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Complete Encyclopaedia of Music/B/Bach, John Sebastian

Bach, John Sebastian, was bore on the 21st of March, 1685, at Eisenach. His father, John Ambrosius, was musician to the court and to the town, and had a twin brother, John Christopher, who was musician to the court and town of Arnstadt, and was so very like him, that even their own wives could not distinguish them, except by their dress. These twins were, perhaps, in this respect the most remarkable ever known. They tenderly loved each other; and their voice, disposition, and style of music were alike. If one was ill, the other was so likewise : they died also within a short time of each other. They were, indeed, a subject of astonishment to all who knew them. In the year 1695, when John Sebastian was not quite ten years of age, his father died ; he had lost his mother at an earlier period. Being thus left an orphan, he was obliged to have recourse to an elder brother, John Christopher, who was an organist at Ordruff. From him he received the first instructions in playing on the clavichord. But his inclination and talent for music must have been already very great, since the pieces which his brother gave him to learn were so soon in his power that he began with much eagerness to look out for some that were more difficult. The most celebrated composers for the clavichord, in those days, were Froberger, Fischer, John Gaspar Kerl, Pachelbel, Buxtehude, Bruhn, Boehm, &c. He had observed that his brother had a book, in which there were several pieces of the above-mentioned authors, and earnestly begged him to give it to him, but it was constantly denied, till his desire to possess the book was so increased by refusal, that he at length sought for means to get possession of it secretly. As it was kept in a cupboard which had only e little door, and his hands were still small enough to pass through, so that he could roll up the book, which was merely stitched in paper, and draw it out, he did not long hesitate to make use of these favorable circumstances ; but for want of a candle he could only copy it in moonlight nights, and it took six whole months before he could finish his laborious task. At length, when he thought himself safely possessed of the treasure, and was intending to make use of it in secret, his brother found it out, and task from him, without pity, the copy which had cost him so much pains ; and he did not recover it till his brother's death, which took place soon after. John Sebastian, being thus again left destitute, went, in company with one of his schoolfellows, named Erdman, afterwards Russian president in Dantzic, to Luneburg, and engaged there in the choir of St. Michael's school as a treble or soprano singer. His fine treble voice procured him here a decent livelihood ; but he soon lost his voice, and did not immediately acquire another good one. His inclination to play on the clavichord and organ was as ardent at this time as in his more early years, and impelled him to try to hear and see every thing, which, according to the ideas then entertained, would contribute to his improvement. With this view, he not only went several times, while he was a scholar, from Luneburg to Ham-burg, to hear the organist John Adam Reinken, who was at that time very famous, but some-times also to Zell, in order to get acquainted with the prince's band, which consisted chiefly of Frenchmen, and with the French taste, which was then a novelty in those parts. It is not known on what occasion he removed from Lune-burg to Weimar, but it is certain that he became court musician at the latter town in 1703, when he was just eighteen years of a He exchanged this place, however, in the following year, for that of organist to the new church at Arnstadt, probably to be able to follow his inclination for the organ better than he could do at Weimar, where he was engaged to play the violin. Here he began most zealously to make use of all the works of the organists at that time celebrated, and which he could procure in his situation, by which means he improved both in composition and the art of playing on the organ : further to gratify his desire of learning, he even made a journey on foot to Lubeck, to hear Diederich Buxtehude, organist to St. Mary's Church in that city, with whose compositions he was already acquainted. For almost a quarter of a year he remained a secret hearer of this organist, who was really a man of talent, and much celebrated in his time, and then returned with an increased stock of knowledge to Arnstadt. The effects of his zeal and persevering diligence must already have excited great attention ; for he received, in quick succession, several offers of places as organist ; among others, that of the church of St. Blasius, at Muhlhausen, which