Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musicianby Christoph Wolff
Finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Biography.
A landmark biography of Bach on the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, written by the leading Bach scholar of our age.See more details below
Finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Biography.
A landmark biography of Bach on the 250th anniversary of the composer's death, written by the leading Bach scholar of our age.
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Springs of Musical Talent
and Lifelong Influences
Ambrosius Bach and His Family
By an auspicious coincidence, Sebastian Nagel, town piper of Gotha and friend of Johann Ambrosius Bach, happened to be in Eisenach on the third weekend in March 1685. Whatever brought him to the town at this time, he most likely joined his fellow town piper Bach for a performance, probably one in need of reinforcement by outside musicians. They were used to helping each other outit made sense for the musicians from the two towns, eighteen miles apart and seats of neighboring ducal courts, to team up for special occasions. Nagel and Bach, each in his capacities as town piper, director of town music, and member of the ducal capelle, the court's performing ensemble, were in charge of such events.
Thus it was that on the day following Oculi Sunday, four weeks before Easter, Sebastian Nagel and his colleague Ambrosius Bach, together with the ducal forester Johann Georg Koch, arrayed themselves around the ancient baptismal font inside St. George's, Eisenach's main church. Magister Johann Christoph Zerbst functioned as the officiating minister at the baptism of the child born to Ambrosius and Maria Elisabeth Bach on the previous Saturday, March 21. Nagel was given the honor of holding the baby over the baptismal font because he was the one of the two godfathers from whom the boy was to receive his middle nameSebastian.
The short ceremony took place on a historic site at the footof the Wartburg, the medieval hilltop castle overlooking Eisenach. The Wartburg had formed the setting in 1207 for the famous Tourney of Song, a historic highpoint of German minstrelsy, and three centuries later provided refuge to Martin Luther while he translated the Greek New Testament into German. The venerable St. George's Church, an ancient structure whose origins date back to 1182, had witnessed the wedding in 1221 of Landgrave Louis IV of Thuringia and Elizabeth, daughter of Hungarian King Andrew II (later canonized as Saint Elizabeth, she led a simple life and personally tended the sick and the poor). The church had been substantially rebuilt in 1515, and Luther had preached there in the spring of 1521 on his way both to and from the Diet in Worms. No stranger to Eisenach, the city of his mother's birth, Luther spent the years 1498 to 1501 at the Eisenach Latin school, the same school that the child being baptized was later to attend.
Perhaps the older among the little boy's siblings observed the short christening ceremony. His mother, however, was excluded, for according to the strict customs prescribed by the Hebrew Bible and upheld by Lutherans of the time, she was not permitted to enter church until she had undergone a religious purification rite six weeks after childbirth. She may have participated in choosing the child's godfathers and thereby also in selecting his name. But both parents must have known that no other member of the extended Thuringian family of musicians bore the name Sebastian. Had they been interested in a name more readily found among family members, Johann Georg Koch, the ducal forester, could have served in Nagel's place: after all, "Georg" was the name of Ambrosius's elder brother, cantor in Schweinfurt on the Main. Nevertheless, Ambrosiusperhaps proud of the singularity within the family of his own namenot only favored the unique "Sebastian," he also chose a fellow musician as name-lending godfather.
It may not be mere coincidence that a generation later Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara Bach selected similarly uncommon names for their two elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. The name Johann Sebastian, however, would recur in the family only twice. In 1713, Ambrosius Bach's eldest son, Johann Christoph, named one of his children after his then already famous brother in Weimar, who acted as godfather at the baptism; but the baby died before he was two months old. Then in 1748, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach named his firstborn after his father, who at the time felt unfit to travel from Leipzig to Berlin for the baptism. Johann Sebastian Bach, Jr., not a musician but a gifted draftsman and painter of landscapes whose artistry was greatly admired by his contemporaries, died in 1778 in Rome at the age of twenty-nine. Thus, without any action on his part, the Eisenach Johann Sebastian acquired an unmistakable and unambiguous name identification.
If anything can be said for certain about what the parents of the first Johann Sebastian in the Bach family expected of their son, it is that he would become a musician. In the Thuringian towns of the region stretching from Erfurt to Eisenach, the family name Bach had become nearly synonymous with "musician." Indeed, when a vacancy occurred in 1693 at the Arnstadt court capelle, the count urgently called for "a Bach." Although Johann Sebastian's extraordinarily individual musical personality and his future singular stature could have been neither expected nor predicted, the fear expressed later by his stepmother that the springs of musical talent in the family might run dry was unwarranted. It was simply assumed that the background, working conditions, and living circumstances of a family of professional musicians would exert an inescapable and deep influence on all of its newborn members.
