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Johann Sebastian Bach Essay

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Johann sebastian bach

On March 21, 1685, the youngest child was born in the family of the Eisenach town trumpeter, Johann Ambrosius Bach, and his wife Elizabeth. Two days later the child was baptized in the Georgenkirche. He was named Johann Sebastian Bach. He received his first name from his father and his second name from his sponsor, Sebastian Nagel. This house on the Frauenplan, in which Bach was born, was home for a relatively large company of people. Not only Bach’s parents, as well as several sisters and brothers (five in all), but also his father’s apprentices and associates lived here.

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Already as a boy of tenderest age young Sebastian drew inspiration and instruction from the age old, uninterrupted tradition of the town musicians, a tradition firmly established in this area. His first teacher was his father. He learned the earliest rudiments of his father’s profession and practiced them in the performance of violin music. “In his youth he played the violin in a manner noted for purity and penetration of tone. He continued to play the violin even in later years. By his mastery of the instrument he maintained control of the orchestra and achieved better order than would have been possible by means of a keyboard instrument.” (Daniel R. Melamed, pg 8)

Sebastian Bach was about fifty years old when the literary controversy about him arose which an observant contemporary would have recognized as the storm signal of imminent crises and revolutions in the world of music. In his system of aesthetics the traditional unity of divine law, cosmic number-symbolism, and the combined crafts of music and mathematics on which European music had been based for a thousand years was replaced by the rule of reason and feeling. Transcendence was replaced by immanence, God-centered by man-centered music. Classical sobriety rises up against the wealth of formal subtleties of the Baroque, the simple beat of the human heart against the world of symbols which is now regarded as nothing more than the lumber of the outmoded formulae of coldly calculating intellects. The ‘Jesu juva’ and ‘Soli deo gloria’ which Bach was in the habit of putting at the end of his works no longer meant anything at all to them: first, because they had broken away from religion and the Church, secondly because these formulae expressed an attitude to music diametrically opposed to their own. Not the metaphysical world of divine order, but man with his reason and his heart were now to be the standard of musical value. In these writings of Scheibe the foundations were laid on which the whole structure of modern music is based, from the age of sentimental ‘galanterie’ to the age of the Vienna classics, from the Romantic movement in all its various stages right up to the music of our own time. Beginning with the generation of Bach’s sons the whole of the younger generation of musicians had inevitably to turn away from Bach if they were to be honest with themselves. Scheibe saw that perfectly correctly from the point of view of the younger men. It is obvious that their point of view was one-sided, but it is the prerogative of youth to be one-sided; and when Magister Birnbaum, who set himself up as Bach’s defender against the attacks of Scheibe, attempted to patch up and explain away the conflict between the two worlds it was Birnbaum who was in the wrong. There was nothing there to patch up or bridge over. It was the most violent breach that had ever split the history of European culture in two.

Bach was the centre into which everything flowed that had been thought, done, known, and willed in a thousand years of music before him. Everything that had been added to this inheritance by his own age flowed into him too. He was fully aware of his culminating and retrospective position in musical history. He also knew that the whole world-order of which he was the ultimate consummation had come to an end with him. With such knowledge in his mind he trod the path which led in the last twenty years of his life to the completion of his historical mission, deliberately renouncing the laurels which he might easily have gathered by the wayside. Of the world-order in general were about to be turned completely upside down, and he saw all the more clearly the divine command, the ‘office’ in the Lutheran sense of the word, and the historical mission committed to his charge. Out of the fullness of life he turned backwards therefore and erected the final memorials to a dying millennium of music in the seclusion of his composing room in St. Thomas’s School in Leipzig. If the younger generation broke the one essential thread in the woof of his posthumous fame, he himself broke the warp in the web, fully conscious that posterity could wreathe no garlands in honor of the kind of work which he had accomplished in the Leipzig years. (Malcolm Boyd, pg 30+)

It was not only the younger generation which sat in judgment on Bach. The verdict of his own contemporaries and of his own society was also against Bach the composer. The fame which he acquired amongst his contemporaries was as an organist and harpsichordist, as a dreaded technical expert and adviser on the organ, as an uncanny master of the art of counterpoint, as a teacher, but not as the composer of the Cantatas and Passions, of the Mass in B minor, and of the Organ Chorale Preludes, nor even as the composer of the concertos, sonatas, and suites. The period of his life on which such fame as he acquired was based was from 1708 to 1716 when he was Kammerorganist in Weimar, and, though only to a lesser degree, the Cöthen period from 1717 to 1722 when he was Hofkapellmeister; in other words, the period of his youth and the early years of his life as a professional musician. In the last twenty-seven years of his life which he spent in Leipzig, a city with an important university, with the leading Lutheran clergy, with annual trade fairs and a cultivated middle class with a wide outlook, a city of students and artists, in all these years not a single word of appreciation, of praise, or even of mere acknowledgement of Bach the composer is heard. Not one word about the Passions or Cantatas, not one word about the four published sections of the Clavierübung, or about the numerous festival compositions and serenades, about the motets or the organ works, not to mention the Musical Offering or the Art of Fugue. Leipzig and the whole of Germany completely ignored the greatest composer of the age. (John L. Holmes, pg 54+)

