Friday, 12 June 2015

J S Bach - Travels in Former East Germany - 3

Breaking Bach

As often happens, I am confused.  I am muddling up my Heisenbergs with my Eisenachs, which doesn't help my principles of uncertainty. Add to this my Arnstadts, Ohrdrufs, Erfuts, Gothas and Weimars, and I am in a state of Thuringia, to say the least.

It's all the fault of one Veit Bach, a white bread maker (though veit is not white; it probably derives from a German word for wood, and it has been confused with the Latin for life, vita) who lived somewhere in Germany between 1550 and 1619 and begat a Johannes Hans Bach (1580 - 1626) who started begetting so many other Bachs, including some JSBs and JCBs et al that the surname soon became synonymous with all organists and eventually all jobbing musicians within earshot of the Thuringian Forest....

[Incidentally, in German bach means a stream, though in Welsh it is a term of endearment and in English it can refer either to a bachelor, or to a batch....  Veit Bach certainly caused a stream of Bachs (or perhaps a batch?)] 

It was an extensive family. Johann Sebastian Bach, born in the same year as Handel and Scarlatti (as well as John Gay, Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt and Dominikus Zimmermann, who later ran the coffee bar in Leipzig where Bach performed regularly, and who may, perhaps, have been an ancestor of Bob Dylan....) was the 8th child of his parents, and he would have 20 children by his two wives. By the time he was fifteen, when his mother and father died, there were 22 "famous" Bachs operating in central Germany. Subsequently six of his sons became well-known in their own rights.....

A cast of J S Bach's skull

Of the eighty-three Bachs who are listed as being related to Johann Sebastian between 1550 and 1870, fifty of them were named Johann.... And these numbers do not include (the ten or so of) his children who never grew tall enough to reach organ pedals.....

So what was so special about this family?

Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645 - 1695 - JS's father), whose father was a musician, was born in Erfut, where he was initially employed as a violinist.  He then moved to Eisenach, where he became court trumpeter and director of the town musicians.  His twin brother Johann Christoph, became a town musician in Arnstadt.....

Johann Ambrosius had eight children, four of whom became musicians.

In memory of the members of the Bach family who died in Eisenach

So what was so special about Johann Sebastian?

In his lifetime, which was comparatively long and productive for those times, he was not recognised as a great composer, although he was continuously employed as an organist, teacher, Cantor, Kapellmeister, and Royal Court Composer to Augustus III. He was famous enough, however, for Beethoven, apparently, to call him The immortal God of harmony in 1801 and for Goethe to say, in 1827, that His works are an invaluable national patrimony with which no other nation has anything to be compared.....

J S Bach at the Georgenkirche, Esienach


It was not until Felix Mendelssohn produced the St Matthew Passion in 1829 that publication and performance of Bach's works really took off, though he had been admired and played by the cognoscenti in the years since his death, particularly due to the offices of his sons.

In fact, surprisingly little is known about J S Bach, beyond his music and his progeny.  He was born in a house like the one pictured above, which is now the Bachhaus Eisenach, the first and largest museum dedicated to him (in operation since 1907).  The actual house he was born in has long since disappeared, but in wandering round sleepy Eisenach at night, it is not difficult to imagine the sound of a spinet crashing from an upstairs window.....

Just outside the town is the Wartburg, one of the most famous (so they say) medieval castles in Germany. Bach must have known it, though its musical connections are more with Wagner (who tripped by in 1842) as it was the site of the legendary twelfth century singing contest that inspired Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg Castle).

The castle was also famed for sheltering Martin Luther, who took refuge here in 1521 to translate the New Testament.

Martin Luther addresses the masses in Eisenach

Martin Luther and J S Bach actually attended the same school in Eisenach (though not at the same time). This was the Latin School (Lateinschule) that was housed in the old Dominican cloister; Luther later described it as Purgatory.

Initially Bach did not do very well here, for example he was ranked 47 out of 81 in the fifth class in 1693, and his attendance record was very poor, with 96 registered sessions absent, (data that no doubt Aufstadt would have scowled at, leading to Special Measures.....)

The Tower of the Wartburg

In 1695 he was 23rd of 45 in the fourth class, and had been absent for 103 sessions, but both his mother and his father had very recently died, and so after Easter he went, with his brother Johann Jacob, to live with his elder brother Johann Cristoph, in Ohrdruf, where, in July, he joined the Lyceum.....

It could be said that from then on the young Bach never looked back.....

In 1700 he was a choral scholar at St Michael's School, Lüneburg, where he broke his voice, or his voice broke.... So, in 1702 he was (briefly) wandering round Hamburg, and in 1703, after temporary employment in Weimar, he was appointed organist in Arnstadt.

The (reconstructed) 1703 Wender Organ in the Johann Sebastian Bach Church in Arnstadt

It is curious, perhaps, that there is so little known about Bach. He was not a great letter writer, nor diarist, so there is a limited paper trail (in comparison, say, to Mozart, who wrote lots of letters - scattered with a plethora of profanities), allowing us to dwell on personal details of his life. But one incident was recorded, which gives some insight into his personality, and that is of an altercation, in 1705, with bassoonist Johann Heinrich Geyersbach, who he called a Zippel Fagottist! (Nanny-goat bassoonist!) before drawing his sword to defend himself from the other's schtick.... The brawl was broken up, but Bach had not endeared himself.....

