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Why Bach Moves Us

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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.

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Sotheby’s
The Thomasschule and Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was the choir director from 1723 until his death in 1750; painting by Felix Mendelssohn, 1838

The truth about Bach’s personality probably rests somewhere in the middle. The picture of Bach as humble Lutheran servant of God, model child, and fully mature adult is undoubtedly too saccharine. The arguments with town councils show a strong will and prickly temperament, and his private biblical exegesis suggests inner resentment. Gardiner is to be applauded for yanking us back to reality, for underscoring that the youthful pranks mentioned by C.P.E. Bach may refer to a less responsible side of his father. But the letters of family amanuensis Johann Elias Bach, describing a cantor’s home filled with visitors, carnations, and canaries, suggest a warm domestic haven rather than the lair of an angry young man.

The obsessive search for Bach’s dark side subsides in the second half of the book, when Gardiner arrives at the music he knows and loves best, the Leipzig vocal works. Here the tone brightens.

Bach’s decision, upon becoming cantor of St. Thomas, to provide a new cantata for each Sunday and festival day of the church year was the most momentous compositional decision of his life. It was common at the time for cantors to produce annual cantata cycles of approximately sixty works each. Georg Philipp Telemann, writer of 1,700 cantatas, and Christoph Graupner, with 1,400 to his credit, could shake church pieces out of their sleeves, and it is no surprise that they were offered the St. Thomas position before Bach. But Bach’s writing was much more substantive and intense, and the commitment to weekly cantata composition during his initial Leipzig years was a daunting personal challenge. He had only a modest supply of earlier works. He had no professional copyists at his disposal. He had no more than a motley band of singers and instrumentalists.

The weekly routine of cantata production must have been arduous: composing a thirty-minute work, overseeing the preparation of performance parts, rehearsing the score, and finally performing the music one, two, or even three times, depending on the Sunday or feast day in question. Even more remarkable was the multiyear commitment: the steady production, week in and week out, with Passions, oratorios, and Latin-texted works added at the high points of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The obituary stated that Bach composed five annual cycles, making a total of approximately three hundred cantatas. Only two hundred or so survive.

Gardiner’s direction of the “Bach Pilgrimage,” the performance of the complete cantatas in liturgical order during the course of 2000, gives him a unique insider’s feel for Bach’s vocal music and the rhythm of an annual cycle. His walkthrough of the annual cycles of 1723–1724 and 1724–1725 (the others are more fragmentary) provides a marvelous sense of the liturgical seasons and Bach’s musical reaction to them.

There are great advantages to approaching the cantatas this way. We can experience, for instance, the tremendous burden of Bach’s first Christmas, when he had to compose, prepare, and perform nine works over a span of sixteen days. We can see just how methodically he approached composition when he began the second annual cycle, based on chorale tunes, by assigning the melody first to the soprano voice, then to the alto, then to the tenor, and finally to the bass, respectively, in the opening choruses of the first four works. Or we can note how toward the end of the same cycle Bach became enamored of the oboe da caccia, an exotic instrument with the body of an oboe and the bell of a horn, using it in six of the last twelve works.

These and other day-to-day matters come to life in Gardiner’s tour through the cantatas, as his writing picks up the lyrical flow of the music:

Here we see a great composer at the height of his powers meeting the challenges of a self-imposed regimen week by week and adjusting his choice of form, his approach and his tone of voice to each underlying theme, each symbol and each metaphor arising from the texts laid out in front of him. There can be no doubt as to the magnitude of the task or the rapidity with which his skill developed.

Gardiner believes it was Bach’s identification with Martin Luther that made all the difference. Luther’s earthy German translation of the Bible, a “prose of the people,” provided Bach with bold images to paint in music. It was the perfect counterpart to Luther’s hymns and hymn texts, to which Bach returned time and time again. Luther’s advocacy of music and his conviction that it could make scripture come alive legitimized Bach’s compositional ambitions. Picking up Spitta’s mantle, Gardiner makes the case that the cantatas, rather than the keyboard or instrumental works, are Bach’s greatest achievement. And within the cantatas it is the sacred pieces, backed by Bach’s fervent faith, that shine above the secular works, which in Gardiner’s view do not display the same intense conviction.

