Johann Sebastian Bach - George Upton




A Musical Tournament

Sebastian entered upon the duties of his position at Muhlhausen with great enthusiasm, and the friendly assurances of the wardens as well as of the congregation seemed to promise a long and successful tenure of his position. This, however, could not be certain if anything stood in the way of the elevation and improvement of church music; which was the very end and aim of his life. It was impossible for him to adhere to the musty traditions and stereotyped usages of musical craftsmen in small towns. It was not only his purpose, but it was a necessity for him to produce new creations, exhibiting a richer abundance of ideas in enlarged form, and compositions which would spiritually uplift his hearers and inspire them with fresh religious exaltation. If this could not be done in Muhlhausen—and he found only too soon that it could not—then his stay there must be short. His effort to reform church music was at first obstructed, then openly opposed. The families of the early organists and their friends, who regarded the policy of the young man, the very young man," as an insult to his predecessors, were grieved. Malevolent townspeople criticised him, and gossiped among themselves to this effect:

"The organist is a freethinker and a subverter. He has no respect for old and honored things. He devises innovations, and plays a frivolous, ornamental music instead of the plain, devout music which simple people can understand. Herr Ahle and his predecessors were a different kind of men. Perhaps they did not know as much as Herr Bach, but they were more pleasing organists in the sight of God." It was a pitiable condition of things for Sebastian.

Sebastian resolved he would endure this misunderstanding and malice no longer. With an impatient shrug of his shoulders he announced to his devoted young wife, "We must take up the staff anew, darling. We cannot grow in this atmosphere. I cannot live where I cannot work for my highest purpose; I must look around for another position."

"Do so, dearest," said Maria Barbara, smoothing his wrinkled brow with loving hand. "The world is large, and a musician of your ability will be everywhere welcome."

In like manner his decision was approved by his two gifted scholars in Muhlhausen, Johann Martin Schubart and Johann Kaspar Vogler, and by his real friends who had sympathized with his work during his short stay, and this confirmed him in making his decision final.

"I am going to Weimar in the morning," he said with the utmost composure. "The new Duke is a warm friend of music and loves the higher church style. Perhaps he will hear me and invite me to enter his service."

"If he hears you, he cannot help inviting you," said Maria Barbara, confidently. "God go with you.

He went—and behold Maria Barbara once more proved herself a true prophet. The musical circles of Weimar were delighted not only with his splendid playing upon the organ of the castle church, but also with his fine piano-playing. The impression produced by his performances was so convincing that the Duke at once offered him the position of court organist with a handsome salary, contingent upon his securing release from his post at Muhlhausen. Sebastian returned home delighted with his prospects, and great was the joy of all when he told them of the pleasant outcome of his Weimar visit.

"If I can get my release from here, we will settle down in Weimar this summer. What do you think of that, dearest?"

"Of course we will," replied Maria Barbara, most emphatically. "The blind fools here, who do not understand you, will let you go very willingly."

"And we will go with you," exclaimed his two scholars, Schubart and Vogler. "Need we stay here without you, master?"

"Of course not," said Sebastian, much pleased, and Maria Barbara added, "We will all stay together until you become masters."

"Which will take a long time," muttered Vogler.

The Muhlhausen Council, as was expected, found little difficulty in releasing the organist from his duties, and the happy pair and his two faithful scholars packed their little possessions in readiness for settling down in the Ilm city.

"It is time for me to have rest and peace for a few years," said Sebastian, as he sat down to his desk after the change, for here I expect, if God so wills it, to remain and take such firm root that at last I may produce the perfect fruit. Hitherto I have been only a little tree in a nursery, which the gardener has set out among others, or stuck into the ground for a week or so to save it, if possible, from dying. Here there is good soil. I shall grow strong and deep and do good work."

His expectations were gratified. Nine beautiful and profitable years were spent in his favorite Weimar—nine years of perfect domestic happiness, and of satisfactory musical activity and production and universally honorable recognition. It was there Sebastian laid the firm foundation of his later world-fame. It was there that he wrote those first compositions which revealed him as the creator of a new style, destined to elevate music from a time-serving, mechanical craft to the position of an independent art. It was there that a large family of children blessed his home and eventually became accomplished musicians under his faithful guidance and instruction, his two scholars, Schubart and Vogler, succeeding him in the same position.