Before coming to Eisenach in 1671 as director of town music, Johann Ambrosius Bach had been town piper in Arnstadt and then, from April 1667, a violinist in the town music company (an ensemble of professional musicians employed by the town council) of his native Erfurt. With its eighteen thousand inhabitants, Erfurt was by far Thuringia's largest city and the region's historical, cultural, educational, and commercial center. Politically part of the electoral archbishopric of Mainz, Erfurt also represented a bi-confessional entity (about 20 percent Roman Catholic) within the traditional Lutheran heartland. (For a map showing places of Bach's activities, see Appendix 2.)
In the sixteenth century, the ancient region of Thuringia, ruled by the Ernestine branch of the Saxon house of Wettin, split into several duchies (Saxe-Altenburg, Saxe-Eisenach, Saxe-Gotha, etc.), while the Albertine (electoral) section of Saxony with its capital Dresden remained intact as a political-geographical unit. Situated within the Ernestine duchiesin addition to the enclave of Erfurt and the free imperial city of Mühlhausen, two metropolitan areaswere several independent principalities ruled primarily by the counts of Schwarzburg (Arnstadt, Rudolstadt, and Sondershausen), Hohenlohe-Gleichen (Ohrdruf), and Reuss (Gera, Greiz). One of the most densely populated areas in Europe, dotted with countless small towns in a politically fractured landscape, Thuringia developed into an economically and culturally vigorous region soon after the catastrophic Thirty Years' War ended in 1648. Some of the most important intersections of east-west and north-south continental trade routes made the area particularly susceptible to foreign influencesin art and architecture, most notably from Italian and French traditions. Here, as almost nowhere else to such an extent, the manifold European trends met and merged, generating a unique climate that also paved the way for the early eighteenth-century concept of a mixed style in music.
Ambrosius was born in Erfurt on February 22, 1645, son of Christoph Bach (no. 5 in Table 1.1) and Maria Magdalena, née Grabler. Christoph Bach served from 1642 to 1654 as town musician in Erfurt and thereafter as town and court musician in Arnstadt, eleven miles away. Ambrosius and his twin brother, Christoph (12), received their musical training in Arnstadt, first with their father and after his death in 1661 with their father's younger brother Heinrich (6). After spending the customary five years as apprentice and two years as journeyman in Arnstadt, Ambrosius was appointed to a post in the Erfurt town music company vacated by his cousin Johann Christian (7), who in 1667 was promoted to the band's directorship. In Erfurt, Ambrosius was also given the opportunity to work with another member of the town music company, his father's older brother Johann (4), organist at the Prediger Church and the first distinguished musician and composer in the family. This made Ambrosius the only one among nine grandsons of Hans Bach (2) to learn from and work with all three sons of the family's first professional musician.
On April 8, 1668, a year after joining the Erfurt town music company, Ambrosius Bach married Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of the late Valentin Lämmerhirt, an affluent furrier and a longtime and influential town council member in Erfurt. Elisabeth's much older stepsister Hedwig had already provided a family link: in 1638, she had married Johann Bach (4) and borne three musical sons, Christian (7), Aegidius (8), and Nicolaus (9). A generation later, Johann Sebastian Bach's older sister Marie Salome would marry the Erfurt master furrier and business partner of the Lämmerhirts, Johann Andreas Wiegand, thereby affirming relations between the Bach family and the Erfurt bourgeoisieconnections that secured a Bach dominance in the Erfurt musical scene for nearly a century. The stage set by the Johann Bach / Valentin Lämmerhirt connection with the town council led to a complete reorganization of the Erfurt town music company in the 1660s: Johann Bach not only employed all three of his own sons, he also arranged for the appointments of his brother's twins, Christoph and Ambrosius. Christoph came first in 1666, and Ambrosius followed a few months later, receiving his appointment on April 12, 1667, just one day after his cousin Johann Christian (7) became director of the town music company.
Connections played a role in Ambrosius Bach's next appointment as well. The town piper of Eisenach, Christoph Schmidt, died in 1670, creating a vacancy there. His daughter Margaretha was married to Johann Christian Bach (7) of Erfurt, Ambrosius's cousin, who had apprenticed with Schmidt in Eisenach. Moreover, Christian Bach's brother Johann Aegidius (8) was married to another Schmidt daughter. On top of that, another of Ambrosius's cousins, Johann Christoph (13), had served since 1665 as town organist and later also as a member of the court capelle in Eisenach. In short, the connections could hardly have been better, and after a pro forma audition in Eisenach on October 12, 1671, Ambrosius Bach was hired on the spot. An honorarium and expenses, as well as two days' meals and beer, were provided "for the new town piper and the musicians he had with him." Ambrosius had auditioned with four consorts, and it seems that he brought along to his new job four assistantsthree apprentices and one journeyman was a typical complement. His appointment to the directorship of the Eisenach town music company attests to the talents of the twenty-six-year-old musician, as does his initial salary: whereas his predecessor Schmidt had for decades been paid a salary of 27 florins 7 groschen 8 pfennigs, and a housing supplement of 8 florins, Ambrosius's starting salary jumped to 40 florins 4 groschen 8 pfennigs, and a housing supplement of 10 florins. (For a table of money and living costs in Bach's time, see Appendix 3.) He also earned a considerable supplementary incomemore than twice his salaryfrom various sources, including the court capelle.
