Johann Sebastian Bach - George Upton




The First Step to Fame

"Good Morning! It is well that you are here at last, Sebastian," exclaimed Erdmann, as he advanced to meet his friend. "The horses are already harnessed in the yard and the driver has not had to wait long for you. Come in at once."

"Yes, yes," said the breathless boy; "is my bag put on?"

"Certainly. I took it to the wagon myself. What is that slung on your back?"

"My own violin. My cousins gave it to me as part of my brother's legacy. It was kind of them, don't you think so?"

"Yes, but now let us go in. The driver is taking his morning beer in the kitchen and we must make arrangements for our transportation."

The two friends hastened in, and introduced them3elves to the honest Jehu, who received them with a grunt of recognition. Then the young passengers climbed into the wagon, a somewhat primitive style of vehicle with a canvas cover stretched over hoops, fixed a convenient place for themselves and their luggage among some sacks of hay in the back, and a few minutes later were rattling down the quiet street with happy hearts, thence out through the low, dark town-gate into the level country, which was most attractive in the early morning light. On every side the early-awakened birds were holding jubilant matin service in the bushes and trees.

It was a delightful journey, notwithstanding the rough country roads and the jolting wagon, for the young travellers were in excellent spirits. They rolled up the canvas cover and keenly enjoyed the fresh beauty of the summer morning. Every village they passed was a source of wonder, every cornfield a delight to their eyes, every wood an unsurpassed pleasure; with quick eyes they followed the flight of every bird, and with attentive ears they listened to every sound, nigh and far. They drank in the perfume of the clover with zest. They even enjoyed the bitter crab-apples, which they plucked as they passed, as if they had been sweet dainties.

But now and then more serious feelings rose in the hearts of the lads. As they were riding through a country village a funeral procession crossed their way, the mourners singing a chorale. Their joyous chatter ceased. Erdmann sorrowfully regarded the sad spectacle, but Sebastian took his violin from his case and played a beautiful accompaniment to the chorale.

They talked almost ceaselessly of their past and of the future, but the city of Luneburg, the end of their journey, was the principal theme of conversation. Erdmann, who had previously been in the old Hanse city, had to describe the place over and over before his young companion's questions were satisfied. Sebastian pictured it to himself as the greatest and most imposing city he had ever known, with ancient and beautifully decorated gabled buildings, great shops and warehouses, majestic churches and cloisters. As he listened to Erdmann's description he fancied himself sailing up and down the river, climbing the high Kalkberg to the St. Michael's School, wandering through the halls of the old Rathhaus, going down into the gypsum quarries near by, and wandering among the leafy recesses of the Gohrde. In return for Erdmann's delightful story, Sebastian related the events of his early life at home and told of his father's masterly skill in organ and violin playing. The good-natured Erdmann listened to him with deep or at least apparently deep interest, and volunteered questions to bring out new information.

"It is certainly most extraordinary," said he, when an opportunity offered itself, that a talent for the same art should have appeared without a break in one and the same family and in all its numerous branches. It has already come to this, that they call all skilful organists in Thuringia ' Bach,' without regard to their names, for all Bachs are skilful organists."

"That is so," replied Sebastian, and my blessed father, Johann Ambrosius, was one of the most skilful of them all. He inherited this gift from his great-grandfather, Veit Bach, who left Hungary for Germany two centuries ago to enjoy religious liberty, for he was a faithful adherent of the Lutheran Church. He found this liberty in Thuringia, settled down in the village of Wechmar, near Gotha, where he opened its first bakery and practised music for his own pleasure. He had learned it from the gypsies, and played skilfully on the zither, a kind of lute."

"And this Veit Bach," said Erdmann, smiling, "has transmitted his talent through his numerous posterity to you?"

"That he has," said Sebastian, with emphasis. "His son Hans gave up the bakery and was apprenticed to the town-piper of Gotha. He lived at that time in the tall tower of the old guildhall and there Hans fiddled and piped in the jolliest way. It is said he was a ' hail-fellow-well-met,' and welcome everywhere. My father had a picture of him playing the violin, with a large bell on his left shoulder. Under it is written:

"Here you see, fiddling, stands Hans Bach,

To hear him play would make you laugh.

He plays, you must know, in a way of his own,

And wears a fine beard by which he is known."

Erdmann laughed loudly. "He must have been a queer fellow," said he. "He would have suited me."

"He ought to have suited anyone," said Sebastian. "His musical talent descended to his three sons. Johann was organist at the church in Erfurt, known as the 'Predige Church'; Christoph, my grandfather, died as a member of the Arnstadt town band; and Heinrich as town organist, also in Arnstadt. The family tendency was so strong in him, my father used to say, that even as a boy he would run miles to hear an organ played and to learn something. All three of these have composed some excellent music."

