Johann Sebastian Bach - George Upton

"He Shall Stand before Kings"

Beside the burdens of his official position and the fatigue of his extraordinary musical activity, Bach realized the infirmities of old age at a comparatively early period. He had overtaxed his strength in his youth, and this now began to affect his physical powers. He was also threatened with the loss of sight—a possibility which greatly alarmed his family.

On account of this danger, he exerted himself as rapidly as was judicious in preparing his children for their future work and fitting them to act for themselves. As has already been said, Friedemann, his most gifted and best-beloved son, had been organist at Dresden since 1733. Bach had often visited him, and sought by paternal counsel and affectionate warning to dissuade him from the eccentricities and extravagances to which he was prone, and to keep him in the right path.

The second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was very successful in the University, which he left in 1738, and proved himself not only such a gifted musician but excellent scholar in the sciences, that the Crown Prince of Prussia, known in history as Frederick the Great, summoned him from Rheinsberg to take the place of pianist in his musical chapel. There we shall shortly see him.

The third son, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, born at Weimar in 1715, was such a skillful player and accomplished contrapuntist at the age of twenty that he was fitted to fill an organist's position with credit. A position of this kind was offered him about this time, partly at the solicitation of his famous father. Muhlhausen, the city in which Bach himself, a quarter of a century before, had spent the golden days of his first youthful freedom and domestic happiness, in grateful remembrance of the famous father gave the not-yet-famous son the organist's position, much to the former's delight.

Not long after this, another occurrence gave Bach great satisfaction. The Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, Frederick Augustus III, who was so greatly interested in the musical tournament at Count Flemming's palace, when Marchand, the Frenchman, evaded Bach's challenge by flight, had not lost sight of the master. After hearing him play at a church concert in Dresden, he appointed him composer to His Majesty the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony "—a distinction which at that time was much sought after because of its personal value and far-reaching influence.

The old saying, "A prophet is not without honor save in his own country," was verified in Bach's case. He was greatly annoyed and distressed by serious differences and often very disagreeable disputes with his superiors, and sometimes with the Rector, over the affairs of the Thomas School and Church. Those small souls could not understand, much less appreciate, the unequalled achievements of a musician like Bach. From their point of view he was simply the Cantor of St. Thomas's, and they grumbled and found fault whenever his actions or regulations were not in accordance with their commonplace ideas. The continual vexation which this caused him, as well as the feeling that such conduct on the Rector's part must eventually bring both himself and his work into disgrace, led him seriously to contemplate resigning his position in Leipsic and seeking a new home elsewhere.

With this contingency in view, he turned his eyes to Danzig, a music-loving city, and with all the more hopefulness because Erdmann, the old true friend of his boyhood, lived and held an important position there. Since their separation at Luneburg, Bach had kept up an irregular but cordial correspondence with his friend, and had the satisfaction of knowing that he held him in affectionate remembrance, and sympathized warmly with him in his welfare as well as in his troubles. Bach stated his circumstances to him with the utmost frankness, and complained of his meagre salary and the restrictions placed upon him by his unappreciative superiors, which exposed him to continual annoyance, jealousy, and persecution. Erdmann, who held an imperial position at that time, was extremely cordial, and promised to use his powerful influence in carrying out his friend's wishes, though he could not do anything right away in securing a situation for him. This was not necessary, for relief soon came from another source.

That same year the rectorate was vacant, and, greatly to Bach's delight, the learned Professor Gesner, who knew the value of his work, succeeded to the position. The change in his circumstances made the life of the greatly troubled and poorly paid Cantor much more endurable, both in Leipsic and in the school. To the close of his life he found consolation for all earthly trouble and insufficiency in those inexhaustible sources of lofty musical ideas which God had given him to develop to the highest point of which he was capable, and to hand down to posterity in unsurpassed form. His happy domestic life, the success of his children, and the fine progress of his scholars, who gradually became skilful musicians, also strengthened and encouraged him; while his intimate relations with the Thuringian members of the family, who often visited him, and admired and loved him, helped keep his heart young.

