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There are a number of such holes in depictions of Johann Sebastian Bach's life. Generally they begin with the family tree. The story goes that in his lifetime the Bachs held virtually all the positions as organists and other musicians in Thuringia. Veit Bach, who had immigrated from Hungary 120 years earlier, had remarkably strong powers of reproduction. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach recounted to Johann Nikolaus Forkel that the Bachs got together every year for a big family reunion, and a quodlibet for such an occasion has been preserved from Bach's Arnstadt period. But every year? Later we learn nothing more about such family gatherings, and at Bach's death all the Bachs appear equally indifferent to the event, as though these reunions had never taken place. Where were they then? Karl Geiringer, in his book on the Bach family of musicians, passes over this in silence. Certainly there were some very capable composers among them: Heinrich Bach, his son Johann Christoph, and his son Johann Michael as well; Johann Bernhard Bach, progenitor of the Erfurt Bachs; and Johann Lorenz, great-nephew of old Christoph.
Legend has praised one of the Bachs to the skies in particular: Johann Sebastian's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. But Albert Emil Brachvogel's novel about him is just as broadly fictitious as the Bach novel Toccata and Fugue by Hans Franck and Józef Ignacy Kraszewski's novel about Countess Cosel. Poetry has always triumphed over truth: Switzerland owes the worldwide fame of its national hero Wilhelm Tell above all to Friedrich von Schiller, who never laid eyes on Switzerland, whereas the Chronicon Helveticum of Aegidius Tschudi that forms the basis of his drama is known to specialists at best and virtually unknown to most literary scholars.
More research is needed, then, on the whereabouts of the Bachs who made music in Thuringia around 1700. Christoph Rueger expresses his surprise that a genius should suddenly have arisen among so many "mediocre" musicians. But Handel and Bruckner lack musical kindred altogether, and mediocrity as the measure of all things is a relative proposition. What seems mediocre or insignificant to posterity often appeared important or even outstanding to contemporaries. Who knows Paer or Kozeluch nowadays, and what opera house still performs Spontini?
Among the Bachs musical talent was apparently hereditary in the widely extended family, and so was the choice of profession. That the sons should become musicians in turn and that the daughters should marry musicians was natural in a world of firmly established social ranks.
Martin Geck would have us believe that it was not heredity at all that made Johann Sebastian into a musician like the other Bachs, but rather the artistic atmosphere of the court city Eisenach. It is true that his father, Johann Ambrosius, was not only town musician there but served as court trumpeter as well. Still, there are no grounds for asserting that in those days Eisenach as a city could boast of a distinguished musical standing, much less that it could have exercised a decisive influence in this regard on little Sebastian. Of course music was played in Ambrosius's house, and lots of music was called for in the town of Eisenach, otherwise why have a town musician and his town band? The term itself was not at all belittling as such: Town bands still existed into the first third of the twentieth century; they made music that was not to be sneezed at, and serious musicians issued from their ranks. One of them was Paul Lincke, who is not taken seriously by musicology but whose compositions prevail without it because they combine splendid ideas with the most solid workmanship. Today the Eisenach band would be called the municipal orchestra and Johann Ambrosius Bach the municipal music director. At the time, it was understood that he was not only obliged to look after his two journeymen and two apprentices but also had to arrange for the appearances of the free-lance musicians, the "beer fiddlers."
No doubt as he exercised his calling his art was hardly, to echo Schiller's words, a "high, heavenly goddess," but rather first and foremost a "productive cow, that provided him with butter." "Town band," "journeymen," "apprentices"-all these terms underline the craftsmanly nature of the profession. In that sense musicians resembled the painters of the period, who had to conceive of their art as a craft and adapt themselves to the wishes of their customers. They pursued their art in order to fulfill the needs of their fellow men, just like bakers, cobblers, and tailors. Presumably, an artist who chiefly lived for his own aims would have seemed fairly superfluous not only to his fellow men but also to himself. There was no connoisseurship as yet for the metaphysical meaning of tone clusters, scrap-metal sculptures, and "happenings"; the population was not open-minded enough. The city remunerated its municipal music director very meagerly: Already at eighteen, as an organist in Arnstadt, Johann Sebastian had a better salary than his father. But for both father and son their main income, in Eisenach as later in Leipzig, came from earnings on the side. The position, the title, provided respectability; as for earning a living, the court trumpeter and town musician had to take care of that himself, just as the director musices would later have to do in Leipzig.
