What we can learn from Bach

There are organists who feel that the three hundred and fifty years of organ composers who lived before Bach was born in 1685 are best known as “the forerunners of Bach,” and that things went downhill quickly and irreversibly after his death in 1750. These organists are fanatical, and a little bit crazy, and I am one of them. This morning, I’d like to explain why.

I’ll be talking less about his music and more about who he was as a person. This is a little tricky, since we have very few personal letters from Bach, no treatises, and no journals. Still, from the time his first biography was written a few decades after his death, lovers of Bach have been collecting everything that could be known about him. By now, I think we can put together a good sense of who he was.

To start with, he worked hard. From the time he got his first job as (I am not making this up) a lackey, he never worked fewer than three jobs at once. He was organist and choirmaster at various churches, and as such also played weddings and funerals. He taught students, either privately or in association with a local institute of higher learning. He was usually court composer, being hired by the local aristocracy to write cantatas and concertos for special occasions. One of his more famous cantatas, “Now sheep may safely graze,” was written for a hunting party. The idea was that the sheep could graze safely because the hunters had killed all the wolves.

He was also hired to examine new pipe organs – checking them over to make sure they lived up to the contract. And this wasn’t just a matter of sitting down at the console and seeing how they sounded. We have one of his reports in which he recommends stopping up a window inside the case because cold air from the window would throw nearby pipes out of tune. So he was crawling around inside the things.

He had a band – the Bach Collegium Musicum (roughly “Bach and his boys”) – that played every Thursday at a local coffeehouse in Leipzig. He sold pianos on commission. He printed his own music privately and sold it. He ran a small music store out of his home. He even got an extra fifty thalers a year for tuning and maintaining the harpsichords of Leipzig University. He was willing to do anything and everything he could to earn money.

And there was good reason for that. He had twenty children. Granted, only eight of them survived into adulthood, five sons and three daughters, but that’s still quite a responsibility. But all three daughters were successfully married and established in life. Of his five sons, one was, in the terminology of the day, “feeble minded” and lived out his life with one of his sisters. But the other four were all well established in careers. One went into law and, sadly, died when he was twenty-four, but the three who went into music – Carl Philipp Emmanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann , and Johann Christian – were, in their day, more famous than their father.

His son’s success tells us something else about Bach. He was humble, in the genuine sense of not putting much stock in his own dignity – crawling around in an organ case is not for the dignified. It also shows that he was loving. They say you can tell a lot about a man’s character by looking at his children, and it’s clear that Bach’s children were given the space and encouragement to become themselves.

There’s reason to believe Bach genuinely loved his two wives, as well. This isn’t necessarily a given, since he did live in an era when many marriages were still matters of economics or convenience. But his second wife, Anna Magdalena, was a musician in her own right – they met when she was the soprano in his choir. And a payroll record from when they lived in Cöthen shows that he was paid 400 reichsthalers a year. And she was paid 300. Clearly he was comfortable being married to a woman who exercised her own talents and had her own career. That’s somewhat rare even today, but in the eighteenth century it was almost unheard of.

As to his first wife, Maria Barbara, well . . . Bach once went on a two-month-long trip with a local duke, Leopold, to take the waters in Carlsbad. Leopold was not simply his boss. They were apparently friends – Leopold had stood as godfather to one of Bach’s children, who was named after him. So the trip was probably a pretty joyous affair.

Bach discovered when he came home – literally when he arrived at his doorstoop – that in the time he was gone, Maria Barbara had died.

It is believed that he wrote the piece I’m using as a postlude in response. It is so filled with anguish and confusion, using harmonies so tortured that they wouldn’t show up again until the twentieth century, that it’s hard to listen to without seeing just how deeply he loved her.

Another thing that shows Bach’s humility is the fact that he kept learning his entire life. When he was at his first organist position at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt, he walked 260 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to study with Dietrich Buxtehude, the foremost organist of his day. He was supposed to be gone a month. He was gone four. He missed the entire holiday season. In his defense, he had arranged for a substitute, but the Neue Kirche consistory were not pleased. They were also not pleased because, when he got back, he ornamented the hymn introductions so heavily that no one could tell which hymn was being introduced.

