Johann Sebastian Bach - George Upton

The New Life

An unexpected opportunity being offered to hear the famous organist again after Sunday, Sebastian had no scruples against remaining a few days longer in Hamburg. He returned to Luneburg on Wednesday in such a musical exaltation that he gave no thought to the possible consequences of his violation of duty. No reproaches, no penalties, however, could disturb him. He had secured treasures that forevermore elevated him above the petty, common things of life.

Though he had lived very economically during his prolonged stay in Hamburg, he had so far exhausted his little means that he began the return journey with only a few pfennigs in his pocket. Notwithstanding his youthful strength and endurance, he was soon wellnigh exhausted. Unable longer to endure the pangs of hunger, he stopped at an inn on the highway to ask for such food as his small means would purchase. A travelling carriage with four beautiful black horses was standing before the door. Inside there was lively commotion, for they were preparing breakfast for the distinguished travelling party. Sebastian stole quietly into the house and asked the inn-keeper, who was bustling about the coffee-room in a state of great excitement, for a herring (the favorite food of the poor in Thuringia) and a piece of bread, but no attention was paid to him. Puffed, up with pride at serving such distinguished guests, he contemptuously ignored the young traveller, and when the request was repeated, refused it and turned him away hungry from the door.

Sebastian was so deeply grieved and hurt by this treatment he could hardly muster up courage to resume his tramp upon an empty stomach. His strength was wellnigh exhausted. He sat down on the turf before the door, half determined not to leave until the inn-keeper gave him food. He was sick at heart and discouraged. Suddenly a window was opened above him, and upon looking up he espied a kind-faced old gentleman, who threw a little parcel into the grass in front of him, accompanying the act with a cordial and significant nod of his head.

Sebastian was at first somewhat embarrassed. Then he picked up the little parcel, undid the fine white-paper wrapper, and two herrings and two nice little rolls dropped out. Deeply moved by the gift thus sent to him and casting a thankful glance at the window, he took out his pocket-knife and began to cut up one of the herrings. To his extreme surprise he found a Holland ducat in the fish. He took the second herring, and his surprise was increased when he found another. Perplexed and greatly agitated, he again gratefully gazed up at the window, where his kind benefactor significantly shook his powdered head and then disappeared behind the curtains. Strengthened afresh by the herrings and rolls and encouraged by this pleasant incident on the last day of his long march, the happy boy set out again; but he saved his ducats for the next repetition of his musical pilgrimage to Hamburg.

His offence was expiated by a slight restriction of his privileges, but it in no way affected the goodwill or respect of his teachers. They regarded the liberty he had taken as a concession which was due to his genius, and continued to allow him the free school privileges in consideration of his industry and scholarly gifts. They realized already his great future.

During his three years' stay in Luneburg, Sebastian by resistless determination and tireless industry rose step by step in all his studies as well as in his musical education, secured the requisite certificate for the University, and the highest recognition as violinist, organist, cembalist, and contrapuntist, and as a youth of exemplary character. Hence there was no question of his fitness for the position which was now offered him through the influence of some of his Thuringian friends, that of violinist in the ducal chapel at Weimar.

[Illustration] from Bach by George Upton


It was not without deep emotion that he left the old school, the good Rector, the leader of the choir, and his classmates and friends. He bade Erdmann's kindly uncle a cordial farewell and left an affectionate letter for Erdmann himself, who had quit Luneburg and gone into business with his father, urging him to correspond with him. On a cloudy spring morning of 1703 the seventeen-year-old lad, head and heart full of highest resolutions and aspirations, passed through the gates of Luneburg on his way to his new duties.

