forms, had come from Italy; the Germans followed it with an impassioned pursuit that dominated their music till Haydn. Bach experimented with it inDie Kunst der Fuge: he took a single theme and built from it fourteen fugues and four canons in a contrapuntal labyrinth illustrating every type of fugal technique. He left the manuscript unfinished at his death; his son Karl Philipp Emanuel published it (1752); only thirty copies were sold. The age of polyphony and the fugue was dying with its greatest master; counterpoint was giving place to harmony.
He was not as fond of the violin as of the organ and clavichord. He had begun as a violinist, and he sometimes played the viola in the ensembles that he at the same time conducted; but as no contemporary and no son mention his violin playing, we may assume that he was not at his best on that instrument. Yet he must have been proficient, since he composed for the violin and the viola music of extreme difficulty, which presumably he was ready to play himself. All the Western musical world knows the chaconne with which he concluded a Partita in D Minor for solo violin; it is a tour de technique that every violinist used to look to as his supreme challenge. To some of us it is distasteful showmanship of prestidigitation—a horse torturing a cat at several removes. To Bach it was a daring attempt to achieve on the violin the polyphonic depth and force of the organ. When Busoni transcribed the piece for the piano the polyphony became more natural, and the result was magnificent. (We must not be supercilious about transcriptions, for then we should have to condemn Bach himself.)
When we come to Bach’s compositions for his dainty orchestras, even the unprofessional ear finds a dozen odes to joy. The Musikalisches Opfer must have delighted Frederick the Great with its sparkling melodies, and startled him with its meditative, half-Oriental strains. In addition to the partitas or suites in the Klavierübung Bach wrote fifteen suites for dances. Six were called English, for reasons now unknown; six were more understandably called French, since they followed French models and used French terms, including suite itself. In some of them technique predominates; then even the string instruments emit chiefly wind. Yet the simplest soul amongst us can feel the solemn beauty of the famous “Arioso,” or “Air for G String,” which forms the second movement of Suite No. 3. These compositions were almost forgotten after Bach’s death, until Mendelssohn played parts of them to Goethe in 1830, and persuaded the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig to revive them in 1838.
Bach adopted the concerto form as practiced by Vivaldi, and used it in a dozen varieties of instrumental combinations. For one who was born andante the stately slow movement makes the violin Concerto in D Minor particularly pleasant, and it is again the adagio of the violin Concerto No. 2 in E that moves us with its somber depth and meditative tenderness. Perhaps the most delectable of these pieces is the Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins; the vivace is all design without color, like a winter elm; but the largo is an ethereal snatch of pure beauty—beauty standing in its own right, without “program” or any intellectual alloy.
The Brandenburg Concertos have their own special history. On March 23, 1721, Bach sent them to an otherwise forgotten prince with the following letter in French, phrased in the manner of the time:
To HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, CHRISTIAN LUDWIG, MARGRAVE OF BRANDENBURG:
As I had the honor of playing before your Royal Highness a couple of years ago, and as I observed that you took some pleasure in the small talent that Heaven had given me for music, and in taking leave of me your Royal Highness honored me with a command to send you some pieces of my composition, I now, according to your gracious orders, take the liberty of presenting my very humble respects to your Royal Highness, with the present concertos, … humbly praying you not to judge their imperfection by the severity of the fine and delicate taste that everyone knows you to have for music, but rather to consider benignly the profound respect and very humble obedience to which they are meant to testify. For the rest, Monseigneur, I very humbly beg your Royal Highness to have the goodness to continue your graces toward me, and to be convinced that I have nothing so much at heart as the wish to be employed in matters more worthy of you and your service, for, with zeal unequaled, Monseigneur, I am your Royal Highness’s most humble and most obedient servant,
JEAN SEBASTIEN BACH.56
We do not know whether the Margrave acknowledged or rewarded the gift; probably he did, for he was devoted to music, and maintained an excellent orchestra. At his death (1734) the six concertos, in Bach’s most careful and elegant hand, were listed among 127 concertos in an inventory found by Spitta in the royal archives at Berlin. In the inventory each of the 12 7 concertos was valued at four groschen ($1.60?).
