Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician
By Christoph Wolff (Norton, 599 pages) First published in The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2000
On Friday, concerts and recitals all over the world commemorated the 250 anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death. And rightly so, Bach is not only the commanding figure of the late Baroque, he is one of the giants of Western music. From his day down to our own, with a few periods of wrongful neglect in between, his cantatas, oratorios, concertos, chamber music and keyboard works has inspired a near—religious devotion from his listeners. Among much else, his music provides a seemingly endless source of contrapuntal purity, architectural elegance, spiritual ardor and a controlled expressiveness that we may properly call profound.
Christoph Wolff’s Bach: The Learned Musician is a work of clarity worthy of its subject and his music. It is accessible to scholars and performers certainly but also to Bach lovers who may not possess a specialized musical vocabulary. It is, in short, a wonderful book, offering the historical context to Bach’s busy life and providing many facts about the great composer’s humanity. I doubt that any other work will challenge its completeness and authority for years to come.
Bach was born in 1685, the youngest of eight children, in Eisenach, a town in what is now east—central Germany. He was orphaned within 10 years and lived for a time in his brother Johann Christoph’s house before heading off to school on a musical scholarship. By age 17, he was a virtuosic organist who soon entered upon a succession of posts in various German duchies and principalities.
Notably, from 1709 to 1717, Bach was organist at the Duke of Weimar’s castle, where he composed the Orgel—Buchlein (chorales built upon Lutheran hymns) and several cantatas. It was in the period of 1717—23, though, while in the service of Prince Leopold at Anhalt—Cothen, that his composition reached a major phase, with the first book of the Well—Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos and the sonatas for solo violin. From 1723 to his death in 1750, Bach was cantor of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church and school, where he composed the St. Matthew Passion, the Magnificat, and most of the many cantatas for which he is so well—known.
Mr. Wolff sheds light on many aspects of this long career. We see the musical vitality of Bach’s father, Ambrosius, who directed a music company in Eisenach and performed with an accomplished ensemble whose members included, for a time, the young Johann Pachelbel (of the over—played "Canon"). As for Johann Christoph, he is often portrayed as despotic during the time he cared for his brother. There is, for example, the story of the young Bach copying by moonlight his elder brother’s "forbidden" music – a collection of keyboard pieces – and incurring Johann Christoph’s wrath when he was discovered. But Mr. Wolf concludes that there was no "long—term discord."
Mr. Wolf is good at conveying life at the courts where Bach spent part of his musical career. In Weimar, Bach was caught between co—reigning dukes with "incompatible personalities." The making of music, like the membership of the court capelle over which Bach had charge, was subject to ducal whim. Even so, Bach thrived, winning at one point a substantial salary increase, although he ended his tenure in a fit of temper that landed him, for a short time, in jail.
In Cothen, Bach’s situation seemed ideal. He was no longer a "mere" court organist and concertmaster but an exalted capellmeister. Although Cothen was in many respects a dull place, in comparison with thriving Weimar, its ruler, Prince Leopold, was described by one observer as "a great connoisseur and champion of music." And the court capelle was infused with Berlin virtuosi snatched up by young Leopold after they had been dismissed by Wilhelm I of Prussia. But in 1721 the prince chose to marry a young woman not at all interested in music, and Bach "noticed a change in the court’s attitude." Even after her death Leopold seems to have lost affection for Bach and his music.
Bach’s long tenure at Leipzig included an enormous burden of teaching – both choral and instrumental music – as well as the task of overseeing the music in four of the city’s churches. From early on, Bach decided to use "mainly his own works for the required church performances." Thus the enormous cantata output of these years. For all the creative fecundity, Bach was at odds with the authorities more than once and continuously frustrated by his inadequate compensation. His complaining letters to the king of Poland, a man of Russian connection, made me wonder if perhaps he was making a bid, indirectly, for a position in St. Petersburg.
Bach was astonishingly healthy through almost all of his life, but he declined rapidly in 1749—50, suffering, it is now supposed, from a form of diabetes that affected his eyesight along with much else. He underwent two eye operations – imagine, no anesthetic – that left him even more incapacita"ted than before, and a stroke devastated him in July 1750. On his deathbed, he asked to hear performed on a nearby pedal harpsichord the chorale, "Wenn wir in hochsten Noten sein." As Mr. Wolff writes: "Listening to the piece, he realized that it could benefit from some improvements in a number of contrapuntal, melodic, and rhythmic details." And so he "dictated the changes deemed necessary in order for him to be ready to appear before his Creator’s throne."
Of the three pillars of Western music – Bach, Beethoven and Mozart – it is Bach’s music that is the most difficult to perform properly, in part because we have long been uncertain about 18th—century performance practice. Studies in recent years, though, have brought much detail to light, and many fine performance have followed. Newly found multiple versions of the same work – e.g., the Fantasia in G for organ – give us new clues about the style and ornaments added by the performer in Bach’s time. Mr. Wolff’s book is just as important regarding the facts and details of Johann Sebastian’s life and times. I recommend it most highly.
— Anthony Newman