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Bach: Ad Majorem Dei Gloria.

This year commemorates the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, a man who was little known outside Germany in his lifetime but whose music, written "for the greater glory of God," has become ubiquitous and immortal.

Beethoven called him an ocean--"not Bach (stream) but Meer (ocean)." Johann Sebastian Bach is surely one of the greatest figures in Western music. He stands at the beginning of our modern era, the earliest composer still regularly heard today. The 250th anniversary of his death this coming July--which will be celebrated in concert halls and churches throughout the year-- gives us a chance not only to marvel at the astonishing achievement of the man himself but also to stand amazed at the entire Bach family. There is no field of human endeavor--not the arts, sciences, or any other--in which so many members of a single family have made such significant, and even supreme, contributions. In this article, we will look at this remarkable family and at the changing perceptions of its preeminent member.

Over the course of nearly 250 years, some fifty-five members of the Bach family served as musicians to the courts, churches, and townships of central Germany. It was a wealthy region, supporting a lively artistic life. Each small court proclaimed its magnificence, each small town boosted its prestige, and there was a strong musical tradition in the zealous churches of this homeland of the Reformation. (The area includes Erfurt, Martin Luther's birthplace, and many places associated with his life.) The Bach family fortunes rose and fell with these institutions; they ascended with the rapid expansion of music in the sixteenth century, and declined with the weakening of the patronage system and the rise of popular bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century.

While varied and rich artistically, the area attracted few international musicians. There was no dominant capital or cultural center, no opera house. The Bachs, like others of their time, served local masters, and most of those who achieved anything extraordinary did so outside the region.

The Bach tradition had its origins in the customs of craftsmanship. It was customary for sons to follow in their fathers' trade, whatever it was, and a musical career was virtually predestined for male members of the Bach family. Training was given within the family. Johann Sebastian, for example, trained six of his relatives as well as his own sons. He himself had been trained as a violist by his father, and as a keyboard player by an older brother. Study outside the family circle was unusual; Johann Sebastian was a bit of an exception in making a trip to Lubeck to study with Buxtehude. The Bachs were a close-knit family, bound by common social standing, professional interdependence, and a shared status as "outsiders": In the seventeenth century, lower-ranking musicians were considered not quite respectable and were even refused the rights of citizenship. The Bachs also shared a strong devotion to the Lutheran faith, a tradition going back to the sixteenth century, when Viet Bach apparently fled Slovakia or Moravia to avoid persecution as a Lutheran.

Bach family gatherings were regular and frequent. A contemporary wrote that "since the company consisted only of Kantors, organists, and town musicians, all of whom had to do with the church ... a chorale was sung first of all. From this devotional opening they proceeded to jesting, often in strong contrast. For now they would sing folksongs, the contents of which were partly comic and partly indelicate, together and spontaneously, but in such a way that the parts made a harmony."

(There is a Quodlibet by Johann Sebastian that gives some idea of this "unbuttoned" Bach mood.)

The family was keenly aware of its traditions and prominence. Johann Sebastian described his sons as "born musicians," and he himself compiled a genealogy in 1735 that was later carried on by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Johann Sebastian also made a collection of selected family works, which he called the Alt- Bachisches Archiv (Old Bach Archive), consisting of some two dozen works.

Almost all the Bachs were first and foremost instrumentalists, primarily keyboard players but usually proficient on other instruments as well. Some were active in instrument manufacture, and Johann Sebastian's interest in organ construction was typical. Composition was a specialty, much less common; only those Bachs attached to courts or churches wrote very much, and many eminent performers and players left no original music at all.

By the turn of the seventeenth century, the Bachs had risen from the positions of Spielmann (musician or jester) and town trumpeters to the principal music positions in the area. They typically succeeded each other. For example, when Johann Sebastian left his position in Muhlhausen at the age of twenty- one, he was succeeded by a younger cousin. And Carl Philipp Emanuel, on his father's death, applied for his Kantor's position in Leipzig (he was turned down).

