Richard Nisley

Switched On Bach
Music - Classical Released - Jun 01, 2014

It’s in the green heart of Germany. It’s the land of the Brothers Grimm, of enchanted forests, hiking and winter sports, of Goethe and Schiller, of Martin Luther and protestantism. It’s Thuringia, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Johann Sebastian Bach. Now, there’s a solid German name, fitting of Bach’s granite-like character. Bach was serious, driven, a dedicated protestant. He would never be mistaken for “one of the boys.” However, while subservient to the nobility--as people of his station were in 18th century Germany--he had no illusions about their fallibility. Bach was an obedient subject, of course, but he was not one to suffer fools gladly. Like Beethoven, he had no patience with people who stood in the way of his art. Unlike Beethoven, he occasionally spent time in confinement for disobeying his superiors.

Bach never composed a single opera. It was not by choice. The wealthy patrons who had the money to stage full-blown operas resided in large cosmopolitan cities like Berlin, Hamburg, London, Milan, and Paris. Bach rarely ventured outside the provincial towns of Arnstad, Muhlhausen, Weimar, Cothen, and Leipzig. The biggest town ever to employ him was Leipzig. As a result, Bach would make his name with another form of music for orchestra and voice--the cantata.

Bach started out as a church organist. Martin Luther, who lived 200 years before him, had decreed that music was as necessary to spiritual growth as reading the Bible. He saw to it that all the churches in Protestant Germany sang hymns as part of their services. The instrument of choice was the organ. If you were a church elder and had spent all the parishioners’ money building an organ that took up an entire wall of your church, you didn’t want just anyone playing it. You wanted someone to come in and work out the bugs, to make sure every key, pedal, stop, nob, switch or whatever, worked, and who could make the multitude of brass pipes sing to high heaven. You wanted a virtuoso. You wanted Bach.


All of Bach's great compositions for organ were written at this time: fantasies, preludes, fugues, toccatas, including his mighty "Toccata & Fugue in D Minor." Bach seated at the keyboard above the congregation was a sight to behold. In “Bach’s Feet,” the author suggests that Bach was fully aware of the impact he was having on those below: “The feeling of power beyond human scale, enjoyed by all organists at the controls of these giant constructions, is magnified by the visual impression of these stolen, neck-straining views: playing with feet and hands was an often aerobic activity that required a good deal of stretching, swiveling, and balancing . . . a physical feat unparalleled in other modes of music-making.” Indeed, it became the stuff of legend. Ernst Ludwig Gerber, whose father had studied with Bach in Leipzig, marveled at his superhuman technique:

“On the pedals his feet had to imitate with perfect accuracy every theme, every passage that his hands had played. . . . He used to make long double trills with both feet, while his hands were anything but idle.”

In Bach’s lifetime, his art at the organ was so great it far exceeded his fame as a composer. It wasn’t until years later--long after he was dead and the full extent of his works were finally published--that the world began to realize that this provincial organist was the greatest composer who had ever lived. Indeed, Bach himself never thought of himself as a particularly inspired composer. He put it down to hard work and nothing more.

Bach was born into a musical family. At one point, there were some 20 Bachs playing organ in churches across Germany. An average student, young Johann Sebastian received an unusually thorough humanistic education. As a child, he was a good singer, but it was only in his teens that he developed into a capable instrumentalist, with particular mastery of the violin and keyboard instruments. In composition, he was largely self-taught. Musicologists have divided Bach’s creative output into three distinct periods.

THE FIRST PERIOD was in Weimar, while Bach was in his 20s. As court organist and concertmaster at the court of the Duke of Weimar, he created all of his works for organ and composed his first cantatas. Living on a comfortable salary, he married his second cousin Maria Barbara and began having children. When a more lucrative position opened in Cothen, he resigned his post as concertmaster only to be arrested and locked up for four weeks for “too stubbornly” forcing the issue of his resignation. The nobles who paid his salary eventually dismissed him “in disgrace.”

THE SECOND PERIOD was in Cothen, while Bach was in his 30s. His patron, Prince Leopold, was a fine musician himself, and showed great generosity to Bach the Kapellmeister. The bulk of Bach’s output, composed for the prince’s music-hungary court, consisted of all his chamber music. Besides the first volume of the “Well-Tempered Clavier,” some of his most celebrated collections were assembled in sixes: the “Brandenburg Concertos,” the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, the suites for solo cello, the sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord, and the four “Orchestral Suites." It was in Cothen that his first wife Barbara became ill and died suddenly. Having a full-time workload and four young children to raise, Bach wasted little time finding a new wife. Within a year of her death, he married a woman 15 years his junior--Anna Magdalena--who was an excellent musician in her own right. He presented her with a book of perky marches and minuets, entitled “Little Music Book for Anna Magdalena Bach.”

THE THIRD PERIOD was in Leipzig, where Bach lived the remaining 27 years of his life. As cantor of St. Thomas’s School and responsible for the music performed in four churches, he composed all his great choral works--cantatas, motets, passions, and oratorios--as well as the “Goldberg Variations” for harpsichord. In his last years, he composed two remarkable studies that summarized his knowledge of the art and theory of music: “Musical Offering” and “The Art of Fugue.”


Bach had a life-long problem with authority. Being a genius probably had something to do with it. Early in his career, he was reprimanded for having written music that made “many curious variations in the chorale and mingled many strange tones in it” and “confused the congregation.” (This is reminiscent of the scene in the movie “Amadeus” where the king tells Mozart his score has “too many notes.”) Imagine being Bach and given a lesson in how to compose and improvise on the organ by church councillors who had never taken a harmony lesson in their lives. Bach’s letters written throughout his lifetime are filled with similar instances that irritated him no end. And Bach was not one to grovel either. He possessed a deep reluctance to ingratiate himself and a tendency to sulk when confronted by what he felt was bone-headed officialdom. Bach lived a life of perpetual “vexation and hindrance” (his words).

