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In Praise of Bach A Fantasy A Review Program Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach

a fantasia and reflection

They are musicians, they are a family, they are proud of both.

At the reunions in Wechmar every year, Grandpa Heinrich says a prayer to open the meal. Years past, he used to intone a hymn, but times change, and the younger wives muttered impatiently about the roast burning, and looking after the children; so, within living memory, the hymn had become a prayer, and even Grandpa's prayers had gotten shorter. Nowadays they sang the hymn after the meal. "All Glory Be to God on High", they might sing, or "Who Suffers God to Guide Him", sounding like a real chorus, in six-part harmony, because they were a family who played. The women too: the mothers, the aunts and the young cousins giggling and blushing and whispering to each other behind their hands as the songs got boisterous.

It was usually uncle Chris who started the bawdy songs. He liked his beer and schnapps, and knew all the dirty songs there were, and he could fit them with hymn tunes better than anybody else. He made all the music at St. George's, and played harpsichord for the Duke. And then the older cousins, randy and newly wedded, would bring in a few of their own, and Grandpa Heinrich frowned and got crotchety because he was old and close to God. Papa Ambrosius, laughing, kept up with Grandpa's hymn tune, "because somebody's got to keep a Godly tune in the middle of all that," he would say later, back home, when his youngest asked.

Auntie Barbara, who had never married and who never smiled, stopped her ears. The other women laughed and slapped their knees, and when cousin Nick brought in the song about the cabbage and turnips they laughed till their sides hurt. When Sebastian was still very small he knew that the songs were not nice songs, but then he thought that maybe singing them together with the songs from church made it better.

He learned thoughtlessly, without discipline, with no visible effort, almost without instruction. He didn't seem to know the word "study". Papa, before he died, had begun to teach Sebastian to fiddle; and at every lesson, it seemed, the boy absorbed more than his father had thought to teach. And singing he seemed to have been born with.

In the schools it was the same: absent or present, lessons or none, whatever the teachers set him to know, he knew. He advanced into forms where most of his schoolfellows were two or three years older than him.

After mama Elisabeth died, and then papa Ambrosius, the family decided he should stay with his older brother. Brother Chris was 24, just married, played at St. Michael's in Ohrdruf. In the selfconscious responsibility of his early adulthood, Johann Christoph tried to be a parent in Papa's place, determined that the boy must have Keyboard Lessons with a capital 'KL'. And when he discovered, after a year or so, that his little brother had already copied out (by moonlight, no less) and learned the entire next two years' worth of his carefully graded lessons, he was both embarrassed and worried by the boy's impatience and lack of discipline.

He confiscated the copies. Sebastian threw a fit; his tantrum, the first and last ever, was fearful. Johann Christoph, awkwardly uncertain of his position, almost returned the boy's manuscript to him. His wife thought he should. But it won't do, he thought, to encourage such wilfulness, and kept it.

But Sebastian stayed and learned until he was 15. They worked on the church organ together, fixing it and playing, alternating for each other between working the bellows and sitting at the console, or tuning it: hiring a neighbor boy to pump the bellows, while Sebastian sat at the console holding down keys and Christoph adjusted the metal tuning lips on the pipes.

Chris and his wife began to have a family of their own, and eventually he had to tell the uncles that things were getting crowded. Could somebody else take Sebastian?

The family was big, and widespread (at least throughout Thuringia), and knew lots of people. The schoolmaster knew of a perfect opening for young Sebastian: at the St. Michael school in Luneburg.

Luneburg?? But this was far outside the family territory. It was all of 150 miles away, up north, strange country with no family around.

But he went. He wanted to go, butterflies in his stomach and all, excited and scared and wide-eyed and wanting to see and hear everything in the world, especially all the organs and all the music players in the world who were NOT named Bach. Georgie Erdmann is coming with, he's three years older, people travel that route all the time, there's nothing to it really, we can hitch rides and maybe sing for supper at an inn or something... .

When he came back, two years later, he knew a few bawdy songs nobody else did; things he'd picked up from schoolboys, or from hitchhiking, or from the elegant and supercilious French dancing master at Celle. 

He had studied, somehow, with the likes of George Böhm. He had ravaged the school's music library, just as he had done with brother Christoph's lesson plan, and his knapsack was full of scores he had copied out for himself.