Thus the years passed,—years of continuous care and toil, of faithful work "for the honor of the Highest," of many severe personal trials, but also of many kindnesses, which strengthened the heart of the master as he grew aged. His fame grew beyond Leipsic. The number of his majestic tone-creations greatly increased. He was without a rival as a profoundly learned composer and skillful organist and pianist. And yet with all his honor and fame he worked quietly, unpretentiously, and manfully in his little closet at home for the support of his large family, and with absolute sincerity devoted his work to the glory of the Highest.

The saddest burden of his last years was the growing misconduct of his favorite son, Wilhelm Friedemann. Even in his boyhood he had manifested abnormal tendencies toward eccentricity, and in the course of years it had made him more and more disliked. Beside this, still worse traits of character revealed themselves, such as imperious haughtiness and repulsing moroseness of disposition, persistent indulgence in extravagant and bizarre musical fancies, notwithstanding the warnings of his father and friends, and, finally, over-indulgence in drink. Owing to his insolence, he had to leave his position in Dresden. With much difficulty he secured the place of organist at St. Mary's Church, in Halle; but even there, desirable as the position was, he made no effort to curb his extravagances and dissolute habits, so that his father had good grounds for solicitude as to his future. And yet he charmed everyone with his fanciful and brilliant playing, and the hope was generally expressed that his talent would ultimately reach as high a standard of development as that of his father.

The progress of the second son, however, rejoiced the heart of the much-enduring old master. After the Crown Prince Frederick succeeded to the throne made vacant by the death of his father, Philipp Emanuel was appointed royal chamber musician and court pianist at Potsdam and Berlin, and was at this time enjoying the personal and musical distinction he so well deserved. Everything that came from him—letters, compositions, musical tidings of every kind—brought joy to the old father at St. Thomas's, and caused him to rejoice in the rising fame and good fortune of his manly son. A message which Emanuel sent at this time to his father made ample compensation for all the trials of the last few years, and filled the modest home at St. Thomas's with unalloyed satisfaction and delight. Frederick II, King of Prussia, the admired of all the world, victor at Hohenfriedberg and Sohr, expressed his sincere admiration of Master Bach and the wish to see him in Potsdam as soon as convenient.

Bach was deeply moved by the message. All thoughts of his troubles in Leipsic disappeared, all his anxieties and cares were forgotten, and with fresh strength and courage he faced the future. There was nothing higher, nothing more precious in his estimation than his personal recognition by the greatest prince of his time. The future had nothing in store for him that could shake his courage or lessen his creative energy.

And yet the modest musician delayed gratifying the wish of the King. It was only when Frederick repeated his request in a more emphatic manner and threatened, in pleasant banter, to send a squad of hussars to Leipsic and arrest him and fetch him across the boundaries, that the old Cantor started for Berlin. With him went Wilhelm Friedemann, "Son of sorrow."

A tedious day's journey was coming to its close, and the Sunday vesper bells were ringing in the Potsdam turrets, when (May 4, 1747) our eagerly expectant travellers came to the gate, and announced their names and occupations to the gatekeeper, as was the custom. With anxious hearts they entered the city, and went to the quarter where Philipp Emanuel resided as court musician. Bach was received by his daughter-in-law most cordially, as was also Friedemann with sisterly kindness, and he embraced the grandchildren whom she brought to him at once, with much emotion.

"How delighted Emanuel will be," said the pretty little woman over and over, and then added significantly, "and also his Majesty, our all-gracious King. Scarcely a day has passed for a month, in which his Majesty has not asked at the evening concert, 'Is your father here yet?' or, 'When is your father coming?'"

"His Majesty is very kind," replied Bach, with evident pleasure. "We must announce our arrival without delay."

"The gatekeeper has done that already in his report, but it will also be well to send word to Emanuel before the evening concert begins. He has already been at the castle an hour, tuning a fine Silberman on piano."