The Brandenburg Concertos follow the form of the Italian concerto grosso— compositions in several movements, played by a small group of predominating instruments (the concertino) accompanied by and contrasted with an orchestra of strings (the ripienoortutti). Handel and the Italians used two violins and a violoncello for the concertino; Bach varied this with his usual audacity, putting forward a violin, an oboe, a trumpet, and a flute as the leading instruments in the second concerto, a violin and two flutes in the fourth, and a clavichord, a violin, and a flute in the fifth; and he developed the structure into a complex interplay of concertino with ripieno in a lively debate—of separation, opposition, interpenetration, union—whose art and logic only the professional musician can understand and enjoy. The rest of us may find some passages wearisomely repetitious, reminiscent of a village orchestra beating time for a dance; but even we can feel the charm and delicacy of the dialogue, and find in the slow movements a calming peace more congenial to aging hearts and laggard feet than in the vivacious roulette of the allegros. And yet the second concerto begins with a captivating allegro; the fourth is made delightful by a frolicsome flute; and the fifth is Bach in excelsis.
When Bach composed for the voice he could not lay aside all the arts and legerdemain that he had developed on the keyboard, or the tantalizing feats that he demanded of his orchestras; he wrote for voices as if they were instruments of almost limitless dexterity and range, and he made only a grudging concession to the singer’s desire to breathe. He followed the custom of his time in stretching one syllable over half a dozen notes (“Kyrie ele-e-e-e-e-eison”); such proliferation is no longer in style. Nevertheless it is through his production for the voice that Bach achieved his present repute as the greatest composer in history.
His trustful faith in the Lutheran creed gave him as warm an inspiration as any that Palestrina had found in the Catholic Mass. He wrote some twenty-four hymns and six motets; it was in hearing one of these six—“Singet dem Herrn”—that Mozart first felt the depth of Bach. For the congregations and his choirs he wrote powerful chorales that would have rejoiced Luther’s kindred heart: “An Wasserflüssen Babylons” (By the Waters of Babylon), “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sind” (When we Are in Direst Need), “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” (Make Yourself Beautiful, Beloved Soul); this last so affected Mendelssohn that he told Schumann, “If life were to deprive me of hope and faith, this one chorale would bring them back.”57
For the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and the Ascension Bach composed oratorios—massive songs for choruses, soloists, organ, or orchestra. The Weihnachts Oratorium, as he called the first, was performed in the Thomaskirche in six parts in six days between Christmas and Epiphany, 1734–35. Assuming full right to his own property, he took some seventeen arias or choruses from his earlier works, and wove them into a two-hour story of the birth of Christ. Some of the self-plagiarisms hardly harmonized with the new text, but one could forgive many faults in a composition that presented, almost at the outset, the chorus “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?”
Essentially the oratorios were combinations of cantatas. The cantata itself was a chorale interspersed with arias. Since the Lutheran service frequently invited cantatas, Bach composed about three hundred, of which some two hundred survive. Their intimate connection with the Lutheran ritual has limited their audience in our time, but many of the airs embedded in them have a beauty transcending any theology. At Weimar, in his twenty-sixth year (1711), Bach wrote his first outstanding cantata, “Actus tragicus,” mourning the tragedy of death but rejoicing in the hope of resurrection. In 1714–17 he commemorated the divisions of the ecclesiastical year with some of his finest cantatas: for the first Sunday in Advent, 1714, “Nun komm, du Heiden Heiland” (Now Come, Thou Saviour of the Heathen); for Easter of 1715, “Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret” (The Heavens Laugh, the Earth Rejoices), in which he used three trumpets, a kettledrum, three oboes, two violins, two violas, two violoncellos, a bassoon, and a keyboardcontinuoto help the chorus, and persuade the congregation, to shake with joy over the triumph of Christ; for the fourth Sunday in Advent, 1715, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life), with the familiar lilting chorale and oboe obbligato, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”; and for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1715, “Komm, du süsse Todesstunde” (Come, Thou Sweet Hour of Death). At Leipzig he composed another paean to Christ’s resurrection—“Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ Lay in Death’s Dark Prison). And for the bicentennial (1730) of the Augsburg Confession he put Luther’s hymn “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” into the form of a cantata as powerful as the hymn, but perhaps too wildly furious to be a fit expression of faith.
Religious though he was, and wedded to piety by his tasks, Bach had in him a healthy sense of earthly joys, and could laugh as heartily as he could mourn. Secular elements crept into his religious compositions; so some strains from the operas of his time have been detected in the B-Minor Mass.58 He did not hesitate to lavish the resources of his art upon purely secular cantatas, of which twenty-one exist. He composed a “Hunt Cantata,” a “Coffee Cantata,” a “Wedding Cantata,” and seven cantatas for civic ceremonies. In 1725, for the birthday of Professor August Müller of Leipzig University, he wrote a full-length cantata, “Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus,” celebrating, perhaps with a sly metaphor, the liberation of the winds. In 1742 he gave his music to a frankly burlesque “Peasants’ Cantata,” with boisterous villagers dancing, drinking, and making love. After 1740 church music ceased to predominate in Leipzig, and public concerts increasingly presented secular compositions.