he accepted. But a year after he had entered upon it, making a journey to Weimar, to perform before the reigning duke, his playing on the organ was so highly approved of, that he was offered the situation of court organist, which he accepted. The extended sphere of action in which he here lived impelled him to exert himself to the utmost ; and it was probably during this period that he not only made himself so able a performer on the organ, but also laid the foundation of his great compositions for that instrument. He had still further occasion to improve in his art ; when his prince, in 1717, appointed him director of the concerts, in which place he had to compose and execute pieces of sacred music. Handel's master, Zachau, organist at Halle, died about this time, and J. S. Bach, whose reputation was already high, was invited to succeed him. He, in fact, went to Halle, to prove his qualifications, by performing a piece as a specimen of his skill. However, for what reason is not known, he did not enter upon the office, but left it to an able scholar of Zachau's, of the name of Kirchhof. John Sebastian Bach was now thirty-two years of age ; he had made such good use of his time, had studied, composed, and played so much, and, by his unremitting zeal and diligence, acquired such a mastery over every part of the art, that he stood like a giant, able to trample all around him into dust. He had long been regarded with admiration and wonder, not only by amateurs, but by judges of the art, when, in the year 1717, Marchand, formerly much celebrated in France as a performer on the clavichord and organ, came to Dresden, where he performed before the king, and gained such approbation, that a large salary was offered him, if he would engage in his majesty's service. Marchand's merit chiefly consisted in a very fine and elegant style of performance ; but his ideas were empty and feeble, al-most in the. manner of Couperin ; so far, at least, as may be judged by his compositions. But J. S. Bach had an equally fine and elegant style, and at the same time a copiousness of ideas, which might perhaps have made Marchand's head giddy, if he had heard it. All this was known to Volumier, at that time director of the concerts in Dresden. He knew the absolute command of the young German over his thoughts and his instrument, and wished to produce a con-test between him and the French artist, in order to give the prince the pleasure of judging of their respective merits, by comparing them himself. With the king's approbation, therefore, a message was sent to J. S. Bach, at Weimar, to invite him to this musical contest. He accepted the invitation, and immediately set out on his journey. Upon Bach's arrival in Dresden, Volumier first procured him an opportunity secretly to heal Marchand. Bach was not discouraged, but sent a polite note to the French artist, formally inviting him to a musical trial of skill ; he offered to play upon the spot whatever Marchand should set before him, but requested the same readiness on his part. As Marchand accepted the challenge, the time and place for the contest was fixed, with the king's consent. A large company of' both sexes, and of high rank, assembled in the house of Marshal Count Fleming, which was the place appointed. Bach did not make them wait long for him, but Marchand did not appear. After a long delay, they at last sent to inquire at his lodgings, and the company learned, to their great astonishment, that he had left Dresden in the morning of that day, without taking leave of any body. Bach alone, therefore, had to perform, and excited the admiration of all who heard him ; but Volumier's intention, to show a sensible and striking difference between the French and German artist, was frustrated. Bach received on this occasion praise in abundance ; but, it is said, he did not receive a present of a hundred louis d'ors, which the king had designed for him. He had not long returned to Weimar, when Prince Leopold, of Anhalt-Cothen, a great judge and lover of music, invited him to take the office of master to his chapel. He immediately entered on this situation, which he filled nearly six years ; but during this time (about 1722) took a journey to Hamburg, in order to perform on the organ there. His performance excited universal admiration. The veteran Reinken, then near a hundred years old, heard him with particular pleasure ; and in regard to the chorus, "An Wasserflussen Baby-Ions," which he varied for half an hour in the true organ style, he paid him the compliment of saying, "I thought that this art was dead, but I see that it still lives in you." Reinken himself had, some years before, composed that chorus in this manner, and had it engraved, as a work on which he set a great value. His praise, therefore, was the more flattering to Bach.