Spitta and others have voiced their astonishment that the later, so tirelessly active Johann Sebastian should have been the king of hooky players in his Eisenach days. A plausible explanation seemed to fit: The Eisenach school was so bad that the youngster simply was not interested.
Now that is most improbable: Even in the midst of his duties, it is unlikely that Bach's father would have lost track of his youngest son so completely as not to notice his absences from class. It is also unlikely that he would have left it up to a child to decide about the quality of the instruction offered. No, the boy had a very passable voice and musical understanding on top of that; he was merely more useful in the choir than in school. He was supposed to become a musician anyway, not a scholar. So it was quite comprehensible that the youngster, just as farmers' children still did at the beginning of the twentieth century, would have stayed away from school as often as he was needed. Sebastian, the constantly absent pupil, was not an idler. "I had to be hardworking early on," he himself later declared.v Besides, having a truant as his youngest son would not have been compatible with the prestige of the town musician and court trumpeter. He was a highly respected personage. That can be surmised from the fact that Erfurt city councilor Valentin Lämmerhirt had given him his daughter Elisabeth as a wife, so that he was closely connected with city council circles as a son-in-law. And "city council society" counted for something in the strictly divided ranks of the bourgeoisie at that time. A councilor would not have entrusted his daughter to just any musician. Town musician Bach was already a man of standing in his youth, and he doubtless enjoyed a substantially higher reputation with the Eisenach city council than his famous son did later with the three councils in Leipzig.
His house stood either on the Frauenplan or at today's 35 Luther Street. But the address is meaningless. Nowadays those who visit the house on the Frauenplan, which has been set up as a Bach Museum, learn next to nothing about life in Eisenach at the time or about the household into which Johann Sebastian Bach was born.
It was quite a lively home. The children grew up among musicians from the very beginning. That the sons would also become musicians was taken for granted. In Bach's childhood the eldest of them was already living elsewhere and holding down a steady job. Sebastian had to sing in the choir as soon as he could sing at all, just like his brother Johann Jacob, who was older by three years. Among children three years is a significant age difference, but Johann Jacob was the closest in age to Sebastian. The parents could hardly pay much individual attention to their children. What with journeymen and apprentices there were a lot of mouths to feed, and there were also many obligations: weddings, christenings, funerals, official celebrations, family festivities, and annual holidays. On such occasions self-respecting people ordered the services of the choir, the town band, or both. And twice a day-at ten in the morning and at five in the afternoon-the court trumpeter had to blow his trumpet abroad from city hall. If no symphony concerts by the town band were scheduled, then there was "useful music" to be made. And nobody should turn up his or her nose at the word "useful." The only really bad music is music that is not used, or worse, that is of no use at all.
The home of town musician Bach was a busy and flourishing place, but destiny struck even before Johann Ambrosius Bach could celebrate his silver anniversary with his wife. On May 2, 1694, he had to bury her, and with her died the soul of the house. The household could not make do without a housewife, and after half a year of mourning Sebastian's father married the twice-widowed, dependable Mrs. Keul from Arnstadt. But his beloved twin brother died in the fall of that same year, and the following February, just nine months after the death of his first wife, Johann Ambrosius was laid to rest alongside both of them. He was only fifty years old.
Sebastian was nine when he lost his mother, and before he turned ten he was an orphan. It was the first heavy blow in his life. His mother's death changed many things; his father's death changed everything. The Eisenach city council turned a cold shoulder to the widow. It terminated all salary payments and denied her the widow's portion, as well as the continued direction of the town band with the journeymen, though all this had been granted by the Arnstadt city council to the twin brother's widow. Thus the whole household had to be disbanded and room made for a successor. The city of Eisenach would soon need another town musician, and as far as we know it was not one of the Bachs.
The now thrice-widowed woman returned to Arnstadt. Their father's house was no more, and Jacob and Sebastian were completely orphaned. That meant they had lost parental care, friends, housing, and familiar surroundings. Of their childhood there was nothing left.
True, there was still an organist named Johann Christoph Bach in Eisenach, but he belonged to the Arnstadt branch, so he was only a distant relative. He himself lived in hard-pressed circumstances, as his petitions to the city council demonstrate (from which biographers have concluded that, because he complained, he must have been a difficult person).
Johann Ambrosius's firstborn, who like the Eisenach organist was named Johann Christoph, took the two youngest children in. He was already twenty-four and recently married; his wife was expecting their first child. On the occasion of his wedding, a note in the church register called him "a young but artful man," suggesting that he had already made a name for himself as an organist. His organ teacher was Johann Pachelbel, still famous to this day, who was then in his eighth year as organist at the Preachers Church in Erfurt after having previously spent a year in Eisenach as court organist.
