1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bach, Johann Sebastian
BACH, JOHANN SEBASTIAN (1685–1750), German musical composer. The Bach family was of importance in the history of music for nearly two hundred years. Four branches of it were known at the beginning of the 16th century, and in 1561 we hear of Hans Bach of Wechmar who is believed to be the father of Veit Bach (born about 1555). The family genealogy, drawn up by J. Sebastian Bach himself and completed by his son Philipp Emanuel, describes Family. Veit Bach as the founder of the family, a baker and a miller, “whose zither must have sounded very pretty among the clattering of the mill-wheels.” His son, Hans Bach, “der Spielmann,” is the first professional musician of the family. Of Hans’s large family the second son, Christoph, was the grandfather of Sebastian Bach. Another son, Heinrich, of Arnstadt, had two sons, Johann Michael and Johann Christoph, who are among the greatest of J. S. Bach’s forerunners, Johann Christoph being now supposed (although this is still disputed) to be the author of the splendid motet, Ich lasse dich nicht (“I wrestle and pray”), formerly ascribed to Sebastian Bach. Another descendant of Veit Bach, Johann Ludwig, was admired more than any other ancestor by Sebastian, who copied twelve of his church cantatas and sometimes added work of his own to them.
The Bach family never left Thuringia until the sons of Sebastian went into a more modern world. Through all the misery of the peasantry at the period of the Thirty Years’ War this clan maintained its position and produced musicians who, however local their fame, were among the greatest in Europe. So numerous and so eminent were they that in Erfurt musicians were known as “Bachs,” even when there were no longer any members of the family in the town. Sebastian Bach thus inherited the artistic tradition of a united family whose circumstances had deprived them of the distractions of the century of musical fermentation which in the rest of Europe had destroyed polyphonic music.
Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized at Eisenach on the 23rd Biography. of March 1685. His parents died in his tenth year, and his elder brother, Johann Christoph, organist at Ohrdruf, took charge of him and taught him music. The elder brother is said to have been jealous of Sebastian’s talent, and to Biography.have forbidden him access to a manuscript volume of works by Froberger, Buxtehude and other great organists. Every night for six months Sebastian got up, put his hand through the lattice of the bookcase, and copied the volume out by moonlight, to the permanent ruin of his eyesight (as is shown by all the extant portraits of him at a later age and by the blindness of his last years). When he had finished, his brother discovered the copy and took it away from him. In 1700 Sebastian, now fifteen and thrown on his own resources by the death of his brother, went to Lüneburg, where his beautiful soprano voice obtained him an appointment at the school of St Michael as chorister. He seems, however, to have worked more at instrumental than at vocal music. Apart from the choristers’ routine, his position provided only for his general education, and we know little about his definite musical instructors. In any case he owed his musical development mainly to his own incessant study of classical and contemporary composers, such as Frescobaldi (c. 1587), Caspar Kerl (1628–1693), Buxtehude, Froberger, Muffat the elder, Pachelbel and probably Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), the author of the Gradus ad Parnassum on which all later classical composers were trained. A prettier and no less authentic story than that of his brother’s forbidden organ-volume tells how, on his return from one of the many holiday expeditions which Bach made to Hamburg on foot to hear the great Dutch organist Reinken, he sat outside an inn longing for the dinner he could not afford, when two herring-heads were flung out of the window, and he found in each of them a ducat with which he promptly paid his way, not home, but back to Hamburg. At Hamburg, also, Keiser was laying the foundations of German opera on a splendid scale which must have fired Bach’s imagination though it never directly influenced his style. On the other hand Keiser’s church music was of immense importance in his development. In Celle the famous Hofkapelle brought the influence of French music to bear upon Bach’s art, an influence which inspired nearly all his works in suite-form and to which his many autograph copies of Couperin’s music bear testimony. Indeed, there is no branch of music, from Palestrina onwards, conceivably accessible in Bach’s time, of which we do not find specimens carefully copied in his own handwriting. On the other hand, when Bach, at the age of nineteen, became organist at Arnstadt, he found Lübeck within easy distance, and there, in October 1705, he went to hear Buxtehude, whose organ works show so close an affinity to Bach’s style that only their lack of coherence as wholes reveals to the attentive listener that with all their nobility they are not by Bach himself. Bach’s enthusiasm for Buxtehude caused him to outstay his leave by three months, and this, together with his habit of astonishing the congregation by the way he harmonized the chorales got him into trouble. But he was already too great an ornament to be lightly dismissed; and though his answers to the complaints of the authorities (every word of which makes amusing reading in the archives of the church) were spirited rather than satisfactory, and the consistorium had to add to their complaints the grave scandal of his allowing a “strange maiden” to sing in the church, Bach was able to maintain his position at Arnstadt until he obtained the organistship of St Blasius in Mühlhausen in 1707. Here he married his cousin, easily identified with the “strange maiden” of Arnstadt; and here he wrote his first great church cantatas, Aus der Tiefe, Gott ist mein König and Gottes Zeit.
Bach’s mastery of the keyboard attracted universal attention, and prevented his ever being unemployed. In 1708 he went to Weimar where his successes were crowned by his appointment, in 1714, at the age of twenty-nine, as Hofkonzertmeister to the duke of Weimar. Here the composition of sacred music was one of his most congenial duties, and the great cantata, Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss, was probably the first work of his new office. In 1717 Bach visited Dresden in the course of a concert tour, and was induced to challenge the arrogant French organist, J. Louis Marchand, who was making himself thoroughly disliked by the German musicians who could not deny his powers. Bach was first given an opportunity of listening secretly to Marchand’s playing, then a competition on the organ was proposed, and a day was fixed for the tournament at which all the court and all the musical celebrities of the town were to be present, to see nothing less than the issue between French and German music. Marchand took up the challenge contemptuously, but it would appear that he also was allowed to listen secretly to Bach’s playing, for on the day of the tournament the only news of him was that he had left Dresden by the earliest coach.
