Bach Essay, Research Paper
Bach is considered by many to have been the greatest composer in the history of westernmusic. Bach’s main achievement lies inhis synthesis and advanced development of the primary contrapuntal idiom of the lateBaroque, and in the basic tunefullness of histhematic material. He was able to successfully integrate and expand upon the harmonicand formal frameworks of the nationalschools of the time: German, French, Italian & English, while retaining a personal identityand spirit in his large output. Bach is alsoknown for the numerical symbolism and mathematical exactitude which many people havefound in his music — for this, he is oftenregarded as one of the pinnacle geniuses of western civilization, even by those who are notnormally involved with music. Bach spent the height of his working life in a Lutheran church position in Leipzig, as bothorganist and music director. Much of hismusic is overtly religious, while many of his secular works admit religious interpretationson some levels. His large output of organmusic is considered to be the greatest legacy of compositions for the instrument, and is themeasure by which all later efforts arejudged. His other solo keyboard music is held in equally high esteem, especially for itsexploration of the strictly contrapuntal fugue;his 48 Preludes & Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier) are still the primary means bywhich these forms are taught. His otherchamber music is similarly lofty, the sets for solo violin & solo cello being the summits oftheir respective genres. Bach’slarge-scale sacred choral music is also unique in its scope and development, the Passionsand B Minor Mass having led to therediscovery of his music in the 19th century. His huge output of cantatas for all occasionsis equally impressive. Finally, his largeoutput of concerti includes some of the finest examples of the period, including theubiquitous Brandenberg Concertos. ToddMcComb (6/94) JOHANN Sebastian Bach was a composer of extreme mathematical genius. He and healone perfected the system of keys andharmony that we have today after the Italian masters Arcangelo Corelli and AntonioVivaldi first moved away from the systemof modes that was employed before. He had great sense of form & structure, and sawmusic with insight from a broadperspective. A devoted Christian, he spent most of his life composing sacred music, and hebelieved that it was God who gave himthe inspiration and his talent, and it was his duty to serve him. The last of six children, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, a small town nearLepizig in Germany, on the 21st of March,1685, and christened locally at the historic Georgenkirche. His father Johann Ambrosiushad married Maria ElisabethaLammerhirt in 1668 and three years later they settled in Eisenach. At this time, JohannChristoph, who was later to become JohannSebastian’s guardian once their father had died in 1695, was born. Very little is knownnow about the first 8 years of Bach’s life,except that he did not attend school until the age of 8, when he was admitted to the localLateinschule in level 5 (Quinta). Notmuch music was taught at school, the primary curriculum being Latin grammar andReligious instructions. At school JohannSebastian’s Greek and logic would probably had been taught, but he did not have a stronginterest in those subjects, and wasshowing a preference towards theology. Most of his early musical education probablycame from home, where all of JohannAmbrosius’s children learnt music – he was a town-musician, and he taught JohannSebastian to play the violin. The Bach familyhad always been musicians, and the first Bach can be traced back to Johann Bach of 1604,so they were by no means the first, butin Johann Sebastian’s childhood he was a prodigy who showed interest and promise. Mostof his achievements was probably due tohis genius; but without this environment his works would not have been half as influential. Elsewhere in Germany, Georg Friedrich Handel was born in Halle on the 23rd of theFebruary, just 26 days before. Also in thesame year Dominico Scarlatti was born, though they are not to meet until very much later.At this time a lot of the music was stillin the early Baroque style, crisp and simple. The leading composers at the time wasClaudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell andthe Italian masters. In Theuringia, the region Bach was living in, there were not much inthe way of opera-buffs, for this brings inthe fashionable Italian influence. They were rightly proud of being the true “German”baroque – instrumental music and sacredvocal music of a thicker texture, serious tone. The advent of the chorale (German Hymn)had certainly contributed to this trend ofconservative musicians. From the very beginning Johann Sebastian was not exposed toopera, and had never studied abroad. It ispossibly for this reason he did not write a single opera for performance at a court, nor didhe ever work for the theatre during hisrelatively long lifespan. After his days at the Lateinschule, he was educated at the Eisenach Grammar School, anddid well at school, showing a stronginclination toward theology. In the early 1690s, Bach’s family had suffered heavy losses:first of all the loss of 2 of his brothers, andshortly followed by his mother. His father remarried with Barbara MargarethaBartholomaei, but he was only to pass away 3months later. At this time Bach was already a competent violinist who had taken up theviola that was to be his main stringinstrument for the rest of his life, and he had a fair knowledge of music theory. When hewas sent to Johann Christopher inOhrdruf, he was given keyboard instructions. On his arrival, he was enrolled in the thirdclass at the old Klosterschule, with thereformed timetable where geography, music