On the death of Kuhnau, in' the year 1733, Bach was appointed director of music and chanter to St. Thomas's school, at Leipsic. In this place he remained till his death. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen had a great regard for him, and Bach, therefore, left his service with regret. But the death of the prince occurring soon after, he saw that Providence had guided well. Upon this death, which greatly afflicted him, he composed. a funeral dirge, with many remarkably fine double choruses, and executed it himself at Co-then. That in his present situation he received the title of master of the chapel from the Duke of Weissenfels, and in the year 1736, the title of court composer to the King of Poland, Elector of Saxony, is of little consequence; only it is to be observed, that the last title was derived from connections in which Bach was engaged by his office of chanter in St. Thomas's school. His second son, Charles Philip Emmanuel, entered the service of Frederic the Great in 1710. The reputation of the all-surpassing skill of John Sebastian was at this time so extended, that the king often heard it mentioned and praised. This made him curious to hear so great an artist. At first he distantly hunted to the son his wish, that his father would one day come to Potsdam. But by degrees he began to ask him, directly, why his father did not come. The son could not avoid acquainting his father with these expressions of the king ; at first, however, he would not pay any attention to them, being in general too much overwhelmed with business. But the king's expressions being repeated in several of his son's letters, he at length, in 1747, prepared to take this journey, accompanied by his eldest son, William Friedemann. At this time the king had every evening a private concert, in which he himself generally performed some concertos on the flute. One evening, just as he was getting his flute ready, and his musicians were assembled, an officer brought him the list of the strangers who had arrived. With his flute in his hand he ran over the list, but immediately turned to the assembled musicians, and said, with a kind of agitation, " Gentlemen, old Bach is come." The flute was now laid aside, and old Bach, who had alighted at his son's lodgings, was immediately summoned to the palace. The king then gave up his concert for that evening, and invited Bach to try his forte-pianos, made by Silbermann, which stood in several rooms of the palace. The musicians went with him from room to room, and Bach was invited every where to play unpremeditated compositions. After he had gone on for a short time, he asked the king to give him a subject for a fugue, in order to execute it immediate-y without any preparation. The king admired the learned manner in which his subject was thus executed extempore ; and probably to see how far such art could be carried, expressed a wish to hear a fugue with six obligate parts. But, as it is not every subject that is fit for such full harmony, Bach chose one himself, and immediately executed it, to the astonishment of all present, in the same magnificent and learned manner he had done that of the king. His majesty desired also to hear his performance on the organ. The next day, therefore, Bach was taken to all the organs in Potsdam, as he had before been to Silbermann's forte-pianos. After his return to Leipsic, he composed the subject which he had received from the king, in three and six parts, added several artificial passages to it, in strict canon, and had it engraved under the title of "Musikalisches Opfer," (Musical Offering,) and dedicated it to the inventor. This was Bach's last journey. The indefatigable diligence with which, particularly in his younger years, he had frequently passed days and nights in the study of his art, had weakened his sight. This weakness continued to increase in his latter years, till at length it brought on a very painful disorder in the eyes. By the advice of' some friends, who placed great confidence in the ability of an oculist who had arrived at Leipsic from England, he ventured to submit to an operation, which twice failed. Not only was his sight now wholly lost, but his constitution, which had been hitherto so vigorous, was quite undermined by the use of, perhaps, noxious medicines. In consequence of the operation he continued to decline for full half a year, till he expired, on the evening of the 30th of July, 1750, in the sixty-sixth year of his age. On the morning of the tenth day before his death, he was suddenly able to see again, and bear the light. But a few hours afterwards he was seized with an apoplectic fit ; this was followed by an inflammatory fever, which his enfeebled frame, notwithstanding all possible medical aid, was unable to resist. Such was the life of this remark-able man. We will only add, that he was twice married ; and that he had by his first wife seven, and by the second wife thirteen children, namely, eight sons and five daughters. All the sons had admirable talents for music ; but they were not fully cultivated, except in some of the elder ones.

Concerning the performance and compositions of Bach, it certainly is true what Marpurg says, that "he was many musicians in one." "No true idea," says Kollmann, "can be formed of S. Bach's organ playing, except by hearing his works, expressly composed for the organ, per-formed in the manner in which he played them, viz., those for the full organ, on a good, large instrument, and the pedal part on a double bass stop ; those for solo stops, on as many sets of keys, with different stops, as they contain parts, and the bass part on a suitable double bass stop. And it must be observed, that, though many of Bach's pieces composed for the harpsichord also have a fine effect on a manual organ, particularly most of his forty-eight fugues in the Well-tempered Clavichord, the list of his works will show that they do not come under the denomination of his organ pieces; because they are deficient in his principal requisite for such pieces, namely, a part for obligato pedals ; and consequently their effect cannot give an idea of his organ playing, unless an obligate part for the pedals be still selected from their bass part, and performed on a double bass stop." Concerning Bach's abilities as a per-former on the harpsichord, Kollmann thus proceeds : " It might perhaps be supposed that one so familiar with the deep and heavy touches of a large organ, and with a true organ style, could not be equally great in the brilliancy, expression, and style calculated for stringed instruments.

