Famous Composers: Johann Sebastian Bach

Famous Composers Johann Sebastian Bach  Sonatica Blog

During the second half of the sixteenth century and the whole of the seventeenth and eighteenth, the musical life of Thuringia (an area of central Germany roughly bordered by the rivers Werra, Unstrut and Saale) was dominated by the Bach family. No fewer than thirty-eight of the clan - the eldest born in 1520 and the youngest in 1759 - have earned separate articles in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians', the first 60,000 or so words of Philip Spitta’s standard but unwieldy biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (published in 1880) were devoted to the achievements of his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncles and other senior relatives; three of Sebastian’s own sons (Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philip Emmanuel and Johann Christian) distinguished themselves as composers and all-round musicians.


Our present concern, however, is with Johann Sebastian himself - the noblest Bach of them all - who was born on 21st March 1685 at Eisenach (midway between Cassel and Erfurt), a medium-sized town nestling in a fertile valley and overlooked by a peak known as the Wartburg (later immortalized as the scene of the song-contest in Wagner’s Tannhauser). Today Eisenach is primarily industrial, holds a population of some 40,000 and lies (just) on East German soil; in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it was a noted centre of musical activity, activity in which, almost needless to say, the local branch of the Bachs played a conspicuous part. Young Sebastian probably had his first training, along with the rest, at the local choir-school, but his mother died in 1694, his father in 1695, so at the age of ten he went to live with his elder brother Johann Christoph, recently married, who was municipal choirmaster at Ohrdruf, a smaller town than Eisenach and twenty miles away to the south-east. This Christoph, besides being an organist, was an exponent of the clavichord, an instrument which outwardly resembled the harpsichord but was capable of a small measure of dynamic contrast since the strings were mechanically struck, not plucked, and if the controlling key were pressed down hard the corresponding string continued to vibrate slightly for a few seconds - although not to the same extent as on a modern piano. Sebastian quickly absorbed the technique and it was for the clavichord, as well as the harpsichord, that he later wrote some great keyboard music.


Christoph’s family multiplied so rapidly that by 1700 he could no longer give hospitality to his young brother, who, however, was sufficiently fortunate and gifted to win a chorister’s scholarship at the Benedictine school of St Michael’s at Lüneburg, which lies twenty miles south-east of Hamburg on the edge of Lüneburg Heath.1 Bach stayed there about three years and meanwhile developed his powers as instrumentalist (organ, harpsichord, clavichord, violin) rather than as singer or composer. He returned to his home ground in 1703 and for the next four years was organist and choirmaster at Arnstadt (a mere morning’s walk away from his brother at Ohrdruf); here he composed a fair quantity of organ music which owed much to the influence of the Scandinavian-born Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach greatly admired and indeed travelled to Lübeck to visit, thereby incurring the displeasure of his employers at Arnstadt. Then in 1707 there occurred two events of considerable importance in his career:' in June he was installed as organist and choirmaster at the free imperial city of Mühlhausen (fifteen miles north of Eisenach and not to be confused with Mülhausen - now Mulhouse - in Alsace); in October he married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach - hoping no doubt to ensure that his children would thus be doubly well equipped to carry on the family tradition.

Bach did not stay long at Mühlhausen, for his astonishing virtuosity on the organ was quickly noted in exalted circles and within a year or so he was called upon to join a select musical household at the ducal court of Weimar. (He was still within easy distance of innumerable relatives.) His patron, Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, yielded to none as a feudal overlord, but unlike many other minor potentates of his day he was deeply religious (an austere and indeed ascetic member of the ‘pietest’ branch of the Lutheran faith); nevertheless he enjoyed his music so long as it was serious in intent and not merely an excuse for irreverent caperings in a dissolute gavotte or licentious minuet. Bach was engaged as court organist and director of chamber music, and it was at Weimar that over the next nine years his talent blossomed into genius; he composed the first thirty or so of his two-hundred-odd Church cantatas and his mastery of at least one branch of composition - organ music - became apparent in such works as the chorale preludes of the Little Organ Book and the toccata and fugue in D minor. (I should prefer to call this just the toccata in D minor, because by definition a toccata is a piece of music designed to display executive rather than creative powers; if the composer chooses to round things off with a fugue, well and good, but the fugue remains part of the toccata, not a sequel to it. A chorale prelude was in essence an organ voluntary based on a hymn-tune but in Bach’s hands it became a polyphonic development of voluntary melodies of such intrinsic worth that the intrusion of the hymn-tune which was its nominal primum mobile sometimes, though not always, struck an incongruous note.)