"It is remarkable," said Erdmann.

"Yes, and Johann as well as Heinrich had three sons. All six became musicians, and their children and grandchildren after them."

"Who would have believed it? It is astonishing! Now tell me about your good father."

"He was truly a distinguished musician. The people of Eisenach thoroughly appreciated their Court and town musician. His resemblance to his twin brother, Johann Christoph, was remarkable. My mother has often told me that she and her sister-in-law could not have told them apart when they were together but for their dress. They were also wonderfully alike in disposition, speech, gait, and sentiments. They were exactly similar in the style and execution of their music, also. When one of them was sick the other was, and they died almost at the same time. Is it not both beautiful and touching?"

"It is so. You Bachs are indeed a peculiar family. Take care, Bastian, that you also prove a worthy member of it."

"Let us hope so. You may be sure I shall work hard for it."

Thus chatting with each other and enjoying the journey with all the zest and enthusiasm of youth, the lads reached Gotha, and after a quiet night's rest at a modest inn went on to Muhlhausen. Thence they continued their journey on foot, now and then getting a ride when anyone was kind enough to pick them up. Their luggage had been intrusted by the practical Erdmann to a business house which had relations with Luneburg and undertook to forward it to his uncle's well-known house.

After seven days' travelling they reached Luneburg fresh and happy, and were received by Erdmann's uncle with that cordial and friendly hospitality which his nephew had anticipated.

Sebastian quickly made a good impression upon the old gentleman, especially by his precocity and the intelligence which shone in his attractive eyes. The impression changed to one of respectful admiration when, a few days after their arrival, he seated himself at the old gentleman's fine Silbermann piano and played his favorite chorale All is well, O Friend of my Soul, which abounds in characteristic harmony, beautiful modulation, and rich melody. He promised to use his influence in getting him a position in the choir of the St. Michael's School, and he kept his word. On the very next day the stately old gentleman waited upon the Rector of the school, and stated the purpose of his visit so enthusiastically that the latter smilingly gave his assent and arranged with the leader of the choir that Johann Sebastian should have a trial of his voice in his presence.

The boy stood the test so well that the old choir-leader declared he was a most valuable acquisition. His voice was sonorous and of fine quality, strong and of good range, and beside this he read everything at sight and displayed such a remarkable knowledge of counterpoint that the Rector and leader were alike astonished. The former assigned him a room near his own and he was given a position as soprano singer, or discantist, in the choir as well as a seat at the free table of the school. Sebastian's dearest wish was now gratified, and on the same day, after cordially thanking his benefactor, he settled down in the St. Michael's School, occupying a modest little room in a wing, with three other pleasant discantist companions.

Thenceforth he had to be industrious, very industrious, for it was only by extraordinary effort that he could retain the advantage of the free position, and only by unusual industry that he could save time enough from school duties to gratify his musical inclinations. The St. Michael's School at that time had an abundance of the richest material, which was accessible to him. In a chapel at the side of the school there was a fine little organ, upon which he was occasionally allowed to play after he had demonstrated his ability to do so. There was also a rich collection of old musical manuscripts, in which he could revel to his heart's content whenever he had the time. Beside these, there were old and well-preserved instruments, violins, violas, violoncellos, lutes, etc. Had it only been permissible he would gladly have devoted his nights to the acquisition of the contents of these treasures, as he once had done in Ohrdruff; but nothing prevented his use of them in the daytime, and he was as happy as a king when he could lose himself in a flood of the old masters' harmonies.

Only one thing troubled him. He could not often improve and strengthen his organ-playing by listening to the great players. Ordinarily it was only possible to hear Bohm, the famous organist, on Sundays, and at such times Sebastian was confined to the church of the school by his duties as discantist, and other opportunities to hear him were so rare that there was little prospect of his gratifying his desire to listen to the master's richly flowing melodies, without making extra exertion. So he inquired of the sexton and organ-blower of St. John's Church when the great artist played on week days in the always closed church. Then, with the gracious connivance of the organ-blower, to whom he paid many a shilling out of his small store, he would slip into the church, ascend the tower into the loft, and there, resting upon his knees near an opening, would listen with trembling, delighted heart to the now lovely, again powerful, but always devout playing of the master. He paid careful attention to every nuance, to every peculiar method of tone production, and to the style of performance, so as to fix them in his memory. When the playing was over he would rush back to his room, take out the compositions of Bohm, which he had once copied with such infinite care and trouble, and pore over them as if the pieces which he had just heard had been brought to him by Bohm himself for performance.