Before religious music entered into its decline Bach carried it to heights never reached before in Protestant lands. Among the many survivals of Catholic liturgy in the Lutheran service was the singing of the Magnificat on the Feast of the Visitation (July 2). This commemorated the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, when, according to the Gospel of St. Luke (i, 46–55), the Virgin uttered her incomparable song of thanksgiving:
Magnificat anima mea dominum,
Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo,
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae;
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes
—“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour, for He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden; behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” Bach twice set these and subsequent lines to music; in the present form probably for the Christmas service at Leipzig in 1723. Here religion, poetry, and music all reach the same summit in a noble unity.
Six years later he touched those heights again and again in The Passion according to St. Matthew. To set to music the story of Christ’s sufferings and death had for centuries been part of Catholic ritual. Many Protestant composers in Germany had adapted the cantata form to this purpose; two of them had already used the Gospel of St. Matthew as their text.59 Bach wrote at least three Passions, following severally the narratives of John (1723), Matthew (1729), and Mark (1731). Of this last only fragments remain. TheJohannespassion suffers from an illogical sequence of scenes and mingling of events, and from a Teutonic tendency to thunderous declamations; but the later parts subside to a tenderness and delicacy of feeling, a somber depth of contemplation, as moving as anything in music. The aria “Es ist vollbracht” (It Is Accomplished) is a profound rendering of the crucial event in the Christian story; there could be no greater test of a composer or a painter.
On Good Friday afternoon, April 15, 1729, in the Thomaskirche at Leipzig, Bach produced the greatest of his compositions. In this Matthäuspassion he had the advantage of a good German libretto, based on Matthew’s relatively full account, and arranged by a local litterateur, Christian Friedrich Henrici, pennamed “Picander.” Bach himself seems to have written the text for several of the choruses. Some have thought these choruses an unwarranted interruption of the Gospel narrative; but, like the chorus in a Greek play, they add to the drama by comment and interpretation, and their somber harmonies both express and purge our emotions—which are two functions of the highest art. Whereas so much of Bach’s music is the proclamation of skill or power, nearly all thePassion according to St. Matthew is the voice of sorrow, gratitude, or love—in the tender somber refrain of the recurring chorale, in the delicacy of the arias, in the haunting melodies of flutes singing as if from another world, in the reverent restraint of accompaniments winding around the words and amid the voices like some gold-and-silver illumination of a medieval missal. Here Bach opens to us depths of feeling and significance revealed elsewhere only in the original narrative itself. For to us in Western civilization this remains the most moving of all tragedies, since it does not merely represent the crucifixion of a noble idealist by our fellow men, but symbolizes also his daily crucifixion in Christendom, and the slow death, in many of us, of the faith that loved him as its God.
Bach almost succeeded in touching again, in the B-Minor Mass, the heights of emotion and artistry reached in the Matthäuspassion. But he could not feel so fully in harmony with his new enterprise. The Gospel Passion was the root and pivot of the Protestant creed, and Bach was irrevocably immersed in that creed. The Mass, however, was a Roman Catholic development; the Credo itself voiced unmistakable commitment to “unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.” Though the Lutheran ritual still retained much of the Roman Catholic Mass, this much was an uncomfortable vestige which had already discarded the Agnus Dei. In Bach’s time and churches the Mass was being part by part replaced by cantatas, and Latin remnants were being progressively eliminated from the liturgy. Bach’s Passions were sung in German; he had inserted four German hymns among the Latin verses of his Magnificat; but the Mass was so traditionally Latin that any German interpolations risked the reproach of incongruity. He had risked this challenge by writing four partial Masses with such German adjuncts, to an unsatisfactory result. He studied with care the Catholic Masses composed by Palestrina and other Italians. His connection with the Dresden court suggested that he might please the Catholic Elector-King by composing a Catholic Mass. When he sent to Augustus III (1733) an appeal for a court post and title, he included a Kyrie and a Gloria, which later became parts of the B-Minor Mass. The King apparently took no notice of them. Bach performed them in the churches of Leipzig; they were favorably received; and he proceeded (1733–38) to add a Credo, a Sanctus, an Osanna, a Benedictus, an Agnus Dei, and a “Dona nobis pacem.” When the whole was complete it was a Mass in Catholic form. Probably Bach hoped that Augustus III would have it performed in Poland, but this was not to be; it has never been sung in a Catholic church. Bach presented it piecemeal, on divers occasions, in the Thomaskirche or the Nikolaikirche of Leipzig.