Eventually Bach fell from ducal favour and was passed over when a vacancy occurred in the post of head choirmaster. The reason was a personal one: the strait-laced Duke Wilhelm Ernst had a worldly nephew - Duke Ernst August - of whom he strongly disapproved, and he was furious when he discovered that his organist was on cordial terms with him. The composer’s disappointment was short-lived however, for his new friend introduced him to Prince Leopold of Anhalt and before the end of 1717 Bach left Weimar to take charge of the more comprehensive musical establishment which Prince Leopold maintained at his court at Cothen (equidistant from Magdeburg and Leipzig). His new employer, though no less devoted a churchman than Duke Wilhelm Ernst, was far less bigoted - and indeed was a most enlightened patron of the arts. In this congenial atmosphere Bach set out to tackle instrumental music (almost for the first time) and presently produced some twenty sonatas, either for violin unaccompanied (e.g. the ‘chaconne’), for cello unaccompanied, for violin and clavier (a generic term covering harpsichord, clavichord and early types of piano) or for flute and clavier; a handful of orchestral suites; the concerto in D minor for two violins with string accompaniment; above all, the six ‘Brandenburg’ concertos - so called because they were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. Taken collectively these approximated rather more closely than did most of Handel’s to the modern notion of a concerto: although nos. 3 and 6 were for strings and continuo only, all the rest had in addition a solo violin, nos. 2, 4 and 5 a solo flute, no. 2 a solo oboe as well, while no. 1 actually called for three solo oboes, a solo bassoon and two solo horns. In no. 5, exceptionally, the clavier-player had a specific part of his own, so that instead of being a mere filler-in he too became a soloist with a laiddown share in the concerting. (No. 1 was in four movements, no. 3 in two, the others in three, and it is interesting to note that all six began and ended in major keys; several, of the middle movements, however, were in the relative minor.) Meanwhile the organ was not entirely neglected, for the ‘great’ preludes and fugues in A minor, C minor and G major belong to the Cothen period; but during these years Bach’s output for a smaller keyboard held greater significance, including as it did the six ‘French’ suites and the first twenty-four of his famous ‘Forty-eight preludes and fugues for well-tempered clavier’. And at this juncture, I fear, there must be a brief theoretical digression.

The sound vibrations which produce musical notes of varying pitch are attuned to pitch-intervals which are very nearly but not absolutely equal: the interval between E and F, for instance, is not quite the same as that between F and F sharp. The singers and string-players of Bach’s day, who had - or should have had - complete control over their intonation, would subconsciously adjust that control when the music modulated from, say, the key of F to the key of E. But when the notes were reproduced mechanically on a keyboard instrument there could be no such almost imperceptible raising or lowering of the pitch, so that a harpsichord or clavichord perfectly in tune for the key of F would become out of tune in the key of E; as a corollary a piece composed for an instrument tuned to F could never modulate to E (nor to any but the most closely related key) without courting disaster. Bach, a traditionalist in many respects, here allied himself with the progressive party which was prepared to sacrifice ‘just intonation’ in favour of ‘equal temperament’, i.e. a division of the octave, on keyboard instruments, into twelve identical semitone-intervals. To point the fact he wrote this set of preludes and fugues, twenty-four of them, one each in every major and minor key, and all playable, without disaster, on a single ‘well-tempered’ clavier.

