About the men who wrote

The Music In Your Life: BACH

By Delos Smith, Woman's Day, July 1954

Bach, the German word for brook, was the name of several score related musicians, most of them christened John, who flourished for more than two centuries. In some of the small German towns where they plied their trade--to most of them music was a trade, like bricklaying--the word bach came to mean musician.

When we say Bach, we mean Johann Sebastian Bach, in whom the family's means of livelihood culminated in a genius of monumental proportions. He is no brook, exclaimed Beethoven, he is the sea!...Music owes to this Bach almost as much as Christianity owes to Christ, said Schumann. This Bach filled Mozart with joy, Mendelssohn with reverence, Wagner with respect.

He died two hundred and four years ago, on July 28, 1750, but only physically. Now more than ever he is the musician's musician, still influencing, at times dominating, the art. He has been called the father of harmony and the father of counterpoint. Actually, he is the father of music as we know it. He is also the creator of music ranging from the sublimely happy to the profoundly sad. Musically, he is the creator of matchless grandeur--of mighty rainbows of sound. His variety is endless, and despite the efforts of cultural snobs to make a cult of him, he belongs to anyone who listens and hears.

During his lifetime, people thought he played the organ much better than most, and was disturbingly stubborn in his insistence on the rights of music. Nevertheless, he seemed to be just one more of the musical drudges who plugged away for churches and towns or as musical servants for kings and noblemen.

Since he was unique, we know he was not one more of anything. But he was a drudge. From childhood to death, he worked as hard as any laborer, with little more security and not a great deal more recognition. He lived out his sixty-five years within a radius of a few hundred miles of his birthplace, the ancient town of Eisenach, in a storied German countryside that knew Martin Luther and was to be the setting of Wagner's opera, Tannhauser.

His was a simple life. Loving God with an uncomplicated depth of pure spirituality, he trusted Him without a murmur and saw to it that his own ways were upright. His art, which now is spoken of with reverence, was to him a way to earn a living for himself and a large family. By two wives, he was the father of twenty children, of whom ten died in infancy or childhood. His record as faithful husband and tender father is without blemish.

He was thrown upon the world young, his mother and father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, violin and viola player, having died before he was ten. An older brother, Johann Christoph Bach, musician in the town of Ohrdruf, took him in and took over his musical education. Probably thinking he wasn't ready for the music of the celebrated composers of the day, brother-teacher forbade him access to it. So the youngster slipped out the music through the lattice of a locked cabinet and copied it by moonlight, night after night, for six months.

This is an oft-told tale and a useful one. It points up the insatiable curiosity and inexhaustible capacity for work that were basic in his genius. All his life he was to make copies of other composers' music of all countries and times. He absorbed everything, and then made everything his own by extending and perfecting until the originals were hardly recognizable.

His sweet soprano voice earned him an education in a religious school. When his voice broke, he maintained himself there by playing the violin and viola. Meanwhile, he was absorbing the complex techniques of organ playing, which were to earn him, when he had extended them far beyond the capacities of teachers or contemporaries, the little fame he enjoyed.

By eighteen, he was organist of a church in Arnstadt, where he was also required to train the boys' choir. The boys gave him trouble. The authorities wanted to restrain him musically. And he was preoccupied with learning. He was accustomed to walking for days, and on a lean stomach, to get to distant churches where famous musicians presided at the organ. Offering his cousin, Johann Ernst Bach, as substitute organist, he got a one-month leave to go to Lubeck to hear Dietrich Buxtehude.

He stayed three months instead of one. When he returned, he really was in trouble. All the long-simmering, official complaints had come to a boil. First, why had he stayed away so long? Second, what was the idea of the "surprising variations" and "irrelevant ornaments" in his organ playing? Third, why didn't he do better with the boys' choir? And fourth, what about the "stranger maiden" who had been heard singing in the organ loft while he practiced?

About this time a church in Muhlhausen asked him to become its organist. He accepted and married (in 1707) the "stranger maiden," who was his cousin, Maria Barbara, daughter of Johann Michael Bach, an organist, too. They spent a year in Muhlhausen and then moved on to Weimar, where he became court organist to the autocratic and stiff-necked Duke of Sachsen-Weimar. Nine years later, young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cthen, who was very musical and knew a musical genius when he heard one, offered him the post of Court Kapellmeister.

But he had to get his release from the duke, who was not in the least disposed to grant it. Bach insisted, and the duke had him imprisoned for his impudence. Coolly, he turned his enforced seclusion to composing. In less than a month the duke bowed to superior obstinacy.