From the very beginning, Ambrosius Bach's musical services to the town and the court were highly appreciated, as they continued to be throughout his tenure. In fact, no Eisenach musician in the entire seventeenth century received as much praise as Ambrosius did. References to his extraordinary kind of music making appear early on. One document, which exempts him from the local brewery tax, not only points to his Christian virtues and moral conduct but praises "his particular professional qualifications, in that he can come up with vocal and instrumental music for worship service and for honorable assemblies with persons of higher and lower ranks in such a way that we cannot remember having ever experienced anything like it in this place." Similarly, a town chronicler's report displays unparalleled enthusiasm: "In 1672 at Easter the new town piper made music with organ, violins, voices, trumpets and military drums, as had never before been done by any cantor or town musician as long as Eisenach stood." The event referred to here, a festive Easter service at St. George's, actually marked the auspicious beginning of a new era in Eisenach's history. That spring, Duke Johann Georg I of Saxe-Eisenach moved his residence permanently from Marksuhl in the countryside to Eisenach, reestablished the old town as the capital of an independent principality.
In October 1671, Ambrosius and Elisabeth Bach moved from Erfurt (where they had an apartment in Johann Bach's house, "The Silver Pocket," at Junkersand 1) to Eisenach with their four-month-old son, Johann Christoph. He was their second child; Johann Rudolf, the firstborn, had died before he was half a year old. Six children were born later in Eisenach: Johann Balthasar, Johannes Jonas, Maria Salome, Johanna Juditha, Johann Jacob, and Johann Sebastian (see Table 1.2). Since Johannes Jonas died at the age of ten in 1685just about two months after Johann Sebastian's birthand Johanna Juditha one year later at age six, Sebastian grew up with four siblings. But he rarely saw the oldest of them, Christoph, who left Eisenach in 1686 when he was fifteen in order to study with Johann Pachelbel in Erfurt. Moreover, Balthasar, who in 1688 became an apprentice to his father, died at the age of eighteen. When the six-year-old Sebastian attended his brother's burial in 1691, it was his first conscious encounter with a death within his close circle, a situation he would eventually be exposed to much sooner, more often, and more seriously than many. In fact, from age six, Sebastian lived with his parents, one sister, Salome, and one brother, Jacob, in a family of sadly diminished and still diminishing size. He would survive all of his siblings by a considerable margin: his oldest brother died in 1721 as organist and schoolteacher in Ohrdruf, his brother Jacob a year later as court musician in Stockholm, and his sister Salome Wiegand in 1728 in Erfurt.
In the absence of public social and welfare programs, family and self-reliance played a major role in managing all kinds of hardships, and through several generations the extended Bach family was exemplary in this respect. When Ambrosius moved from Erfurt to Eisenach, he took along his youngest sister, Dorothea Maria, then nineteen and in need of intensive care because she was seriously handicapped, both physically and mentally. The family was also joined by Eva Barbara Lämmerhirt, Elisabeth Bach's widowed mother, who left her Erfurt home perhaps in order to provide a helping hand to her daughter and her growing family, but perhaps also because she needed help herself. She died just one year after the move, in 1673, and Dorothea Maria did not live much longer either; she was buried in 1679. Three years later, two of Ambrosius's cousins, Christian (7) and Nicolaus (9), fell victim to the plague that swept through Erfurt in 1682-83 and diminished the city's population by almost half; their colleague and friend Johann Pachelbel lost his wife and baby son as well. To escape the plague, Christian's son Johann Jacob (b. 1668) moved to Eisenach and became an apprentice and then journeyman to Ambrosius. He remained with his uncle for almost ten years, but died of an unknown cause in 1692for young Sebastian, the second death at home within a year. From July 1683, Ambrosius and Elisabeth Bach also took care of the orphaned one-year-old Johann Nicolaus, who was born shortly after his father, Nicolaus (9), had died of the plague in July 1682. When the boy's mother died almost exactly a year later, it fell to Elisabeth to provide a home for her stepsister's grandson. Johann Nicolaus later went to school together with his younger cousin Sebastian and left Eisenach for Erfurt only after Elisabeth Bach's death in 1694.