This triumph was followed by Bach’s appointment as Kapellmeister to the duke of Cöthen, a post which he held from 1717 to 1723. The Cöthen period is that of Bach’s central instrumental works, such as the first book of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier, the solo violin and violoncello sonatas, the Brandenburg concertos, and the French and English suites.
In 1723, finding his position at Cöthen uninspiring for choral music, he removed to Leipzig, where he became cantor of the Thomasschule, being still able to retain his post as visiting Kapellmeister at Cöthen, besides a similar position at Weissenfels. His wife had died in 1720, leaving seven children, of whom Friedermann and Philipp Emanuel had a great future before them. (For his sons see Bach, K. P. E., below.) In December 1721 Bach married again, and for the beautiful soprano voice of his second wife he wrote many of his most inspired arias. She was a great help to him with all his work, and her musical handwriting soon became so like his own that her copies are difficult to distinguish from his autographs. In 1729 Bach heard that Handel was for a second time visiting Halle on his way back to London from Italy. A former attempt of Bach’s to meet Handel had failed, and now he was too ill to travel, so he sent his son to Halle to invite Handel to Leipzig; but the errand was not successful, and much to Bach’s disappointment he never met his only compeer. Bach so admired Handel that he made a manuscript copy of his Passion nach Brockes. This work, though almost unknown in England then as now, was, next to the oratorios of Keiser, incomparably the finest Passion then accessible, as Graun’s beautiful masterpiece, Der Tod Jesu, was not composed until four years after Bach’s death. The disgusting poem of Brockes (which was set by every German composer of the time) was transformed by Bach with real literary skill as the groundwork of the non-scriptural numbers in his Passion according to St John.
All Bach’s most colossal achievements, such as the Passion according to St Matthew and the B Minor Mass (for discussion of which see Oratorio and Mass), date from his cantorship at Leipzig. But, important and congenial as was his position there, and smooth as the course of his life seems to have been until his death in 1750, he must have had quite as much experience as can have been good for him. He was often ruffled by the town councillors of Leipzig, who (like his earlier employers at Arnstadt) were shocked by the “unecclesiastical style” of his compositions and by his independent bearing. But he had more serious troubles. Of his seven children by his first wife only three survived him. By his second wife he had thirteen children, of whom he lost four of the six sons. For the head of so large a family his post was dignified rather than lucrative, and few documents tell a prouder tale of uncomplaining thrift than the inventory of his possessions made after his death. One can only be thankful that he did not live to see anything but the wonderful promise of his son Friedermann, who, in the words of the brilliantly successful K. Philipp Emanuel Bach, was more nearly capable of replacing his father than all the rest of the family together. The prospect of complete loss of the tradition of his own polyphonic art he faced with equanimity, saying of the new style, which in the hands of his own son, Philipp Emanuel, was soon to eclipse it for the next hundred years, “The art has advanced to great heights: the old style of music no longer pleases our modern ears.” But it would have broken his heart if he had forseen that Friedermann Bach was to attain a disreputable old age after a dissolute and unproductive life.
The brilliant successes of Philipp Emanuel led to his appointment as court-composer to the king of Prussia and hence, in 1747, to Sebastian’s being summoned to visit Frederick the Great at Potsdam, an incident which Bach always regarded as the culmination of his career, much as Dr Johnson regarded his interview with George III. Bach had to play on the numerous newly invented pianofortes of Silbermann which the king had bought, and also to try the organs of the churches of Potsdam. Frederick, whose musical reputation rested on a genuine if narrow basis, gave him a splendid theme on which to extemporize; and on that theme Bach afterwards wrote Das musikalische Opfer. Two years after this event his sight began to fail, and before long he shared the fate of Handel in becoming perfectly blind.
Bach died of apoplexy on the 28th of July 1750. His loss was deplored as that of one of the greatest organists and clavier players of his time. Of his compositions comparatively little was known. At his death his MS. works were divided amongst his sons, and many of them have been lost; only a small fraction of his greater works was recovered when, after the lapse of nearly a century, the verdict of his neglectful posterity was reversed by the modern upholders of polyphonic art. Even now some important works are still apparently irrecoverable.