Incidentally, the Neue Kirche has since then changed its name. When your building was built in the 1670’s, there’s a limited amount of time you can call it the “New Church.” It’s now the Bach Kirche. And they say that, if you go out in the churchyard on a quiet summer’s evening and lay your ear to the ground, you can hear the consistory of Bach’s day turning over in their graves.

When he was in his thirties – with a well-established career, a solid reputation, and a growing family, and no need to keep learning -- Bach got hold of a collection of violin concerti by Vivaldi and transcribed them for organ. According to what his sons later told his first biographer, he said that this exercise helped him to “think musically.” Since – let’s face it – Bach was a better composer than Vivaldi, it’s believed that he meant that the transcription helped him to think of music independent of the instrument on which it was played, that he began to think of music in the abstract. And even later in life, Bach belonged to a mathematical society, in which he explored the relationship between mathematics and music.

Because he kept learning his entire life, something could be said of him that has only been said of a handful of artists throughout human history – he never peaked. The two major works he was still revising when he died – the Art of the Fugue and the St. Matthew Passion – are considered his best.

It’s probably fair to say, though, that Bach never worked a day in his life. The Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach contains, among other things, simple minuets in a childish hand – one of his sons trying out their hand at composing – and more complex pieces in Anna Magdalena’s hand. It seems likely that the notebook sat on the family clavichord, and when Bach came home at night, he and the family gathered around and kept making music.

We also have the testimony of some of his students that Bach would often stand behind them while they were playing, lean over, and jump in, adding ornamentation to the student’s piece on the same keyboard. Or he would, on the excuse that he didn’t feel like teaching, simply sit down at the keyboard and just play. One student said that these lessons were the happiest hours he ever spent.

A lot of the pieces he wrote for the Collegium Musicum are pure fun. There’s a parody of Italian Opera. There’s a concerto for piano and harpsichord that’s essentially a concerto for piano vs. harpsichord -- think “Dueling Banjos” with eighteenth-century keyboard instruments.

Then there’s the Coffee Cantata. It tells the story of a young woman who is addicted to caffeine. Her father wants her to give up the evil brew, so he threatens to stop buying her fashionable clothes. She doesn’t care, as long as she gets her coffee. He threatens to prevent her from going to social occasions, even from sitting at the window and watching the world go by. But if she doesn’t get at least three cups a day, she’ll look like “a dried-out piece of roast goat.”

Finally, her father promises to find her a husband. She debates for a while, but in the end passion wins out and she agrees. But she makes it secretly known that anyone who marries her must agree in the marriage contract that she can drink as much coffee as she wants. In the end, presumably, she and her new husband settle down to a happy, if jittery, life together.

But Bach didn’t just have fun with the words. He often played with the music itself. The piece I’m playing as an offertory this morning is a Fughetta, a small fugue. Briefly, a fugue is polyphonic, meaning that there are several different melodies playing at once that blend together. And in a fugue, the different voices all center around a little piece of melody called the theme. Each voice starts off by playing the theme, and then keeps playing. And once all three voices are in the mix, they start to “develop” the theme – playing countermelodies, transposing it from major to minor and back, breaking it up. Essentially drawing as much music as they can out of the theme, until they wrap it up.

This morning’s offertory does this, except that it starts off in F, develops the theme, then ends in C. You’re not supposed to do that – a fugue should end in the key it started in. So Bach starts the fugue back up, only this time, the theme comes in upside down. Every place that the original theme went up, the new one goes down by the same amount, and vice versa. Then, as the three voices develop this new theme, they slowly flip it back over until it comes in one final time in the bass. Then the fugue ends in F, where it belongs.

Bach did this sort of thing all the time. He wrote canons, in which different voices sing the same melody all the way through, but with some kind of variation. The simplest canon is a round, like “Row, row, row your boat,” where the voices sing the same thing, but offset in time. Well, Bach wrote the Crab Canon, in which one voice plays the melody, and another voice plays the same melody, backwards. He wrote the Sloth Canon, in which one voice plays the melody through twice, and another plays it upside down and at half speed.

He wrote inverse retrograde canons, in which one voice plays the melody and another plays it upside down and backwards. He wrote these for two friends who were flautists. He’d bring one to a party, and they would set the music on a table between them. One would play the music top to bottom, and the other would play it bottom to top, and the two would blend together.