The Eisenach Bachs' house was always full, populated not only with children and relatives, but also with the apprentices. This meant that the house ordinarily had to accommodate three additional people between fifteen and twenty years of age, assuming that the fourth of the town piper's consorts was a journeyman who provided his own accommodation. Clearly, the need for adequate living quarters for the director of the town band cannot be underestimated. At first, Ambrosius rented an apartment in the house of the ducal head forester, Balthasar Schneider, near the Frauenplan (site of today's Ritterstrasse 11). After Ambrosius and his family acquired citizenship in Eisenach in 1674, they purchased a home. (This house, however, in which Sebastian was born, no longer stands.) Situated at the Fleischgasse (the site of today's Lutherstrasse 35) in the center of town, the house was registered in Ambrosius Bach's name from 1675 to 1695. Among his later neighbors on the same street were his cousin Johann Christoph Bach (13) and the cantor Andreas Christian Dedekind. When Ambrosius purchased the house, he probably used funds left by his mother-in-law, Eva Barbara Lämmerhirt. Since the Lämmerhirts ran a successful fur business in Erfurt (from which Johann Sebastian later received a generous inheritance), town councillor Valentin Lämmerhirt's widow had not been left without means; before joining her daughter's household in Eisenach, she had sold her Erfurt house to Johann Bach for 120 florins. In general, there was no serious financial trouble in Ambrosius Bach's householdquite the opposite of the rather desperate economic situation in which, for example, his Eisenach cousin and companion, the town organist Johann Christoph (13), constantly found himself.
In early 1684, Ambrosius was offered the directorship of the town music company in Erfurt, a post that had been vacant since the death of Johann Christian Bach (7) in 1682 and that had remained unfilled while the plague was still raging. His native Erfurt, three times the size of Eisenach, made Ambrosius an attractive offer that compared favorably with his present situation. He wrote to the Eisenach town council describing the financial burden of providing for a family with six children and of employing three journeymen and an unspecified number of apprentices, the abatement of additional income resulting from frequent public mourning periods, and the constant quarrels with the "beer fiddlers" (freelance musicians), who were interfering with his businessin short, he explained that conditions in Erfurt would permit a more cost-efficient and pleasant life. Though neither the Eisenach town council nor the ducal court consented to his request for dismissal, they did agree to pay him an indemnity of 1 florin during public mourning periods. Johann Sebastian would have been born in Erfurt had his parents left Eisenach then, but as it was, he grew up in the town below the Wartburg, in an environment that significantly shaped his talents, character, and outlook.
In the Ambience of Home, Town, Court, School, and Church
Johann Sebastian Bach's baptism in 1685 took place in the immediate vicinity, within a diameter of no more than an eighth of a mile, of the four institutions that formed the foundation of seventeenth-century musical culture in Germany: town, court, school, and church. All four would not only play an essential role in Bach's later career, they also influenced the boy's formative years from the very beginning: the town hall with its music ensemble, the civic organization chiefly responsible for official and public musical events; the ducal castle with its court capelle, the center of aristocratic musical patronage; St. George's Latin School with its Chorus musicus, the primary domicile of high-level musical education; and St. George's Church with its organ and choir loft, the principal home of sacred music. Church, castle, and town hall faced the market square in the city's busy center, and the little boy Sebastian must often have gone from one establishment to another, first at his father's side, watching him perform his duties, later fulfilling minor chores (perhaps as assistant stage manager, page turner, or the like), and eventually as a student at the Latin school and as a choirboy. It all began at home, of course, and was brought back there as wellthe house of a town piper, though not an institution as such, nevertheless served as a central establishment of professional music making. Sebastian could not have realized that everything he experienced amounted to a concrete preview of his later activities, but he must have understood and probably never questioned that this was, indeed, his world and always would be. Throughout his life, he remained truthful to his Eisenach background and loyal to his Eisenach citizenship, the only one he ever carried. Later, and surely with pride, he often added his place of origin to his name: "Johann Sebastian Bach Isenacus" or "Isenacensis," or in the abbreviated form "ISBI."
Eisenach, a town of some six thousand when Bach was born, lay well positioned on the so-called Hohe or Ober-Straßeat the time a major east-west trade and post route in Germanybetween Leipzig and Frankfort-on-the-Main or, viewed on a larger scale, between Warsaw and eastern Europe on the one hand and the Rhineland, northern France, and the Netherlands on the other. Like almost everywhere else in central Germany, Eisenach had been hard hit by the Thirty Years' War, and by the time Ambrosius Bach arrived, the town had barely recovered from its turmoils. Hence the year 1672, when the city became the capital of an independent principality, marked an important turning point that basically coincided with the beginning of Ambrosius's tenure of office. The new political status of the town, whose population by 1710 would grow to around nine thousand, had a direct impact on its economy and culture and, by implication, on the musical scene at large, with the latter serving primarily but not exclusively the purposes of the court. For example, the mere fact that the dukes moved their official residence to the city made the principal church of the town the court church, a situation that affected in particular the feast days of the liturgical year. (For the Lutheran Church calendar, see Appendix 4.)