The rediscovery of Bach is closely connected with the name of Mendelssohn, who was amongst the first to proclaim by word and deed the powers of a genius too gigantic to be grasped by three generations. By the enthusiastic endeavours of Mendelssohn, Schumann and others, Work and influence.and in England still earlier by the performances and publications of Wesley and Crotch, the circle of Bach’s worshippers rapidly increased. In 1850, a century after his death, a society was started for the correct publication of all Bach’s remaining works. Robert Franz, the great song-writer, did good service in arranging some of Bach’s finest works for modern performance, until the experience of a purer scholarship could prove not only the possibility but the incomparably greater beauty of a strict adherence to Bach’s own scoring. The Porson of Bach-scholarship, however, is Wilhelm Rust (grandson of the interesting composer of that name who wrote polyphonic suites and fantasias early in the 19th century). During the fourteen years of his editorship of the Bach-Gesellschaft he displayed a steadily increasing insight into Bach’s style which has never since been rivalled. In more than one case he has restored harmonies of priceless value from incomplete texts, by means of research and reasoning which he sums up in a modest footnote that reads as something self-evident. His prefaces to the Bach-Gesellschaft volumes are perhaps the most valuable contributions to the criticism of 18th-century music ever written, Spitta’s great biography not excepted. Bach’s importance in the history of music cannot be exaggerated. His art, neglected as old-fashioned and crabbed by his younger contemporaries, survived only in certain limited aspects as the subject of a desultory and unintelligent academic study, until its re-discovery by Mendelssohn. And yet, whatever disguise may have been foisted on it by corrupt traditions and ignorance of its idioms, whenever any fragment of it gained the inner ear of a true composer the effect on the history of music was immediate and profound. Indeed his influence is by no means chiefly manifested in the time when his work became known in its larger aspects, though the Bach-revival is very obviously connected with certain tendencies in the “Romantic” movement in music. But, however clear we may consider Bach’s claim to the title of “the first of Romanticists,” the full influence of his whole work has hardly yet begun to show itself. Schumann died before even such enthusiasts as the editors of the Bach-Gesellschaft began to find more beauty than extravagance in Bach’s ordinary musical language (see, for example, Hauptmann’s letters passim, The Letters of a Leipzig Cantor, trans. by A. D. Coleridge, London, Novello, Ewer, 1892), or, indeed, to grasp the main features of his designs. The labours of the Bach-Gesellschaft have occupied more than fifty years, during which about four-fifths of Bach’s choral works have been published for the first time; and it would be surprising if another fifty years sufficed to make these adequately known to the world at large. It is difficult to make an anthology of such bulky works as church-cantatas, nor does an anthology meet the purpose where the whole work so constantly attains that excellence for which the anthologist seeks. Except for practical difficulties (as when Bach writes for obsolete instruments) the only reason why some cantatas are better known than others is that a beginning must be made somewhere. Indeed, a cantata was recently selected, on the ground of its popularity, for a choral competition in a small English country town the year before it was performed as a novelty in Berlin!
It is clear, then, that the influence of Bach’s art as an understood whole is still undeveloped. In the past history of music his part was hardly suspected except by the great composers themselves; and, to any one contemplating the art of the generation after him, it might have seemed that both he and Handel had worked in vain. Yet his was the most subtle and universal force in the development of music, even when his musical language seemed hopelessly forgotten. Mozart, when rapidly advancing to the height of his mastery, had but to read the Baron von Swieten’s manuscript copies of the motets and of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier, and his style, quite apart from his immediate essays in the old art-forms, and apart also from the influence of his study of Handel, developed a new polyphonic richness and depth of harmony which steadily increased until his untimely death. Beethoven studied all the accessible works of Bach profoundly, and frequently quoted them in his sketch-books, often with a direct bearing on his own works. His rendering of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier is said to be recorded in the marks of expression and tempo given in Czerny’s edition; and if that record is true, Beethoven must have been completely in the dark as to Bach’s meaning in many important respects; but art is full of such illustrations of the way in which great minds influence each other in spite of every barrier which diversity of language and time can set. Beethoven’s great Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli were actually described in the publisher’s puff as worthy of their kinship with the “Goldberg Variations” of Bach; and that kinship is revealed in its truest light by a comparison between Beethoven’s 31st variation and Bach’s 25th; for here, just where the resemblance is most obvious, each composer utters his most intimate expression of feeling.
In the same way, Chopin is nowhere more characteristic than where he shows his love of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier in his Études and Preludes; and so subtle is the influence of polyphonic style even over a writer so little apt to make direct use of it as Chopin, that one of Schumann’s few plagiarisms occurs in his use of a phrase from Chopin’s F minor Étude (written for the Méthode des méthodes) as the subject of a fugue (Op. 72, No. 3). And, apart from fugues, which Schumann cultivated assiduously at a late stage in his career, the influence of Bach pervades the texture and rhythm of his work in more ways than can easily be followed.
In a more external, but not less significant way, the Passion according to St Matthew made its mark on Mendelssohn from the time when he discovered it at the age of twelve, and suggested to him many features in the general design of oratorios, by means of which he rescued that branch of art from the operatic influences that ruined Beethoven’s Mount of Olives. Without the example of Bach, Wagner’s schemes of Leitmotif would never in his lifetime have become woven into that close polyphonic texture which secures for his music a flow as continuous as that of drama itself:—and intimately connected with this is the whole subject of Wagner’s harmonization, which in many of its boldest characteristics was foreshadowed by Bach. A close study of the texture of Brahms’s work shows that he develops Bach’s and Beethoven’s artistic devices pari passu, and that the result is a complete unification of that opposition between polyphony and form which in the infancy of the sonata (as in every transitional stage in musical history) threatened to wreck the art as a false antithesis wrecks a philosophy. Perhaps the only great composers who escaped the direct influence of Bach are Gluck and Berlioz. Even Gluck reproduced in every detail of harmony and figure the first twelve bars of the Gigue of Bach’s B flat Clavier-Partita in the aria “Je t'implore et je tremble” in Iphigénie en Tauride. But plagiarism, however unconscious, is a very different thing from that profound indebtedness which makes a great man attain his truest originality; and Gluck’s training practically deprived him of Bach’s direct influence, useful as that would have been to the attainment of his aims in harmonic and choral expression. The indirect influence no one could escape, for whatever in modern music is not traceable to Sebastian Bach is traceable to his sons, who were encouraged by their father in the cultivation of those infant art-forms which were so soon to dazzle the world into the belief that his own work was obsolete.