When the sixty-four-year-old master lay seriously ill, a year before his death, his ultimate successor Gottlob Harrer was summoned in June 1749 to undergo the public examination for the appointment as Cantor of St. Thomas’s ‘in case the Kapellmeister and Cantor Herr Sebastian Bach should die’–a cold douche for the old man which was contrary to all good manners and all tradition (Stainton De B, pg 98). When, to the perceptible relief of the whole of Leipzig, Bach finally closed his eyes on 28 July 1750, Dr. Stieglitz, the mayor, expressed the views of the public in the following plain words: ‘The school needs a cantor, not a Kapellmeister, despite the fact that he must understand music [i.e. composition].’ (Stainton De B, pg 99) As early as the early 1730’s there had been increasing signs of discord: disputes with and around Bach grew in intensity, were made the most of and exaggerated, and never brought to a satisfactory conclusion. No doubt they were caused partly by Bach’s own quarrelsome nature, by his stubborn insistence on his rights, but the deeper reasons are to be sought in those revolutionary changes in the world of music which like a thunder-cloud were heralding the approach of a new age. A new period’ was dawning but not only in the world of music. It was not merely the whole attitude to the arts that was changing: the whole world of class and privilege, of Lutheran orthodoxy and Christian theocracy, the world of what Valentin Loescher had called ‘good order’, was collapsing, undermined by the progress of the Enlightenment. It was a foregone conclusion on which side Sebastian Bach would inevitably take his stand. But by their very acceptance of his position as an obvious matter of course, his own society and his own fellows had pronounced judgment on him: he belonged, they said, to a world that was falling into ruins. Bach stood in full view of the public eye. (Stainton De B, pg 110+)

For nearly thirty years he worked among his fellow citizens, conducting Passions and Cantatas in the two main churches, directing splendid festival concerts in the market square, organizing chamber-music concerts by his undergraduate Collegium Musicum in Zimmermann’s coffee-house or in the coffee-gardens outside the city walls, composing and improvising. In spite of all this public work he was half-forgotten in his own lifetime, and regarded as an intractable oddity, a sarcastic old fogey. In the Thomas School, however, a modest rivulet of the Bach tradition trickled on. During the Cantorship of Doles (1756-89) Bach Cantatas were still very occasionally performed. When, on the other hand, Neefe, who was later to become Beethoven’s teacher, reported to his friend Schubart in Ulm in 1776 that Doles intended to perform a Bach Passion, it is, to say the least, doubtful whether he meant Sebastian Bach at all.

Simply because they were exceptionally difficult and made good show-pieces for the St. Thomas choir, Bach’s Motets, above all Singet dem Herrn, kept their place in the repertory for a time, contrary though they were to the general taste of the age. In this connexion we have the well-known anecdote about Mozart hearing this Motet sung under Doles when he was passing through Leipzig in 1789 and raging with enthusiasm over it.

For Mozart, however, Bach had already become more than a name by this time. The Director of the Court Library in Vienna, Baron van Swieten, had joined a circle of Bach enthusiasts, including Marpurg, Kirnberger, and others, when he was a diplomat in Berlin. Bach’s influence on Haydn follows similar lines but is not so easy to define. Haydn was still far more at home in the van Swieten circle where he, too, became acquainted with the works of Bach and Handel. Without the influence of Bach, Beethoven’s later works are even less conceivable than those of Haydnand Mozart. As a twelve-year-old boy Beethoven was introduced to the ‘Forty Eight’ by Christian Gottlob Neefe , who as a student in Leipzig had come into touch with the Doles circle, and as early as 1783 he was already playing many of the pieces ‘quite perfectly’. (Calvin R. Stapert, 35+)

From the hands of these pupils and priests of Bach the legacy passed to the younger disciples, to Hering, Kellner, Fischhof, Forkel, Pölchau, and many others, and from them it was taken over, right up to the last war, by the German public libraries.

There is no need to expatiate here on the immense importance of this channel of the Bach tradition for the later Bach revival. No less a writer than E. T. A. Hoffmann is evidence of the distinguished influence on artistic and creative life exerted by these Bach enthusiasts, for indirectly he owed his knowledge of and enthusiasm for Bach to the Bach circle in Berlin. His teacher Podbielski in Königsberg was a descendant of one of Bach’s pupils. Hoffmann’s Bach cult is also esoteric. Kapellmeister Kreisler washes himself clean in Bach’s music when, after he has had to sit through a session of shallow tea-party gossip, he plays the Goldberg Variations to his flabbergasted audience who were expecting the latest flashy drawing room variations. The Kreisleriana, Kater Murr, and many other books are evidence of Hoffmann’s enthusiasm for Bach, and in them are also the first signs of a new romanticizing attitude to Bach. For Hoffmann music is already a ‘religious cult’ in itself–and that really prevented him from penetrating to Bach’s innermost spirit. (The Wilson Quarterly, pg 87)

The rivulets through which a limited and modest Bach tradition flowed after his death were very narrow. The tradition which they passed on was confined almost entirely to parts of the organ and keyboard works. The memory of the man himself was dim. The idea that was current at the time was no different from the one held in the main by his own contemporaries of the Leipzig years, who thought of him as a musician of uncanny ability and infallible technical skill, as an astonishing organ virtuoso and a brilliant harpsichordist, as a stern teacher and a profound contrapuntist.