From simple beginnings, the Bachs rose to the highest level of the musical hierarchy. But by the time of Johann Sebastian's death in 1750, social change was affecting court, town, and church. Instead of being restricted to musical careers, the sons of the now middle-class Bachs had other options. All the boys of the generation of Johann Sebastian's sons attended university-- indeed, one of the reasons he took the Leipzig position was that it offered them such an education. Fewer and fewer Bachs took up music. Some turned to painting and made successful careers as portraitists. The musical tradition gradually died out, and by 1843, when the Leipzig Bach Monument dedicated by Mendelssohn was unveiled, only one musician, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach (1759-- 1845) was left to attend and represent the family's six generations of genius.

A Life in Music

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringen, and received his first musical instruction from his father, Johann Ambrosius, a town musician. Both his parents died before he was ten, and he went to live and study with his elder brother, Johann Christoph, an organist and pupil of Pachelbel's.

At fifteen, Johann Sebastian began to earn his own living as a chorister, being gifted with an exceptional soprano voice. When his voice changed, he became a violinist in the small chamber orchestra of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar, but later that year he became a church organist in Arnstadt. In October 1705, Bach secured a one-month leave of absence to study with Danish-born German organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude in Lubeck, a prosperous north German city (he made the journey mostly on foot, two hundred miles each way). The visit was so fruitful that he overstayed his leave by two months. Upon his return he was criticized by his superiors not only for this breach of contract but also for his continued use of extravagant flourishes and "strange harmonies" in his organ accompaniments to the hymns. He was already too highly respected, however, for either objection to result in his dismissal.

In 1707 he married a second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, and moved to Mulhausen as organist in the Church of St. Blasius. He remained for only a year, returning to Weimar as organist and violinist at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst (his earlier patron in that court, Johann Ernst, had died). He enjoyed his time there, as the duke was himself an accomplished musician and even served as godfather to Bach's oldest son. Johann Sebastian remained there for the next nine years, becoming concertmaster of the court orchestra in 1714. Before his return to Weimar, he had composed a number of cantatas and works for organ and clavier. In Weimar, however, his compositional genius blossomed, as he produced about thirty cantatas and most of his large-scale organ and harpsichord works. He also began to travel throughout Germany as an organ virtuoso and as a consultant to organ builders.

In 1717 Bach began a six-year employment as Kapellmeister and director of chamber music at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen. Bach's first wife, by whom he had seven children, died in 1720, and the next year he married another cousin, Anna Magdalena, a fine singer and daughter of a court musician. She bore him thirteen additional children, and she helped him in his work by copying music. The strict Calvinist church services at the court used no instrumental music, so during this period he wrote primarily secular instrumental music, including the six Brandenberg Concertos. He also created music books for his wife and children, with the purpose of teaching them keyboard technique, composition, and musicianship. These books included Part One of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Inventions, and the Little Organ Book. Bach was genuinely happy there, but in 1721 the prince married a princess whom Bach described as an "amusa" (opposed to the Muses), and conditions deteriorated. Thinking of the education of his sons, and preferring to work in Lutheran churches, he chose the university town of Leipzig, moving there in 1723.

Bach spent the rest of his life in Leipzig, supplying and supervising music in four churches, primarily St. Thomas' Church. He threw himself into his work with great energy, composing a cantata almost every week for six years. But his position as musical director and choirmaster of St. Thomas' and the church school was unsatisfactory in many ways. He squabbled continually with the town council, and neither the council nor the populace appreciated his musical genius. They saw in him little more than a musical conservative who clung stubbornly to increasingly obsolete forms. Among the works he composed during this time are the Christmas Oratorio, the St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passion, and the epic Mass in B Minor. Among the keyboard works from this period are the Goldberg Variations and Part Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

He turned his attention to the local Collegium Musicum (roughly equivalent to a music club for university students), which met and performed weekly. (The Leipzig Collegium Musicum had been established by Telemann and outlived Bach, evolving into the modern-day Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.) For ten years Bach wrote new music (harpsichord concertos and chamber music) and adapted works of other composers for their concerts. Late in life, he became more withdrawn and introspective, and summed up his formidable contrapuntal skills in the Art of the Fugue.

