Johann Sebastian Bach - George Upton

Life and Work in Leipsic

Sebastian's stay in Weimar ended in the memorable year 1717. The congregation considered him an eminent organist. As the ducal chapel-master he held a high social position. His Prince let no opportunity pass to express his appreciation of him. But his increasing family, and the growing difficulty of supporting them, made it imperative for him to secure a more remunerative position, and Maria Barbara, though with some regret, appreciated and accepted the situation.

While anxiously looking about him, Bach received a cordial invitation from the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen to take the vacant position of court organist and chapel-master in the capital city. The news was joyfully received at home. As the salary was much larger than he had been getting, Bach could not hesitate about accepting the invitation, and so he resigned his position in Weimar, though not without regret. He was consoled, however, by the thought that as he was bettering his 'circumstances his action would not be misinterpreted.

It was a still greater consolation to know that his place in Weimar would be filled by one who was competent and thoroughly trained. His accomplished scholar and friend, Johann Martin Schubart, who had been a member of the family for ten years and to whom he was closely attached, was to be his successor. So Sebastian and Maria Barbara quietly left the Ilm city, where they had lived so happily for nine years and where his work had been so successful, and went to their new home with bright hopes for the future. These hopes were mostly realized, and particularly in the improvement of their outward circumstances. His income relieved him from the serious anxieties which had troubled him in Weimar, and thus left him free to work and create. He also enjoyed the unusual appreciation of a music—loving Prince, who not only manifested the highest interest in his work, but bestowed upon him his personal friendship, an advantage of no small value in those days. He was no longer the son of the poor cantor of Eisenach, brought up as a duty by his relatives; no longer the orphan who was censured and lectured by church fathers for his innovations, but a man in the very flower of life, in the full enjoyment of his musical freedom and allowed to work out his ideas in his own way, and a greatly honored composer, whose acquaintance was eagerly sought by prominent people and whose friendship a noble Prince was proud to enjoy. How far he had exceeded the conventional limits of his position is shown by the fact that, when a son was born to him in 1718, the Prince, his brother, August Ludwig of Anhalt, Eleonora Wilhelmina, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar, Privy Councillor Von Zanthier, and the Baroness Von Nostiz, stood as sponsors at the christening.

Aided by these favoring circumstances, and particularly by the active sympathy of Prince Leopold, Sebastian, incited by his strong passion for creating, entered upon a new path—that of instrumental composition. It was there that he brought to its highest development that use of the polyphonic style on the organ which was peculiarly his own. In rapid succession he produced those great works for piano, and in chamber and orchestral music, which have been admired from that time to this, viz., the six so-called Brandenburg Concertos, several suites, a large number of sonatas and duets, not a few compositions for piano alone, his two-part inventions, and three-part symphonies, and, greater than all these, the first part of that masterly and unrivalled work which is known as the Well Tempered Clavichord—a creation of art which required twenty years for completion.

Before this great work was completed, a cruel fate overtook the master—a blow which the loving pair little expected when they began the new life with such bright hopes. During a journey which Sebastian made with the Prince, who was accustomed to take the waters at Carlsbad, his wife was stricken with a sudden and fatal illness, and to the unspeakable grief of the children died in a few days. The mail-service in those days was so wretched and uncertain that letters, especially those sent to foreign countries, were frequently long delayed, so that Sebastian received no tidings of his affliction. Little dreaming of the terrible loss he had sustained, he spent some time with the Prince at Carlsbad, but at last, unable longer to resist his longing for home, he returned, only to make the dreadful discovery that the wife whom he had left so well and happy was in her grave.

Only a strong, devout nature, like that of Bach's, and the consolations of sacred music could have enabled the bereaved husband to endure such an affliction. The sorrowing Sebastian nevertheless passed sad days, weeks, and months, and even the warm sympathy of the Prince had but little consolation for him. Fortunately, two important duties fully occupied his time—the education of his children and the musical instruction of his three gifted sons, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Gottfried Bernhard, which kept him absorbed in his art. A journey which he made about this time to Hamburg was also of great help to him. He went there to see, and, if possible, to hear, Johann Adam Reinken, the greatest master of the perfect organ style and of counterpoint, and bring back still higher standards for his own work. He was welcomed by the musical circles of Hamburg as a famous and honored master; but the old Reinken, being frail and weak, was inaccessible, and Bach soon began to grow uneasy at the possibility that he might have to return without gratifying his desire, when suddenly and unexpectedly a happy chance relieved his suspense.

