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Johann Sebastian Bach - Secrets of the Success of Great Musicians

The previous contributions to this series were: Chopin (February, 1919); Verdi (April); Rubinstein (May); Gounod (June); Liszt (July); Tschaikowsky (August); Berlioz (September); Grieg (October); Rossini (December); Wagner (January, 1920); Schumann (February); Schubert (March); Mendelssohn (April); Beethoven (May); and Handel (June).
There are many great musicians whose lives can teach us how to “arrive,” but none like that of Johann Sebastian Bach, who not only can reveal to us that previous secret, but who is himself the key to the golden gate of Fame.
The deep study of the works of this great genius is indeed the indispensable foundation for every musician who is striving to attain the highest goal in the world of art. One could complete one’s musical education without Liszt, without Chopin, without Schubert, but one could not build up any solid construction in music without resting on the adamantine rock of Bach. Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn benefited by his works; Schumann advised all young musicians to make Bach “their daily bread;” Mendelssohn made Bach his guiding star; all earnest musicians agree that studying Bach is an imperative necessity. One could say that Bach embodies in himself the Secret of the Success of Great Musicians.”
bach-at-the-organ.jpgThe advent of a man of genius is not always an erratic phenomenon, but the combined result of his antecedents and of the character of his age and outward circumstances in which he developed. J. S. Bach was the child of a family who had for four generations cultivated music, not as a mere profession, but as an art, as the object of their lives, and his hereditary talent was fostered and turned into its peculiar channel by the spirit of the age in which he lived.
The creation of church music to suit the simple, deeply solemn services of the Lutheran Church was one of the great aims of Protestant Germany in the century after the Reformation. J. S. Bach made this aim his own and worked it out with all the zeal of a profoundly religious spirit and of a life of high moral rectitude.
The Reformation had introduced the new element of the Chorale sung by the congregation and accompanied on the organ. The artistic treatment of the chorale had been raised to a kind of science and is still cultivated in Germany. I remember when studying counterpoint with the great master, Friedrich Kiel, of Berlin (his oratorio, Christus, is recognized as one of the most magnificent religious works) that one of the favorite exercises he gave to his pupils was to put a chorale in one of the poor parts and to work out the others in the most elaborate counterpoint. Of course, the chorale, especially when relegated to the lower voices, was almost befogged by the other parts and only the most experienced ear could detect it; but this wonderful training enabled the pupil to treat the different voices with perfect facility and freedom. It was a kind of musical acrobacy.
The ancestors of J. S. Bach had devoted themselves chiefly to this branch of study and attained high positions in the service of the Protestant Church. Church music had become a specialty of the Bach family. To give an idea of the abundance of musical Bachs, it is enough to mention that at the time Sebastian lived, about thirty of the Bachs held positions as organists in Thüringia, Franconia and Saxony. Down to the end of the eighteenth century he name assumed a generic sense and all musicians at Erfurt were called the “Bachs.”
Veit Bach, a German baker living at Presburg, in Hungary, during the latter half of the sixteenth century, had to leave Hungary on account of religious differences with the Jesuits and found a safe refuge at Wechmar, a village near Gotha, in Thüringen. Promise of the musical talent so richly developed by his descendants was discoverable in the Hungarian emigrant. Sebastian relates that he had his chief delight in a littel (sic) cithara, which he would take with him into his mill and play thereon while the corn was grinding. “They must have sounded merrily together! Howbeit, so he learned the sense of time, and in this wise music first came into his heart.” To Caspar Bach, the town piper of Gotha, Veit intrusted his son Hans. Hans Bach, player and carpet weaver, returned from his double apprenticeship to settle at Wechmar. In that time the player did not enjoy, as we of to-day, the convenience of a well stocked store of instruments wherefrom to buy his instrument. He had to construct it himself. So Hans, after he married, made himself a bass viola that looked to be the father of all fiddles! It was ten feet high. Hans begged permission to play this instrument at the village church and his performances drew such crowds that even the preacher had cause for jealousy. A numerous family was born to Hans and his worthy wife, and all were trained in music so that an orchestra was formed, made up of father, mother, boys and girls. All the instruments used were made by Hans—fiddles, wooden wind instruments, drums. It is said that the music this orchestra made was unique.