Bach’s place in music is thus far higher than that of a reformer, or even of an inventor of new forms. He is a spectator of all musical time and existence, to whom it is not of the smallest importance whether a thing be new or old, so long as it is true. It is doubtful whether even the forms most peculiar to him (such as the arpeggio-prelude) are of his invention. Yet he left no form as he found it,—not even that most conventional of all, the Da Capo Aria, which he did not outwardly alter in the least. On the other hand, with every form he touched he said the last word. All the material that could be assimilated into a mature art he vitalized in his own way, and he had no imitators. The language of music changed at his death, and his influence became all-pervading just because he was not the prophet of the new art, but an unbiassed seeker of truth. Whether so great a man becomes “progressive” or “reactionary” depends on the artistic resources of his time. He will always work at the kind of art that is most complete and consistent in all its aspects. The same spirit of truthfulness that makes Sebastian Bach hold himself aloof from the progressive art which he encourages in his sons, drives Beethoven to invent new forms and new means of expression with every work he writes. Gluck abolished the Da Capo Aria, because it was unfit for dramatic music. Bach did not abolish it, because he did not intend to write dramatic music in the strict sense of the term. Mature musical art in Bach’s time could not be dramatic, except in the loose sense in which the term may be applied to an epic poem. Dramatic expression, properly so called, can only be attained in music by the full development of resources that do not blend with those of Bach’s art at all. Meanwhile there are many things unsuitable for the stage which are nevertheless valuable on purely musical grounds; and the Da Capo Aria was one. Bach developed it in a great variety of ways, while retaining even the minor details of what in other hands had long before become its conventional form; but the one thing he did not do was to abuse it according to time-honoured custom as the staple form for opera. For that he had too much dramatic insight. His treatment of other important art-forms is illustrated in the articles on Contrapuntal Forms; Concerto and Instrumentation. Here we may attempt to illustrate his methods by such forms and characteristics as cannot be classified under those headings.
1. The toccatas of Buxtehude and his predecessors show how an effective musical scheme may be suggested by running over the keyboard of an organ as if to try (toccare) the touch, then bursting out into sustained and full harmony, and at last settling down to a fugue. But Illustrations of Bach’s method.before Bach no one seemed able to keep the fugue in motion long enough to make a convincing climax. Very soon it collapsed and the process of quasi-extemporization began again, to culminate in a new fugue which often gave the whole work a happy but deceptive suggestion of organic unity by being founded on an ingenious variation of the subject of the first fugue. But in Bach’s hands the toccata becomes one of the noblest and most plastic of forms. The introductory runs may be disjointed and exaggerated to grotesqueness, until the gaps between them gradually fill out, and they build themselves up into grand piles of musical architecture, as in the organ toccata in C; or they may be worked out on an enormous scale in long and smooth canonic passages with a definite theme, as in the greatest of all toccatas, that in F for organ, which is most artistically followed by a fugue unusually quiet for its size. In one instance, the toccata at the beginning of the E minor clavier-partita, the introductory runs, though retaining much of the extempore character from which the form derives its name, take shape in a highly organized and rounded-off group of contrasted themes. The fugue follows without change of time, and is developed in so leisurely a manner that it is fully as long as a normal fugue on a large scale by the time it reaches what sounds like its central episode. At this point some of the introductory matter quietly enters, and leads to a recapitulation of the whole introduction in the key now reached. The obvious sequel would be a counter-development of the fugue, at least as long as what has gone before, as in the clavier-toccata in C minor; but Bach does not choose to weary the hearer and weaken the impression of breadth he has already made here. Instead, he expands this restatement of the introduction, and makes its harmonies deliberately return to the fundamental key, and thus in an astonishingly short time the toccata is brought to a close with the utmost effect of climax and finality. The same grasp of all the possible meanings of an artistic device shows itself in his treatment of the other features of toccata form. With his variety of proportion and flow he has no need to break off the fugue like earlier composers: but all the old devices by which the division into sections was managed are turned to account by him, and almost every toccata has its own scheme of contrasted movements, always based on the old natural idea of the growth of an organized music from a chaos of extemporization.
If this is Bach’s treatment of a comparatively small and specialized art-form, it is obviously impossible to reduce the scantiest account of the rest of his work into practical limits here, nor is there as yet a sufficient body of accepted criticism of Bach for such an account to carry further conviction than an expression of individual opinion. Fortunately, however, Bach was constantly re-arranging his own compositions; indeed he evidently regards adaptability to fresh environment as the test of his finest work: and we cannot do better than review the evidence thus given to us,—evidence which only Beethoven’s sketch-books surpass in significance.
2. The successful transplanting of a work of art to a fresh environment is obviously a convincing test of our definitions of the art-forms concerned, if only we take care to distinguish between the alterations produced by the change of environment and those that imply the composer’s dissatisfaction with the original version. In Bach’s case this seldom causes much difficulty; his methods of adaptation are so logical and so varied as to form a scheme of musical morphology with all the interest and none of the imperfections of the geological record; and the few cases in which a work owes its changes to the need for improvement as well as adaptation cause no confusion, but rather form a link between the pure adaptations and the numerous revisions of his favourite works without change of medium. There is, for example, no difficulty in separating the element of corrective criticism from that of the impulse to give an already successful composition a larger or more permanent form, in such cases as the transformations undergone by the movements of the birthday cantata, Was mir behagt ist nur die muntre Jagd, during their distribution among the church cantatas, Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt and Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg. The fine bass aria, “Ein Fürst ist seines Landes Pan,” was obviously ill-proportioned, with its breakneck return to the tonic and its perfunctory close; and Bach’s chief concern in adapting it for its place as the aria, “Du bist geboren mir zu Gute,” in Also hat Gott, was to remedy this defect. On the other hand, the use of the delightful ritornello for violoncello from the little aria, “Weil die wollenreichen Heerden,” in the birthday cantata, and the restoration of the rejected long instrumental fugato that was to follow, were obviously brought about by the conception of the entirely new material for the voice in the famous aria, “Mein gläubiges Herze.” And when the last chorus of Was mir behagt became the first chorus of Man singet mit Freuden, it was expanded to the proportions necessary for a triumphant opening (as distinguished from a cheerful finale) by the adroit insertion of new material between every joint in the design. This material, being new, could not produce the effect of diffuseness that would result from the expansion of the old material already complete in its simplest form, and thus this instance does not imply criticism.