Christoph stayed with Pachelbel for three years, and then he received a post himself in Erfurt at the St. Thomas Church. After a short interlude in Arnstadt, in 1690 he obtained the position of organist at St. Michael's in Ohrdruf. It was actually linked to a teaching job at the Latin School, but he managed to free himself of that, just as his youngest brother, Sebastian, would later do in Leipzig. The household was not blessed with riches, and Ohrdruf was considerably smaller than Eisenach (which at about 8,000 inhabitants was not exactly a metropolis). Ohrdruf had little more than a single neighborhood. To be sure, a Count von Hohenlohe resided there: This village of a little over 2,000 inhabitants was a court city. But people did not derive much from that, unlike in Eisenach, where the duke of Saxe-Eisenach wanted to turn his ducal seat into a "small Paris" and lived decidedly beyond his means to maintain his court.
The big brother needed to farm and raise livestock in order to make ends meet as an organist. The most remarkable thing about this court city was not the court but the Latin School, the fame of which is unanimously acknowledged by Bach's biographers. The wider Bach relations sent their sons to Ohrdruf as well, where they found room and board at Christoph's house. (As long as Ambrosius Bach was still living, other Bachs had sent their children to the school in Eisenach, which implies that Eisenach was not too bad either.)
What strikes us is Sebastian's stunning success in Ohrdruf. The youngster who was absent from school so often in Eisenach managed to become fourth in his class in Ohrdruf right away and later first. He was permitted to skip a level and held his own in the next higher level, where the other pupils were two or more years older than he was. It necessarily follows from this that not only was he gifted, but the demands of the school clearly lay far below his aptitude. And his having left the school in order to continue his upper-level education in another school implies that his big brother, and he himself, considered there was more to be learned elsewhere than the Ohrdruf Latin School could offer.
Admittedly, there were other reasons as well. Jacob, the elder of the two, had remained in Christoph's house until he was fourteen (in other words, until his confirmation) and had then begun a musical apprenticeship with his father's successor in Eisenach. (His name has not come down to us, presumably because he never complained.) The brother had a heart for his relatives: Not only did Jacob and Sebastian find accommodations with him, but Christoph also for a time took in another young kinsman, Johann Ernst Bach, who went to school with Sebastian. But Sebastian was by that time fifteen, and Christoph's family had grown considerably in the meantime: He needed space for four children, and so there was simply no more room for his little brother. In the school codex there is a (very messily written) comment regarding Sebastian's departure: "ob defect. hospitios." This is interpreted in Bach's obituary as "death of the host"; Charles Sanford Terry amends it with the plural-"ob defectum hospitiorum"-and so wipes out the entire family. Yet Christoph Bach survived twenty-one years longer and lived to see his own sons receive the same favors from Sebastian that he had earlier done for his little brother.
In the year 1700 it was simply necessary to find Sebastian another place to stay. After finishing the first form in Ohrdruf, he could have gone on to the university in Erfurt, for example, which his big brother as well as his father had attended; it was his mother's hometown, and Nikolaus Bach was a well-respected university teacher there. College studies were a good qualification for a musical career; Bach later had his own two eldest sons study law, when he could still afford it. Nor was his tender age a deciding factor: A student could enroll in the university at sixteen with no problem (by the same token, pupils could be found at the secondary school in Arnstadt who were already over twenty). But Sebastian did not go the university in Erfurt; instead, he moved much farther away to attend the Latin School in Lüneburg and do the first level once again-without repeating his spectacular success in Ohrdruf, by the way, as far as we know. He had more important things to do.
From that time on, from his arrival in Lüneburg until the end of his life, he would earn his living through music: His music had to support him. There was no money for college studies. That same year Christoph, who was so averse to schoolteaching that he expressly had himself relieved of those duties when he took up his post as organist, had to apply for a position in the Latin School after all. In the church register the words "optimus artifex"-"a very good artist"-are written beside his name; but he could not live on that alone, just as Johann Sebastian would never have the necessary money at decisive junctures of his life either. There was not enough for university at the time, there was not enough later to acquire the official position that would have freed him from all troubles and annoyance, and again at the end of his life there was not enough for the printing of his musical legacy or even for his tombstone. "On the whole he led a fortunate life"-easy for Spitta to say from the comfort of a Berlin professor's residence.