Thereupon the brisk little woman went out and sent a boy-pupil with the message, bidding him go to the castle as fast as he could. The two travellers in the meantime refreshed themselves, after the fatigue of their journey, with a hearty meal, and were chatting cosily with Frau Gertrude, when the house-maid appeared at the door and announced a court messenger, who wished to speak at once with Herr Music Director Bach, of Leipsic. He was bidden to enter, and Bach greeted him with a pleasant smile, as if aware of the nature of his message. The messenger made a courtly bow, and said: "His Majesty has heard of the arrival of Herr Bach, and graciously orders him to appear without delay at his castle. I am ordered to accompany him."

"I will put on a more fitting dress," replied Bach, somewhat excited, "so that I may make as suitable an appearance as possible."

The messenger, however, promptly informed him that would be against his Majesty's express command. "I am ordered to fetch you to the castle without any delay."

"Well," said Bach, smiling, as he somewhat ruefully surveyed his homely but well-fitting brown coat, "the command of his Majesty must be obeyed. Let us go."

In the meantime there was a scene of exciting interest at the castle. At the hour appointed for the concert, the entire royal chapel was assembled in the music hall. It promised to be a notable, evening, for the King was to play first flute in a concerto. The members of the chapel, among them Graun, Quantz, Agricola, and Emanuel Bach, were engaged in earnest conversation about the piece, when a quick step was heard and the King entered.

The young sovereign carried a roll of music under his arm, and in his hand his favorite flute in its velvet case. With a genial smile and a hearty "Good-evening, gentlemen," he went to the piano, laid down his flute-case and began to arrange the music upon the desks, smiling at his players and saying in a bantering manner: "Well, gentlemen, we are going to try something of importance this evening. It is Quantz's latest work, and," turning to Quantz, "he has not made it very easy for us."

"Your Majesty," replied Quantz, with great respect, "music is not mere play for unpracticed fingers and heads, but hard work."

"Yes, yes," replied the King; I found that out while studying my part. I shall be surprised if we succeed in satisfying you."

"As far as Your Majesty is concerned, I am satisfied in advance."

"There! there! you are a flatterer. We shall see."

The King took his case from the piano and began putting his flute together. He was just about to try it, when the door opened and an official appeared, standing on the threshold and fixing his gaze upon the King.

"What is it?"

"If Your Majesty please, the gate-list."

"So, so; let me have it."

As the King, still with his flute in his hand, glanced over the paper, he suddenly gave a start, looked again, and turning to his band, said, "Gentlemen, great news! The elder Bach has come."

His announcement caused much excitement. Emanuel alone retained his composure.

[Illustration] from Bach by George Upton


The King's large blue eyes glistened, and smiles illumined his face. "Yes, yes, Herr Pianist, your eminent father has arrived, and undoubtedly this moment is at your residence. He must come here at once. I have waited to no purpose long enough. He must come at once—do you hear?"

"Is it Your Majesty's wish that I fetch my father?" said Emanuel, ready to start at once.

"Yes, yes, hurry!—or, no; stay here. There will be no end of questions and talk when you meet, and that means delay. I had better send another, who will bring him without any ceremony."

The King rang a bell on the pier-table and a lackey appeared at the door. "Let a messenger be sent without an instant's delay to the residence of the court pianist, with instructions to fetch the organist, Herr Bach, 'who has just arrived from Leipsic, to the castle at once. Do you understand? The messenger must take no excuse of any kind for delay."

"As Your Majesty pleases."

The man disappeared, and the King turned to his band with a beaming smile. We have the old man at last. Gather up your music, gentlemen; we will play your concerto, Quantz, some other time. This evening we shall listen to one greater than any of you."

The musicians obeyed, and then stood whispering together. All this time the King was pacing up and down the hall impatiently, with his flute still under his arm. At last he stopped. "Graun, a word with you."

Graun approached the King.