A highly interesting example of pure self-criticism is the Passion according to St John, which was twice revised, and each time reduced to a smaller scale by the omission of some of its finest numbers. The final result was a work of perfect proportions, and of the rejected numbers one (a magnificent aria with chorale) remained unused, two were replaced by finer substitutes, others took shape as one of the most complete and remarkable of the church cantatas, Du wahrer Gott, while the greatest of the figured chorales was transferred to the Passion according to St Matthew, of which it now crowns the first part.
3. Such instances of self-criticism might be paralleled in the works of other composers; but there is no parallel in music to Bach’s power of reproducing already perfect works in different media. Here Bach reveals to us identities in difference which we should otherwise never have suspected. Of course it is possible to arrange works in different ways without illustrating any profound identities at all. Handel, for instance, collected several of his favourite choruses in an enormous instrumental concerto (see vol. 46 of the Händel-Gesellschaft), and the result in the case of a chorus like “Lift up your Heads” was ridiculous. Bach, however, does not arrange old work merely to please a court where it was already admired. He never leaves it in a state of mere make-shift, though he cannot always attain his evident aim of a new originality. His methods of orchestration and the profoundly significant identity of certain forms of chorus with certain concerto forms may better be described under their proper headings (see articles Instrumentation and Concerto). Here we will attempt first to show, by illustrations of Bach’s power of adding parts to already complete harmonic and contrapuntal schemes, what was his conception of the nature of an art-form, and secondly, by means of a short analysis of cases in which he adapts the same music to different words, to define his range of expression.
Bach arranged all his violin concertos for clavier, including two that are lost in the original version. Here his power of providing new and apparently necessary material for the left hand of the cembalist (or, in the double concertos, two left hands) without disturbing the already complete score, is astonishing; and it fails only in the slow movements, which he prefers to leave obviously in the condition of an arrangement rather than to spoil their broad cantabile style by a too polyphonic bass.
But these cases are insignificant compared with such transformations as that of the prelude of the E major partita for unaccompanied violin into the sinfonia for organ obligato accompanied by full orchestra (including three trumpets and a pair of drums) at the beginning of the church cantata, Wir danken dir, Gott. The original version is perhaps the most complete and natural of the violin solos, for its arpeggios produce full harmony without recourse to that constant attempt to play on all four strings at once, which makes the performance of the polyphonic movements a tour de force in which steady rhythm is nearly impossible. Yet in the sinfonia its proportions seem to reveal themselves for the first time. Not a bar is displaced and not a note of the new accompaniment is unnecessary. The whole is almost entirely without themes; for even this, the largest of all arpeggio-preludes, consists essentially of the gradual unfolding of a scheme of harmony in which rhythmic and melodic organization is reduced to a minimum. Only in the first line does the incisive initial figure persist a little longer in the new accompaniment than in the original solo, but on the last page it reappears and pervades the whole orchestra, even the drums thundering out its rhythm at the climax where the holding-notes of the trumpet span the torrent of harmony like a rainbow.
Deeper still is the thought that underlies the transformation of two movements of the great violin-concerto in D minor (unfortunately lost except in its splendid arrangement for clavier) into parts of the church cantata, Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen. In both movements the violin is replaced by the organ an octave lower, the orchestral accompaniment remaining where it was. This treatment, with the addition of new and plaintive parts for wind instruments, turns the already very long and sombre first movement into an impressive idealization of the “much tribulation” that lies between us and the kingdom of heaven. The slow movement is still more solemn, and is arranged in the same way as regards the instruments; but from the first note to the last a four-part chorus sings, to the words of the title, a mass of quite new material (except for the bass and for numerous imitations of the solo-part), treated with every variety of vocal colouring and a grandeur of conception which is not dwarfed even by the Passion according to St Matthew.
4. The four short masses, the Christmas oratorio and the B minor mass, contain every variety of adaptation from earlier work. The four short masses are indeed obviously compiled for use in a church where the orchestra was small. Only four movements in the whole collection are not traceable to other extant works; all the rest comes from church cantatas. The adaptations are not always significant; no attempt, for example, is made in the G minor mass to conceal how unfit for a Kyrie eleison is the tremendous denunciatory chorus, Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben. But the F major and G major masses are very instructive; and the A major mass, except for the damage done to the instrumentation, is a work that no one would conceive to be not original. The Kyrie is one of Bach’s most individual utterances and could surely never have fitted any other text, but we should say the same of the Gloria if we did not possess the church cantata, Halt im Gedächtniss. The Gloria begins with a triumphant polyphonic chorus accompanied by a spirited symphony for strings. At the words “et in terra pax” the time changes, and two flutes softly accompany a single solemn melody in the altos. At the “laudamus te” the material of the beginning returns, and is interrupted again by the calm slow movement, this time in another key and for another voice, at the words “adoramus te.” Twice the “laudamus” and “adoramus” alternate in a finely proportioned design; at last the words “gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam” are set for the full chorus to the music of the slow movement, the strings join with the flutes, and this most appropriate setting of those words is finished. And yet it is quite impossible to regard this as superseding the last chorus of Halt im Gedächtniss. Not one bar or harmony of the framework differs; yet the two versions are two independent works of art. In the cantata the beginning is for instruments only; when the slow movement (here adequately scored for a flute and two oboe d' amore) begins, the basses, permanently separated from the rest of the chorus, sing “Peace be unto you.” The other voices then sing the triumph of the faithful helped by the Saviour in their battle against the world. The slow movement is, of course, set for bass alone throughout, and at the last recurrence of the allegro the bass continues to sing “Friede sei mit euch” through the rest of the chorus, as if leading the chorus of humanity through strife to the kingdom of heaven, and then the single voice of peace remains to the end. Hardly a bar of the chorus-material is on the same themes in the two versions.
