Johann Sebastian Bach is of course one of the great composers in Western Music. His innovative and prolific musical output over the course of his long life is nothing short of astonishing. As it turns out, he also lived a surprisingly interesting life, as is well told in Harvard University Professor Christoph Wolff’s excellent one-volume Bach biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician.
Bach was born in 1685 as the youngest of eight siblings into a well-established family of musicians who were regionally famous at the time in German Thuringia. His great-grandfather, grandfather, father, three brothers and numerous uncles and cousins all made their living as court, church, or municipal musicians, and from an early age Bach followed in the family tradition.
Not that anything was guaranteed for Bach. His early life – and in fact, his whole life – was accompanied by occasions of death that seem almost unimaginable now. One of his seven siblings died before Bach was born, and two more died before Bach was 15 months old. His oldest surviving brother died when Bach was only 6. As if that were not enough, Bach separately lost both of his parents before he was ten. Death continued to stalk him; in 1720, when Bach returned home from a trip to Carlsbad with his then-employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, he found to his horror that while he was away not only had his wife, Maria Barbara, been sick, but she was already dead and buried.
Bach’s life itself was also full of struggles, the most significant of which was the struggle to earn a living sufficient to support his growing family – he remarried after his first wife’s death and the two women together birthed a total of 20 children. Bach also struggled to find a working situation that provided him with a platform sufficient to support his seemingly inexhaustible energy and his innovative urges. Until he found what proved to be his ultimate employment position as Music Director and Cantor at St. Thomas School in Leipzig in 1723, at age 38, where he was to finish the final 27 years of his life and musical career, Bach moved through a series of employment positions and seemingly was continuously on the lookout for a more promising opening.
The difficult realities of Bach’s life provide much of the backdrop for Wolff’s very interesting book. Wolff has a particular talent from drawing out telling incidents from Bach’s life that underscore how astonishing it is that Bach managed to produce music of such magnificent and enduring beauty, while he was forced like all of the rest of us to deal with the mundane reality of life on earth.
Wolff relates a couple of incidents that show just how far from some sort of lofty artistic ideal most of Bach’s real life actually was, at least on some occasions. For example, when Bach was just 20 years old and working in his first professional position as the Organist at the New Church in Arnstadt, Bach had to deal with the fact that his position required him to lead the student choir. These responsibilities were uncomfortable for Bach not only because these duties had not been mentioned in his contract, but also because he was younger than many of the students in the choir.
One evening in 1705, when Bach was crossing the market square with his cousin, Barbara Catherina, one of the students, a certain Geyersbach, who was standing in the square with a group of other students, confronted Bach. Geyersbach, an erstwhile bassoonist with the choir, was aggrieved because, he claimed, Bach had insulted him by calling him a “greenhorn bassoonist” (or words to that effect). Sharp words were exchanged and Geyersbach began hitting Bach with a stick. The two grappled with each other, rolling around in the market square exchanging blows. The other students separated them and Bach and his cousin quickly left the scene. Bach, fuming from the experience, reported the matter to the church court. After hearing the various accounts of the incident and confirming that Bach had indeed referred to Geyersbach by an insulting name in front of the other students, the church court took no further action other than to admonish Bach to try harder to get along with his students. Perhaps it was in the end a minor incident, but it is still quite jarring to picture the great and beloved Johann Sebastian Bach rolling around on the ground and wrestling with one of his students.
The incident with Geyersbach was not the only dispute between Bach and the church authorities while Bach was working in Arnstadt. Another more interesting incident occurred after Bach took a month’s leave of absence in order to realize his dream to meet the Lübeck-based organ virtuoso, Dieterich Buxtehude. Bach travelled the more than 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck on foot. His objective was to hear Buxtehude’s renowned playing directly, as well as to discuss performance and composition techniques with the great master. Bach found his encounter with Buxtehude enormously rewarding, and in the biography Wolff traces a number of Buxtehude’s influences in Bach’s subsequent compositions. But while Bach found the visit to be invaluable, he nonetheless caused trouble for himself by staying away from Arnstadt for nearly a quarter of a year, far longer than the four-week leave the church council had authorized. The church superintendent required Bach to appear before the council to defend his behavior. Bach, restless and chaffing against the church authorities’ strictures, soon sought another position elsewhere.