It seemed to Sebastian, who had never concealed nor lost his love for the Thuringian land, that in going to Weimar he was going home, and it was with a genuine home feeling that he regarded his modest little room with its outlook over garden and field to the far mountain lines of the Thuringian forest. He made himself at home there at once with his violin and music, and entered upon the duties of his position without delay. They were simple enough for one who had gained perfect facility by three years of tireless practice, but they were far from satisfying his ambition; for the Court had no higher ambition than to keep up a certain musical state with which he had no sympathy. He compensated himself for his part in this superficial "kling klang" by arranging with the old cathedral organist to play for a pittance. On such occasions he gave full expression to his feelings and conceptions upon the powerful instrument, after the manner of Bohm and Reinken, and lifted the souls of those who listened breathlessly to his wonderful playing above all earthly things. It seemed as if the Reformation spirit inspired those tones, so full of religious exaltation, and stirred the dingy portraits of Luther, Melancthon, and Johann Friedrich.

The recognition of Sebastian's success was not confined to Weimar and its people. It spread throughout Thuringia, and the Duke's young violinist "had scarcely been in service six months before he was invited by the Schwartzburg Consistory to take the position of organist at the "New Church" at Arnstadt, formerly known as St. Boniface Church. He was greatly moved by the invitation. The old city of Arnstadt had been the home of Bachs for many generations. There his great-uncle Heinrich had lived and labored, as well as his father's twin-brother Johann Christoph, who so strikingly resembled him that it seemed to Sebastian he was now following in his dear father's steps. How could such an invitation help making him happy?

There was another thing that induced him to accept this invitation. The "New Church" was built upon the site of the St. Boniface Church, which was destroyed by fire in 1581, and was dedicated to divine service in 1683. The beautiful church had been without an organ twenty years, but one had now been secured by contributions. The well-known organ-builder, Johann Friedrich Wender; of Muhlhausen, had constructed an excellent instrument, and this was to be placed in charge of Johann Sebastian. Joyously he exulted at the prospect of releasing its magical tones for the first time. He accepted the position with a thousand thanks, notwithstanding the small salary.

To add to his delight, several of his dear relatives lived in Arnstadt. The situation and environs of the place also were beautiful, and especially charming to one of Sebastian's cheerful disposition. As this was ample equivalent for the smallness of his income, he accepted the annual salary of eighty thalers, and went to Arnstadt.

The slight demands which his position made upon his time, left him leisure for the study of the German and Old French contrapuntists. He labored over their works most assiduously, to gain a more thorough knowledge of the comprehensive rules of the higher organ style. The better to express his own conceptions, he also arranged some new violin concertos of Vivaldi ' for the piano, by which he gained a clearer understanding of the relations of musical *ideas to each other and of the sequence of modulations. What he wrote down during the day without an instrument, he played over upon his piano in the evening and sometimes late into the night, until he had completely mastered the technic.

Beside all this, he assisted in the compilation of the Freilighausen hymnbook, and for the purpose of making the chorales more effective, he undertook the arduous work of rearranging three hundred of them and composing many new ones himself. His organ-playing was so rich and fanciful in his own conceptions that the congregation, accustomed as it was to exceedingly simple hymn-accompaniments, could not follow him, and this led to repeated complaints from the Consistory. Sebastian, however, striving only for the highest in his art, paid little attention to them. He only labored all the harder to perfect himself, ignored all practical matters, and gave heed to no authority above him when it interfered with the lofty purpose he had in view.

He found recreation after the fatigue of studies, composition, and practice upon the violin, piano, and organ, in the enjoyment of nature and in the society of relatives and friends. Among the former those most dear to him were the family of Johann Michael, Heinrich's son, a quiet, music-loving circle, the central attraction of which was the lovely, blooming daughter, Maria Barbara, Sebastian's studious and gifted pupil. Among his friends those nearest to him were Christoph Uthe, the minister of the New Church, and Johannes Laurentius Stauber, assistant minister, both well-grounded in the higher church music and entertaining the utmost respect for Johann Sebastian's courageous struggle and energetic will. In this circle the young artist was particularly happy. There all the real worth of his unpretentious life was displayed. There he found warm appreciation for the highest and best, and never failing help and sympathy.

