Music – John Sebastian Bach

Born 1685  died 1750. The first musical Bach of whom we have knowledge was Veit Bach, born during the fifteen-fifties. He was a miller in Thuringia, and used to play the Zither as the wheel went round. The last was Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, who was a London piano-teacher for some years, and died, a very old man, in 1845.

That gives Bach musicianship a very satisfactory run of seven generations, covering nearly three centuries. Johann Sebastian belongs to the fifth generation; the musical miller was his great-great-grandfather, and the London piano-teacher was his grandson. Until Johann Sebastian’s sons set the fashion of travel, the family had never stirred far from its native Thuringia.

These Bachs supplied the churches with organists and the town bands with fiddlers ; indeed, in those parts to say ‘ a Bach’ was to say ‘a musician’, and to say ‘a musician ‘ was almost to say ‘a Bach’. There were frequent gatherings of the Bach clan to make music. The members of it taught one another. Perhaps they partly lived by taking in’ one another’s children as music pupils, for they were a fecund as well as a musical race, and any older Bach could always find a swarm of young ones who needed teaching and any younger one a swarm of older ones to give him lessons. Refer to the sketches of Purcell and Couperin for contemporary instances of music as the family trade, and note antithetically that Handel, Bach’s exact contemporary, and (in early life) near neighbour, had, so far as we know, no musical ancestry and left no descendants.

John Sebastian became a double orphan at the age of ten, and was then adopted by an elder brother—a professional musician, of course. He made a hobby of holiday pedestrianism, tramping off to hear the organists of greatest fame (see reference to this in sketch of John Bull, p. 47). When he was eighteen he became a fiddler in the private Orchestra of a prince.

Then he obtained a post as Organist, and got into trouble because one of his absences (to hear the great Danish organist, Buxtehude, at Lübeck) lasted three months. All his life through Bach was learning from others—hearing them or studying their works ; North German and Dutch and Danish Organ composers, Italian Violin composers, French Harpsichord composers—all were put under contribution, and exercised their influence upon him.

Another grumble of the church authorities was that his juvenile exuberance found expression in too elaborate accompaniments to the hymn-tunes, or Chorales, and the Lutheran Chorale is another great influence in Bach’s music. He was constantly ‘ arranging’ Chorales ; he put them into his Choral works, either in comparatively simple form or much adorned with flowing ‘ parts’ ; he wrote dozens of Organ pieces developed out of Chorales in various ways. The Chorale is a distinctively German thing ; Handel became very much Italianized, but Bach, though he picked up composing technique wherever he found it at its best, remained intensely German and even North German in his general outlook.

Other Organ posts succeeded, and then a Kapellmeistership (i. e. a general musical directorship) to a prince whose religious exercises were of a sort that did not call for musical adornment, but who, like many of the English Puritans of sixty o1 seventy years earlier, revelled in music out of church. This counts as the second artistic period in Bach’s life : in the first his efforts were concentrated on Organ composition ; in the second on Chamber Music of all sorts, and on Orchestral Music.

When Bach approached forty he moved to Leipzig. Here he had the music of three churches unde1 his control, played the Organ, composed sacred Cantatas galore, trained Choirs, taught Latin to the small boys in the Choir School, and conducted the University Musical Society. Also he no doubt gave a little occasional attention to his numerous family. Bach has been described by some English school-boy under examination as (the happy phrase is becoming classic) `an habitual parent’. He had, in fact, twenty children. The new science of Eugenics has, in this case, surely, no fault to find. Could they have chosen a better father?

This Leipzig period is the third and last. As the others had been devoted largely to the production of, firstly, Organ music and then instrumental music of other kinds, this one was devoted to the production of larger-scale or smaller-scale church compositions—the Cantatas that have been mentioned (300 of them !), and settings of the `Passion’. Like the productive Handel, he probably used his eyes too much, for he too died blind.

