Bach: Placing Timeless Music in Time - Part 1 of an Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
March 19, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Geniuses are different than you and I, and we can make the assertion without fear of a Hemingwayesque qualification.

And since genius in music seems to be more ineffable than in any other field, it's harder for the likes of you and me to explain. Thus mythologies arise — out of distance and time and a dearth of quotidian details — and in our imaginations the feet of a Johann Sebastian Bach barely touch the ground. The scores, after all, are a little unearthly, the fugues juggling four, five, six voices, none of which ever fall but land gently according to the composer's graceful resolutions. The great Passions do soar higher than cathedral spires and will last longer. And Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor is both an apotheosis and (thanks to associations with Lon Chaney and beyond) a parody of great organ music.

Perhaps this is enough. Perhaps the timelessness and the placeless-ness of Bach's music is what makes it a kind of scripture in sound. Enough to know that he was somehow touched by the eternal, and he lived to grace our experience with transcendent experiences.

Then again, maybe we can take a particular pleasure and even gain some insight watching this other-worldly fellow plod along in ways we can all understand. It might make the achievements seem all the more astonishing.


Even middle-class life in an eighteenth century German town was, by our standards, extremely hard. The wood stove was not yet invented; food was cooked in a pot over an open fire. Wood had to be secured and split. Water had to be carried by hand from a cistern and woe to the family which let it freeze in the winter. A composer had to be adept at sharpening goose quills before he could write a note, and a petty prince could deny the world a deathless organ prelude by denying his ingenious lackey a supply of score paper.

And common illnesses could turn deadly in a day. A young, beloved wife could kiss her husband good-bye as he accompanied his employer to a nearby resort, and lie beneath the earth before he got back. The operation for appendicitis would not become generally available for another 170 years. Most families, including Bach's, buried as many children, if not more, as survived to adulthood.

Not to diminish the genius or elevate our own plodding selves, but Bach was also rooted in the world in a way we all share: he had to work for his living. He had jobs; he had employers; he had his conflicts with them. He put out feelers when things became intolerable. He had to feed his family and at the same time satisfy his massive need to create, and innovate.

His last, and longest-lasting position was the best known: as the choirmaster for a crumbling, neglected school for poor children in the St. Thomas church in Leipzig, he sacrificed half his salary to delegate his duty to teach Latin, and somehow managed to create a magnificent church music that neither the ecclesiastical nor the civic authorities particularly wanted. We associate Bach with Leipzig, but it was his worst-paid, most frustrating post of a half-dozen frustrating posts. Yet he stayed for 27 years, composed the two great Passions of St. John and St. Matthew, and a cantata every Sunday for 200 Sundays until he finally got tired and began borrowing and recycling. It's not as if he didn't continue to look around. But stability, and security, such as it was, kept him there.

Arnstadt

The journey began at Arnstadt, where he was court organist for the resident count. Bach at 19 was already becoming legendary for his skills at the organ. He was the first man a town approached when they had a new organ to put through its paces. It was here that he composed his Toccata and Fugue in d minor, possibly a test piece for such an occasion. In Arnstadt, Bach experienced a common dilemma in the workplace: his job description changed to include duties which he had assumed on his own initiative and made a certain success of (the direction of a student choir), with no increase in pay.

This was irksome, as were the students, who were riotous, wore rapiers in the streets and challenged their choirmaster's manhood whenever they could. An altercation with a student helped earn Bach a reputation as a hothead from his early biographers. But the situation was most irksome because he was hungry to learn, and he was starving. He asked for a leave of four weeks to set out on foot for Lubeck, to listen to and study with the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Lubeck was 250 miles away. Poverty and the condition of roads made walking the best option. Sometimes it was actually faster than taking a coach. But even at twenty miles a day Bach would have needed the entire four weeks for the trip there and back. As it was, he casually stayed four months, absorbed what he could from Buxtehude, avoided betrothal to his daughter as a perquisite for succeeding the old man on his retirement, and trudged back to Arnstadt certain of, but apparently not in fear of, punishment and censure.

But for the most part criticism came in the form of curbing his tendency to fill the church with harmonies that were a little too daring and made good Lutherans forget when to sing. The church council chided him "for having hitherto made many strange variations in the chorale, mixing many outlandish tone in it so that the congregation has become confused thereby."

One particular non-musical rebuke suggests that Arnstadt, despite the constraints for a genius of twenty-one, was a fortunate post: "They further inquire by what right he recently had an unfamiliar maiden invited into the choir loft and let her make music there." This was his second cousin Maria Barbara, soon to be his wife.

Mulhausen

His next job was in the free imperial city of Mulhausen, which meant that it was not subject to a prince, petty or powerful. Bach was given the post of organist at St. Blasius church, which has survived a a catastrophic fire two weeks before Bach's arrival in May of 1707. The fire claimed 400 homes and stables and the city council apparently had trouble locating pen and ink to sign the young man's contract.

In Mulhausen, Bach worked under councilmen, not church authorities, and they valued him. They asked him to write a cantata for the festive ceremony surrounding the changing of the council. The result, "Got ist mein Koenig" (God is My King), was performed in February, 1708, and the council took the extraordinary step of engraving the work on copper and printed at city expense. It was and would remain the only cantata Bach saw printed in his lifetime.

Bach planned and oversaw the renovation of the organ of St. Blasius. The council was delighted, and agreed to pay for Bach's proposals. Yet he resigned after just a year, because theology got in the way of music. In his letter of resignation he noted an important goal that had been thwarted, the creation of "a well-regulated church music to the glory of God and in conformity with your wishes."

Bach was, by upbringing, Lutheran Orthodox. The chief pastor of St. Blasius was a Pietist, and music of the sort Bach wanted to provide was not only unnecessary, but nearly idolatrous. It was a roadblock, and Bach and Maria Barbara hit the road.

We'll pick up their Odyssey on Wednesday as Bach confronts an aristocratic Family Feud in Weimar, the best job he ever had in Cothen, and his last and most famous stop, in Leipzig.

Part two...

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