[Illustration] from Bach by George Upton


On one of the last days of his stay in Hamburg, Bach played before a large and very distinguished audience upon the fine organ in St. Katharine's Church. When the applause had ceased and he was about to leave the organ, an earnest and unanimous request was sent to him to improvise upon a chorale, and he consented. He selected the chorale By the Rivers of Babylon, which Reinken, at the very outset of his career, had arranged in a similar manner, and improvised with marvellous skill in long and artistic variations upon the noble theme.

His listeners were deeply moved by the breadth and power of his playing, but the player himself was still more deeply moved when the venerable Reinken, then in his ninety-ninth year, rose with effort from his seat in the front row, came forward and embraced him, saying with deep emotion: "I thought this art had died out; now that I see it still lives, I shall pass away in peace." Bach was greatly affected by the occurrence and the master's parting words. No worldly recognition, not even that of the King, could have made him so happy. Tears came to his eyes, and he returned the old man's embrace with ardor and as if reluctant to let him go. Bach left Hamburg with a feeling of exaltation he had never experienced before. It seemed to him he was wearing an invisible crown.

The beautiful and powerful organs of Hamburg, as well as the many music-loving and musically intelligent circles of Handel's city, which had welcomed him and recognized his ability, were precious memories to Sebastian long after his return. How insignificant little Cothen appeared in comparison! How lonely he was there with no opportunities to utilize his great skill and knowledge! Had it not been for the Prince, who fully appreciated his high purpose and loved and understood music so well, and for the friendship he had bestowed upon him, Bach's craving for a higher sphere of activity; and his longing for better musical advantages and a more intelligent and appreciative musical public, would have induced him to look about for another field of labor. But there came a time, at last, when the sole consideration that kept him in Cothen was removed in a singular manner, and he could justify his leaving.

The Prince, who had long been on most cordial terms with the court of Anhalt-Bernburg, was betrothed to a princess there, and became so absorbed in his approaching nuptials that his interest in music began to wane and his friendship for Bach became perceptibly weaker. Sebastian was greatly troubled about it, but he decided it was only fair to make some allowances for the Prince, and tried to believe that the old love (for music) would at last assert itself and take its place next the new love, and that the old friendly relations would be completely restored. In this hope he waited, but he was doomed to disappointment. There was a complete change in his princely patron and friend. His interest in music lessened more and more, and when at last the young Princess came, it was apparent that she had no real love of music. As Bach expressed it, she was simply bent upon being entertained, and henceforth music at Court would only be an amusement. This rendered Bach's position not only unprofitable, but absolutely useless, and thus the last tie that bound him to Cothen was severed. He was now as eager to get away as formerly he had been eager to get there.

As if for the very purpose of providing him a place where he could find full scope for his ability, Kuhnau, the esteemed musical director of the St. Thomas School in Leipsic, died, and Bach decided to apply for the position. The matter of filling the vacancy was deferred to the next year; but in the Summer of 1723 an invitation was sent to him and to two other fellow-workers in music to go to Leipsic and show proof of their skill. The decision of the judges was in Bach's favor after they heard his performance of his beautiful cantata, Jesus called the Twelve unto Him. He entered upon his duties at once, and in this position he rose to the summit of his art. Death alone released him, a quarter of a century later.

The directorship of St. Thomas's was not unworthy of Bach. The traditions of the school were dignified, and its standing was high. He was at the same time musical director of the St. Nicholas and St. Thomas churches, likewise of St. Peter's and the "New Church." He was also leader of the "Alumneum," consisting of fifty or sixty Alumni," who were obliged to assist in the church musical services.

This school, which grew out of the convent of St. Thomas, had had many excellent teachers and had attained a high standard of excellence. Both patrons and teachers had striven earnestly to maintain this standard and also to keep the musical department up to the high rank of the classical. Bach therefore undertook the task of maintaining old and time-honored traditions and standards. He ranked third among his colleagues, after the Rector, a head-master, and the co-rector, or assistant-master, and alternated with them in school inspection.

This comprehensive scheme of duties, and his general surroundings in Leipsic, had a powerful influence upon the great musician. Famous as the city of Handel, and as a centre of life and movement, it was also a centre of great intellectual activity, and boasted among its educators men of European fame. Beside this, Leipsic enjoyed unusual freedom in the control of its municipal affairs, which gave the city a lively, flourishing aspect, all of which could not fail to make a deep and favorable impression upon a man of Bach's active, resolute disposition. In this vigorous atmosphere he revelled in the spirit of republican independence, and his passion for musical creation grew stronger, and remained strong to the end.

