Johann Sebastian Bach considered himself a simple man; yet his music presents a tapestry of complexity and depth that remains a stunning and almost incomprehensible achievement three hundred years after its creation. He thought himself a practical man, writing music because it was needed–to celebrate a birthday, wedding or funeral, to supply pieces for the Lutheran Sunday services, to provide practice material for his students–yet this practical music bespeaks a sublime spirituality of unparalleled artistic profundity. Bach would have been astounded to learn that his music is being performed two hundred and fifty years after his death (as would have been his family, who purportedly used some of his old manuscript papers to wrap fish!) Yet not only are countless performances of Bach’s music presented all over the world every year, we observed in 2000 (in commemoration of his death in 1750) an overwhelming international outpouring of love for this unassuming man of towering genius.
Hardly the worldly and sophisticated artist, Bach spent his entire sixty-five years within one hundred miles of his birthplace of Eisenach. While Handel moved in the heady circles of London royalty and Vivaldi in the rarefied atmosphere of Venetian aristocracy, Bach toiled as a humble servant, first in Weimar, then Coethen, and finally in Leipzig. Actually, the name Bach was synonymous with music, for the family had supplied musicians to the Eisenach region in Germany for a century and a half. Born in 1685, orphaned at the age of ten, Johann Sebastian was raised by his eldest brother Johann Christoph, an organist who prepared him for the family vocation. From the beginning, Johann Sebastian displayed an insatiable appetite for music, an inexhaustible curiosity and boundless energy. “I had to work hard,” he reported in later years, adding with considerably less accuracy, “anyone who works as hard will get just as far.”
Bach began his professional career at eighteen, when he was appointed organist at a church in Arnstadt. The church elders soon saw fit to criticize the complex music issuing from the organ loft, reproving Bach for “having made many curious variations in the chorale and mingled strange tones with it, confusing the congregation. If Bach continues to play this way, the organ will be ruined in two years and the congregation will be deaf.” Shortly afterwards, they inquired about Bach’s invitation to an “unknown maiden” to join him in the choir loft to “make music there”–his cousin Maria Barbara, whom he married in 1707.
After a year at a church in Muehlhausen, Bach, at twenty-three, received his first important post-court organist to the Duke of Weimar. His fame as an organ virtuoso grew rapidly. An observation from the villagers passing the church while he was practicing–“That can only be the devil or Bach himself”–gave testimony to his uncanny talent at the keyboard. The nine years in Weimar saw the composition of many of his greatest works for the instrument, pieces woven of independent musical lines that make up the most sinuous and dazzling counterpoint ever written.
But Bach was not happy. Disappointed because the Duke had failed to promote him, Bach decided to accept an offer from the prince of Coethen. He needed his master’s permission to take another post; the irascible Duke refused to give it. When Bach stubbornly tried to press the point, the Duke responded by throwing his court organist in jail. Finally freed with an unfavorable discharge, Bach hastened to Coethen to begin his five year tenure as conductor of the court orchestra, an extremely fruitful period of his life. The prince was partial to instrumental music, and Bach produced suites, concertos, sonatas, a wealth of keyboard music and the Brandenburg concertos. His contrapuntal complexity, richly colored harmonic implications, and fascinating musical contours marked his work as the astonishing offspring of an unfathomable artistic imagination. His time at Coethen was saddened by the death of Maria Barbara in 1720. The composer subsequently married a young singer, Anna Magdelena, in whom he found a loving and understanding mate. All in all, Bach had twenty children, four of whom were to become leading composers of the next generation (Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph and Johann Christian).
Bach was thirty-eight when he was appointed as music director of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. His responsibilities were prodigious. He taught at the St. Thomas Choir School, training the young choristers not only in singing, but teaching them all their nonmusical studies as well. He served as music director, composer, conductor, choirmaster and organist of St. Thomas Church. Several candidates had been considered before him, among them the much more famous Georg Philipp Telemann, who declined. The mayor, in reporting Bach’s appointment, announced, “Since the best man could not be obtained, a lesser one was accepted.” It was in this spirit that Leipzig welcomed arguably the greatest composer of all time.
Bach spent the remaining twenty-seven years of his life in Leipzig, and the period saw the production of works of stupendous quality and magnificence. His outer life gave no inkling of the eerie genius within. He led an uneventful existence divided between the cares of a large family, the overwhelming responsibilities of a busy professional life, and the endless squabbles with a host of town, school and church officials who never conceded that they were dealing with anything more than a competent choirmaster. The officials were often disquieted by the dramatic depth of his religious music; they haggled with Bach over every financial expenditure. Yet Bach persisted, despite daily problems, in the composition of music extraordinary by any standards. It is a paradox of his art that what was undertaken from necessity can stir our emotions more deeply than music created by other composers’ freer inclinations. In fulfilling a routine which was overburdened with work, often tedious and sometimes intolerable, Bach not only satisfied the demands of his own age: he created music for all the ages. For all his plain, provincial, good Lutheran simplicity, Bach was a mystic for whom the writing of music was an act of faith; the performing of it, an act of worship. His inscription at the end of his works– “To God alone be the praise”–was indicative of his constant religious devotion. Centuries of German sacred music came to full flower in the faith-and the art–of Johann Sebastian Bach. The man who played the organ, directed the choir, taught school, cared for his small army of children, attended board meetings, wrangled with bureaucrats, and met his deadlines became the culminating figure of the Baroque period and one of the titans in the history of western culture.
The heavy labors of a lifetime finally took their toll; Bach’s eyesight began to fail. After an apoplectic stroke he was stricken with blindness. Yet Bach persisted in his final work, eighteen chorale preludes for the organ. Just before his death he dictated the last of these to a son-in-law, appropriately, “Before Thy Throne, My God, I Stand.”
J.S. Bach was certainly known and admired in his lifetime, even if the full measure of his greatness was not realized by the world around him. Sadly, it was subsequent generations who neglected and even forgot him. At the same time as he represented the final pinnacle of achievement in the realm of Baroque music, his contemporaries, even his own sons, were turning toward the new style of musical sensibility which was to lead to Viennese classicism. Great changes were impending, in life and in art. In the new climate Bach’s polyphonic mastery and his consummate craftsmanship were rejected by fashionable taste. Manuscripts were lost; publishers’ plates of his music were sold for the price of the metal they were made of when the works failed to attract purchasers. To the musical public of the 1760s–merely a decade after his death–the name Bach meant his four sons, whose success as composers far exceeded his own. Even they considered their father hopelessly old-fashioned, referring to him as “the old Wig.”
Yet the memory of Bach’s music did not wholly die. A revival began, tentatively at first but increasing in strength until it became a veritable renaissance during the nineteenth century. That age of romanticism understood and cherished Bach’s drama, his fervor, his vaulting architecture, the surge and splendor of his music. His infinitely detailed artistry, his supreme musicianship found a new and avid public in the spirit of the New World, and works forgotten for almost a century were resurrected by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann. Bach’s vibrant spirit re-animated both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his music we revel in the grandeur and awe-inspiring magnificence of the first half of the eighteenth century, the intricate complexity of a dynamic world and the amazing artistic creativity of the time. His fertile musical imagination continues to astonish us, yet it is his warm, human, all-embracing spirit that touches us at the core of our beings. The great cellist Pablo Casals summed up the love and veneration of three centuries in his beautiful statement: “The miracle of Bach has not appeared in any other art. To strip human nature until its divine attributes are made clear, to inform ordinary activities with spiritual fervor, to give wings of eternity to that which is most ephemeral, to make divine things human and human things divine; such is Bach, the greatest and purest moment in music of all time.”