"Listen, Graun. We must let old Bach hear some good music of our own time. What have we to offer him from the opera repertory?"

"If Your Majesty please, we have Hasse's Artaxerxes, Porpora's Anni bale  and Mitridate, Handel's Faramondo—"

"No, no! We must have something of our own."

"Perhaps one of Agricola's pieces."

"But, still better, why not one of Graun's?" said the King, laughing.

Graun bowed. In that case, and in obedience to Your Majesty, I make bold to suggest the Galatea."

"Oh! because I myself stumbled around a little in that pastoral music? Ah! ah! Graun, have you also begun to be a courtier? What will become of my band? No, no, we will not have 'Galatea.' We will have 'Demofoome' or 'Caius, Fabricius.' What do you think of those?"

"We have well practised both, Your Majesty, but Cinna is completely ready. If Your Majesty is so disposed, we can give Herr Bach the first act of that."

"Good, good, we can manage it; but we will talk about it later. As to the rest, I wish—"

At that moment the door opened and the lackey announced, "Herr Bach, of Leipsic, is in the ante-room and at Your Majesty's service."

"Let him enter, let him enter," exclaimed the King, as he laid aside his flute, and his face lit up with smiles. "Dear Bach, bring in your father."

Emanuel hastened to the anteroom, and a few seconds later father and son entered the hall together. With the most gracious friendliness and cordiality Frederick met the old master.

"I have you at last, my dear Bach," he said, affectionately offering both hands to him as he stood bowing low, "and now I propose to hold you fast. I have had hard work to get a sight at you."

The old, careworn master was deeply affected by his reception, and so agitated as he kissed the hand of the victorious sovereign that for a few minutes he was speechless. As soon as he could master his feelings, he expressed his profound gratitude for so much graciousness and kindness, explaining at the same time how difficult it was to get an extended leave of absence from his superiors.

"Well, we will see about that," replied the King, with a suggestive smile. The deuce take those Leipsic fossils! They have made me also wait long and to no purpose for you. I will attend to this, and when I go to Leipsic again with my grenadiers—which I may do any time, as long as they keep that intriguing nuisance, Bruhl, in office—; I will punish them in a way that will put an end to their nonsense."

The King then led the old master into the room and introduced him to the musicians at their desks, as well as to the gentlemen-in-waiting. He had a pleasant word for each, and showed so little embarrassment in his new surroundings that Philipp Emanuel was greatly surprised. The gentlemen of the. Court also were favorably impressed by the old musician, who attracted them all by his simple dignity and ease of manner.

The Ding looked affectionately at him. "Dear Bach," he said with genuine tenderness, "I am doubly glad you arrived to-day. Only an hour ago two Silbermann pianos, for which I have long waited, were delivered at the castle, and I would like to have your expert opinion of them. I am aware that you are not an unconditional advocate of the Silbermann technic."

"I was not at the beginning," said Bach, modestly. "It would not have been right so long as its mechanism had serious faults; but in the course of years it has been improved by skilful and intelligent men, its faults have been corrected, and now it really is a masterpiece. Your Majesty has made no mistake in getting them."

"I hope not, I hope not," said the King; "but now let us look at them. One is in my workroom and the other is in my chamber. Ho, there! Lights! The gentlemen of the chapel are welcome to join us."

Headed by the King and Bach, they went from one room to another, and Bach tried seven of these pianos, extemporizing so delightfully that the King was lost in admiration. Splendid! splendid! that was masterly, dear Bach!" he exclaimed several times.

"Your Majesty is too generous," said the old Cantor. It does not require much musical ability to show off a piano. I pray you for some more important task than that."

"Well, well, if you call that of no importance we must try something else. Will you take a theme and construct a fugue and variations upon it?"

"Gladly, Your Majesty, and if you are willing I will use the piano in Your Majesty's workroom. It is the best of all the instruments."

"I think so, too. Come in, gentlemen."

All entered the apartment, eager with expectation, and grouped themselves around the piano.