The study of the sources of the Christmas oratorio will complete the evidence on which we support our estimate of Bach’s methods and range of expression. It is certain that the occasional cantatas, from which all except the chorale-tune numbers and those set to words from the Bible were taken, date from shortly before the oratorio; and that Bach, being incapable of putting inferior work even into birthday odes, rescued it from oblivion by having the verses for the oratorio numbers built on the same rhythms as those of the odes in order that he might use those occasional works as a sketch (see B.-G., Jahr. xxxiv. preface). Be this as it may, the alterations are confined to details even where an aria is transposed a fourth or fifth; but the effect of them is startling. Pleasure (Wollust) sings a lovely soprano aria to allure Hercules from the paths of Virtue, to which Hercules replies indignantly with an aria in a spirited staccato style. It is no doubt a shock to our feelings to find that Wollust’s aria became the Virgin’s cradle-song, while Hercules’s reply became the alto aria in which Zion is bidden to “prepare for the Bridegroom.” But it does not warrant the inference that Bach’s music lacks definite characterization: on the contrary, these two arias are the best demonstration of his profound insight into the possibilities of musical expression within his range. It is no part of his conception of art that Wollust should be represented by a Wagnerian Venusberg-music; the obvious way to represent Pleasure was by writing pleasant music, and with Bach’s ideas of pleasance the step from this to the solemn beauty of the sacred cradle-song was a mere matter of change of colour and tempo. The key is lowered from B flat to G, the strings are veiled with the tender reed tone of a group of oboe d' amore, the soprano becomes an alto whose notes are, as it were, surrounded with a nimbus by being doubled in the upper octave by a flute; and the aria becomes worthy of its new purpose, not by losing a grossness which it never possessed, but by gaining the richness which distinguishes the perfect work from the boldly executed draft.
As to the aria of Hercules the change is in manner, while the character, in the human sense of the term, is quite rightly the same. Both Hercules and the faithful Christian of the oratorio are renouncing pomps and vanities for the claims of a higher life; in the one case indignantly, in the other case inspired “mit zärtlichem Triebe.” A change to a legato style, the substitution of a single oboe d' amore for tutti violins, the addition of delicate ornaments indicative of a slower pace, and the noble stream of melody preserve its identity while changing its aspect. Bach’s larger designs react on their changing contents as a cathedral reacts on the impressiveness of the rites performed within it, or as nature reacts on a poet’s thoughts; and in the same way Bach’s melody is greater than any possible mood of the moment, not because of that vague and negative pseudo-classical quality misnamed “reserve,” but because of its vital individuality. In their proper directions its changes are limitless; elsewhere change is inconceivable. No amount of “Umarbeitung” could, for instance, turn the aria of Hercules into the Virgin’s cradle-song, or Wollust’s aria into the exhortation of Zion to prepare for the Bridegroom. In short, Bach’s melodies are characteristic, not like a mask with a set expression, but like a living face that is the more individual for the mobility of its features. Within these limits, that is, short of dramatic expression in just so far as “the end of drama is not character but action,” there is nothing good that Bach’s art does not express. He has plenty of humour, if the term may be applied to art which is, so to speak, always literal,—art in which a jest is a jest and serious things are treated with familiar directness, and all, whether in jest or earnest, is primarily beautiful. In Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan Bach answers the critics who censured him for his pedantry and provincial ignorance of the grand Italian operatic style, by making effective use of that style in Pan’s prize-aria (“Zum Tanze, zum Sprunge, so wack-ack-ack-ackelt das Herz”), nobly representing his own style in Phoebus’s aria, and promptly caricaturing it in the second part of Pan’s (“Wenn der Ton zu mühsam klingt”). Midas votes for Pan—“denn nach meinen beiden Ohren singt er unvergleichlich schön.” At the word “Ohren” the violins give a pianissimo “hee-haw” which is fully as witty in its musical aptness as Mendelssohn’s clown-theme in the Overture to the Midsummer Night’s Dream; and in the ensuing dialogue their prophecy is verified. As with many other great artists, Bach’s playfulness occasionally showed itself inconveniently where little things shock little minds. The hilarious aria, “Ermuntre dich,” in the church cantata, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, is one instance, and the quaint representation of the words “dimisit inanes” in the Magnificat is another. This great work, one of the most terse and profound things Bach ever wrote, contains, among many other subtle inspirations, one conception with which we may fitly end our survey, for it strongly suggests Bach himself and the destiny of all that work which he finished so lovingly, with no prospect of its becoming more than a family heirloom and a salutary tradition in his Leipzig choir-school. In the Magnificat he sets the words “quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae” to a touchingly appropriate soprano solo accompanied by his favourite oboe d'amore. With the next sentence “ecce enim beatam me dicent” the tone brightens to a quiet joy, but Bach takes advantage of the syntax of the Latin in a way that defies translation, and the sentence is finished by the chorus. “Omnes generationes” seem indeed to pass before us in the crowded fugue which rises in perpetual stretto, the incessant entries of its subject now mounting the whole scale, each part a step higher than the last, and now collecting in unison with a climax of closeness and volume overwhelming in its impression of time and multitude.
SUMMARY OF BACH’S WORKS
No attempt is here made at chronological sequence. The changes in Bach’s style, though clear and important, are almost impossible to describe in untechnical language; nor are they of such general interest as to make it worth while to expand this summary by an attempt to apportion its contents among the Arnstadt-Mühlhausen period, the Weimar period, the Cöthen period (chiefly remarkable for instrumental music and comparatively uninteresting in its easy-going choral music), and the last period (1733–1750) in which, while the choral works became at once more numerous and more terse (e.g. Jesu, der du meine Seele) the instrumental music, though never diffuse, shows an increasing preference for designs on a large scale. (Compare, for example, the second book of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier, 1744, with the first, 1722.)