Before Bach could be seen in a different light a completely new way of thinking was required. A new sense of history was needed before a new phase in the history of the Bach tradition could begin. It came at last during the period of the Napoleonic Wars and it came from four directions. In the first place, it was the dawn of a passionate love for the old German traditions, of a new interest in history and of a new discipline of historical study, of an insatiable urge to rediscover the sources of history: in a word, it was the spirit which created the ‘Monumenta Germaniae’ which introduced a new phase in the development of the Bach problem. In the second place, it was the surge of a new attitude to the world taking hold of men’s hearts, releasing them from the bonds of rationalism and aspiring to experience the world emotionally, placing art above man (as Wackenroder put it) and seeing in music (as E. T. A. Hoffmann put it) a mysterious realm of spirits, a world of aesthetic self-sufficiency beyond reality. With flamboyant exuberance the questionable and dangerous quality of ‘absolute’ existence was attributed to every kind of music and Bach himself was avowed the king of such a supernatural realm of spirits. In the third place, the powerful rise of national consciousness in the period of the Napoleonic Wars opened the eyes of the Germans to the national and popular content and values of music and taught them to see in Bach the prototype of the German spirit in music. In the fourth place, soon after 1800 a new wave of religious fervor began to spread through Protestant Germany, a new kind of religious emotion appeared in the wake of neopietism or the revival movement, as it is sometimes called. It permeated the whole attitude to life of the new age and led to the discovery of Bach the church musician. If a new conception of Bach was to be achieved anywhere, all these four streams had to meet. (C. Hubert H. Parry, pg 78-89)

In his writings on the Bach Cantatas, of which he performed a whole series, he proves himself to be a man of deep faith and genuine Lutheran outlook. The religious revival movement was a living experience for him as it was for the whole of Breslau. Winterfeld’s house was the centre of the movement in Breslau and the Breslau Song Academy started there too. Breslau was also one of the chief centers of national patriotism: the ‘Call to my People’ had gone out from this city and here men like Hippel, Stein, Hardenberg, Scharnhorst, Steffens, and others had prepared the revival of Prussia. Here, too, Bach’s Passion fell, as in Berlin, on the most fertile soil. Next to Berlin Breslau was the strongest centre of the new Bach movement. It was here, too, that the two main trends in the restoration of Evangelical Church music which dominated for so long, and in fact in some ways still dominate, the practical side of Church music, began to go their separate ways. The first was the specifically Protestant and Romantic Bach movement, which saw in Bach the musical embodiment of Lutheranism and therefore wanted to reintroduce his works and subsequently those of his contemporaries, as well as Baroque music in general, into the services of the Church. The other trend was the Purist movement, with an inter-denominational Classical ideal of ‘pure’ Church music which it found embodied in Palestrina and in the whole a-cappella style of the Roman school. In the Catholic Church this latter trend produced the so-called Cecilian movement and found a leading representative in the Heidelberg Professor of Law, Justus Thibaut, the author of the famous treatise On the Purity of Music. Thibaut also studied Bach Motets with his choral society, because they were regarded as a-cappella music, but he failed to reconcile himself to the Passions and Cantatas and regarded them as fundamentally not Church music at all. In Breslau it was Winterfeld who, although a glowing admirer of Bach, considered his Church music to be not sufficiently popular, too intellectualized, too exacting, too realistic, and too passionate for use in the services of the Church. In fact, difficult as it was for him to make the decision, he prevented the St. Matthew Passion and the Cantatas from being performed in church. Once again, a temporary conception of the nature of religion determined the current view of Bach. The age had broken loose from dogmatic religion and was unable to grasp the dogmatic depths of Bach’s work. The limitations which were supposed to be characteristic of Bach were, in fact, fundamentally only the limitations of the age itself. (Charles Sanford Terry, pg 110-14)


Daniel R. Melamed, an Introduction to Bach Studies. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1998.
Malcolm Boyd, J.S. Bach. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: Oxford. Publication Year: 1999.
John L. Holmes, Composers on Composers. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1990.
Stainton De B. Taylor, the Chorale Preludes of J.S. Bach: A Handbook. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1992
Calvin R. Stapert, Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work. Magazine Title: The Christian Century. Volume: 124. Issue: 12. Publication Date: June 12, 2007. Page Number: 34+.
Bach the Unknowable. Magazine Title: The Wilson Quarterly. Volume: 32. Issue: 2. Publication Date: Spring 2008. Page Number: 86+.
C. Hubert H. Parry, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story of the Development of a Great Personality. Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1999.
Charles Sanford Terry, Bach: The Historical Approach. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 1990.