He also cultivated violin-playing to the best of his ability, and with the help of his extraordinary natural gifts entered so deeply into the real nature of this simple yet marvellously expressive instrument that even with his still imperfect technic he produced the finest quality of tone, and when he extemporized seemed to be holding a dialogue with his own genius.

Many a time in the evening, when his roommates had sought their beds and all was silent in the large halls, he would spend hours in the moonlight, walking up and down the little room, lightly using his bow, and softly singing the second part to the melody he was playing, greatly to the delight and astonishment of the boys, while he himself was as happy as if he were living in a higher and serener sphere.

About this time a peculiar change took place in his beautiful voice. As he was singing one day in the choir, he heard himself involuntarily singing as it were with a double voice—in soprano and in a lower octave—to the great surprise of the leader and not less to his own consternation. His consternation increased when he realized during the next few weeks that he could neither speak nor sing except in octaves, and bitter was his sorrow when he found that this condition, instead of disappearing, speedily grew worse, and that his beautiful voice was gone forever. He wept piteously and moaned: Alas! now I can only be half a musician through life, for my highest and noblest instrument is ruined and can never be replaced."

Beside his grief over the loss of this beautiful divine gift, he was now troubled with painful solicitude as to his immediate future. It was solely on account of his accomplishments as a discantist in the choir that he had enjoyed the great privilege of the free position in the school. What would happen were this to be taken away from him? What would become of his musical and general education? Utter despair overcame his strong, vigorous spirit. "What will become of me? What will become of me?" he bitterly ejaculated. His pale, anxious face showed his severe troubles.

One day the Rector of the school unexpectedly summoned him, and to his great delight and surprise informed him that, owing to the loss of his singing-voice, he would be relieved from his duties as discantist; but in consideration of his industry and good conduct, also of the unusual musical gifts with which nature had endowed him, he would continue to enjoy the privileges of free scholarship, and that he had suggested him to the leader of the choir as an assistant in the instruction of the younger pupils in music.

Who ever was happier than Sebastian? He fervently thanked the Rector for his kindness, reverently kissed his hand, and hastened away with a joyous heart.

One day his friend Erdmann, who had been on a visit to his father in Hamburg, returned and told him of his experiences. Upon one occasion, a church festival, at which the renowned organist, Reinken, played, I wished with all my heart, dear Sebastian, that you were there."

"So you have heard him?" said Sebastian, excitedly.

"Yes, and for a whole hour. That was playing for you! I never have heard the like of it. Everyone was excited. Women wept."

"What did he play?" asked Sebastian, breathlessly and with his very soul in his eyes, as he looked at his friend.

"First a magnificent prelude! for full organ in E major, preceding an artistic fugued chorale of wonderful beauty, We all believe in one God, and at the close a fantasia on Jesus, my Joy. Oh, if you only could have heard it, Sebastian! He can play much more beautifully and skilfully than Bohm."

Sebastian was completely self-absorbed. "I must hear him," he said at last, fixing his gaze upon his friend. "I must, I must, even if I have to give up everything here."

"That is not at all necessary," quietly replied the less impulsive Erdmann. "If you apply in the regular way they will give you leave of absence for Sunday and Monday. Then you can easily go to Hamburg on Saturday afternoon, which is your free time, and get back again on Monday after hearing Reinken."

"I will do it. Oh, I will do it, the very first thing to-morrow morning. God grant they may not refuse me permission; I will even go to extremes to secure it."

Yes, yes, but don't dash your head against the wall," said Erdmann. There is time, enough for you to hear Reinken even if you do not go next Sunday. He will live to be a hundred years old."'

Sebastian did not hear his last words. So intense was his longing to go that he lost no time in asking permission from the leader of the choir, and finally obtained it with the aid of the Rector.

After dinner on Saturday he sped away with flying feet and began his long twenty-five miles' journey to Hamburg. He reached the city late in the day, very tired, hungry, and thirsty, but determined not to miss Reinken's playing early in the morning.

He found quarters for the night at a modest inn, but he slept restlessly. He awoke, however, refreshed, his fatigue having disappeared. He was prompt at the early service, and found a seat among the first-comers to St. Katherine's Church, where he waited with fast-beating heart the first tones of the majestic instrument from the hands of the great master.

And now, now the first tone rose, like the first rays of dawn, undulating, palpitating, rising and falling, and then streaming out in a mighty tone-flood, vivifying and uplifting the hearts of the listeners. Truly it was the playing of the supreme master, the art of perfect organ-playing and great contrapuntal skill, the ideal which had so long filled the soul of this gifted boy. He determined to strive for like perfection with all his powers and with absolute devotion to the work. In that sacred place, where the highest revelations of art had been made clear to him, he vowed to himself he would never be satisfied with any lower standard, he would never be contented with any less degree of mastery of the sublime and exalted craft of music.