A. With Orchestra
190 church cantatas: besides several which are only known from fragmentary sets of parts. Of the 190, 40 are for solo voices, about 60 (including some solo cantatas) are more or less founded on chorales, and the rest, though almost invariably containing a chorale (for congregational singing), are practically short oratorios and frequently so entitled by Bach himself.
3 wedding cantatas: the Easter oratorio (exactly like the above-mentioned oratorio-cantatas; and the Christmas oratorio (six similar cantatas forming a connected design for performance on six separate days).
The Passions according to St Matthew and St John.
Funeral ode for the Duchess Eberhardine (now known to be arranged from portions of the lost Passion according to St Mark).
4 short masses (i.e. Kyrie and Gloria only) mainly compiled from church cantatas.
Mass in B minor. Magnificat in D. A few other ecclesiastical Latin choruses.
B. Without Orchestra
5 motets a capella (but there is reason to believe that these, except Komm Jesu komm, were intended to be partly supported by the organ). A sixth motet has an obligato figured-bass accompaniment.
A few early choruses, mostly turned to account in later works.
A large collection of plain chorales, including several original melodies.
II.—Secular Vocal Music
Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan and Der zufrieden gestellte Aeolus; both entitled Dramma per Musica, but showing no more essential connexion with the stage than Handel’s Acis and Galatea.
7 solo and 7 choral cantatas, of which latter three were almost entirely absorbed into the Christmas oratorio and the B minor mass. Of the solo cantatas two are Italian (one of these being Bach’s only developed work for voice and clavier) and two are burlesque.
Several tunes with clavier bass, almost foreshadowing the modern song.
7 clavier concertos arranged from violin concertos and other sources.
3 concertos for two claviers (two being arranged from concertos for two violins).
2 concertos for three claviers.
The 6 Brandenburg concertos, for various combinations.
2 violin concertos, and a colossal torso of a concerted violin-movement forming the prelude to a lost church cantata.
1 concerto for two violins.
4 orchestral suites. (The symphony in F in the same volume of the B. G. is only an earlier version of the first Brandenburg concerto.)
B. Chamber Music
3 sonatas for clavier and flute; a suite and 6 sonatas for clavier and violin, 3 for clavier and viola da gamba; 2 trios with figured bass; 2 flute-sonatas and a violin suite with figured bass; 6 sonatas (i.e. 3 sonatas and 3 partitas) for violin alone; 6 suites for violoncello alone.
C. Clavier and Organ Music
Bach’s own collections are:—
1. Das wohltemperirte Klavier for clavichord: two books each containing 24 preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key; with the object of stimulating tuning by “equal temperament” instead of sacrificing the euphony of remoter keys to that of the more usual ones.
2. Klavier-Übung (chiefly for harpsichord) in four books comprising: (i.) 15 two-part inventions and 15 three-part symphonies, (ii.) 6 partitas, (iii.) The “Goldberg” variations. 4 duets, and an important collection of organ choral-preludes, with the “St Anne” prelude and fugue in E flat, (iv.) The Italian concerto and French overture.
3. The 6 “French” and 6 “English” suites.
The other clavier works fill two Jahrgänge of the B.-G.
Bach’s collections of organ music are (besides that included in the third part of the Klavier-Übung):—(1) 6 sonatas. (2) 4 groups of 6 organ preludes and fugues. (3) Das Orgelbüchlein, a collection of short choral-preludes carefully planned—all the blank pages of the autograph being headed with the titles of the chorales intended for them—but not half executed. (The projected whole would have been a larger volume than the Wohltemperirtes Klavier). (4) 18 larger chorale-preludes, including Bach’s last composition. (5) The 6 “Schübler” chorales, all arranged from movements of cantatas.
Besides these there are the three great independent toccatas and the Passacaglia. The remaining choral-preludes fill one Jahrgang, and the other organ works two more.
Two important instrumental works cannot be classified, viz. Das musikalische Opfer, the volume of compositions (two great fugues, various puzzle-canons, and a splendid trio for flute, violin and figured bass) on the theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great; and Die Kunst der Fuge, a progressive series of fugues on one and the same subject, written in open score as if entirely abstract studies, but all (except the extreme contrapuntal tours de force) in admirable clavier style and of great musical value.
J. N. Forkel’s statement that Bach wrote 5 Jahrgänge of church cantatas (i.e. enough to provide one for each Sunday and holy day for five years) would indicate that some 80 are lost, but there is reason to believe that this is a great exaggeration. Not more than six or seven cantatas are known to be lost, by the evidence of fragments, text-books, &c.
Forkel also says that Bach wrote five Passions. Besides the great Matthew and John Passions there is in an indisputable Bach autograph one according to St Luke; but it is so worthless that the best plea for its authenticity offered by responsible critics is that only a personal interest could have induced Bach to make a copy of it.
The lost Passion according to St Mark must, judging by the movements preserved in the Trauer-Ode, have been larger than that according to St John.
Was there a genuine Lucas-Passion? If so, Forkel’s report of five Passions would be explained. Several lost secular works are partly preserved in those portions of the Christmas oratorio of which the sources are not definitely known, but which, like the other duplicated numbers, are fair copies in the autograph.
Three violin concertos and one for two violins; known only from the wonderful clavier versions.
Most of the first movement of the A major sonata for clavier and flute which was written in the spare staves at the bottom of a larger score. Some of these have been cut off.
V.—Arrangements of Works by other Composers
Arrangements for harpsichord alone of 16 concertos, generally described as by Vivaldi, but including several by other composers.
4 Vivaldi concertos arranged for organ.
Many of these arrangements contain much original matter, such as entirely new slow movements, large cadenzas, &c.