One evening he rushed into the Bach home, where both friends were visiting, and as if in utter despair flung himself down into a chair without a word of greeting. All looked at him with great concern. Dear Bach," said Laurentius Stauber, solicitously, "why do you come rushing in in this unceremonious manner? Has anything unfortunate happened?"

"I am the unfortunate myself," exclaimed Sebastian, passionately. "I am a bungler, and I shall always be a bungler if I stay here. I am going away."

"Away from here!" they all exclaimed. Where are you going?"

"Where there is something to be learned. I am going backward here. Soon I shall know nothing."

"But, Sebastian—"said Johann Michael, reproachfully.

"But it is true," he replied, gloomily. My organ-playing is going backward. It has no depth, no vigor, no progressiveness—"

"But, dear Bach—"

"I tell you it is true, I feel it. My compositions also have no ideas. They show no charm of fancy, no mastery of materials. This cannot go on any longer."

"But you greatly underestimate yourself, cousin," said Johann Ernst, son of the twin brother of Sebastian's father. Would to God I could play as well as you do already at twenty! Everyone here is astonished at your work."

"But what do they know about music here?" replied Sebastian, contemptuously.

"But we are astonished also," interposed Herr Uthe, "and we think we know a little something about sacred music."

"To be sure you do," said Sebastian, "but your friendship for me makes you blind. You do not see my failings. No, no, I must be off. I must hear once-more the great masters of the art and find out from them how to get on the right road again. I am going away at once."

"Where will you go? Where will you find what you are longing for?. "

"Where? Yes, that is the question," said Sebastian, with a sad look in his eyes. "Really there are only two places where I expect to find what I need—in Nuremberg with Pachelbel, or in Lubeck with Buxtehude."

"Both are certainly far enough away from here," said Herr Uthe, dolefully.

"What matters distance?" answered Sebastian, with some warmth. "I would go to the ends of the earth if I could hear the great organists there. But, to cut matters short, I shall go to Lubeck in the morning."

"Without permission?" asked Johann Ernst, very seriously.

"I am going to see the Superintendent this evening."

"And at this unpleasant season of the year? Think of that," said Johann Michael.

"A journey of at least sixty miles," added Herr Stauber.

"Let him go," suddenly said the soft, gentle voice of the one who alone of all the circle favored his plan. "He must do what his genius bids him do."

Surprised and greatly excited, Sebastian turned to the speaker, his young cousin Maria Barbara, and thankfully offered his hand. "You understand me," he said with emotion; "now nothing more can restrain me." With this closing word he left the house.

Week after week passed. He had far exceeded his one month's leave of absence and nothing had been seen or heard of him. His friends were solicitous, his superiors indignant, the congregation angry. How could he so thoughtlessly violate his duties? What could he be doing? Where could he be? His conduct was simply incomprehensible to everyone. Maria Barbara smilingly shook her knowing little head when she heard the reproaches of relatives and friends, the slurs of neighbors, and the threats of the Superintendent, and said: "You are wasting your words. Sebastian would not care if you should even say them to his face. He is living and working for higher things than those which are deemed of so much importance in Arnstadt."

And so it turned out. Two, three months passed, and the indignation of the church-wardens was at its height, when one fine day Sebastian suddenly appeared at Johann Michael's and cheerfully greeted his astonished relatives. He replied coolly and unconcernedly to the storm of exclamations, reproaches, and questions, tenderly greeted his pretty little cousin, Maria Barbara, and at last, when questions and complaints had ceased, said briefly, I am accountable for all that I have done or may do. My journey to Lubeck was made solely in the interests of the art which I practise for the honor of God and for the edification of the Christian congregation. All other considerations must be subordinate to this higher purpose. Will the Consistory and Council of Arnstadt complain because in striving to rise higher and higher in my art I have exceeded the time allowed me? Possibly they may discharge me from my position. What does that matter? Arnstadt is not the world. At all times and in all places the world's door stands open for the skilful artist. Offers have already been made to me in Lubeck. So do not be troubled about me; I do what I must do and others may do what they please—so enough of this."