Only to mention the long list of musical ancestors of Sebastian Bach would take the whole space allotted to me for these articles. I shall, therefore, take a jump from these early forefathers to young Johann Sebastian, born 1685, in Eisenach in Thüringia, where his father was court organist. Unlike many other composers, Sebastian gave no early evidence of being a prodigy, and Johann Ambrosius, his father, did not seek to make him one. But he had the benefit of growing up in an atmosphere of good music and religious fervor, the religion of Martin Luther, which was then fast spreading throughout Germany and was soon to find a glorious exponent in Bach himself. Sebastian was only ten years old when he was left an orphan and dependent on his elder brother, Johann Christoph, organist of Ohrdruff, to whom he owed his first lessons in singing and playing the clavichord. Christoph, who was married, wished to be kind to his little brother but he and his wife did not want to be disturbed by too much practicing, so the boy was allowed to play only one hour a day. Also, the older brother did not allow little Sebastian to make use of his well-furnished musical library and carried the key to the book case in his own pocket. The boy, who, just on account of the prohibition, was eager to examine that music, contrived to pick the lock and in the night, when all the household was asleep, he would steal downstairs in his bare feet and get a sheet of music and copy it by moonlight, sitting on the window sill.
Thus he did work for six months whenever the moon shone bright enough. But one day the elder brother discovered the portfolio of copied music, Sebastian was severely punished on his bare—legs, and the portfolio was confiscated despite the copyist’s tears. Contraband has a special charm, and it may have tempted little Sebastian more than it would had the music been easily accessible.
This same fault is perpetrated daily by overzealous parents and teachers. The severity of prohibition inflames the desire. Forbidden fruits taste delicious. Give a boy the plaything he desires and he probably will soon throw it away; deny it to him and he will crave madly after it. So Sebastian became music-ravenous.
He entered a boy’s chorus at Ohrdruf; he was often invited to play on his violin, the only inheritance from his father. He played also the organ and the harpsichord, and occasionally the organist of Lüneburg, where he was invited to sing in the choir, would allow him to try his big organ and at every service the boy was present to play the violin or, if any of the other players were absent, he would just fill in and play any instrument desired. What versatility! In our epoch of specialists this sounds like a fable. Our concert pianists, piano teachers, accompanists, chamber music players, orchestra leaders, violinists, etc., could not, even if they would, do anything beyond the limits of their own narrow circle.
Bach profited much by listening to the wonderful organ playing of Reinker in Hamburg, and of Buxtehude in Lübeck. The latter was very much versed in fugue-writing, to the development of which he contributed both in the combination of several themes in a fugue and in the extended functions he assigned to the pedal. From Buxtehude Bach derived the daring passages he meted out to the pedal in his organ fugues, one of the most famous being the one he gave to the pedal in his A minor fugue for organ.
Bach’s Truancy
On his return from Lübeck Bach was rebuked by the authorities, “for that he hath heretofore made sundry perplexing variations and imported divers strange harmonies, in such wise that the congregation, was thereby confounded. In the future when he will introduce a tonus peregrinus, he is to sustain the same and not to fall incontinent upon another, or even, as he has been wont, to play a tonus contrarius.” If the authorities were to-day to be allowed to impose injunctions on the extravagant innovations of modern music we would soon see Debussy and Ravel and other congenial fellows sentenced to the electric chair! History repeats itself. Bach was the modernist of his day. He appeared to his contemporaries a dangerous innovator. It must be owned, however, that even now the harmonies of Bach in their audacious discords surprise us for their bold modernity.
After having occupied for a short time positions at Arnstadt and Müllhausen Bach went to Weimar and stayed there till the close of 1719, a period of nearly nine years.
As an organist and clavichord player Bach’s fame was at that time prodigious. A Frenchman, Marchand was, however, considered unrivalled for his wonderful playing. He was a conceited fellow and his offensive airs disgusted Volumier, the director of the Dresden orchestra, who played a practical joke on him. At one of the royal concerts Marchand was to play some variations on a French air, his performance of which elicited great applause. But Bach had also been invited, and to please the king Volumier brought him forward to play next. After a brief prelude he took up the air that Marchand had just played and extemporized twelve variations on the same theme with such skill and grandeur that Marchand was quite eclipsed. Thereupon Bach and Marchand were matched to play together on the following day. At the hour appointed Bach was there and many of the Court, but Marchand did not appear. They sent to his lodging but discovered that he had taken the early morning stage and vanished from Dresden.
Forkel states that Bach learned much from setting Vivaldi’s violin concertos for the piano. This exercise made him understand how ideas are worked out, their connection with each other and the sequence of modulations.