Concerto in A minor for 4 claviers and orchestra, from Vivaldi’s B minor concerto for 4 violins. This, though the most faithful to its original, is the richest and most Bach-like of all these arrangements, and is well worth performing in public.
2 sonatas from the Hortus Musicus of Reinken, arranged for clavier. (The ends of the slow movements are Bach.)
Finishing touches to cantatas by his uncle Johann Ludwig Bach. Also a very characteristic complete “Christe eleison” inserted in Kyrie of Johann Ludwig’s.
VI.—Doubtful and Spurious Works
Bach’s autographs give the name of the composer on the outside sheet only. He was constantly making copies of all that interested him; and where the outside sheet is lost, only the music itself can tell us whether it is his or not. The above-mentioned Passion according to St Luke is the chief case in point. The little music-books he and his second wife wrote for their children are full of pieces in the most various styles, and the editors of the Bach-Gesellschaft have not completely identified them, even Couperin’s well-known “Les Bergeries” escaping their scrutiny. A sonata for two claviers by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedermann, was detected by the editors after its inclusion in Jahrgang xliv. The second of the 3 sonatas for clavier and flute is extremely suggestive of Bach’s sons, but Philipp Emanuel ascribes it to his father. However, he might easily have docketed it wrongly while arranging copies of his father’s works. It has a twin brother (B.-G. ix. Anhang ii.) for which he has not vouched.
Four absurd church cantatas are printed for conscience' sake in Jahrgang xliii. More important than these, because by no means too obviously ridiculous to deceive a careless listener, is the well-known 8-part motet, Lob, Ehr' und Weisheit (blessing and glory and wisdom). A closer acquaintance shows that it is really very poor stuff; and it was finally crowned with absurdity by the discovery that its composer was a contemporary of Bach,—and that his name was Wagner.
The beautiful motet, Ich lasse dich nicht, has long been known to be by one of Bach’s uncles (Johann Christoph).
Almost the only works of Bach published during his lifetime were the instrumental collections, most of which he engraved himself. Of the church cantatas only one, Gott ist mein König (written when he was nineteen, but a very great work), was published in his lifetime.
Of modern editions that of the Bach-Gesellschaft is, of course, the only complete one. It is, inevitably, of very unequal merit. Its first editors could not realize their own ignorance of Bach’s language; their immediate admiration of his larger choruses seemed to them proof of their competence to retain or dismiss details of ornamentation, figured bass, variants between score and parts, &c., without always stopping to see what light these might shed on questions of tempo and style—especially in the arias and recitatives, which they regarded as archaic almost in direct proportion to the depth of thought really displayed in them. In the 9th Jahrgang Wilhelm Rust introduced scholarly methods, with the happiest results. The Wohltemperirtes Klavier (Jahrgang xiv.) was edited by Kroll, who also made his text accessible in the Edition Peters (which till then had only Czerny’s—an amazing result of corrupt tradition, still widely accepted). Kroll’s and Rust’s volumes are far the best in the B. G. On Rust’s death the standard deteriorated; his immediate successor seems more interested in reprinting in full an early version of a work of which Rust had given only the variants, than in digesting his own materials (Jahrgang xxix.); and in his next volume (Jahrgang xxx. p. 109) the bass and violin are a bar apart for a whole line. The last ten volumes, however, are again satisfactory, and in Jahrgang xliv. the French and English suites are re-edited. Part of the B minor mass was also worked over again; and Kroll’s text of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier was supplemented by the evidence of the British Museum autograph. The Steingräber edition of the clavier works, edited by Dr Hans Bischoff, is incomparably the best, giving all the variants in footnotes and clearly distinguishing the extremely intelligent nuances and phrasing signs of the editor from the rare but significant indications of Bach himself. Nor does this wealth of scholarship interfere with the presentation of a straightforward, single text; though in addition there is every necessary explanation of the ornaments and kindred matters.
We have seen no other editions that distinguish Bach’s text from the editor’s taste—the disappointing publications of the Neue Bachgesellschaft by no means excepted. We may remark that the older vocal scores of cantatas in the Edition Peters are, though unfortunately but a selection, far better than the complete series issued by Breitkopf and Härtel in conformity with the Bach Gesellschaft, and therefore accepted as authoritative (see Instrumentation). The English vocal scores published by Novello are generally very good though covering but small ground. The Novello score of the Christmas oratorio contains a fine analytic preface by Sir George Macfarren.
Bibliography.—J. N. Forkel, Über Bach’s Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke, translated (London, 1820); C. H. Bitter, John Sebastian Bach (Berlin, 1865); Ernest David, La Vie et les œuvres de Bach (Paris, 1882); P. Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach (Leipzig, 1873 and 1880); E. Heinrich, Sebastian Bach’s Leben (Berlin, 1885); A. Pirro, L'Esthétique de Jean Sebastian Bach (Paris, 1907); and L'Orgue de Jean Sebastian Bach (Paris, 1907); A. Schweitzer, J. S. Bach: Le Musicien poète. Spitta’s biography superseded everything written before it and has not since been approached. With corrections in the light of Rust’s B. G. prefaces it contains everything worth knowing about Bach, except the music itself. (D. F. T.)
- Spitta points out that this cannot mean singing in the choir at a service, but making music in church privately.
- The same surgeon operated unsuccessfully on both composers.
- See the wild conjectures of the editor of the Four Short Masses as to the “displacing” of structure in the kyrie of the G minor Mass (B.-G., Jahr. viii. preface, with Rust’s answer in the preface to Jahr. xxiii.).
- The object of the Neue Bachgesellschaft is to render the completed results of the first Bachgesellschaft generally accessible by holding frequent Bach festivals and issuing cheap and practical editions. The activities of this society, together with the new movement to restore Bach’s vocal music to its place in the Lutheran Church, cannot fail to have a salutary effect on the future of music.