The town piper's house on the Fleischgasse also served as a base for Ambrosius's professional activities. As a result, Sebastian absorbed from the very beginning an atmosphere dominated by music and musicians, involving the entire family and almost all who lived with them. Ambrosius typically employed four assistants, of which two or three were apprentices; they were entitled to room and board in the town piper's house in exchange for services. An apprentice learned to play all types of musical instruments and generally stayed with his master for five to six years, by which time he reached the status of journeyman. After traveling and working with different masters or staying on with the original master and gaining more experience, a journeyman could then apply to fill vacant posts in the town music company. These salaried positions were usually available in two categories, art fiddlers and the higher-ranked town pipers; in Thuringia, the head town piper was usually called Hausmann, a traditional term deriving from his original function as the tower guard, who was also responsible for winding the public clocks.
When Sebastian was three years old, his second-oldest brother, fifteen-year-old Balthasar, having reached a certain level of musical proficiency, began to apprentice with his father. Sebastian could thus observe both his father and his big brother at work. The numerous musical activities of family members and apprentices that penetrated domestic life at the town piper's house consisted not merely of teaching, practicing, rehearsing, and performing, but also of collecting and copying music, repairing and maintaining musical instruments, and other endeavors related to an extended music-business establishment. There is no question that in an age when child labor was a mere matter of course, the sons of Ambrosius Bach became involved in their father's activities from early on, whether carrying music or instruments, cleaning brass, or restringing fiddles. They would also have assisted in performances by playing various instruments according to the level of proficiency they had acquired, versatility counting among the most fundamental and useful musical virtues.
Ambrosius's duties as director of the Eisenach town music company included, according to his contract, two primary obligations. The first was performing twice daily, at 10 A.M. and 5 P.M., with a band of five at the town hall. This Abblasen (literally "blowing off") of so-called tower pieces, mostly for shawm or sackbut ensembles (usually sonatas, intradas, dances, and chorales), normally took place on the balcony of the town hall and rang out over the entire marketplace. The second duty was performing at worship services in St. George's Church on all Sundays and feast days, before and after the sermon and also at the afternoon Vespers, as directed by the cantor. All additional activities were undertaken for separate fees, resulting in supplementary income that typically exceeded Ambrosius's annual salary by a considerable margin. They included playing at such civic events as town council elections and receptions for out-of-town dignitaries, and at weddings, funerals, and other private occasions.
Eisenach citizens needing musical services were required to hire the members of the town music company. Beer fiddlers could serve only if the town musicians were unavailable or needed reinforcement; in such cases, the guild regulations specified that the town musicians were to collect the regular fee, while the beer fiddlers would receive just a gratuity. These regulations naturally led to constant quarreling over the exclusive, jealously guarded rights of the town musicians; they were often violated as well by townsfolk seeking specially discounted services at weddings, and Ambrosius complained more than once about pointed disagreements and unpleasant relationships with the beer fiddlers.
Shortly after taking up his post in October 1671 as Hausmann in Eisenach, Ambrosius became an affiliated member of the ducal court capelle, an ensemble of modest size established under dukes Johann Georg I (r. 1672-86) and Johann Georg II (r. 1686-98) of Saxe-Eisenach. When in 1672 Johann Georg I moved to Eisenach, the violinist Daniel Eberlin and four trumpeters came along from Marksuhl, the previous ducal residence, and formed the nucleus of a new court capelle; they were joined by the violinist and dance master Jean Parison and the lutenist Louis Parisel. Eberlin, who dedicated to the duke his principal published instrumental opus, a set of trio sonatas, received an official appointment as court capellmeister (leader of the court musicians) and master of the pages in 1685, a position he occupied for seven years. (His future son-in-law, Georg Philipp Telemann, served as court capellmeister from 1708 to 1712.) In addition to the few full-time members, the capelle drew on part-time musicians, who functioned as lackeys and filled court service positions of various kinds. They were also regularly joined by the town musician Ambrosius Bach and his cousin the town organist Christoph Bach (13), who both held court appointments. According to his contract, Ambrosius was required "always to perform with his people [the town music company] in the court capelle."
For special events, the court recruited additional musical personnel from neighboring town and court ensembles at Cassel, Gotha, or Arnstadt. In 1690, a band of woodwind players was added as a fashionable musical innovation, providing the capelle with a regular complement of oboes, recorders, bassoons, and drums. Also, for a period of one year beginning in May 1677, the twenty-four-year-old Johann Pachelbel served the Eisenach capelle before he went on to Erfurt as organist of the Predigerkirche, where he succeeded Johann Bach (4). Pachelbel's short stay clearly left a mark on Ambrosius Bach's family, suggesting a close, cordial, and lasting friendship. In 1680, Pachelbel became godfather to Ambrosius's daughter Johanna Juditha (though he was unable to travel from Erfurt for the baptism) and in 1686 teacher and mentor of Ambrosius's son Johann Christoph, at whose Ohrdruf wedding in 1694 Pachelbel performed along with his friends among the extended Bach family (see Chapter 2).
In addition to the town hall and castle, the third building located on Eisenach's large main square that made up Ambrosius Bach's base of operations was the imposing twelfth-century St. George's Church, which served both the townspeople and the ducal court. The nave of the church, with its three galleries on the south and north sides, was designed to hold more than two thousand worshippers. Here, in the western choir and organ gallery, Ambrosius regularly played with his consorts on all Sundays and feast days and for special services such as funerals and weddings. As well as accompanying the choir, they performed with vocal soloists in all sorts of concerted pieces.