Bach’s stay at Cothen, which lasted from 1717 until 1723, was extremely productive, but it was clouded by personal tragedy when his wife Maria Barbara died in 1720; she had borne him seven children, of whom four still survived (among them were Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Phillip Emmanuel). He was one of those who stood in need of a permanent feminine helpmeet, and little more than a year later he married the twenty-year-old soprano Anna Magdalena Wilcken. His second marriage was as happy as the first had been and the union produced thirteen more children; only six survived infancy however (among them was Johann Christian). Meanwhile Bach’s patron, Prince Leopold, had himself married a lively young lady named Friederica Henrietta who evidently had little taste for music and no taste at all for the solemnity of chorale preludes, fugues and cantatas; in consequence Bach found himself rather cold-shouldered and sent in his resignation as soon as an opportunity presented itself.


During the remaining twenty-seven years of his life when he was cantor of St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig (and as part of his duties had to teach small boys Latin) there must have been many moments when he looked longingly back to his comparatively carefree days at Cothen. But on the whole he seems to have settled fairly happily to a new way of life, although many tales are told of his disputes with the rector of the school, the university authorities, the Leipzig municipal council and the king of Saxony. Be that as it may, no one could cavil at the quality of the compositions which meanwhile flowed fast from his pen: the best of his Church cantatas; the full-length choral works, the Passion according to St John, the Passion according to St Matthew, the Christmas Oratorio and the Mass in B minor (originally conceived as a short Lutheran Mass but later expanded to fit the longer Catholic liturgy); in the secular field the cantatas known as Phoebus and Pan, the ‘Coffee’ and the ‘Peasant’ ; for the orchestra more concertos; for the organ a further set of preludes and fugues including the ‘great’ B minor, C major and E minor; for the clavier the six ‘English’ suites, the variations (thirty of them) written for his pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and the second volume of the ‘Fortyeight’. At the time of their composition however, these works made little impression on the public (one is inclined to think they might have been better received at Weimar or Eisenach, not so far away to the west in his native Thuringia), and when - like Handel - Bach was stricken by blindness, no one seemed much concerned about it except his wife, Anna Magdalena. His immortal soul went aloft on 28th July 1750 but the burghers of Leipzig apparently cared little, for they erected no monument to his memory and allowed his widow to die in poverty.

Although Handel and Bach were born within a month of one another and spent their boyhood less than a hundred miles apart, they never met: the former’s visits to Germany after he settled in London were few and far between, and the latter did not move further afield than Lübeck or Berlin. Bach is unlikely to have been familiar with the music of Handel’s maturity and Handel almost certainly never heard a note of Bach’s. So although they are inevitably and rightly regarded as twin giants it is not surprising that their music held little in common apart from the easily recognizable harmonic and contrapuntal tendencies which characterized the music of the age rather than that of any individual composer. It has already been stressed that what raised Handel to a higher level than Bononcini and company was an extraordinary gift for varied and contrasted melody; at the risk of over-simplification it might be added that one factor which helped to raise Bach above the level of Buxtehude was an extraordinary gift for varied and contrasted rhythm. At times the initial rhythmic impulse carries a whole movement successfully through to its conclusion - as in the finale of the concerto in D minor for three claviers and strings, and in the short chorus ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’ from the Matthew Passion; at others the actual counterpoint seems to spring from the interweaving of rhythmic figures rather than of melodic phrases - as in the prelude in F sharp major from the second book of the ‘Forty-eight’ and the opening section of the ‘Gloria’ from the Mass in B minor. Bach’s technique was indeed so stupendous that now and again he let it be his master rather than his servant, and it cannot be denied that at times his music was in consequence more liable than Handel’s to sound uninspired - even dull. On the other hand, when in serious and contemplative mood (which was by no means in Church music alone) he could conjure up a spiritual endowment beyond the imaginings of his contemporary. I shall venture no further on comparative judgement; if Handel himself could have the last word he would no doubt point out that Bach never wrote an opera and that if he had it probably wouldn’t have been a very good one.

The oft-quoted affirmation of Robert Schumann that ‘music owes as much to Johann Sebastian Bach as Christianity does to its Founder’ was the colourful and pardonable exaggeration of an enthusiastic champion. One might well concede, however, that the subsequent spread of music owes him as much as the subsequent spread of Christianity did to Saint Paul.

1 It was here that on 7th May 1945 General Keitel signed and handed to Field-Marshal Montgomery the instrument of unconditional surrender of all German forces in north-west Germany, Denmark and Holland.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.