Due to failing health and eyesight, he did not finish that last, vast work. A lifetime of writing down music in poor light had left him almost totally blind. Two eye operations in early 1750 were unsuccessful and led to painful inflammation. On July 28, 1750, however, he suddenly found he could see and went out in the daylight for the first time in many months. Later that day he suffered a stroke and, after a few hours of fever, died.


In Bach's lifetime and for some time after, most of his music was not readily available in printed form, though some works were published in small editions. Manuscripts of his sacred music were preserved in the churches of Leipzig, much went to his sons, and his instrumental works remained with the Collegium Musicum. The strongest continuity was with the keyboard and organ works, which were circulated among his students and their students. The Well- Tempered Clavier survived in numerous manuscript copies and was used to teach fugal composition to succeeding generations of composers, among them Mozart and Beethoven. The entire Well- Tempered Clavier was finally printed in 1801.

The cantatas and passions were no longer in the repertoire, but the motets were still performed at Leipzig's St. Thomas' Church; Mozart heard a performance of Sing to the Lord a New Song there in 1789.

Bach's reputation as a major composer of vocal and choral music revived with a famous performance of the St. Matthew Passion conducted by Felix Mendelssohn in Berlin in 1829--a hundred years after the work was composed. The Passion's first presentation since 1729, this was a strange performance, as most of the arias were omitted and only a third of the work was heard. But the mass of some 300--400 singers was impressive enough. A tireless supporter of Bach's music, Mendelssohn also performed the keyboard concertos and did the double harpsichord concertos on two pianos with such celebrities as Liszt and Clara Schumann.

Through concerts such as these, the attention of a wider public was won, and Robert Schumann called for a comprehensive publication of all Bach's works. Various projects were begun, with only partial success, until the Bach Gesellschaft was established in 1850, on the centennial of Bach's death, to tackle a publication both complete and critical--that is, giving details of manuscripts used, including alternative versions when they existed, and so on. By 1899 the forty-six-volume work was done. But immediately thereafter, in 1900, the Neue Bach Gesellschaft was set up to support more musicologically scientific research. After World War II, the Neue Bach Ausgabe (NBA, New Bach Edition) was printed, with the goal of making practical performance easier (for instance, printing separate instrumental parts for chamber music and using modern clefs for vocal music).

Performance practice evolved as well. At the beginning of the "Bach Revival" in the nineteenth century, under the influence of the Romantic tradition, large choruses and orchestras were used; this was a universal custom, and some performances of Handel's Messiah used choruses of more than a thousand. After World War I, a more informed approach to Bach and early music in general developed; the harpsichord, championed by Wanda Landowska, reappeared, and smaller forces became the rule.

Bach's life was seen in changing ways as well. In his own time, he was known primarily as an organ and keyboard virtuoso who had a mastery of conservative compositional technique. The first biography/obituary, published in 1754, was written by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and a student. It is a lengthy and appreciative tribute, with much detail. Nearly fifty years later (1802), Johann Nicolaus Forkel published another lengthy biography, having had the advantage of interviewing Bach's two oldest sons. He tried, however, to "update" Bach slightly by stressing the logic and clarity of his works, and hailed him as "the first Classicist."

The next shift in perspective came in the 1870s. Nineteenth- century writers proposed the "Great Man" theory of history; larger-than-life heroes like Napoleon were seen as driving social change. Richard Wagner, in 1865, wrote, "Let anyone who wishes to grasp the wonderful individuality, power, and significance of the German spirit in an incomparably eloquent image look at ... the musical miracle man Sebastian Bach."