Bach’s Family
Little is known about Bach’s first wife, but from the terrible shock he suffered in 1720 on his return from Carlsbad to Cöthen, upon finding that she had died after a short illness, we may judge that she made his home very happy. After her death Bach devoted himself with the most anxious care to the musical education of his three sons, Friedemann, C. P. Emanuel and J. Gottfried. He seems to have been particularly attached to Friedemann, whom he took with him on all his journeys.
In 1721 he was married again to Anna Magdalene Wükens, the daughter of a court musician. She was then 21 years old. He was 36 with a brood of seven and the new wife was destined to increase the number to a dozen more. No race suicide indeed! Bach took great interest in giving his young bride instruction in thorough-bass and piano playing. A collection of easy pieces for the piano still exists in the royal library at Berlin; Clavier Büchlein für Anna Magdalene Bach, written in Bach’s own hand and dated 1722; there is also a handsomely bound volume with the initials A. M. B. and the date 1725, containing a number of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabands, minuets, gigues, rondos, polonaises, musettes, suites and marches, forty-six pieces in all, of which thirty-five are for piano, the celebrated preludes in C major N. 1 of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier among them and two of the French Suites. (I take this opportunity to correct an error which is made by the majority of English writers on Bach. The correct German title is either Wohltemperiertes Klavier or Das Wohltemperierte Klavier.) After the piano pieces come five chorals, then follow seven songs, among them Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco-Smoker and the well known Willst du dein Herz mir schenken. Zelter supposed that the words and music of this last song were composed by Bach during his courtship of Anna Magdalene.
Bach may be considered as the founder of the modern art of piano playing, as he was the first to insist upon equal use of the thumb with the rest of the hand and to act upon the principle that touch proceeds from the lower joints of the fingers and not from the wrist or arms. Forkel says that he played with so easy and small a motion of the fingers that it was hardly perceptible. Only the first joints of the fingers were in motion; the hand retained even in the most difficult passages its rounded form, the fingers rose very little from the keys, hardly more than a shake and when one was employed the others remained still in their position. Still less did the other parts of the body take any share in his playing as happens with many whose hand is not light enough. His playing was light, smooth, swift—powerful or expressive as he chose—but always without display or the appearance of effort.
During the five years Bach spent at Göthen he composed, among other things, the first part of Das wohltemperirte Klavier, the second volume of which he wrote at Leipzig in the year 1740. Bach spent much labor on this work, especially on the first part, correcting, altering, working out its subjects in various forms. The original manuscripts, dated at different periods of his life, are full of corrections going into the minutest details. This work has always been the most popular of Bach’s compositions and has preserved his name from oblivion during the years in which his greatest works—especially his church music—were forgotten.
Bach became choirmaster of the Thomas School and musical director of the two principal churches at Leipgiz, St. Nicholas and St. Thomas. He undertook this position in the year 1723 when he was 38 years old and remained there twenty years till his death. Leipzig, one of the centers of German commerce, full of life and movement, “a miniature Paris,” as Goethe said, offered the right atmosphere to a man of Bach’s genius and lofty aims. It was his duty to direct the music in four churches and to teach the Thomas scholars music. His fixed salary, besides lodging and firewood free, was 87 thalers, about $65 per annum! Think of it! For a whole year, Bach, the genius of his epoch, received a salary far less than the average clerk in New York gets in one week. Of course, provisions in those days were cheap. “High cost of living” had not yet been discovered!
In the midst of his manifold occupations Bach still found time to study the works of his contemporaries. Copies exist in his handwriting of a Mass of Palestrina; Masses of Lotti; Magnificat by Caldara; an oratorio by Handel; Passions Musik, by Graun, etc. Bach never ceased to enrich his knowledge.
A proof of his continuous ripening and progressing is to be found in the perfection of the works he composed at Leipzig. One of their characteristics is the excellence of each part as an independent melody, while at the same time all the parts together make a perfect harmony. Even the accompaniments of the instruments taken alone form a charming piece of music. This point is often neglected by many composers. One should not forget that the performer of each part is not a mere machine, but a living being who studies or reads his part independently from the others and is therefore entitled to a part which should have a meaning in itself. Of course, that is higher art and only a great artist is able to write polyphonic music which has a significance as well in its totality as in the single parts taken separately.
Bach would not teach any to compose who did not show signs of real talent. Among his most distinguished pupils besides his three sons, were Krebs, Agricola, Schneider and Kinberger, the best musical theorists of the eighteenth century.