He was also delighted that at last he was able to carry out his plans with regard to organ work. He had at his disposal the so-called greater organ of St. Thomas's Church, which had been there for two centuries and had been thoroughly repaired three years before this time. Bach was transported with delight as he awoke and set in motion the slumbering tone-forces of this magnificent instrument. It seemed to him there was nothing more to wish for in life.

The sorrow occasioned by the death of his faithful wife at last gave place to domestic happiness. For the sake of his children, who needed a mother's care, he married again, and in Anna Magdalena Wulkens, daughter of a court musician to the Duke of Weissenfeld, he found a beautiful compensation for his loss. She transformed the sad house into a happy home. She brought up her step-children faithfully and carefully. She appreciated the great musical schemes of her husband, assisted him in his work, not only with all her heart's affection, but with much musical ability, took lessons from him, copied his manuscripts accurately, and sang in the choir, for she possessed, greatly to Bach's delight, a fresh, young, beautiful soprano voice.

In the meantime the older children by the first marriage grew up strong and full of promise. The first-born son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was wonderfully precocious in his early youth. His father naturally was very fond of him, and had taught him with the utmost care. He was ambitious to leave to posterity a worthy successor, qualified to continue his own life-work, perhaps to surpass him. He had reason to believe this. Even in boyhood Friedemann had virtually mastered the piano and organ, performed the most difficult exercises in counterpoint with as much ease as if they were mere play, and "lived and moved" in music.

In general education, also, Friedemann was not behind any of his associates. In St. Thomas's School, which was very progressive, he advanced rapidly from one class to another, and also became an accomplished violin virtuoso under the instructions of concertmaster Graun, afterward chamber musician to Frederick the Great. He left the school at an early age, and studied at the University with the most famous teachers enthusiastically and successfully. From there he came home and entered the competition for the organist's position at St. Sophia's Church in Dresden. He was looked upon there as the favorite son and scholar of his great father. The dignity, grandeur, and power of his playing excited the astonishment even of the musical critics who heard him. His command of the instrument was so absolute, and his improvising so rich, new, and varied in style, that his hearers could hardly believe their ears, and many of them had trouble in following the flight of his genius.

After the trial, the judges unanimously agreed that Friedemann was by far the best and most skilful among the candidates, and so the youth of twenty-three was officially assigned the important place at Saint Sophia's Church. What joy and satisfaction filled his father's loving heart! It was one of the happiest days of his life! Alas! he little thought that a demon was menacing the genius of the youth, a demon that would attack it incessantly, and ultimately destroy it.

Next to Friedemann, and equal with him in his educational acquirements, was the highly gifted second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. He was ten years of age when the Bach family left for Leipsic, but even then manifested such unusual musical promise that his father's fondest expectations were encouraged, and in this case they were fulfilled.

It is time to return to Bach, the father. It has already been said that his life and work were greatly influenced by his new residence and the change in his circumstances. It was in Leipsic he displayed those extraordinary achievements which were little understood by his contemporaries, but which have been admired for their beauty and regarded with astonishment for their scholarship by posterity. These great achievements were also accompanied by extraordinary wealth of production. Bach's creative energy at this time was like a rushing stream. No musician before or since has accomplished such results in composition as Bach during the Leipsic period. Music of every kind poured forth rapidly and in rich abundance. Oratorios and Passion music, cantatas and motets, masses and concertos, piano and other instrumental works, and, greatest of all, that priceless treasure of profoundly conceived and perfectly constructed preludes and fugues, which the German people claim, and always will claim, as their own most beautiful and intellectual musical possession, are the outcome of the comparatively brief Leipsic period. How rich, deep, and varied were the creations of his intellect! How resistlessly he struggled on in spite of musical trade-masters!

How thoroughly he studied the works of the great masters of the past and of his time! He copied with his own hand a mass of music which was of use to him in his work, finished his masterpiece The Well-Tempered Clavichord, instructed half a hundred Alumni, beside numerous private scholars and his own children, kept up a constantly growing correspondence, and read with absorbing interest everything in print at that time which had important bearings upon his work. Posterity can only wonder how the great master, in addition to all this, found time to look after his private affairs and those of his large household.