"I told you so," exultantly declared Maria Barbara, looking round the circle. "He cares not a whit for your anxiety about him. He will excel you all."

"Ah! you rogue," said Sebastian, smiling, "I did not know you were a prophet." The girl blushed to the tips of her ears as he bent over her and tenderly whispered, "Can you also prophesy the name of Sebastian's wife a year from to-day?"

"Oh! yes," replied Maria Barbara, "Frau Bach. She certainly will have that name."

"Oh, you cunning one! But the Christian name, the Christian name—that is the question. Well?"

"I cannot prophesy so much in one day," replied the blushing girl; "I will tell you that some other time."

"I will tell you to-day," whispered Sebastian. "She will be called Maria Barbara Bach. She is a dear, fair-haired maiden, and the only person who knows Sebastian through and through."

"Do not be too sure," replied Maria Barbara, in some confusion. "Sometimes my prophecies do not come true." The next instant she had slipped away and disappeared in an adjacent room.

"A year from now," the young artist said to himself, with all the solemnity of a vow, as his eyes followed her.

The apprehensions of his friends that measures would be taken by his superiors to call him to account were confirmed. He was summoned before the Consistory and sharply reproved for his audacious violation of his duties. His reply shows clearly his real purpose: "He had prolonged his visit to Lubeck solely in the interests of his art and for his own improvement, so that he might come back enriched with experience and many new ideas, which would better fit him for his position; and likewise he thought, it would be better for his pupils. Beside this, he had provided a substitute for the organ."

This brief explanation of his conduct did not satisfy the old stiff-necked superiors, who did not at all understand him. Beside this, the simple members of the congregation, who did not appreciate his efforts to elevate church music, complained that he introduced strange variations in the chorales which they could not follow. This called for further explanation; rather than make which, Sebastian decided to resign his Arnstadt position and look for another.

[Illustration] from Bach by George Upton


Just at this time, Johann George Ahie, the highly esteemed organist at St. Blasius's Church in the old Thuringian imperial city of Muhlhausen, died, and the position was offered to Sebastian. He was ready at once, attended the organ examination, and so highly impressed the wardens with his playing, that they gave him the place. He expressed his satisfaction with the salary, requested and obtained his release from the Council at Arnstadt, and to his great delight found that his place would be filled by his cousin, Johann Ernst. To make the latter's position easy at the outset, for he was very poor, and beside had an old mother and sick sister to support, Sebastian gave up a considerable part of his back salary for Johann's benefit. Then he asked for the hand of his loving cousin, received her joyful consent as well as that of her family, and on a wonderfully beautiful, quiet, sunny Autumn morning went to Dornheim, where his faithful friend, Johannes Laurentius Stauber, was settled as minister. In the modest little village church, before the altar hung with festive garlands, the young pair exchanged rings and vows of love, and then, after a quiet, happy day spent in the parsonage, returned to Sebastian's own simple abode.

A few weeks later the happy couple settled in Muhlhausen and joyfully took possession of the organist's old house. The simple furniture, which they had jointly contributed, was soon cosily and comfortably arranged, and when everything was in its place and evening had come, the young bride-groom seated himself at the little piano, and with a heart overflowing with happiness sang and played the beautiful chorale:

"I come, O Lord, before Thy throne

This happy evening tide,

And pray Thee, thro' Thy precious Son,

Thou wilt with us abide.

Accept this offering of the heart

Which now I humbly bring,

And of Thy grace to us impart

While I Thy praises sing."

At the very first tones of the chorale, Maria Barbara stepped behind his seat and with clear and lovely alto voice joined in his sacred song. It was the consecration of the day, a beautiful beginning of the new life which God had prepared for them.