"Now, select a theme, dear Bach, and give us a three-part fugue, if it be not asking too much."

The old master smiled quietly. "Will not Your Majesty have the goodness to give me the theme?"

"What? I? And you will extemporize a fugue and variations at the same time?"

"If it so please Your Majesty, I will undertake it with God's help."

"Well, I must say—but you shall have your way."

The King went to the piano, stood a moment in thought, and then gracefully and elegantly played this charming theme:

"Does that satisfy you?"

Bach bowed respectfully, seated himself at the instrument, and began extemporizing a prelude of the same character as the theme, and as only he could do it. For some time he developed it beautifully, and then with graceful facility worked up the theme itself, in three parts, with such depth of feeling, richness of conception and harmonic color, and above all with such an absolute mastery of technic, that the musicians held their breath, and the King, standing behind Bach, was transfixed with astonishment.

"Marvellous!" he whispered more than once, and when Bach closed with a contrapuntal masterpiece, the so-called stretto, he exclaimed enthusiastically:

"Truly, there is but one Bach!" and embraced the deeply moved master with the affectionate familiarity of a fellow-artist. After this, he said he would retire to enjoy the impression made upon him, but would see Bach again the next day, as he wished to show him the organs in the Potsdam churches and hear him play on them. Bach cheerfully consented, and after making his adieus passed a quiet evening in his own family circle.

The next day, at the appointed hour, the royal carriage stopped at Emanuel's door, and at the King's request Friedemann accompanied his father. They were soon at the Church of the Holy Spirit, where the organ was in readiness and the King was awaited. In the meantime the church rapidly filled up with persons of high social standing and Court attendants, and soon the King's carriage was heard at the door. With a quick step the sovereign entered, hastily greeting those in attendance, and making his way to the organ-loft, where he warmly greeted the master.

"Dear Bach, yesterday you served me a magnificent musical feast, which I greatly enjoyed; but you know the old saying: 'The appetite grows by what it feeds upon,' and I am free to say that to-day I am longing to hear a performance such as only you can give us."

"And what might that be, Your Majesty?" A fugue in six parts."

"Yes, but our theme of yesterday, as Your Majesty well knows, is not adapted to that style of polyphonic treatment. If Your Majesty will graciously choose one that is—"

"No, no, Bach, choose a fitting one yourself; we shall be the gainers thereby."

"Your Majesty has only to command."

The King nodded his assent, took a seat a little apart from his retinue, and Bach began.

A majestic prelude rang from the organ in a mighty flood of tone, ever bolder and more triumphant, until, reaching a climax, it gave place to the majestic chorale, Ich Weiss dass mein Erloser lebt (I know that my Redeemer liveth), which he developed in six parts with a dignity of style and a divine fervor that entranced his hearers. The characteristics of the theme and the accompanying modulations, the freedom and brilliancy of his treatment, the clearness of the composition, and the individuality of the single parts, all combined to make a marvellous performance. The King was so enthusiastic that he embraced the old master, and exclaimed with emotion: "I have heard the utmost of which the divine art is capable! I am glad I have lived to hear it."

It was an inspiring day for the great musician. His son, Friedemann, also had to play for the King when they came to another church, and was heartily appreciated by the musicians, who could not resist the charm of his talent and performance. Other days not less inspiring followed these. It was a time so full of spiritual comfort and contentment that Bach devoted himself to composition, and produced one great work after another, as if he had renewed his youthful power.

The King paid him affectionate attention to the last day of his visit in Potsdam, showed him everything worth seeing and remembering in Berlin, and magnanimously tendered him the highest honors in the royal musical service, which, though with some heaviness of heart, Bach declined out of consideration for his son Emanuel, asking for himself only the continuation of the royal favor and kindness. With sincere emotion the noble sovereign promised this. Bach left Potsdam after many happy weeks, and returned to his disagreeable Leipsic post, with a melancholy presentiment that the King's promise to have another visit sometime would not be fulfilled.