Crowning the cantata cycles are the Passions. Of the two that survive, Gardiner finds the St. John the most dramatic, perhaps because the text offered optimal opportunity for contrasts. On a small scale, this played out in arias such as “Betrachte, meine Seel” (Consider, my soul), in which the torn and blood-streaked back of the flogged Christ is likened to a rainbow symbolizing divine grace. Bach painted this image with exotic violas d’amore accompanied by a lute (or lute harpsichord, in a subsequent performance). On a large scale, it played out in the turbulent choruses of the hysterical and vengeful mob that contrast with the serene recitatives and arias portraying Christ. The chorales, perhaps actively sung by the congregation (this remains open to debate), stood as markers for the listeners, signposts of familiar texts and melodies that engaged them more deeply in the drama. Gardiner is right to point out the St. John Passion’s close ties with opera and its musical devices. As was true of opera, audience members could purchase the printed text at the event, even though they were already familiar with the characters and plot.

Gardiner concludes his survey of the vocal music with an extended exploration of the Mass in B-Minor, Bach’s most universal church work. Consisting mainly of recycled movements from cantatas written over a thirty-five-year period, it allowed Bach to survey his vocal pieces one last time and pick select movements for further revision and refinement. By shifting the text from German to Latin, he was able to move the music from the Lutheran Proper service to the Catholic Ordinary. The work is permeated with secular dance music, which accounts for its remarkable exuberance, grace, and appeal. But it also contains deeply expressive music from Bach’s Weimar and Leipzig church cantatas that gives it extraordinary emotional depth and drama. As Gardiner well describes it, the Mass “celebrates the fundamental sanctity of life, an awareness of the divine and a transcendent dimension as a fact of human existence.” Assembled in 1748 and 1749, it was Bach’s musical last will and testament.

Gardiner, like earlier biographers, ponders whether the work is Lutheran or Catholic. The Missa (Kyrie and Gloria) and Sanctus were compatible with the Lutheran worship service, as previous writers have acknowledged. But recent evidence shows that the Symbolum Nicenum and Agnus Dei portions could have been performed within the Leipzig Lutheran liturgy as well. In the case of the Symbolum, Gardiner suggests that Bach’s late insertion of the Et incarnatus puts the Crucifixus at the very center of the music, thus reinforcing Luther’s belief that the crucifixion was the central event of Christianity, an act that allowed man to perceive God through Christ’s suffering and death.

This is true, but the interpolation also highlights the incarnation, which was de rigueur for Catholic Mass settings of the time. There are reasons to believe Bach performed the Symbolum in its initial, shorter version in Leipzig as a Lutheran anthem, and inserted the Et incarnatus only when he incorporated the music into his evolving Catholic Missa tota. The extant manuscript of the B-Minor Mass is filled with scratch-outs, corrections, revisions, and insertions. It suggests a work in progress.

If Bach had lived longer, it is likely that he would have created a definitive fair copy of the Mass, similar to those of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions. There he might have confirmed the Catholic nature of the whole by replacing the Lutheran term “Symbolum Nicenum” with the Roman standard, “Credo.” He also might have given the work a name (the present title comes from the nineteenth century; the Bach family seems to have called the compilation “The Great Catholic Mass”).

Which brings us back to the Agnus Dei aria of this monumental piece. Its text does not draw on Luther’s German or the poetry of a Leipzig librettist, but rather on the ancient language of the Mass Ordinary. Is it Bach’s use of this timeless Latin plea that still moves us so strongly today, or is it the seemingly inexorable progression of his melodic lines and harmonic sequences? Does the perfectly proportioned structure of the piece stir primal feelings that transcend time, place, and creed, to express the inexpressible? Although Music in the Castle of Heaven does not fully answer these questions, it forces us to rethink Bach’s life and how adversity and faith affected his vocal compositions. And it takes us inside his world, allowing us to see the works from the standpoint of composer, performer, and listener. As Otto Bettmann once remarked, Bach’s “music sets in order what life cannot.”

  1. *

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

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