A later, darker incident from later in Bach’s life highlights just how fragile his artistic status was in the communities where he worked. In 1717, Bach was employed as concertmaster in the ducal court of Weimar, when he obtained a promising offer to take up a better-paying and higher-status position as capellemeister in the court of Anhalt-Köthen. In his eagerness to be released from his Weimar responsibilities and to take up the new position in Köthen, Bach apparently lost his temper, managing to directly draw the ire of Duke Wilhelm Ernst. As a result, Bach was arrested and imprisoned for a month “for stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavorable discharge.” As Wolff puts it in the biography, “apparently for no reason other than a show of anger,” Bach “was kept in jail for nearly four weeks, a period that marked the absolute low point in Bach’s professional life.”
Of course, overall, Bach’s life was not as comprehensively oppressed as these anecdotes might suggest. Wolff also recounts one triumphant episode from Bach’s early working life that also highlights Bach’s contemporary reputation for keyboard mastery. Earlier in 1717, when the famous French keyboard player Louis Marchand was visiting Dresden, the Dresden concertmaster invited Bach to come to Dresden to “engage in a musical contest of superiority” with Marchand, who had an apparently well-deserved reputation for haughtiness. Both Bach and Marchand accepted the invitation, and Bach travelled from Weimar to Dresden ready to engage in the contest. Marchand failed to appear and was later discovered to have left Dresden very early that morning by a special coach. Bach, “who remained the sole master of the scene,” dazzled the assembled audience with a demonstration of his keyboard mastery, “to the astonishment of all present.” Sadly, the 500-taler prize Bach was to have received was embezzled by a court official.
What makes Wolff’s biography of Bach so interesting and entertaining are not just that these kinds of anecdotes that help illuminate the kind of life Bach led; Wolff also has a truly unerring sense of the interesting detail that helps bring Bach to life as a human being.
For example, as part of describing a two-week visit Bach made in 1713 to Halle, as one of his seemingly never-ending efforts to try to secure a better working position, Bach was fortunate to be able to stay as a guest of the local church board at the city’s most luxurious hotel, the Inn of the Golden Ring. Wolff reprints in the biography the invoice from Bach’s stay at the Inn. The invoice shows that the total costs for Bach’s visit was 52 groschen. What is interesting about the invoice is not the total cost itself, but the detail. Thus, among the total expense of 52 groschen, 18 groschen went for beer. (Wolff reports that 18 groschen would buy 32 quarts of beer at then-current retail prices). An additional 8 groschen went for brandy, while yet another 4 groschen went for tobacco. While at the Inn, as Wolff writes, Bach, “presumably in his comfortable and well-heated hotel room, cheered by tobacco and brandy,” composed a cantata to a text provided by the church board, which he subsequently performed. (The composition, alas, is among the many Bach works that have been lost to us.) Bach was in fact offered the position in Halle, but he ultimately decided to turn the offer down for financial reasons.
There is a reason why Wolff chose to feature as seemingly insignificant an artifact as Bach’s hotel invoice and that is that there is relatively little remaining documentary record of Bach’s personal life. There is, Wolff notes, a “scarcity of pertinent historical information” about Bach due in part to “a paucity of personal writing and letters.” Wolff comments that as a result “it is difficult to glean much about [Bach’s] family and everyday life,” or even to “gain insight into Bach’s character.” In the end, if we are to know Bach, we must find him within his voluminous musical record.
If I had to choose just one piece that both is representative of Bach himself and of the beauty of his music, it would be his work for solo violin, the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bach was and is so well known for his keyboard virtuosity that it is easy to forget that he was also a skilled violinist; he often conducted instrumental or orchestral ensembles from the first violin chair. His Chaconne reflects Bach’s thorough appreciation for the violin as an instrument of musical expression.
The Chaconne is, at one level, a simple piece of music to describe – the 256-measure-long work consists of 64 variants on the four-measure phrase heard at the beginning. But as if so often the case with Bach’s works, the music is so much more than can be described in mere words. Among other things, it is important to know that, at least as scholars now believe, Bach wrote the Partita No. 2, of which the Chaconne is the final and longest part, immediately following his return home to find that his wife and the mother of seven of his children had died while he was away.
Johannes Brahms came closest to capturing the essence of the work when he said, “The Chaconne is for me one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
The contemporary violinist Joshua Bell said of the Chaconne that it is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”
Here is a video of the Bulgarian-born American violinist Bella Hristova playing the Chaconne at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 2013. In our modern era, it is no longer necessary to walk 250 miles to hear a virtuosic music performance, but even in our content-sated times, a brilliant performance of one of the greatest musical works ever written is still a singular, arresting experience. Close your door, start the music, and sit back and listen. As you do, consider our friend Johann Sebastian, as he meditates upon the sudden loss of his beloved wife, Maria Barbara, taken away in the very fullness of life. (If this does not give you goosebumps, dial 9-1-1 immediately, as you are, in fact, dead.)