He knew French music.  His voice was no longer soprano; it was a well-tuned tenor.

And it seemed, at the Wechmar reunions, that he could make almost any two songs fit together. Even Auntie Barbara, who was getting on in years, didn't stop her ears anymore, whether because of the words or the music she wouldn't or couldn't say.

At the 1702 reunion, a memorable songfest evolved, over the better part of an hour, into something like a contest between him and uncle Christoph. Everybody else, by degrees, fell silent, except uncle Mike singing "These are the Holy Ten Commandments" for a foundation. Sebastian and uncle Johann Christoph, warily circling, setting musical traps for each other, escaping, harmonizing, bringing in more distant tunes -- nobody cared anymore about the words, it was only the tunes and the harmony and Ambrosius' (God rest his soul) youngest boy, fresh back from school up in Luneburg, singing around the best that uncle Christoph could do, ferociously singing rings around it, decorating it, sailing near to Hell itself on fragments from a dozen completely filthy songs - some in French - while his uncle struggled to plod through two. They collapsed on each others shoulders, laughing, holding their sides, and finished up with a positively angelic sequence of improvised hallelujahs around the last verse of the hymn from uncle Mike and the others.

The family talked about it for years.  Auntie Barbara smiled every time anyone mentioned it.

In the power of his early manhood, Johann Sebastian frolicked and dove and sang, in oceans of sound, like a whale.

By the time he was beginning to think what he might actually accomplish, some in the family had already been wondering about that very thing for years.

The uncles talked among themselves, never in front of the boy - it would not do for him to hear such things - but it was clear his gift was great indeed. Uncle Johann Christoph was the greatest among the uncles (although Auntie Barbara had always favored his brother Michael); he was not only the organist at St. George's, he composed; he had written pieces for church services. When Sebastian's name came up in family discussions he could only shake his head in silence.

Once, after Sebastian and he had spent a Saturday afternoon with him at the church, tweaking and tuning the organ, and then taking turns alternately at the bellows and the console, the boy stayed for dinner. In the middle of some talk about the opening at St. Boniface church in Arnstadt, somehow Ambrosius' name came up.

The boy said "Uncle, do you think papa would be proud of me?"

Johann Christoph said "He already..." and he stopped. His eyes got moist.

He looked up at the ceiling, and tried again, saying "Your parents were...", and choked.

And finally he said "Sebastian, no one in the family has ever had your gifts. Your father said that first, to myself and Michael. I say it now, to you."

The boy started to tremble. He tried to say something, a denial perhaps, but fell silent, looking down at the wooden tabletop and the dishes.

His uncle said, "Sebastian, as God on high is my witness, you must know that this is true."

He fell silent and thought for a moment.

"We are musicians, in this family.  We have been musicians for five generations. We know our abilities.  And our shortcomings. We know each other's. Cousin Ambrosius and I, God rest his soul, knew each other; I knew his music, he knew mine, as one musician to another.  My brother Michael and I knew each other the same way: in our music.

"My boy, I know what my music-making was when I was 18. The piece I put together for service  tomorrow is better than anything you could do right now; but as God is my witness" - he raised his eyes to Sebastians - "you have more in you now than I had when I was twice your age."

Embarrassed, Sebastian glanced away, and then down at the table again for a moment.  Then he raised his eyes back to his uncle's gaze. 

There was distance in those eyes.  The look on his face was completely indecipherable: it might have been gratitude, it might have been grief. It might have been pride, or hunger, or guilt, or despair.

The moment, and the locked glance between the old man and the boy, stretched out and became timeless.

And slowly, very slowly, the look on the boy's face resolves itself: it is joy: a silent shout, gloria in excelsis, hosanna hosanna hosanna, exultation, animal certainty, joy sprouting in the bones and blood and sinews, praise singing in the entrails.

And then, in rapid succession, it is all of those other things too: it is rage, it is fierce and indomitable pride, it is guilt and despair, it is resignation and gratitude and a finally a great quiet confident welcome.  

The boy looked up at the ceiling.  He heaved a huge silent sigh and slumped back against his chair.  He sighed again.  He lowered his eyes to meet his uncle's.

And finally the young Johann Sebastian smiled. "Yes," he said then, smiling through tears. "God be thanked then. I thank you, uncle."