When his big brother could no longer make room for him in his home, the circumstances still remained propitious. The assistant headmaster (Rektor) of the Ohrdruf Latin School, choirmaster Arnold, had been dismissed in 1687 as "pestis scholae, scandalium ecclesiae et carcinoma civitatis"-"a plague for the school, a scandal for the church, and a cancer for the citizenry"-and his successor, choirmaster Elias Herda, was a graduate of the Lüneburg Latin School. He had direct knowledge of the high importance placed on the cultivation of music there; he saw and heard what Sebastian was capable of in that domain. He also knew that there was always an interest in good singers in Lüneburg, so he recommended him-along with Georg Erdmann, his senior by two years-for a Freistelle, or "free place," there. It was more than a free place: Freistelle meant that tuition, room and board, and even firewood for the winter were free. The pupils also received modest fees for their participation in the chorus symphoniacus, or general chorus, and in the more selective matins choir. It is quite remarkable that Sebastian obtained this free place when he was still fifteen, since it was only to be expected that his beautiful soprano voice would not last much longer. But by this time he had also become a competent instrumentalist. As a child he had already been able to learn how a violin is handled from his father, who besides the trumpet also knew how to play the violin and viola. It is unthinkable that a boy as hungry for knowledge as little Sebastian would merely have stood by and watched him. And his brother had instructed him in keyboard instruments-quite methodically, as we know. When Handel, the same age as Bach, was already standing in for his teacher Zachau in Halle during church services, Sebastian's brother would not even let him touch the organ yet. But Bastian took to playing the clavier very quickly. "Our little Johann Sebastian's love of music was already uncommonly strong at this early age," the obituary tells us. "In no time he had mastered all the pieces his brother had voluntarily given him to learn." And it continues: "But a book that his brother owned, full of clavier pieces by the most famous masters of the time-Froberger, Kerll, Pachelbel-was denied to him, who knows for what reasons, regardless of his pleas. So his zeal to make further progress inspired him with the following innocent deceit. The book was stored in a cabinet whose doors consisted merely of grillwork. Since it was only bound in paper, he was able to reach through the grate with his small hands, roll up the book, and pull it out. Then he would copy it by moonlight, since he did not even have access to light. After six months this musical booty was happily in his hands. He was trying to make use of it, secretly and with extraordinary eagerness, when to his great dismay his brother found out about it, and mercilessly took away the copy he had gone to so much trouble to create. If we imagine a miser whose ship sank on the way to Peru with a cargo of a hundred thousand thalers, we might obtain a vivid idea of our little Johann Sebastian's sorrow over this loss of his. He did not recover the book until after his brother's death."
Geck is of the opinion that this story was made up out of whole cloth, that here "a harmless incident was trumped up into an anecdote"-as though old Bach had told lies to his sons! The truth is that the story is nothing short of a key event for understanding the grandiose, uniquely exceptional nature of Johann Sebastian Bach as a whole.
By this age other musical geniuses-Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn-had already been composing for quite some time. We have a delightful rondo by Beethoven written when he was fifteen. But Johann Sebastian Bach copies out other composers' pieces. Secretly. At night.
We would have to try imitating him to grasp fully what this involved for an eleven- to thirteen-year-old. Music paper had to be set aside, goose quills had to be cut, and the calendar and weather had to be taken into account. (The moon was not always full enough to shine, and anyway with clouds in the sky it would be too dark.) Children at such an age need their sleep, but he could not doze off. He had to stay awake until everybody else in the house had gone to bed, then arrange his utensils on the windowsill, creep over to the cabinet, and cautiously pull the book out-all without making a peep. And then he had to write and write by a wretched light as long as the moon was favorable. It rose an hour later each day, and he had to wait for the nights when it was at least halfway visible. You can almost write a text with your eyes shut. Even when the lines run together and the letters are blurred, they still remain legible. But notes have to be placed exactly on and between five lines, precisely on top of each other, with their different values, accidentals, and bar lines. Afterward all traces had to be eliminated, the book put back just as carefully as it had been removed. Then he had to get a bit of sleep, since school required daily achievement, and he also had to keep his big brother from noticing his lack of rest.
For a boy who is capable of carrying out something like this for months on end, music must consist of much more than music making. That could be taken for granted ("In no time he had mastered all the pieces"). But at the same time, over and above all that, music was for him-as we shall see later again and again-that continent whose exploration preoccupied him throughout his life no less than the exploration of the Arctic obsessed the great Amundsen.