Bach's new master, who was only twenty-three -- nine years younger than he -- treated him as a friend. Whenever he traveled, his Kapellmeister had to be along. In the summer of 1720 they went to Karlsbad. While they were away, Maria Barbara sickened suddenly and died.

We can surmise Bach's shock and grief. He was now the father of four living children. The eldest, a girl, was only twelve. Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, both destined to become famous musicians, were ten and six respectively. Johann Gottfried Bernhard, the youngest, was only five. Three other children had died in infancy.

Seventeen months later, he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a singer in the prince's court. She was twenty years old, and he was almost thirty-seven. She was to be his wife the remainder of his life, to bear him thirteen children, to outlive him by only ten years, to live her last days on charity, and to go to a pauper's grave. Three of her seven daughters and three of her six sons survived infancy and childhood. One son was mentally retarded. But another was Johann Christian Bach, who was to become musicmaster to the Queen of George III of England and to have a sizable place in music history as "the English Bach."

Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian loved each other deeply. The evidence is scanty, but conclusive. One bit is this: He had endless music-copying to do. We know she helped him, because many of his manuscripts are in her handwriting. Over the years it became more and more like his. In some examples it is all but indistinguishable.

Another bit is in the music book he made for her, to speed her clavier practice. In it were copied, in his hand, the wedding poems he had written for her, such as:

"Your servant, sweetest maiden Bride.
Joy be with you this morning.
To see you in your flowery crown
And wedding-day adorning
Would fill with joy the sternest soul.
What wonder, as I meet you,
That my fond heart and loving lips
O'erflow with song to greet you?"

In 1721 the prince had also married. His bride didn't like music and was jealous of the time he gave to it. The result was a slow change in the atmosphere at Cthen, which had been so congenial to Johann Sebastian. And so, in 1723, he moved to Leipzig to become cantor of the Thomas School. This was to be his place until his death, twenty-seven years later.

The school was for the boys who made up the choirs in the four town churches. The cantor trained these choirs and supervised the music of the two principal churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. He was also required to compose cantatas for all the Sundays and feast days of the church year. In addition, he kept check on the church organs and taught some Latin.

All this kept him very busy, and he was poorly paid. His children were being born, and more than half of them were dying, which was not unusual in those days. Since he was industrious, his family knew no want. But it knew no great prosperity either. Within the family circle there evidently were happiness and close ties.

In one of his very few personal letters that have survived, there is this description: "The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But hey are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form an ensemble both vocaliter and instrumentaliter, particularly since my present wife sings a good, clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly.

He was picked on by authorities, who didn't like this or didn't like that -- the innovations in his music, how he dealt with the choirboys, his responses when they presumed to correct him. There were years of tension with the school rector. Bach didn't hesitate to go over the rector's head to the town council. Getting no satisfaction, he went over the council's head, and finally appealed to the king-elector. That personage, obscure in his own day ad forgotten now, gave him the title of Court Composer. It was the peak of his official recognition.

In Bach's old age, Frederick the Great of Prussia was kind to him, and this, to him, was his crowning glory. Carl Philipp Emanuel, having grown up, was now in the king's service -- and whatever else history has to say of that sovereign, he was a true musician. He knew and loved music.

Flute in hand, Frederick was among his musicians one evening when word was brought to him that Carl Philipp Emanuel's father had arrived to visit his son. Excitedly, the king got to his feet. "Old Bach is here!" he cried. He showed the old man his magnificent instruments, invited him to play on the newly developed piano, of which he had no small number, and gave him a musical theme to improvise on.

When the old man returned to Leipzig, he wrote a set of playful and delightful variations on the royal theme and sent them to Frederick with a fulsome dedication. How the monarch responded to what Bach called a "musical offering" is not known; but he knew old Bach was not just another Bach.

There were others who shared this opinion -- his few pupils, a few musicians -- and he was in considerable demand to inspect and pass on the quality of new organs and to inaugurate them with concerts of his own dazzling virtuosity.

The summer he was sixty-four, his sight failed rapidly. There was an operation -- then total blindness. The following summer, his sight returned suddenly, but about ten days later he had an apoplectic stroke, lingered for some days, unconscious, and died. With his sons ended the long line of great Bach musicians. Nature needed some two hundred years to produce its towering giant; after him there was little left.