"Well then," said Johann Christoph. He cleared his throat. "Well then..." and cleared his throat again, "I will tell you this now: your father would be proud of you."

Sebastian got the position at Arnstadt. The family didn't even need to put in a word for him; the Arnstadt consistory almost pushed the other candidates out the door, they were so pleased to have Sebastian.

Uncle Johann Christoph died only a month later. Sebastian, steely-eyed and ecstatic, played the funeral service.

He married at 22, when uncle Tobias died and left him a little, and Maria Barbara gave him children: Catherina, and the twins, and Billy, and Karl, and Johann Gottfried. The twins died.

Maria Barbara died. God took her without even a chance to say goodbye: when he left for Carlsbad with the prince in May, she was there, and when he returned in July, she was gone. He was 35. .

One cannot look backwards. The children - Catherina was 12, Billy 10, Karl was 6, Johann Gottfried 5 - needed a mother, and he needed a wife. A year and a half after Maria Barbara was gone, he married Anna Magdalena. She was just 20. She gave him 13 more children. They were together to the end.

As a composer, he was no prodigy. His earliest works are shambling, romantic clots of baroque rock-n-roll, sentimental, bombastic, harmonically untamed, shapeless polyphony in a constantly changing number of voices.

He wasn't very together until his mid-twenties; and he often said later that if it hadn't been for that one year, in his late twenties, when he and his cousin Gottfried Walther made keyboard arrangements of all that Italian music for the prince, he would never have seen how to keep big pieces of music orderly.

Being a church musician in Germany in the time of Bach was a little like being a studio musician today. It was a job; musicians knew each other, and they knew who was good and who wasn't. (It might also be your religion, but that didn't make it any less of a job.) Within the community of musicians, Bach had enormous prestige and respect; the public knew him mostly as a dandy organist.

Like a successful studio musician today, you were assumed to be able to play at sight, by ear, to improvise in any style, and to throw together quick charts or write a jingle or two on demand. The romantic and melodramatic musical posturing of the nineteenth century (the kind of stuff that disfigures every movie Hollywood has ever tried to make about classical musicians) would have drawn only amused contempt from musicians of Bach's generation.

During Bach's own lifetime, it's true, there was a big musical revolution. It was an enormous and (like all such revolutions) fundamentally inexplicable shift in the popular taste, from the style that Bach and his generation had been raised with towards something far simpler and - well - popular.

In 1740 Bach was 55 years old. He was throughout his life a devout Christian. There is clear musical evidence that his spiritual life was profound, ecstatic, and even mystical.

But he would have had no undue reverence for church people or institutions. The Reformation, in the huge slow history of the Christian Church, was still a recent accomplishment. He would have absorbed from the Lutheran Catechism itself a sharp distinction between the Spirit of the church - the Holy Spirit - and its very frail and fallible and sometimes cantankerous governing bodies.

Besides, no church organist, such as Sebastian had been in his first two jobs, could afford to be naive about his consistory.

He had no illusions about himself or his work: he was at the height of his powers, and knew it. With all his Christian humility (which was considerable), he must have known that he was "at the top". Any musician who's practiced his craft long enough knows where he stands among his colleagues. He can't possibly not know.

Bach, like any solid professional musician, would recognize the instant he encountered anyone he could learn from; and, at the age of 55, he would know that there was no one left on earth who had anything to teach him. It would, in fact, have been years since anyone successfully taught him anything; to anyone who undertook such a task - and there were some who tried - he would appear stiffnecked, wilful and unbelievably stubborn.

But that would be because his capacity to learn far outstripped the capacity of any prospective teacher to teach.  He never did stop growing; in his sixties, he began picking up the newer style, absorbing it, integrating it into his musical imagination without abandoning anything he already knew.

He was just extremely bright. The records indicate that he skipped grades as a child, and completed his schooling several years before  his agemates. By the time he was in his early twenties, he'd absorbed more music than any of the musicians around him. He'd absorbed it all: the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodies, the national styles, how counterpoint works, how the most popular composers' best stuff worked.

It took him another ten years or so to fully assimilate this enormous body of musical practice; you can hear it happening on the way from his teenage years to his maturity.

It was a wonderful trip.  Ambrosius would have been proud of him.


Copyright © Jim Michmerhuizen 2005    Contact