Shall we expose the hesitant reservations with which we admire this massive Mass in B Minor? Bach’s power overrides in many numbers the humility that should infuse an address to the Deity; sometimes it seems that he must have thought God hard of hearing, as having been so long silent in so many languages. The Kyrie drags along its rumbling and confused immensity, until at last we too cry “Eleison—have mercy!” The Gloria is often exquisite in its orchestral accompaniment, and moves on to a lovely aria, the “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”; but then it becomes raucous with horns in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” and treats the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” with such staccato thunder as must have made the Holy Spirit tremble lest this mighty Teuton should take heaven by storm. Strange to say, the Credo—whose doctrinal niceties, dividing Christendom, do not naturally lend themselves to music—produces the supreme moments of the B-Minor Mass: the “Et incarnatus est” and the Crucifixus, where Bach catches again the hushed reverence of the St. Matthew Passion. Then the “Et resurrexit” brings out all the impatient fortissimi of trumpets and drums to shout and roar with jubilation over Christ’s conquest of death. The Benedictus calms us with its delicate tenor aria and its heavenly violin solo; the orchestral accompaniment to the Agnus Dei is profoundly beautiful; but the “Dona nobis pacem” is a proof of power rather than a gift of peace.——These are frank reactions of no critical worth. Only those can fully appreciate the B-Minor Mass who, to a Christian rearing that has not lost its emotional overtones, add the technical competence to discern and enjoy the structure, tonalities, and workmanship of the composition, the variety of resources used, the complexity of the orchestration, and the adaptation of musical motives to the ideas of the text.
Some professional musicians criticized Bach in his lifetime. In 1737 Johann Adolf Scheibe (later Kapellmeister to the King of Denmark) published an anonymous letter praising Bach as an organist, but suggesting that “this great man would be the admiration of all nations if he had more amenity, and if his works were not made unnatural by their turgid and confused character, and their beauty obscured by too much art.”60 A year later Scheibe renewed the attack: “Bach’s church pieces are constantly more artificial and tedious, and by no means so full of impressive conviction, or of such intellectual reflection, as the works of Telemann and Graun.”61 Scheibe had tried to obtain the post of organist at Leipzig; Bach had commented unfavorably on his test performance, and had satirized him in a cantata; there may have been some spite in Scheibe’s critique. But Spitta, the most zealous of Bach’s admirers, tells us that many of Scheibe’s contemporaries shared his views.62 Some of the critics may have represented the reaction of the new generation in Germany against the contrapuntal music that had reached in Bach an excellence beyond which nothing seemed possible except imitations; the twentieth century has seen a similar reaction against the symphony.
Scheibe would probably have preferred Handel to Bach. But Handel was so lost to England that Germans must have found it difficult to compare him with Bach. When this was done it was always to place Handel first.63 Beethoven expressed the German view when he said, “Handel is the greatest of us all”;64 but that was before Bach had been quite resurrected from oblivion. It is a pity that these two giants—the chief glories of music and of Germany in the first half of the eighteenth century—never met; they might have influenced each other beneficently. Both men stemmed from the organ, and were recognized as the greatest organists of their time; Bach continued to favor that instrument, while Handel, moving among divas and castrati, gave supremacy to the voice. Handel wedded Italian melody to German counterpoint, and opened a road to the future; Bach was the completion and perfection of the polyphonic, fugal, contrapuntal past. Even his sons felt that no further movement was open on that line.
Nevertheless there was something healthy in that old music, which men like Mendelssohn would recall with longing; for it was still infused with trustful faith, not yet disturbed by doubts that would reach to the heart of the consoling creed. It was the voice of a culture “in form,” as the consistency and culmination of a tradition and an art. It reflected the ornamental elaboration of baroque, and of a now unchallenged aristocracy. Germany had not yet entered its Aufklärung, nor heard any chanticleers of revolution. Lessing was still young; nearly every German took for granted the Nicene Creed; only Prince Frederick of Prussia preferred Voltaire. Soon the magnificent structure of inherited beliefs and ways was to be shaken almost to collapse by the agitations of innovating minds; that old ordered peace, that stability of classes, that marvelous and unquestioning faith, which had written the music of Bach, would pass away; and all things, even music, would change, always excepting man.