After Bach’s death his works were neglected, music having, with his sons, with Haydn, with Mozart, and with their contemporaries, definitely left the distinctively contrapuntal style for another which will be described in the following chapter. Nobody henceforward thought much of Bach until, in the early eighteen hundreds, interest began to revive in Germany and a group of organists in London (Kollman, C. F. Horn, Jacobs, Samuel Wesley—may their names never be forgotten!) became enthusiastic about him and began to pester others to share their enthusiasm. Samuel Wesley, in particular, was indefatigable in his propaganda in favour of `our matchless Man (if Man he may be called)’, and circulated writings intended as `a thorough defiance of all the Snarlers and would-be Criticks, howsoever dispersed throughout the British Empire’. Then the twenty-year-old Mendelssohn performed the St. Matthew Passion, and musicians in Germany became fired with zeal which led in another twenty years or so to the formation of the great Bach Society for complete publication of the works, and, in time, to the present-day Bach worship, the only complaint against which is that in setting up the altar to Bach it has thrown down that of Handel.

FURTHER READING. A thirteen-page article in Grove’s Dictionary; a very good light sketch in Parry’s Studies of Great Composers; chapters vii and viii in Parry’s Evolution of the Art of Music ; chapters iv–vi in vol. i of Colles’s The Growth of Music ; Fuller-Maitland’s The Age of Bach and Handel (= vol. iv of the Oxford History of Music); Spitta’s standard Life of Bach (Novello, 3 vols., 26s. 6d. net) ; Schweitzer’s J. S. Bach, trans. Ernest Newman (Chester, 22s. 6d.); Parry’s John Sebastian Bach, the Story of the Development of a Great Personality (Putnam’s, 9s.) ; Abdy Williams’ Bach (chiefly biographical, Dent, 4s. 6d.) ; Rutland Boughton’s Bach (entirely critical and very suggestive ; Lane, 3s. 6d.) ; E. H. Thorne’s Bach (a tiny book, biographical and critical; Bell, 1s. 6d.).

The Bach literature is copious, and only a few of the most useful books are mentioned above. Analyses and critical discussions of particular works abound, e. g. Prout’s Analyses of Bach’s `48′ (Ashdown, 2s.), and his Some Notes on Bach’s Church Cantatas (Breitkopf, 1907) ; booklets on the Mass in B minor, by Chas. Sanford Terry (MacLehose, Glasgow, Is.), Alan Gray and Sedley Taylor (Bowes, Cambridge, 2s. 6a’.) ; and Chas. Sanford Terry’s Bach’s Chorals (Cambridge University Press, 2 vols., 2s. 6d. and 7s. 6d.). A general book on its subject, i.e. not confined to Bach, is Wilson’s The Chorales, their Origin and Influence (Faith Press, 4s. 6d.). A recent excellent study of its subject is The Organ Works of Each, by Harvey Grace (Novello, 9s.).

PRINTED MUSIC. PIANO (i. e. really Clavichord and Harpsichord). 48 Preludes and Fugues, English Suites, French Suites, German Suites (or ‘Partitas’). ORGAN. (Various publishers. If not yourself an organist, get some organist friend to play you some of the Fugues, &c.) VOCAL. Various convenient albums of solos for different voices are published by Novello and others. VIOLIN, ‘CELLO, &c. See catalogues of various publishers (especially Peters’ edition). CHORAL WORKS. The St. Matthew Passion, The Mass in B minor, Christmas Oratorio, &c. (Novello). The St. Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass can be obtained as Miniature Full Scores (Goodwin & Tabb) ; so can several of the Cantatas, all the Brandenburg Concertos, &c.

PLAYER-PIANO ROLLS. The `48′ Preludes and Fugues: otherwise known as The Well-tempered Clavier (the first 12 are to be had, Æolian, 12 separate rolls, 65 or 88 note) ; Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (Æolian, 65 or 88 note); Goldberg Variations (Æolian, 65 note, 3 rolls; or 88 note, 3 rolls) ; Brandenburg Concerto, No. 5 (arranged Reger ; Æolian, 65 note, 3 rolls) ; Italian Concerto (Æolian, 65 note, 2 rolls ; or 88 note, 2 rolls). This is but a selection ; you can get also some of the Organ Works in Pianola arrangements, and a fair number of other interesting things. Get the Library to send you the whole of their Bach rolls and make your own choice.