The choir consisted of students from the Latin school's Chorus musicus (or Chorus symphoniacus or Cantorey), who were selected on the basis of their musical experience and were granted stipends as choral scholars. The cantor (choral director) also served as teacher of the fourth class (quarta). At the beginning of Ambrosius's Eisenach tenure, Johann Andreas Schmidt served as cantor; he was succeeded in 1690 by Andreas Christian Dedekind, who had previously served as cantor in Arnstadt, where he became a good friend of the Bach family. The school's chorus musicus supplied the church with polyphonic music for regular services throughout the ecclesiastical year and for special services. It also performed for secular occasions such as town council elections, civic ceremonies (for example, at the town hall's Ratskeller for the New Year's Day celebration), staged comedies, and certain courtly events such as birthdays in the ducal family. By tradition, several times a year and especially around New Year's Day, the chorus musicus divided into smaller groups, so-called Currenden, that sang in the streets of Eisenach and outlying villages to collect money for the teachers and needy students. Martin Luther had once been among such Currende singers.
According to the Weimar Church Order of 1664 (which also applied to Eisenach), there were four designated places for polyphony in the liturgy of the main Sunday worship service: after the readings of the Epistle and the Gospel, after the sermon, and during Communion. The standard repertoire included motets and other unaccompanied (a cappella) music, as available in the so-called Eisenach Cantional. This book, compiled around 1535 and used throughout the seventeenth century, contained compositions by Johann Walter, Ludwig Senfl, Josquin Desprez, Jacob Obrecht, Thomas Stoltzer, and others. More recent music was also performed: works by Michael Praetorius, Johann Hermann Schein, Heinrich Schütz, and Andreas Hammerschmidt; motet collections (for four to eight voices) by Abraham Schadaeus, Melchior Franck, Samuel Scheidt, and Ambrosius Profe; and compositions of Eisenach's own Johann Christoph Bach (13). Vocal concertos or concertato motets invariably required the participation of the town musicians and on rarer occasions also the capellisten of the court, who were joined with the chorus musicus; the combined forces were usually led by the cantor, but on certain occasions (Easter 1672, for example) by the Hausmann.
Ambrosius Bach's sons, who all attended St. George's Latin School, were presumably members of the chorus musicus, so they would regularly have participated in vocal-instrumental performances with their father. Eight-year-old Sebastian's name shows up on a list of students in the fifth class (quinta) of the Latin school in the old Dominican monastery. The school offered six classes, and students generally remained in one class for two years. Although very few students actually made it through all classes, graduation from the first (prima, or highest) qualified them for entrance at a university. The school's excellent leadership and high reputation attracted students from a wide region. For the years 1656-97, Heinrich Borstelmann served as rector. Conrector from 1675 was M. Christian Zeidler, previously a professor of Greek and Latin in Coburg; from 1693, he first substituted for the ailing Borstelmann and then held the rectorship from 1697 to 1707. Entrusted with supervising the school from 1691 to 1719 was the theologian M. Johann Christoph Zerbst, general superintendent of churches for the duchy and the clergyman who had baptized Sebastian. He himself had once been a student at the school, a member and prefect of its chorus musicus, and assistant to organist Johann Christoph Bach (13)clearly someone who fit quite well into the scheme of relationships maintained by the extended Bach family.
In Eisenach, as in most regions and cities of Lutheran Germany at the time, school attendance was mandatory for all boys and girls from age five to twelve. Legislation enacted by Duke Johann Georg I in 1678 because of frequent violations specified that it was a punishable offense for parents within and outside the city walls not to send their children to school. They could, however, choose freely among the eight German schools and the Latin school, although the latter admitted boys only, aged seven to twenty-four. The German schools were mostly small neighborhood establishments, often run by a single schoolmaster, and all followed a prescribed curriculum that focused on religion, grammar, and arithmetic. While they did not ordinarily keep enrollment records, one of the German schools happened to be located in the Fleischgasse, so most likely Sebastian attended there from age five to seven before joining the fifth class (quinta) of the Latin school.
That Sebastian could enter the Latin school's quinta directly indicates that at the age of eight he not only was able to read and write but had also mastered the subject matters covered in the sexta. Both the German and Latin schools were dominated by religious instruction, with Bible, hymnal, and catechism as the most important texts. Following the Thirty Years' War, schools in Thuringia and beyond were profoundly influenced by the educational reforms of Jan Amos Comenius, bishop of the Moravian Brethren, and Andreas Reyher, rector of the gymnasium in Gotha, who modernized and restructured the century-old school plans. Without straying from the theological focus, Comenius and Reyher systematized the areas of knowledge and stressed, in addition to the study of languages, grammar, and logic, the importance of contact with objects in the environment, with "real things." As they did not consider religion and science to be incompatible, belief in God as creator and the perfection of God's creation remained as central as ever. Their books and pedagogy (Q: "Why do you go to school?" A: "So that I may grow up righteous and learned") would exert a strong influence on Sebastian's schooling in Eisenach, Ohrdruf, and Lüneburg, from the elementary level through the prima.
