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Why Bach Moves Us

William H. Scheide, Princeton, New Jersey
Johann Sebastian Bach; painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1748

One of my most moving encounters with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach took place in the spring of 1997 in New York City’s Central Synagogue. I was there to pay last respects to Gabe Wiener, a talented young recording engineer who died of a brain aneurysm at age twenty-six. I had approached Gabe earlier in the year to see if his recording company, PGM Classics, would consider collaborating with the American Bach Society, which I led at the time, to produce a compact disc of previously unrecorded organ music from Bach’s circle. Gabe enthusiastically agreed to the proposal, and together we embarked on a project we called “The Uncommon Bach.” We had just settled on the repertory and the organ when I received word of his death.

There was great lamenting at the memorial service that this talented young man had been snatched away in the midst of important work, with so much promise unfulfilled. The service began with Gabe’s recording of Salamone Rossi’s Hebrew setting of the Songs of Solomon, a gorgeous yet relatively unknown Venetian masterpiece. It continued with readings from the Torah, eulogies, and the Kaddish. But at the center of the service, at what proved to be the emotional high point, a countertenor sang the Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

The Agnus Dei is one of Bach’s last creations, derived from music he had used twice before, in 1725 and 1735, with different texts. He was clearly pleased with the highly effective aria, and in 1749 he refined it a final time for insertion into the concluding portion of the B-Minor Mass. Time was running out. The cataracts that had plagued his eyesight for some time were rapidly advancing, and the Agnus Dei was one of the last pieces he completed before submitting to the eye operations that led to his death. Bach normally expanded music when he revised it for further use, but in this unusual case he shortened the original, distilling its emotional and musical essence and creating a new, intensified version of the piece. He had less than a year to live.

As the singer intoned the ancient Latin text—Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis (Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us)—enhanced by a poignant unison violin line and anguished pauses, I could not help but marvel at the miracle of hearing this music from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass Ordinary, written by a Lutheran composer in Leipzig, in a Reform Jewish temple in New York City. Afterward I asked Peter Rubinstein, the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue, why he picked this particular work rather than something from the Jewish repertory. “We chose Bach’s Agnus Dei,” he replied, “because it was the right piece, indeed the only piece capable of expressing the inexpressible—the anguish we feel over the inexplicable loss of young Gabe Wiener.”

Just how Bach managed to express the inexpressible, especially with regard to death, and what life experiences stood behind his compositional decisions are at the center of a lively new book by the distinguished British conductor John Eliot Gardiner. Stepping in as president of the Leipzig Bach Archive at the beginning of this year, Gardiner has devoted his life to the performance of Bach’s vocal works (he has conducted them all), and the biographical gaps he seeks to close in his lengthy study have perplexed Bach scholars for more than two hundred years.

Unlike Mozart, Beethoven, and other classical composers for whom personal letters abound, Bach left behind little correspondence. He never wrote an autobiographical sketch, even though he was invited to do so several times, and in only three instances—a job inquiry to an old school chum, a concerned exchange with town officials over the misdemeanors of his son Johann Gottfried Bernhard, and underlinings and marginalia in his Calov Bible—does he offer a glimpse of his inner self. All the rest must be pieced together from council records, pay receipts, anecdotes, brief printed notices, a carefully worded obituary, and other scraps of information. Bach’s character has remained largely hidden from view.

As a result, biographers have been forced to fend for themselves, frequently reimagining Bach through the prism of their own life and times. Johann Nicolaus Forkel, a passionate keyboard player and German nationalist, first portrayed Bach in 1802 as a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist and model citizen for Germany’s rising middle class. Later in the century, Philipp Spitta, born into a family of theologians and leader of the Lutheran church-music revival, portrayed Bach as the Fifth Evangelist, vigorously spreading the gospel through his Lutheran cantatas, motets, and Passions. And more recently, Christoph Wolff, former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and University Professor at Harvard, presented Bach as a “learned musician,” an intellect worthy of Sir Isaac Newton and a town music director well acquainted with the faculty of the university in Leipzig.*

It is no surprise, then, that Gardiner proposes yet another image of Bach. Moving beyond the hagiographies of the past, he presents a fallible Bach, a musical genius who on the one hand is deeply committed to illuminating and expanding Luther’s teachings through his sacred vocal works (and therefore comes close to Spitta’s Fifth Evangelist), but on the other hand is a rebellious and resentful musician, harboring a lifelong grudge against authority—a personality disorder stemming from a youth spent among ruffians and abusive teachers. Hiding behind Bach, creator of the Matthew Passion and B-Minor Mass, Gardiner suggests, is Bach “the reformed teenage thug.” In the preface we read: “Emphatically, Bach the man was not a bore.” Neither is Gardiner.

Gardiner draws on the most recent findings of the Bach Archive research team, especially Michael Maul’s important study of the St. Thomas Choir. This material was not available to previous biographers. But he believes the key to unlocking Bach’s concealed character lies in the music itself, “the anchor to which we can return again and again, and the principal means of validating or refuting any conclusion about its author.” In this sense his approach resembles that used for Shakespeare in Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt, who called on passages from the Bard’s works to flesh out an otherwise skeletal biography. The chief difference is that Greenblatt considered all the plays and sonnets, whereas Gardiner limits himself to Bach’s vocal works—a restriction that raises problems.