GRAMOPHONE RECORDS. KEYBOARD MUSIC. Prelude and Fugue 1, from ` 48′ (Busoni, C.) ; Fugues in D minor and E minor (played on Harpsichord, by Mrs. Gordon Woodhouse, H. M. V.: these Fugues will be found in vols. 210 and 212 of Peters’ edition, each 4s.) ; Allemande, from Partita I (played on Harpsichord by Mrs. Gordon Woodhouse, H. M.V.) ; Italian Concerto, 1st Movement (Mark Hambourg, H. M. V.) ; Prelude in E flat (played on Harpsichord, by Mrs. Gordon Woodhouse, H. M. V.); Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor (Piano, Irene Scharrer, H. M. V.). STRING MUSIC. Brandenburg Concerto in G (Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, conducted by Goossens, H. M. V. ; complete 2 records, with the so-called ` Air on G string’) ; Gavotte in E (Violin, Kathleen Parlow, C. ; Kreisler, H. M. V. ; Marie Hall, H. M. V.) ; Gavotte (Violin, Strockoff, C. ; there is a Beethoven Minuet on the reverse) ; Air on G String (Violin, Daisy Kennedy, C.; J. Levey, C.; Elman, H. M. V. This, though almost always played as a solo ` on the G string’, was originally written for string orchestra; it is properly a part of the Suite h D) ; Praeludium (Kreisler, H. M. V.) ; Sonata in E (Violin, Maud Powell, H. M. V., z movements only, 2nd and 4th, z records) ; Bourrée from Suite in C (‘Cello unaccompanied, Casais, C.) ; Gigue in C (‘Cello unaccompanied, Beatrice Harrison, H. M. V.) ; Air on G String (‘Cello, Casals, C. See note above); Sarabande in D (Beatrice Harrison, H. M. V.) ; Sarabande in E fiat (Beatrice Harrison, H. M. V.) ; Bourrée (Violin unaccompanied, Maud Powell, H. M. V.) ; Concerto in D minor (2 Violins and String Orchestra, Kreisler and Zimbalist ; 3 records, Vivace, Largo, Allegro, H. M. V.). VOCAL. My Heart ever Faithful (Contralto, Louise Homer, H. M. V.) ; Lift up your Heads on high (Tenor, Gervase Elwes, C.).


A brief comparison between Handel and Bach may here fittingly be made.

Handel was more of the practical man, and Bach more of the idealist.

Handel’s was the polished, travelled, cosmopolitan mind, Bach’s the more rugged mind of the deep student who has spent solitary days and nights in intensive work in his own study.

Handel always had some (quite legitimate) money-making scheme in view when composing ; he was thus directing his activities to the winning of the suffrages of a large public, whereas Bach, very frequently, composed merely to satisfy his own need for self-expression or to solve to his own satisfaction some problem of musical form or style.

Bach’s choral-writing is more genuinely contrapuntal than Handel’s; the one is to the other as the Northern Gothic (organic—’ growth’ of lines into structure) to Southern Gothic (the Gothic shapes but cut out of the flat) : in other words, Handel’s harmonic basis is simpler and is more clearly before his mind.

Bach’s keyboard writing is much more thorough than Handel’s, which, though effective, is often `sketchy’ ; Bach was obviously pre-pared to spend time on the writing of a fugue, whilst Handel wished to `throw it off’ and have done with it.

Handel’s Solo vocal music is usually much more graceful than Bach’s, but Bach’s often attains the deeper expression ; here again Handel was fluent, Bach `thorough’.

A good deal of the difference between Bach and Handel might be expressed in this way—Bach was an organist widened out, and Handel an opera-manager deepened.

Essentially Handel is more modern than Bach.

Both Handel and Bach have religious feeling and great dignity, but Bach’s is that of some fine old ` Friend’, rising in his Quaker Meeting House, because the spirit moves him, and Handel’s that of an Anglican dean, decorously, sincerely, and perhaps just a little pompously officiating in his vestments.

It is also interesting to compare the religious music of Palestrina and Bach. Both were mystics, but Bach’s was the more ` human’ expression and in places it became even naïve. Palestrina’s mysticism lifted the soul of man to heaven and set it before the throne of God, whereas the mysticism of Bach brought heaven to earth, and showed God as `The Son of Man’ in the surroundings of everyday life. In Bach’s treatment of sacred subjects there is an intense personal element, and he brings sacred things into touch with him-self as the Dutch painters did; Bach is, in religious spirit, a Peter Bruegel ; Palestrina, a Fra Angelico. As for Handel, it would not occur to one to set up any comparison between him and Palestrina, and in seeking one between him and the painters one thinks of the vigour of Michelangelo and the grandiose suavity of Raphael. All these are rough generalizations, but they may be suggestive.