But the nature of all his compositions for the Clavier, (harpsichord and clavichord,) as well as the unanimous testimony of all the writers on that subject, convinces us of the contrary; which is also proved by his uncontested victory over the elegant harpsichord player Marchand, mentioned before. That he must likewise have been a great performer on the violin, follows, not only from his first appointment, which was as violinist, but also, and particularly, from his solos for the violin. Again, his solos for the violoncello prove that he also had the greatest practical knowledge on that instrument." The following list of S. Bach's works is given by Kollmann : " 1. ' Clavier�bung,' part first, consisting of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabands, gigues, menuets, &c. In the Leipsic edition, this work is entitled ' Exercices pour le Clavecin.' 2. ' Clavier�bung,' part second, (Exercices pour le Clavecin,) containing a concerto in the Italian style, and an overture in the French style, for a harpsichord with two sets of keys. 3. ' Clavier�bung,' part third, (Exercices, &c.,) containing Vorspiele, or the giving out of hymns for the organ ; and four duets (pieces in two obligato parts only) for the harpsichord, which are a complete harmony through-out. 4. ' Six Chorale, (hymns,) of divers kinds, for an organ with two sets of keys and pedals.'

6. ' Clavier�bung,' part fourth, (Exercices, &c.,) containing an air with thirty variations, for a harpsichord with two sets of keys, as mentioned before. 6. ' Five Canonical Variations on the Christmas Hymn, Von Himmel hoch, ("Behold, I bring you good tidings,") for an organ with two sets of keys and pedals.' They are in divers intervals similar to those of the preceding work.

7. ' Musical Offering,' (as mentioned before,) dedicated to Frederic II., King of Prussia, consisting in a fugue ricercata in three parts, also one in six parts, for one performer, divers canons, and a trio for the German flute, (that king's favorite instrument,) with a violin and bass ; the whole composed on the subject which his majesty laid before Bach to extemporize upon. 8. ' The Art of the Fugue,' consisting in twenty-three periodical and canonical fugues, on one subject, the last with two additional subjects, and a hymn for three sets of keys and pedals. 9. ' An Hundred Hymns,' in four parts, published in two books, by his son Emmanuel Bach ; and four more books of hymns, published by Kirnberger. The following have been more recently printed : A. Works for the Harpsichord, without Accompaniments. 1. Six Preludes, for the use of beginners ; 2. Fifteen Inventions, in two parts ; 3. Fifteen Inventions, in three parts, also called Symphonies ; 4. The "Well-tempered Clavichord," parts one and two - each part consists in twenty-four preludes and fugues, being one in every major and minor key ; 5. A. Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue-this is the beautiful piece printed, with some additions of Mr. Kollmann, by Preston ; 6. A Fantasia - this is like an allegro of a sonata ; 7. Six Suites, containing preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabands, gigues, he., also called English suites ; 3. Six lesser Suites, containing allemandes, eourantes, &c., also called French suites. B. Works for the Harpsichord, with Accompaniments. 1. Six Sonatas for the harpsichord, with a violin obligato ; 2. Many single Sonatas for the harpsichord, with accompaniments for the violin, flute, viola da gamba, &c. ; 3. Concertos for the harpsichord, with numerous accompaniments; 4. Two Concertos for two harpsichords, with accompaniments for violins, tenor, and violoncello ; 5. Two Concertos for three harpsichords, with the same accompaniments, which are also concerting among themselves ; 6. A Concerto for four harpsichords, with the above accompaniments. C. Works for the Organ. 1. Grand Preludes and Fugues, for manuals and obligato pedals ; 2. Vorspiele (Preludes) on various hymns ; 3. Six Sonatas or Trios, for two manuals and obligato pedals. D. Works for Bow Instruments. 1. Six Solos for a violin, without any accompaniments - these are a most unique work ; 2. Six Solos for a violoncello, without any accompaniment-these are similar to the pre-ceding ones. E. Vocal Works. 1. Five complete annual choruses of church pieces, (like cantatas,) with recitatives, airs, and choruses, for every Sun-day and other festival ; 2. Five Passion:, among which there is one for two choirs ; 3. Many Oratorios, Masses, Magnificats, and single Sanctuses, also Pieces for Birthdays, Namedays, and Funeral Pieces ; Wedding Masses, Evening Pieces, and several Italian Cantatas ; 4. Many Motets, for one and two choirs. - N. B. Of those for two choirs there are at present only eight extant."