Some of the cantatas composed by him at Weimar are of incomparable majesty and beauty; for instance, the inspiring one in G minor, Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu Dir  (Out of the Depths have I cried to Thee, O Lord); the wonderful one in E flat major, Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit  (God's own Time is the best Time of all)—well known under the name of Actus Tragicus;  and the heart stirring one, Ich hatte viel Bekummerniss  (My Spirit was in Heaviness). These, with the one beginning with the symphony in C minor and closing with a wonderfully charming chorus in C major, comprise a brilliant group.

These and similar compositions, the like of which had not been known before, his unequalled organ and piano playing, and his extraordinary facility in developing variations or fugues from a given theme, made him, though hardly thirty years of age, a musical authority far and near. People came long distances to hear him play on Sundays. Young and old musicians studied the revelations of genius in his compositions; and his Prince, proud of his distinguished castle organist, appointed him ducal concert and chapel-master.

Bach's rising fame as a composer, as well as pianist and organist, a few years later was the occasion of a significant and extremely interesting event. Among his celebrated foreign contemporaries was the French musician, Jean Louis Marchand, who was considered by his own countrymen an unrivalled organ and piano player. In reality he was a vain, pretentious person, and much more conceited about himself than his uncritical and enthusiastic worshippers. The foolish fellow indeed was so arrogant in his manners that he offended the King of France, whose court organist he was, and was banished.

The supercilious musician was in no wise humbled by this bitter lesson, and his experiences during his travels in Italy and Germany were not calculated to make him less conceited. He was so successful in dazzling the music-loving public with the brilliancy of his compositions, as well as with the fascination and elegance of his playing, that he was everywhere hailed as a distinguished virtuoso and overwhelmed with applause.

Marchand at last arrived in Dresden, and appeared in a concert given at the Court of Friedrich August I, where the French taste prevailed at that time. The distinguished audience was so captivated by him that its applause was almost unlimited, and the King offered the arrogant Frenchman the position of chapel-master with a very handsome salary.

To prevent the consummation of the King's offer, and at the same time to establish the superiority of German over French art, Volumier, the director of the royal orchestra at Dresden, who was well acquainted with Sebastian's great skill and knowledge, invited him to go to Dresden without delay, that he might expose the pretensions of this Frenchman and settle the superiority of German art, as well as the superior honesty of German character.

Bach, fully aware of the corrupting influence of French taste at that period, lost no time in accepting the invitation, and went at once to Dresden. Volumier, in the meantime, had commended him to the King and Queen as a musician of equal rank with Marchand, and he had barely arrived when a messenger from Court brought him an invitation to a royal concert, in which the highly renowned French concert-master and unrivalled virtuoso, M. Jean Louis Marchand, will appear," containing also an intimation that the King would be glad to hear him play. He cheerfully accepted, and as he entered the hall in his plain black coat, accompanied by Volumier, whose face was glowing with anticipation, offered a striking contrast to the richly clad and decorated Court attendants. All eyes were fixed upon the simple Weimar organist, especially those of the Frenchman, who, dressed in silk, velvet, and point-lace, and blazing with gold and jewels, stared contemptuously at his simple but deeply earnest German rival.

The concert at last began. Marchand with a haughty smile, as if assured of victory, rose and went to the piano. He played the melody of a French song in a neat and spirited manner, varied it with many little artifices and refinements, and then, coming back to the melody, closed in spirited and effective style. A storm of applause greeted him as he rose. He looked around him with an air of triumph.

"Very artistic work," said Sebastian, as the courtiers and musicians crowded round Marchand, "and very elegantly and charmingly played."

"That is true," replied some of Marchand's friends, with much satisfaction. "Surely he is the leading piano virtuoso of our time."

Sebastian was silent, and appeared to be thinking of the music he had just heard, when a page brought him an invitation from the King to play something.

"If Your Majesty will deign to lend a gracious ear to my humble playing," said Bach, modestly, "I am ready." He seated himself at the piano, and after extemporizing a little in his own masterful way, played Marchand's song through in most graceful style, and then varied it twelve times, each variation displaying originality and constantly increasing skill and musical scholarship. His auditors, even the connoisseurs, listened almost breathlessly. At last he brought his performance to a close with a bold and brilliant passage, rose from the instrument, and after a gracious bow to the sovereign went back quietly to his seat.

The silent astonishment of the assemblage now gave way to a veritable jubilee of applause, and the King, Queen, and Crown Prince were as enthusiastic as the rest. The arrogant but now thoroughly humiliated Frenchman, with rage and hatred in his heart, retired among the crowd and quietly disappeared.