While it’s difficult to imagine a controversial Bach biography, given the overall lack of documentary material, Gardiner’s reappraisal comes close to it. For instance, in evaluating Bach’s initial years in Eisenach, where he was born in 1685, past biographers have attributed his school absences to domestic problems: illnesses and the deaths of Bach’s parents, leaving him an orphan at age ten. Gardiner suggests instead that the absences may have resulted from a negative atmosphere in a school and town filled with “rowdy, subversive, thuggish” boys. Earlier writers have viewed Bach’s subsequent stay with his older brother Johann Christoph in Ohrdruf as a period of academic accomplishment, with Bach achieving good grades and high class standing under the progressive educational reforms of Jan Amos Comenius. Here Gardiner sees a sinister element in the dismissal of cantor Johann Heinrich Arnold, reportedly for “bullying, sadism and sodomy.” Might Bach have been a victim of Arnold’s? Gardiner asks.

At age fifteen, Bach moved north to Lüneburg, where he sang in the St. Michael’s Matins Choir, studied organ with Georg Böhm, and made trips to Hamburg to observe the great North German organist Johann Adam Reincken. In this instance Gardiner points to the turf wars of the Lüneburg prefects over serenading rights, creating gang clashes fought by “embryonic Jets and Sharks.”

Gardiner concludes that Bach was “bred en bawn in a brier-patch” like Brer Rabbit, and that this thorny upbringing set the stage for a troubled professional life. Thus Bach’s stay in Arnstadt, where he “really showed the first fruits of his application to the art of organ playing and composition,” according to his formal obituary, becomes a battleground with a rowdy, intractable student choir and a local cultural milieu that was not sympathetic to him. Bach’s next post, Mühlhausen, where he wrote cantatas of remarkable beauty and invention, was plagued by conditions that “prevented [him] from doing anything worth while.” And Weimar, where “the pleasure his Grace took in his playing fired him with the desire to try every possible artistry in his treatment of the organ,” according to the obituary once again, is also viewed as a period of unending conflict with his employers.

All this builds to Bach’s arrival in Leipzig in 1723, where Gardiner sees the well-known squabbles with members of the Town Council as the ultimate consequence of emotional wounds from a troubled youth:

The strong impression one gets is of a man almost constantly at odds with someone or something. It should not surprise us, then, if we find that these lifelong problems with anger and authority were incubated in the unsavoury atmosphere and environment of his early schooling and in childhood traumas.

This approach reaches a climax when Gardiner reads a hidden agenda into the Leipzig cantatas. He questions whether Cantata 178, with its “dire, sibyl-like mood of warning against hypocrites and prophets,” was Bach’s way of channeling his frustration and vituperative energy into his music and then watching as it “rained down from the choir loft on to his chosen targets below.” More than that, he characterizes the aria “Weicht, all’ ihr Übeltäter” (Begone, all you evildoers!) from Cantata 135 as “angry music executed with a palpable fury, with Bach fuming at delinquent malefactors.” This begins to sound like Susan McClary’s infamous portrayal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the “throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”

All this makes for lively reading. But what are we to make of it?

It seems to me that for Bach’s formative years and professional positions leading up to his appointment in Leipzig, the music is indeed our best indication of his personality. By excluding Bach’s keyboard and instrumental pieces from discussion, however, Gardiner disregards telling evidence that he himself deems critical for understanding Bach’s character. For example, he mentions the astonishing organ tablatures, discovered only in 2005, of works by Reincken and Dieterich Buxtehude that Bach wrote out when he was between thirteen and fifteen years old. But Gardiner doesn’t acknowledge what they tell us. The neat, meticulous, almost flawless notation points to a disciplined, methodical, well-trained teenager deeply committed to learning his craft. And the music suggests a prodigy eager to take on the most technically challenging organ music of the time. This does not seem to square with the image of a wild, unruly boy running around Ohrdruf and Lüneburg with hoodlums.

And in Cöthen, characterized by Gardiner as a “provincial backwater,” Bach nevertheless managed to produce the Brandenburg Concertos, the solo violin and cello pieces, and other instrumental and keyboard works that reveal his complete embrace of dance music, perhaps the most important influence on his mature style other than his adoption of Vivaldi’s music in Weimar. A quick comparison of Well-Tempered Clavier, volume 1, with Well-Tempered Clavier, volume 2, or the Weimar cantatas with the Leipzig cantatas shows how critical the formal use of dance at the Cöthen court was to Bach’s eventual formulation of a powerfully engaging universal style. Cöthen may have been a petty court, compared to those in Berlin or Dresden, but for Bach the stay there was a life-altering experience.

  1. *

    Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Norton, 2000); reviewed in these pages by Robert L. Marshall, June 15, 2000. 

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