Having entered the quinta at a younger age than any of his brothers had, Sebastian graduated from the class in 1694 as the fourteenth of seventy-four students of the school. The teacher of the quinta was Johann Christoph Juncker, and the subject matter to be covered included Luther's Catechism, the psalms, and writing, reading, and grammatical exercises in German and Latin. From the fourth class onward, the main language of instruction was Latin; here, Sebastian fell back to twenty-third place (still two places ahead of his brother Jacob) among the students in the class. But in that year, the ten-year-old lost both parents within the space of nine months, and it is remarkable that he did not fall behind any further. Fortunately, his teacher was the cantor Andreas Christian Dedekind. The boys knew him well as a close friend of the family, and he was able to give Sebastian and Jacob much-needed support during this particularly difficult year.
Sebastian missed forty-eight full days in the school year 1692-93, twenty-nine and a half the next year, and fifty-one and a half the next. Not surprisingly, his academic performance was the best for the year in which he was absent the least. We can only speculate why he missed school: he may have been ill (his brother Jacob was absent less frequently during the same time), or he and Jacob may have been needed to assist in their father's business or take part in other family-related matters.
It was the custom of the extended Bach family to gather together once a year. As Bach's first biographer, Johann Nicolaus Forkel, reported,
The different members of this family had a very great attachment to each other. As it was impossible for them all to live in one place, they resolved at least to see each other once a year and fixed a certain day upon which they had all to appear at an appointed place. Even after the family had become much more numerous ... they continued their annual meetings, which generally took place in Erfurt, Eisenach, or Arnstadt. Their amusements, during the time of their meeting, were entirely musical. As the company wholly consisted of cantors, organists, and town musicians, who had all to do with the Church, and as it was besides a general custom at the time to begin everything with Religion, the first thing they did, when they were assembled, was to sing a chorale. From this pious commencement they proceeded to drolleries which often made a very great contrast with it. For now they sang popular songs, the contents of which were partly comic and partly naughty, all together and extempore, but in such a manner that the several parts thus extemporized made a kind of harmony together, the words, however, in every part being different. They called this kind of extemporary harmony a Quodlibet, and not only laughed heartily at it themselves, but excited an equally hearty and irresistible laughter in everybody that heard them.
Since there were no vacation periods except for harvest time in the fall, these yearly meetings by necessity had to cut into the school schedule. They could take place only on regular weekdays, because on Sundays and religious holidays the musicians all had their church obligations to meet. Therefore, travel to a family gathering in Arnstadt or Erfurt from Eisenach would easily have cost the schoolchildren two or three days of school.
The annual tradition of family reunions may well have been confined to the generation of Hans Bach's (2) sons and grandsons active in the geographic triangle Erfurt-Arnstadt-Eisenach. But the actual source for Forkel's illuminating report can only be what Sebastian Bach himself later told one of his sons. It is more than likely that young Sebastian started accompanying his parents to these family gatherings at an early age, and that they had more or less ended when he reached mature adulthood. At any rate, his own and his siblings' integration into the large family of professional musicians developed as a matter of course, probably in the same way that the young children learned to handle the tools and materials of the family trade. Considering their school commitments, the children would have had sufficient time to begin a disciplined study of the string and wind instruments that a town piper was expected to master. The weekly school schedule was arranged so that there were two "half day" teaching periods, the first session from 6 to 9 A.M. (in the summer, 7-10 in winter), Monday through Saturday, and the second session from 1 to 3 P.M., with no afternoon sessions on Wednesday or Saturday. For the select chorus musicus, the cantor assembled the students on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday for an additional hour, 12-1.
The musically inclined Sebastian also took the opportunity to spend time with his father's cousin Christoph Bach (13), town organist and court harpsichordist in Eisenach. Sebastian would later refer to him in the family Genealogy as "the profound composer," and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach would add "the great and expressive composer." None of the older family members ever received comparable epithets, let alone a whole paragraph at the beginning of Sebastian Bach's Obituary, where Christoph's music is described as
strong in the invention of beautiful ideas as well as in the expression of the meaning of the words. His writing was, so far as the taste of his day permitted, galant and singing as well as remarkably polyphonous. To the first point, a motet written seventy-odd years ago, in which, apart from other fine ideas, he had the courage to use the augmented sixth, may bear witness; and the second point is borne out just as remarkably by a church piece composed by him for 22 obbligato voices without the slightest violence to the purest harmony, as by the fact that both on the organ and on the clavier he never played in fewer than five real parts.