His isolation and domestication in Leipzig enabled him to inherit the past without resentment or revolt. His religious faith was, next to his music, his comfort and refuge. He had eighty-three volumes of theology, exegesis, or homilies in his library. To his masculine and orthodox Lutheranism he added some tinge of mysticism, perhaps from the Pietist movement of his time—even though he opposed Pietism as hostile to any church music but hymns. Most of his music was a form of worship. Usually he began to compose by praying “Jesu juva” (Jesus help me). He prefaced or ended nearly all his works by dedicating them to the honor and glory of God. He defined music as “eine wohlklingende Harmonie zur Ehre Gottes und zulässigen Ergötzung des Gemüths”—“an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delight of the soul.”65
The portraits that survive show him in his later years as a typical German, broad-shouldered, stout, with full and ruddy face and majestic nose; add arched eyebrows that gave him an imperious, half-irritated, half-challenging look. He had a temper, and fought stoutly for his place and views; otherwise he was an amiable and kindly bear, who could unbend his dignity in humor when opposition ceased. He took no part in the social life of Leipzig, but he did not stint in hospitality to his friends, among whom he numbered many rivals like Hasse and Graun.66 He was a family man, doubly absorbed in his work and his home. He trained all his ten surviving children to music, and provided them with instruments; his house contained five claviers, a lute, a viola da gamba, and several violins, violas, and violoncellos. As early as 1730 he wrote to a friend: “I can already form a concert, both vocal and instrumental, from my own family.”67 We may see later how his sons carried on his art and surpassed his fame.
In his final years his eyesight failed. In 1749 he consented to an operation by the same doctor who had treated Handel with apparent success; this time it failed, and left him totally blind. Thereafter he lived in a darkened room, for the light that he could not see hurt his eyes. Like the deaf Beethoven, he continued to compose despite his affliction; now he dictated to a son-in-law the chorale prelude “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sind.” He had long prepared himself for death, had disciplined himself to accept it as, in its due time, a gift of the gods: so he composed the moving “Komm, Süsser Tod”:
Come, kindly Death, blessed repose,
Come, for my life is dreary,
And I of earth am weary.
Come, for I wait for thee,
Come soon and calm thou me;
Gently mine eyelids close;
Come, blest repose.68
On July 18, 1750, his eyesight seemed miraculously restored; his family gathered around in joy. But suddenly, on July 28, he died of an apoplectic stroke. In the hopeful language of the time, “he fell calmly and blessedly asleep in God.”69
After his death he was almost forgotten. Part of this oblivescence was due to the confinement of Bach to Leipzig, part to the difficulty of his vocal compositions, part to the decline of taste for religious music and contrapuntal forms. Johann Hiller, who in 1789 occupied Bach’s place as cantor of the Thomasschule, sought “to inspire the pupils with abhorrence of the crudities of Bach.”70 The name Bach, in the second half of the eighteenth century, meant Karl Philipp Emanuel, who regretted the old-fashioned character of his father’s music.71 By 1800 all memory of Johann Sebastian Bach seemed to have disappeared.
Only his sons remembered his work. Two of them described it to Johann Nicolaus Forkel, director of music at the University of Göttingen. Forkel studied several of the compositions, became enthusiastic, and published in 1802 an eighty-nine-page biography which declared that
the works that Johann Sebastian Bach has left us are a priceless national heritage, of a kind that no other race possesses.… The preservation of the memory of this great man is not merely a concern of art, it is a concern of the nation.… This man, the greatest musical poet and the greatest musical theoretician that has ever existed, and that probably will ever exist, was a German. Be proud of him, O Fatherland!72
This appeal to patriotism opened Bach’s grave. Karl Zelter, director of the Singakademie in Berlin, bought the manuscript of the Matthäuspassion. Felix Mendelssohn, Zelter’s pupil, prevailed upon him to let him conduct, at the Singakademie, the first non-church performance of the composition (March 11, 1829). A friend of Mendelssohn remarked that the St. Matthew Passion had come to light almost exactly a hundred years after its first presentation, and that a twenty-year-old Jew was accountable for its resurrection.73 All the performers gave their services free. Mendelssohn added to the revival by including other works of Bach in his recitals. In 1830 he was for a time the guest of Goethe, who kept him busy playing Bach.
The revival fell in with the Romantic movement, and with the renewal of religious faith after the Napoleonic Wars. Rationalism had had its day; it had been associated with the murderous Revolution, and with that terrible “Son of the Revolution” who had so often humiliated Germany on the battlefield; now Germany was victorious, and even Hegel joined in acclaiming Bach as a hero of the nation. In 1837 Robert Schumann appealed for the complete publication of Bach’s works; in 1850 the Bachgesellschaft was formed; Bach manuscripts were collected from every source; in 1851 the first volume was issued, in 1900 the forty-sixth and last. Brahms said that the two greatest events in German history during his lifetime were the foundation of the German Empire and the complete publication of Bach.74 Today these compositions are more frequently performed than those of any other composer, and the ranking of Bach as “the greatest musical poet that has ever existed” is accepted throughout the Western world.