On the morning following the exciting event Marchand received a very courteous letter from Bach, in which, after complimenting him upon his charming and elegant playing, he invited him to select any theme he pleased for variation by the former upon the piano in public, and expressed the hope that Marchand would likewise take one selected by him. The latter replied, accepting the challenge to this musical tournament.

Great preparations were made for the event, under the patronage of the Court. Friedrich August, who anticipated an interesting evening, owing to the rivalry of the two brilliant musicians, after receiving Marchand's acceptance, selected the great salon of his cabinet minister, Field Marshal Count von Flemming, as the scene of the tournament. The entire Court assembled at the appointed hour. All the leading musicians of Dresden were there. Volumier, cheerful in his confidence of victory, and Bach, quiet and serious as was his wont, came in after the audience was assembled. At nine o'clock the royal pair entered, preceded by Court officials and accompanied by the Count and Countess Flemming. There was one person absent—Jean Louis Marchand!

It was unheard-of rudeness to keep the King and Queen waiting. The guests sat in painful suspense, watching the door for the entrance of the Frenchman; but they watched in vain. He did not come. Count Flemming was in despair at the ruin of the evening's pleasure. With the King's consent a courier was despatched to Marchand's residence, who returned with the disagreeable intelligence that the Frenchman had left Dresden, post-haste, early in the morning. The news fell like a bombshell in their midst. The King was angry, the Court excited, the German musicians quietly satisfied. Bach alone appeared unmoved and uninterested in the intelligence. It was a matter of course to him that whenever a contest between French music and German music was proposed, French music would run away.

One of the King's pages again approached Bach and said: "His Majesty desires to speak with you."

Sebastian quietly followed the boy. Standing before the royal pair, he bowed low to the King and lower still to the gentle Queen Ebahardine, and modestly awaited their pleasure. The King scanned the calm, earnest face of the young master, which had not a trace of the embarrassment usually shown by persons summoned before his Majesty, and with flashing eyes and much excitement said, Your rival, Monsieur Marchand, has not come to measure his skill against yours. What do you think of his conduct?"

"I can only think there must have been very strong reasons for his non-appearance before Your Majesty."

"You do not think that he is afraid to enter the contest with you?"

"It would not be becoming for me to think so," replied Bach, with some hesitation. "Monsieur Marchand is a very accomplished musician and excellent player. I would not assume that he is unable to improvise on a given theme. He may have refused my challenge."

"You think and talk like an honorable man," replied the King. "But as Marchand, whatever may be his reasons, is not here, may we not have the pleasure of hearing the other contestant? Will you not give us a specimen of your skill in variations on some theme to be given you?"

"I shall be very glad to do so, Your Majesty."

"Well, then," said Friedrich August, addressing the Queen, "will Your Majesty give Bach a theme?"

The noble Princess, not accustomed to have attention shown her by her usually indifferent consort, blushed slightly, but after a little reflection, said: "The year in which we live revives gracious memories of our venerated Doctor Martin Luther and his majestic hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott  (A Strong Castle is our God). Will you take that chorale for your theme?"

"With all my heart, Your Majesty," said Bach, with much emotion. It is not very easy to follow in the steps of that great man, but I will try with God's help."

With deep feeling in his heart he went to the piano. As he rested his fingers upon the keyboard, they moved with the skill and inspiration of a higher world, and the great Reformation hymn rang through the salon with a fervor that uplifted and inspired the souls of all. A devout silence rested upon the assemblage. All eyes were fixed upon the plain, simple man, whose eyes looked upward in a spiritual ecstasy. All listened as if enchanted with the wonderful tones which the gifted master evoked from his instrument. Grander and more majestic still was the effect when he built a fugue upon the Luther hymn. It revealed the lowest depths of the tone-world. The wonderful structure of word and tone rose to the loftiest heights of religious faith; and when at last his hands rested and the last sound had died away, it seemed to the deeply-moved hearers that they had come back from a purer sphere into the atmosphere of this life, with ardent longings for the one they had left.

The King, who was worldly minded and long a stranger to religious faith, was nevertheless greatly moved. The Queen, who was devout of soul, was moved to tears. It was a moment in which all present were lifted above the emptiness of court and everyday life as they had never been before.

Rich with praise and fame, Bach returned to Weimar from the Royal Court, with its exciting life, its splendors and luxury, to the organist's little house, full of simple happiness, soul-rest, and heart-peace; and with him went the enduring recollection of the tears of the pious Queen and the warm words of gratitude she spoke to him, with pale cheeks and with the deepest emotion, from trembling lips. It was an event never to be forgotten.