That the Eisenach Christoph is so clearly singled out points to the kind of role model he must have represented for Sebastian, who not only remembered what may have seemed to a child like sheer magic ("he never played in fewer than five real parts"), but who also later described Christoph's music as beautiful, expressive, progressive, and well crafted. The work "for 22 obbligato voices" is the vocal concerto "Es erhub sich ein Streit," a piece for St. Michael's Day that Sebastian later performed in Leipzig. Scored for a double choir of 5 voices each, 4 trumpets, timpani, 3 violins, 3 violas, and continuo (violoncello, violone, and organ), the work is exemplary in its design and its musical interpretation of the text (Michael and his angels fight against the dragon; Revelation 12:7-12). The instrumental introduction (Sinfonia) for strings sounds like the sweetest, most beautifully melodious angels' consort, while at the same time providing the necessary background against which the musical portrayal of a fateful battle unfolds. The opening words ("And there was war") are sung in successive vocal entrances whose martial character is underscored by simple rhythmic and intervallic patterns typical of a military band of field trumpeters and drummers. But the instruments are only gradually introducedthe timpani begin and the trumpets followbuilding up the angels' fight with the dragon to an enormous climax at the words "and prevailed not," when the music reaches its first effective cadence.
According to the Obituary, this vocal concerto, which required the combined forces of the Latin school's chorus musicus, the town music company, and the court capelle, originated before 1680. If Sebastian did not actually participate in a performance in Eisenach, there would have been numerous opportunities for him to hear and perform other music of his renowned relative. Because Ambrosius was not a composer, as far as we know, Johann Christoph Bach's possibly latent influence takes on seminal importance. In the 1690s, he was the only figure of stature in Eisenach who could be identified with the creation of exciting new music, and he was also not afraid of daring something unusual ("he had the courage to use the augmented sixth"). Christoph seems to have fascinated the young boy through his compositions and, in particular, through his activities as organist.
Christoph Bach's significance as a keyboard virtuoso can hardly be judged on the basis of his surviving works for organ and harpsichord, which do not measure up in either quantity or quality to his vocal oeuvre. In fact, his particular strength may well have been improvisation, and he may not have been interested in committing the results of his extemporaneous performances to paper. Again, Sebastian's father is not known to have been an expert keyboard player (although he certainly possessed at least basic skills), and so Ambrosius's cousin Christoph must have provided a most natural source of inspiration for the art of organ and harpsichord playing. Sebastian's good relations with some of Christoph's sons even after their father's death in 1703 speak for the closeness of his relationship with their father; for example, Sebastian's Eisenach classmate Johann Friedrich, Christoph's third son, would succeed him in 1708 in Mühlhausen.
The town organist was responsible for the service music at three of Eisenach's churches, St. George's, St. Nicholas's, and St. Anne's, and also for the maintenance of the churches' instruments. Both tasks kept him and his assistants busy, especially since the large organ at St. George's was in a notoriously bad state of repair. The other two churches owned relatively new instruments, St. Nicholas's dating from 1625 and St. Anne's from 1665. The organ at St. George's, by comparison, dated from 1576 and was enlarged and renovated three times before Johann Christoph Bach's arrival in 1665. Further repairs were carried out then, but by 1678 deficiencies had cropped up again. In 1691, Christoph submitted plans for an entirely new instrument, but only in 1697 was a contract signed with organ builder Georg Christoph Sterzing of Ohrdruf, at the price of two thousand florins. Final design plans for an organ of unprecedented size (fifty-eight stops on four manuals and pedal) were prepared by Bach in 1698, and what amounted to the largest organ project ever undertaken in Thuringia began to be realized soon thereafter. The work had to proceed in stages, and Bach was pleased to report in 1701 that "the new organ more and more reaches the state of completion." Sadly, he himself was never able to play the finished instrument, which was not dedicated until 1707, four years after his death.
All during the 1690s, Sterzing and Christoph Bach were more or less constantly busy fixing the old instrument with its three manuals (Oberwerk, Rückpositiv, Brustwerk) and pedal. This activity took place at a time when the boy Sebastian could well have been around to crawl behind the organ's facade and observe what was happening inside; here he would have seen metal and wooden pipes, wind chests, trackers, bellows, and other components of a large-scale mechanical instrument whose complexity was unsurpassed by any other machine in the seventeenth century. Where else but here were the seeds sown for a lifelong fascination with organ design and technology? Moreover, Sterzing, who kept his workshop in Ohrdruf until 1697, remained accessible to Sebastian when he, too, lived there from 1695. A little over twenty years after Sebastian had left the Eisenach Latin school, in 1716, Sterzing and Johann Georg Schröter completed a new organ for the Augustinerkirche in Erfurt, and one of the two examiners brought in to test the instrument on behalf of the church consistory was the most respected organ expert in Thuringia at the time, the concertmaster and court organist to the duke of Saxe-Weimar, Johann Sebastian Bach.
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