Johann Sebastian thought he would be forgotten. The style had changed -- he saw his works as old-fashioned. And he was forgotten for many decades, save for a few musicians. Johann Philipp Kirnberger, one of his pupils, made a shrine of his portrait. A Leipzig merchant, a few years after Bach's death, spotted the portrait and made a disparaging remark about the composer. The next instant the enraged Kirnberger had him by the collar and was pushing and booting him toward the door, shrieking, "Out, dog!"

Thirty-nine years after Bach's death, Mozart -- who, as a child prodigy, had delighted the English Bach, Johann Christian -- visited Leipzig, and the Thomas School boys sang for him one of Johann Sebastian's motets, none of which had been published. In the words of a witness, "Mozart sat up, startled. A few measures more and he called out, 'What is this?' And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears."

In 1792, a young pianist, Ludwig van Beethoven, arrived in Vienna and caused a sensation in musical circles by his playing of the Well-Tempered Clavier's preludes and fugues by a little-known and long-dead composer, one J.S. Bach. In 1829, Mendelssohn conducted Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. This was its first performance since the composer himself had conducted the work in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig a century before.

The belated appreciation and recognition of Bach can be dated from that event. In 1850, a society was formed to publish all his surviving works. Only a minute percentage of the total had been published while he was alive. Now, a hundred years later, his manuscripts were scattered, fragmented, and many were lost.

The society needed forty-nine years to do the job. It revealed what was to be expected. While he was at Weimar and before, he had composed mainly for the organ -- he had been an organist then. During his Cthen years, while he was Kapellmeister for a lively young prince, he composed much of his worldly music, for orchestra and for solo instruments, especially the clavier or harpsichord, at which he was a master performer, and the violin. The organ music had been from religious inspiration; he had been employed by churches. In his Leipzig years there was a return to this inspiration, as his job was to compose for and direct Lutheran church music. There can be no question of his profound religious feeling. Still, it is worth keeping in mind that music was his business. It belies the character of the man to suppose he went through life as a mystic or a zealot. He was of serious mien, yet he knew how to play and to appreciate frivolity, within limits. Inn short, he was human.

No other composer has been recorded as much as Bach. But his basic works are easily isolated, and from them you can go on in any direction, since the world of Bach is vast.

First, the organ music: on one record are the Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor, the Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, the C-Major Fugue (called "Fanfare"), the G-Minor Fugue (known as the "Little"), and a concerto based on a Vivaldi work, played by E. Power Biggs (Columbia).

For the worldly music I'd take the six Brandenburg Concertos. These were composed during Bach's Cthen period, for the Margrave of Brandenburg, who would have long since been forgotten if he had not ordered these works for his court musicians. They can be played stiffishly, in worshipful awe of the demigod Bach; or they can be played as warm, living music to compliment Bach, the man. Fritz Reiner conducts them the latter way, with a group of select musicians, and for this reason I recommend his recordings. They're in numerical order on three records (Columbia).

Also in the worldly-music category: one record on which Gyorgy Sandor plays on the piano the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D-Minor, the Fantasia in C-Minor, and the 7th, B-Minor Partita (Columbia); one record on which Pablo Casals, a stupendous musician, plays the G-Major and D-Major sonatas for cello and piano, with Paul Baumgartner, piano (Columbia).

Only in his last days did Bach see a piano. And so he composed not for the piano, but for various clavier or keyboard instruments, notably for what approximates the harpsichord. The question, then, is whether Bach is Bach when played on the piano. Of course he is when he is played as Bach. This leads us to the Well-Tempered Clavier.

It is made up of two books, each containing twenty-four preludes and fugues that illustrate the timbre and color of each of the key signatures. The first book Bach composed to aid him in teaching the clavier to his first set of children; the second he composed for his second set. Despite their teaching purpose, which has served generation after generation of piano students well, they contain some enthralling delights.

Wanda Landowska has recorded them all on the harpsichord, with careful scholarship and brilliant musicianship (RCA Victor); Rosalyn Tureck has done the same on the piano (Decca).

For music of purely religious spirituality, foremost is the Mass in B-Minor, which many consider Bach's highest achievement, and surely no other composer has ever sustained such a concentration of serenity for so long. My favorite recording is that of Robert Shaw conducting chorale and orchestra (RCA Victor).

Next in the gigantic works is the St. Matthew Passion, which also requires a large chorus, an orchestra, and soloists. Here my preference is for the recording by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, soloists, and chorus, Willem Mengelberg conducting (Columbia).