During his busy years at Leipzig Bach wrote his greatest works, the Matthäus Passion and the Johannes Passion. They were primarily intended to be performed in churches and one feature in which they differ from other oratorios is the introduction of chorales in which the congregations were intended to join.
A New System
At the time when Bach wrote the old system of keys or modes was still much used. According to this system there were eight keys, the succession of intervals differing in each. They were the: Tonic, Doric, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Hypodoric, Hypophrygian. Bach never felt himself bound by any system old or new, but at the same time he was too great to overlook what had been useful in the past though his genius had outgrown the need of its help, so he used the old modes wherever they could help in producing the expression he wanted.
Translating this procedure into modern conditions, we should employ in our compositions a proper mixture of conservative old classic and of revolutionary modern ingredients.
Bach’s private character was not less worthy of admiration than his talents. Of a modest, unassuming disposition, leading a strictly moral life, he was a faithful citizen, an affectionate husband, father and friend, laboring incessantly for the support and education of his children. He was broad-minded and it was a great pleasure for him to hear the compositions of other musicians. For a quartet he liked to play the viola and he was also delighted in accompanying others at the piano. He was very fluent in extemporizing and he could easily turn a trio into a quartet by improvising the fourth part. As a matter of fact he could have added any number of parts, being so wonderfully versed in the science of counterpoint.
He failed in his repeated attempts to make acquaintance with Handel, but he enjoyed the friendship of such other contemporary musicians as Hasse, Graun, etc.
In his last year (1749) Bach wrote one of his greatest works, Die Kunst der Fuge, in which he shows every way in which the theme of a fugue can possibly be worked out. With one single theme in two parts he makes fifteen solos, two duets for two pianos, all in the form of fugues, and two canons, in the last fugue beside the original theme he weaves a third on the note B, A, C, H, forming his own name.
At last the almost uninterrupted hard work of his whole life began to tell upon Sebastian’s strong constitution. His eyes began to fail. They grew weaker and more painful every day. One morning his sight suddenly returned, he could see quite well again and could bear the light; but it was the last flickering of the expiring flame. A few hours later he was seized with apoplexy and on the evening of the twenty-eighth of July, 1750, he passed away.
His family was too poor to pay his funeral expenses and he was carried to the grave without any pomp, the Leipzig newspapers not even mentioning his death.
While Bach’s life ended thus in poverty, his works were left for many years the prey of chance and ignorance until the Bach Society, founded on the centenary anniversary of his death, July, 1850, by Becker, Breitkopf and Haertel, Hauptmann, Jahn and Robert Schumann, rescued Bach’s music from oblivion and made the collection and publication of his works their aim. Ninety years after Bach’s death a monument was erected by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to his memory, opposite the house in which he had lived. It is also to be put to Mendelssohn’s credit that Bach’s whole grandeur was brought again to light through the performance of Matthäus’ Passion in Berlin in 1829.
Some anecdotes:
It was a long time before Bach could be induced to appear before Frederick the Great, at Potsdam. After repeated invitations he at length undertook the journey, and one evening just as the usual concert before supper was about to begin, a list of the day’s arrivals was handed to the king. With his flute ready in his hand he glanced down the list and with much agitation turned to the assembled musicians and said: “Gentlemen, old Bach has come.” He was immediately sent for to the palace and introduced in his traveling dress, so great was the king’s anxiety to see him. The concert that evening was given up and the royal flute player devoted himself to Bach. He led his guest through the palace apartments and made him play on his Silbermann pianofortes, of which he had collected no less than fifteen. The great master’s playing amazed the king, who, after a masterly performance of a six-part fugue exclaimed: ‘There is only one Bach! Only one Bach!”
Notwithstanding his amiable qualities, Bach had a hot and hasty temper and this frequently led to amuseing (sic) scenes. On one occasion Görner, the talented organist at St. Thomas’, struck a wrong chord at a rehearsal, whereupon Bach flew into such a passion that he tore off his wig and threw it at the unfortunate organist’s head, thundering out: “You ought to have been a cobbler instead of an organist!”
Resuming, we find the following points as especially responsible for the gigantic artistic growth and achievement of Bach:
The religious fervor which inspired him to become the most famous exponent of Protestant church music.
The restraint put by his brother Christoph upon his artistic aspirations, which sharpened his musical hunger and made him ravenous for musical, knowledge.
His versatility in playing all instruments.
His catholicity in accepting the best of the old school, striving at the same time after the utmost progress in art.
His liberality toward fellow artists and his high moral purity.
One of the Greatest Masters of All Times.

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