He fought for music. One of the earliest stories we have that shows his personality happened when he was at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt and teaching at the local Diplomatic School. Understand, in the eighteenth century, diplomacy was one of the places the aristocracy sent their second and third sons – the ones who wouldn’t inherit the family pile – to give them something to do with their lives. And “diplomacy” usually meant “fitting in at court.” So the students were taught French (the language of diplomacy), drawing, dancing, and music.

In other words, Bach’s students, most of whom were probably a year or two older than he, were a bunch of rich, spoiled dilettantes. He was a professional musician, even then. So it’s not surprising that he called one of his students a “greenhorn bassoonist” (a zippel Faggotist should you ever have occasion to insult a German woodwind player). And it’s not too surprising that, when the student caught Bach walking home at night, he began to beat him with a stick. Unfortunately for the student, Bach was on his way home from court. He was wearing a ceremonial dagger. He drew it. And when the student’s friends saw that things were getting serious, they pulled the two apart and Bach made his escape.

Once again, the consistory of the Neue Kirche were not pleased.

Bach’s biggest fights were with Johann August Ernesti, rector of the St. Thomas Kirche in Leipzig – a man Bach referred to privately, not as Herr Rector but as “Herr Dreck Ohr – Mr. Crappy Ear.” At one point, Ernesti expelled the student who was leading Bach’s choir and replaced him with another one who couldn’t sing. Bach actually wrote to the King of Poland to get that one straightened out.

The fights with Ernesti show something else about Bach. We have some of Ernesti’s writings, so we know how he thought, and he was very much a man of the Enlightenment. Now, the Enlightenment had a lot of advantages, but one drawback was the way it treated music. In the Age of Reason, a lot of thinkers (including Ernesti) viewed music as trivial, a mechanical manipulation of the emotions with no true meaning. This explains why, when Ernesti found one of Bach’s students practicing in a hallway, he asked, “Do you want to be a tavern fiddler all your life?”

Bach felt differently, and we know this from an unusual source – the probate records of his will, which list the contents of his theological library. He owned the sorts of books you would expect for a Lutheran choirmaster who had to compose chorale preludes on various Biblical texts – Luther’s complete commentary on the Bible, collections of sermons from various contemporary theologians. But tucked in there is a collection of sermons by Johannes Tauler.

Tauler was a medieval mystic, a disciple of Meister Eckhart. And while he didn’t write about music directly, he wrote about the reality behind what we can see, how God underlies and informs all of creation. Music was for Bach, I think, a window into this world.

Consider the postlude piece. Even though it is full of tortured, anguished harmonies, every once in a while hope tries to break through when a phrase resolves in a major key. And at the end of the piece, hope does finally break through the grief, clearly and definitively. And the hope is that much more satisfying because of the suffering that has come before it. There’s nothing trivial going on there.

There are other signs of how Bach felt about God. Many of his manuscripts have “JJ” written at the top, from the German for “Jesus help me.” And at the end are the letters “SDG,” for “Soli Deo Gloria – To the glory of God alone.”

Then there’s the piece I played for the prelude. It’s a light, meditative, peacefully joyous piece. The title – Vor Deinen Thron tret’ Ich Hermit – means “Before Your throne, I’ll soon appear.” And it was literally true. Bach dictated the piece from his deathbed, two days before he died. It is the sign of a man who had absolutely no fear of death.

In the end, Bach gave himself in love – to his family, to his music, to God. And in giving himself, he became himself. He left behind a body of music of such unique, individual genius that it still resonates more than a quarter-millennium after his death.

When the Voyager spacecraft was launched in the seventies, Carl Sagan arranged to have a long-playing record attached to the side. Voyager would the first spacecraft to leave the solar system, and the record was a sort of greeting card to whoever might find it someday. It leads off with greetings in different languages, then includes natural sounds of earth – birdsong, waves crashing on shore. Then it turns to music, and the first piece is the Brandenburg Concerto in F-Major. When humanity wished to introduce ourselves to the rest of the universe, we led with Bach.

Not bad for a former lackey.

Those who save their lives will lose them. Those who lose them for My sake will find them. Amen.