Bach's religiosity glows in his shorter works -- in the motets and chorales. One on record are two motets, O Praise the Lord All Ye Heathen and Come, Jesus, Come; and three chorales, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, In Dulci Jubilo, and the Passion Chorale -- all sung with surpassing beauty by the Schola Cantorum (Columbia).

The main difference between a Bach motet and cantata is that the motets were for unaccompanied singers. In the cantatas we come to the largest single body of his work. The total is believed to have been 295, of which 202 survive. My favorites among them are Praise Our God and Hold in Affection Jesus Christ, recorded by Kathleen Ferrier and the Cantata Singers, directed by Dr. Reginald Jacques (London); Oh Eternal Fire and I Will My Cross-Staff Gladly Bear, recorded by Viennese singers and orchestra under Jonathan Sternberg (Bach Guild); Awake! A Voice Calls Us and Out of the Depths, recorded by the Robert Shaw Chorale (RCA Victor).

CD Suggestions

cover Bach: The Four Great Toccatas & Fugues by E. Power Biggs
cover Bach: Toccata & Fugue; Passacaglia & Fugue; Pastorale; Prelude & Fugue by E. Power Biggs
cover Bach: Brandenburg Concertos by Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt
cover Bach: Fantasia in C minor; Two-Part Inventions; Three-Part Inventions; Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue by Performer: Angela Hewitt
cover Bach: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6 by Performers: Pablo Casals, Nikolai Mednikoff
cover The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I by Performer: Wanda Landowska
cover Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book ll, BWV 870-93 by Performer: Wanda Landowska
cover Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier 1 & 2 by Performer: Rosalyn Tureck
cover Bach: Mass in B minor by Performers: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Robert Shaw
cover Bach: Matthaus-Passion by Conductor: Willem Mengelberg
cover Bach: Motets BWV 225-231, Cantatas by Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
cover Bach: Cantatas Vol. 1 /Suzuki, Bach Collegium Japan by Conductor: Masaaki Suzuki

DVD Suggestions

Bach's Greatest Organ Works Vol. 1 (2000)

From the Back Cover
Featuring the most beloved of Johann Sebastian Bach's organ pieces, this program has been recorded in video with 96K/24 bit multitrack audio on the newly renovated Trost-Organ in Walterhausen, Germany. This organ was selected for its incredible sound and suitability for Bach music. It is believed Bach himself actually played this particular organ during his lifetime. The performance is by renowned organist and Bach specialist Hans-Andre Stamm.

Bach's Greatest Organ Works Vol. 2 (2001)

Organist Hans-Andrˆà Stamm is featured performing the most beloved of Johann Sebastian Bach's organ pieces. This program has been recorded in video with 96k/24 bit multi-track audio on the newly renovated Trost-Organ in Waltershausen, Germany. Tracks: Fantasia in G Minor; Fugue in G Minor; Prelude in G Major; Fugue in G Major; and more. 86 minutes.

Book Suggestions

cover The New Bach Reader by Hans T. David (Editor), Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff
Through hundreds of letters, family papers, anecdotes, and records, the Bach Reader established a new approach to biography by offering original documents in impeccable translations. In The New Bach Reader, Christoph Wolff has incorporated numerous facsimiles and added many newly discovered items, reflecting the current state of scholarship about the composer's life and music. The readings in this volume provide an accurate and vivid picture of Bach's world and of his far-reaching influence.
cover The Cambridge Companion to Bach by John Butt (Editor), Jonathan Cross (Editor)
Book description: The Cambridge Companion to Bach goes beyond a basic life-and-works study to provide a late-twentieth-century perspective on J. S. Bach the man and composer. Benefiting from the insights and research of some of the most distinguished Bach scholars, this Companion covers cultural, social and religious contexts, surveys and analyzes Bach's compositional style, traces his influence, and considers the performance and reception of his music through the succeeding generations.

Sheet Music Suggestions

Complete Organ Works, Vol. I
By Johann Sebastian Bach. Kalmus Edition. Edited by Marty Winkler. Organ collection. Level: volume 1. 108 pages. Published by Warner Brothers.

Complete Organ Works, Vol. II
By Johann Sebastian Bach. Kalmus Edition. Edited by Marty Winkler. Organ collection. Level: volume 2. 108 pages. Published by Warner Brothers.

Complete Organ Works, Vol. III
By Johann Sebastian Bach. Kalmus Edition. Edited by Marty Winkler. Organ collection. Level: volume 3. 112 pages. Published by Warner Brothers.