Another problem confronting Bach were musicians and singers who could not perform his music up to his high standards. It was a problem he faced throughout his life, although it got better in Leipzig, an international city of the arts, where there were many more competent musicians. Nevertheless, Bach was forever having to train singers and orchestra performers. Another problem was he rarely had enough time to rehearse his players adequately. During the busiest times of the year, Bach was composing one cantata a week (about 20 minutes of music), rehearsing a 30-piece orchestra and choir, playing an instrument himself, and performing on Sunday. It wasn’t until Bach’s family of ten had grown up that he finally had a band of players with the training to perform at a consistently high level.

There is an eye-witness account of Bach leading an orchestra and choir, while performing on organ. “If you could see Bach . . . singing with one voice and playing his own parts, but watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat, out of thirty or even forty musicians, the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to one from the top of his voice, to another from the bottom, and to a third from the middle of it -- all alone, in the midst of the greatest din made by all the participants, and although he is executing the most difficult parts himself, noticing at once whenever and wherever a mistake occurs, holding everyone together, taking precautions everywhere, and repairing unsteadiness, full of rhythm in every part of his body -- this one man taking in all these harmonies with his keen ear and emitting with his voice alone the tone of all the voices. . . .”


Bach did not consider composing a special talent that only a few possessed, but as something most people could do provided they were industrious and hard working. God was still the only true creator. As Bach saw it, what he was doing was uncovering the possibilities that were already there. Like Shakespeare, he looked for ideas that he could develop, musical ideas, themes (sometimes other people’s themes), a line from a hymn perhaps, some scrap of music, something, anything, that he could rework and develop into something exalted and completely his own. His son Emanuel Bach referred to it as a process of inventing, a trigger that fired his imagination and got the creative juices flowing. When he was most under pressure, composing to a tight weekly schedule as with the church cantatas, this process of inventing enabled him to come up with totally original scores in a very short time.

Because his knowledge of harmony was so profound (practically mathematical in effect), he knew how every single note and key related to each other, what could be done with every chord and with every change of direction. As his son Emanuel tells us, “He worked them out completely and dovetailed them into a large and beautiful whole that combined diversity and the greatest simplicity.”

English conductor John Eliot Gardiner likens Bach’s knack for composing to a game of chess: “Like a chess grand master, Bach is able to predict all the next conceivable moves. One would like to know whether someone so precise and so obviously comfortable with figures and structures was in the habit of applying these faculties to other areas. (Was there some ‘harmony’, for instance, in the way he set out his bills and accounts?) Bach seems to have been unique in identifying the elusive divine spark which for him, as Dreyfus suggests, lay at the core of musical and human experience and which he pursued through hard and arduous work.”


After six years in Leipzig, and having grown weary of the autocratic domination of church authorities with whom he was often in conflict, Bach decided it was time for a change. He accepted the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular association of professional and student musicians that was considerably more polished than the group he had been working with at St. Thomas’s. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Leipzig’s burgeoning middle class had more money and more free time to enjoy life’s pleasures, such as dining on lavish gourmet meals and afterwards stopping by the local coffee house to drink sweetened coffee and hear chamber music which, heretofore, had been the exclusive privilege of the very wealthy and the church. Now, increasingly, it was for anyone with the money to purchase a cup of coffee.

It wasn’t long for word to get around that Bach was performing in public instead of in church. If you wished to hear the latest in Baroque instrumental music performed by the man himself and his sons, then the place to go was where the Family Bach was featured. On very special nights, Bach and the Collegium Musicum would perform secular Italian cantatas and opera arias. As the city’s music director, Bach and his band would also perform in the market square and the town center. In the summer, they would perform in the park.

Bach composed his most famous secular cantata at this time. Called “The Coffee Cantata,” it was performed for the first time just a few month’s after a professor of botany at the local university issued a dissertation on the dangers of drinking too much coffee. “The Coffee Cantata” is an amusing piece about a father who is worried about his daughter’s obsession with coffee. When he urges her to stop, she declares she would rather cut off fingers than miss her beloved coffee. “If I must pass a day without coffee,” she warns him, “you shall have a corpse on your hands by evening.”

Bach wrote very little church music after 1730. The two exceptions are the “Mass in B-Minor” (composed over a 20-year period), and the “Christmas Oratorio.” In his last years, Bach compiled and edited many of his earlier scores, composed the “Goldberg Variations,” prepared a second set of 24 Preludes and Fugues (Book Two of “The Well-Tempered Clavier”), composed the “Musical Offering” for the King of Prussia, and was in the process of completing “The Art of Fugue” when he passed away, in July of 1750. The era of Baroque Music, of which Johann Sebastian Bach is the supreme master, ended with his death.

Because so little of his music was published in his lifetime, Bach was mostly unknown outside of Germany. Indeed, two of his sons (Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian) achieved world-renowned fame as composers and, ironically, were better-known than their father.

Final note: I am indebted to “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven” by John Eliot Gardiner. Gardiner is among the two or three best conductors in the world today, and a first-rate writer. As a conductor, he’s credited with having recorded definitive accounts of Bach’s four greatest choral works: “The Mass in B Minor,” “Christmas Oratorio,” “St. Matthew Passion,” and “St. John Passion.” He is one of only two conductors to have recorded all 202 of Bach’s Cantatas.

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