Die Liebfrauenkirche (The Church of our Lady), Arnstadt

Though it is difficult to 'know' Johann Sebastian Bach, he must have been a remarkable man. In November 1705 he is said to have taken four weeks leave of absence and to have walked to Lübeck, about 400 kms, (250 miles) (and back, three months later...) to see and hear the highly influential organist Dieterich Buxtehude at the Marienkirche (whose daughter, perhaps, Bach had considered as a possible partner, as had Handel.....)

Remarkable timing, as Buxtehude died only months after Bach got home.  (The daughter remained unmarried.)

Musical demonstrations in the Bacchhaus, Eisenach

In Breaking Bad, which has nothing to do with Bach, a terminally ill chemistry teacher becomes an expert at manufacturing the illegal drug crystal methamphetamine, and adopts the name Heisenberg....  

Werner Heisenberg was a brilliant German physicist (and professor at Leipzig University) who is famous for his uncertainty principle, which tells us that there is a fuzziness in nature, a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behaviour of quantum particles and, therefore, the smallest scales of nature..... [Alok Jha, The Guardian, November 10th, 2013]

Johann Seb Bach was a numbers man.  Taking A = 1, B = 2, etc, then BACH adds up to 14, and J S BACH = 41, the mirror image of 14.  So? The number 14 is one of several significant numbers in Bach's later works, so a chorale of debate has fluttered around this for centuries (perhaps also because Mozart was also very clever with his numbers?) though the word of the day is caution.

The last piece that Bach wrote was his (incomplete) Art of Fugue, and the third subject of the 14th fugue is based on motif B A C H (where B = B flat and H = B natural in German notation).  There is no way I am breaking the Bach code, but it is intriguing to marvel at what could have been going on in the darkening world of JSB in his final years.

I lack certainty.  It is one of my principles.  If I knew what Bach was doing there would be little left to know.  I didn't enjoy Breaking Bad and don't understand Heisenberg, but something tenuous, and strangely beautiful, links the miraculous crystals manufactured by Walter White in New Mexico to the ingenious crystalline fugues of J S Bach; something perhaps links the twentieth century professor of Leipzig University to the eighteenth century Cantor of the St Thomas Church and School of Leipzig?  And perhaps the link is the limit of what we, ordinary people, can know, perhaps especially when confronted with the extraordinary achievements of exceptional human beings.....

Telemann - much bigger in his time than J S Bach

J S Bach lived in Protestant Germany all his life, and his career took him from Arnstadt to Weimar to Leipzig, where he died at the age of 65 in 1750 (having suffered bungled cataract operations from the same English doctor that attempted similar torture on Handel).  One obituary notice called him Our Bach, and said that he was the greatest organ and clavier player that ever lived.  His genius as a composer (of almost every musical form in existence except for opera, and for every instrument) was not appreciated until almost a century after his death, but now he is recognised as one of the greatest musicians ever.

The Bachhaus Eisenach

The Bachhaus Eisenach celebrates the life and work of J S Bach. Musical presentations are given, using original keyboard instruments from his time (28 baroque instruments are on display here, though the museum possesses more than 400). Attached to the fifteenth century house is a stunning new centre, with bubble chairs for visitors to listen to recordings, exhibits showing how we see Bach and what we know about Bach, and a walk-in diorama showing videos of performances of key works, including a rehearsal of Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! BWV 214 by the Thomanerchor, in the Old Town Hall, Leipzig in 2006.

As Nicholas Kenyon says (in the Faber Pocket Guide to Bach) Let's face it, Bach can be daunting. He does not give up his secrets easily. He is one of the most mysterious of Western composers.....  But, at the risk of exercising my naivety, the music that Bach produced, whether played on period instruments, sung in parish churches, or jazzed up by Jacques Loussier, or whatever, can soothe, stir, shake or simply satisfy something in the soul like little else.

At the risk of over-stretching my naivety, Bach rocks, and Bach rolls. From Sunday mornings reading the paper to Angela Hewitt playing Das Wohltemperirte Clavier; to hearing Adrian Davis conduct a choir of friends singing Ach Herr, laß dein lieb from the St John Passion at my father's Memorial Service, soprano eyes glistening with gestus; to driving south in heavy traffic with Murray Perahia unravelling the Goldberg Variations.....  There is a Bach for all times and for all people.....

In 1981 Glenn Gould performed the Contrapunctus XIV from Art of Fugue for Bruno Monsaingeon's Glenn Gould Plays Bach.  Gould was worried: It's the most difficult thing I've ever approached.....  I've got several versions - one which would sound like a pavane and another one like a gigue, all very different in tempi and phrasing and articulation and so on....  The piece breaks off at the end of bar 239 with an eighth-note D above middle C.  At this point Gould snatches up his arm as though suffering from an electric shock.  Columbia's sleeve notes from Bach/Glenn Gould: The Art of Fugue go on, The picture freezes, and the arm remains suspended in the air, now and evermore.....

I am confused.  Breaking Bad means to raise hell, or to go wild, break laws, take control..... The key effects of crystal methamphetamine include feeling very exhilarated, alert and awake.  Somewhere there is a connection with the muttering digital exertions of Glenn Gould. 

I am uncertain, but I suspect that Johann Sebastian Bach was, essentially, a very precise, controlled man, though at the same time his ability to extemporise on a subject, taking musical instruments to their limits, suggests exhilaration and extreme alertness.   And control is not the right word.  There's some kind of divine auto-pilot at work.....

There is something about Bach that doesn't add up.  I catch him staring, a little dangerously, from a shop window in Weimar, his wigged head blank in contrast to the coloured clothes on the headless mannequins beside him.  There's an element of funk about him, that aloof ability to do whatever he liked.  

Funky Genius.

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