For the fifteen-year-old, Lüneburg was an absolute stroke of luck. Even more than his lovely voice, his social status made him eligible for a free place in the school and the matins choir, whose members had to be "poor people's children, with nothing in life but good voices." That applied to him just as it did to his fellow pupil Georg Erdmann, two years his senior, and so the two of them set out, once choirmaster Herda of Ohrdruf had made the proper arrangements. They would have to walk more than 200 miles, and this in March, not exactly the most pleasant month for such an extended trek.
They must have spent more than two weeks on the road, and it is safe to assume that they had little money for provisions. But as of Easter, which came early that year, on April 3, 1700, we find them both registered as members of the matins choir in Lüneburg, and so began for Sebastian a period of the richest possible musical education, free from the systematic strictness of his brother's supervision. Other gifted people need a teacher who directs them and guides them, leading them step by step up the gradus ad Parnassum. Johann Sebastian Bach needed the possibility of looking about and experimenting. In Lüneburg he had the chance to do both, and he amply took advantage of the opportunity right away.
Bach's time in Lüneburg has never been rightly assessed in terms of his development as a musician. It truly became his musical university, and the relative shortness of his stay is not a significant factor. As his Ohrdruf schooldays demonstrate, Bach possessed an extraordinarily rapid intelligence-well nigh unbelievable when it came to music.
The matins choir had many duties: songs every morning; motets on Saturdays, Sundays, and feast days; and polyphonic music with orchestral accompaniment on the high holy days. In addition, within the framework of the chorus symphoniacus there were appearances for special occasions such as bridal Masses or weddings, funerals, and street singing. The income was distributed according to a rigorous pecking order, and the pupils received the least, but it was money all the same. More important than anything else was what they performed: so-called figural music, which is to be understood as polyphonic music composed contrapuntally. In contrapuntal composition there is no melody and accompaniment as in other types of music; rather, each voice serves as an independent melodic line, and yet the ensemble must also follow all the rules of harmonic composition. Naturally, participation in music such as this affords the budding musician a unique training of the ear, and a precise observation of the strengths and limits of the various types of voices.
In the matins choir, with its wide-ranging repertoire of contrapuntal music, the young Bach gained dominion over the praxis that later enabled him to make even his most difficult vocal parts still singable and to attain the extraordinary without going beyond the doable. Here he became familiar with an important repertoire of polyphonic music through practical experience. And what was not included in the program of choral singing he found in the school music library.
The school choirmaster, Friedrich Emanuel Praetorius, who was still active until 1695, had accumulated an extensive music collection, 1,100 items. So the young musician, who in Ohrdruf had had to try to copy out the compositions that fascinated him by night, found works here by about 200 composers from the last 150 years, practically a comprehensive survey of the music of his time. In addition there were the treasures from the archive of the Church of St. John, particularly the collection of organ compositions by such famous masters as Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Samuel Scheidt, Heinrich Scheidemann, Johann Jacob Froberger, Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Johann Kaspar von Kerll, and such important contemporaries as Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, and Nicolaus Bruhns. Scores by the French masters were also there, and Bach made himself copies (copies again!) of Nicolas de Grigny's Livre d'orgue, and of works by Dieupart and Gaspard Le Roux, Louis Marchand, François Couperin, and André Raison. (He would later base his great organ passacaglia on a theme of Raison's.) Italians were found in this collection too-Frescobaldi, Pergolesi-and Dutchmen like Orlando di Lasso.
All that was more for him than mere tonal impressions. It goes without saying that when he read the notes, he heard the tones, without using an instrument. But it is just as obvious that he had learned more from his brother than mere keyboard playing. Undeniably it was combined with thoroughbass, the ability to play harmonically complete keyboard music at sight from only a bass line together with notations for chords indicated by numbers and occasional accidentals written above the bass. The first and foremost prerequisite for this is a complete familiarity with the chords and the connections among them. From there the expanse of harmonic theory opens up all on its own. The young musician, who devoured the treasures of the music archives in Lüneburg, was not simply reading musical literature; he also possessed the keys to its creation. He knew the rules of harmony as well as those of polyphonic composition from daily experience. As an expert he contemplated not only the artworks but also their anatomy.
And did not compose! There are people like Terry who suspect the opposite, but they cannot prove it. The only evidence from that time is Bach's copies of other people's compositions. There is no other well-known composer who began composing through such extensive copying. The others overflowed with ideas; Bach was driven by a thirst for knowledge. Of course it could also be that he made his copies with the accumulation of a usable music stock in mind. But in that case why did he make copies of Couperin's and Dieupart's clavier music? He would never be able to use them in church services. No, what interested him was music in general.