Philipp Spitta, in his J.S. Bach (1873--1880), projected an image of Bach as such a figure in music history, with his major achievements being the great religious works. But Spitta also initiated a more objective and scholarly trend, gathering materials and describing, for the first time, the whole scope of Bach's output in a historically sound manner. Albert Schweitzer, writing thirty years later, similarly glorified Bach, evolving a complex theory of musical symbolism that made Bach almost a compositional mystic.

Recent Bach scholarship continues to develop in a multiplicity of specialized disciplines-- biography, theoretical analysis, theological speculation, and a host of others.

The significance and endurance of Bach's music is due in large part to the scope of his intellect. Although best known as a supreme master of counterpoint, he was able to understand and use every musical resource of the Baroque. He could combine the rhythmic patterns of French dance, the grace of Italian melody, and the intricacy of German counterpoint all in one composition. At the same time he could combine voice and various instruments in a way that took advantage of the unique properties of construction and tone quality of each. When a text was associated with the music, Bach could write compelling musical "symbols" or equivalents for verbal ideas, such as an undulating melody to represent the sea or a canon to describe Christians following the teaching of Jesus.

Bach's ability to assess and exploit the mediums, styles, and genres of his day enabled him to achieve many remarkable transfers of idiom. He could take an Italian ensemble composition, such as a concerto, and transform it into a convincing work for a single instrument, such as the harpsichord or organ. By devising intricate melodic lines, he could convey the complex texture of a multivoiced fugue on a single-melody instrument, such as the violin or cello. The conversational rhythms and sparse textures of operatic recitatives can be found in some of his works for solo keyboard.

Compositional ability alone, of course, is not the source of Bach's greatness. It is the expressive power of his music, particularly as manifested in the vocal works, that conveys his profundity and that touches listeners everywhere. His incomparable technical skill and architectural vision is joined perfectly to emotional subtlety and depth. This writer is convinced that Bach drew upon his Lutheran faith for much of this profundity. He expressed his belief not only in what he wrote-- especially the obviously religious works--but in why and how he wrote. He frequently inscribed scores with the initials A.M.D.G. (Ad Majorem Dei Gloria, "For the Greater Glory of God"), S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria, "To God Alone Be the Glory"), and J.J. (Jesu, Juva, "O Jesus, Help Me"). The title page of the Little Organ Book includes the dedication, "In Praise of the Almighty's Will / And for My Neighbor's Greater Skill." Bach saw his music-- perhaps all music--as pleasure justified by its higher purpose.

He was certainly an orthodox Lutheran, not questioning the doctrines of the church he served. But he also probed into these doctrines as an individual. The inventory of his personal library lists dozens of religious texts, including two complete sets of the works of Martin Luther (in folio, or large library-sized, tomes) and numerous scholarly theological treatises; interestingly, no other titles are given. His personal three- volume Bible, now in the United States, also has numerous marginal notations that show he drew upon it for more than texts to set to music.

Bach approached music with a discipline and industry that made it a service to his faith. His long journey to study with Buxtehude was one example of this zeal. He was fully aware of this labor; he even said, humbly, "I have worked hard; anyone who works just as hard will go just as far." His long hours of composing and copying music were part of his job but were given meaning by his faith. One need not be Lutheran, Christian, or any kind of believer to appreciate the music of Bach (though ignoring the sacred works, and their texts, would be as unfair as listening to Schubert, Cole Porter, or Bob Dylan without taking into account the words). Every belief system works on deeply symbolic levels; every religion has myth and poetry at its heart, and great religious thinkers and artists have always understood that.

Bach's music reveals to us one of the great intellects of all time, one that utilizes vast powers of reason, illumined by faith, to penetrate beyond mere rationality into the realm of wisdom. We can experience this supreme mind in living sound by directly hearing and playing his music. Through this our own minds may unite for a moment with his, entering into the depth of his understanding. Therein they may find enlightenment.n

Tom Pniewski is a musicologist and organist and is director of cultural affairs for the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York.
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Title Annotation:18th-century composer Johan Sebastian Bach
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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