and natural sciences were also taught. Severalmoves were to follow, possibly due toa lack of money on Johann Christoph’s part. He contemplated university education, butdecided against it. It was not until 1702when he was 17 he began to look for a more permanent position and started to develop hiscareer as a phallic musician. In 1703 hefound employment at the court of Weimar as a minor violinist, but was often called tosubstitute the organist which reflects hisexceptional abilities. At the time of Bach, the society was very much based on the “Lord of the Manor”concept, even in Germany. Musicians were aspecial sort of servant, who also had to be faithful to their masters and had to wearuniform at work. If one was born in aparticular province, and the land happened to belong to the local Duke, one was to be hisservant. Although the servants aregenerally fairly well looked after, there was still little freedom, and one could not changetrade easily. In 1703, after testing the new organ in the church of St Boniface of Arnstadt, 20 milessouth-west of Weimar, he was invited tobecome the organist and choirmaster there with a good salary. He was allowed to test theorgan as he had family connexion inArnstadt – a few distant relatives as well as his stepmother Barbara Margaretha. Theywere so impressed by his mastery that anappointment was made on the spot. After that he often had contracts as an organconsultant. For only an organ-master wouldknow how to adjust precisely the wind pressure and such components for the newly-builtorgan to sound best with the acoustics. In1705 he obtained a month’s leave to hear Buxtehude play and direct the famousAbendmusiken at Lubeck, returning only somemonths later. He was interested in succeeding Buxtehude as the organist there, but refusedwhen he found out that he had tomarry Buxtehude’s daughter, Anna Margaretha! Handel was known to have refused thepost for exactly the same reason. In anycase, the church council was not pleased with his late return, and the congregation dislikedthe innovation he introduced into the
services, and he soon made a move to Mahlhausen, a free-city 36 miles north-west ofArnstadt, in 1707 as an organist at thechurch of St Blasius. At Mulhausen he married Maria Barbara Bach, a second cousin, and hence carried out hisduties with energy of a prolificcomposer in his early twenties. She was the source of much of his happiness. During theyear there, he wrote a festive cantataGott ist mein Konig, (God is my shepherd, BWV 71) for the inauguration of city councilin 1708 and also various cantatas ofmoderate interest. He also wrote a great number of solo keyboard works, among themPartitas, Prelude & Fugues, and Fantasias.He acquired his fame largely through his virtuoso organ playing in secular contexts.However, the opportunities for composition andperformance is still somewhat limited. He left in June 1708 after a dispute between thefactions of orthodox Luterans and the morepuritan Pietists threatened to restrict what music could be performed there – althoughsome say that Bach did not necessarilyinvolve himself in the dispute. He accepted an invitation to be the organist and courtmusician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar.Despite the problems at Mulhausen, he remained on good terms with the employer, and in1709 returned to perform Ein’ festeBurg (BWV 720) on the newly restored organ, the building of which he had supervised. At Cothen, sacred music was unnecessary, and Bach put his energy into teaching. Duringthe Cothen period, he composed manypieces intended for teaching, which includes the 48 Well-tempered clavier (Book I) andthe two-part inventions, which wasintended for his children. He also wrote the 6 Brandenburg Concerti in the latest Italianstyle, and the four Orchestral Suites in theFrench Manner. The former was dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, and the latterfor performances at Cothen. Theorchestra at Cothen was a small and efficient unit, and he was able to purchase theinstruments he wanted, so he was able toexperiment a little with new styles. A few fun-things happened while he was at Cothen: acontest was laid on for him and LouisMarchand, the French Organist from Dresden. On the day of the duel, it was discoveredthat Marchand had left the town with themorning mail express, presumably found his ability unequal to the powerful assaults of hisopponent. While he was away in Carlsbad in 1720, his first wife died, and this seemed to have been amajor shock to him, so he applied forthe post of organist at St Jacob’s, Hamburg. However, he was turned down and thereforehe stayed at Cothen, and a year later hemarried Anna Magdalena Wilcken, the daughter of a court trumpeter there. The Princealso married two months later to a cousinof his, Princess Friederica Henrietta, who Johann Sebastian referred to as the ‘amusa’ andhas little interest in music. The weddingwas followed by 6 weeks of festivities at Cothen and no doubt he would have providedmusic for the occasion. In many ways hesaw this as his own celebration with Anna Magdalena. However, after the festival thePrince’s interest in music also declined,though this is not a overriding factor in his decision to leave Cothen, for the ‘amusa’ diedsoon after the wedding, in April 1722. Helooked elsewhere for a job, and in 1723 he was appointed Kantor at St Thomas’s Leipzig,only after Telemann and Graupner hadrefused the post because they failed to secure release from their former employers. Thisshould not be taken to mean that he wasconsidered inferior to the two; it was because his name did not appear on the initial list ofpossible candidates, and he had to laterpresent himself to the church authority. After his test performance at which he performedhis cantata Nrs. 47 & 48, the churchcouncil voted unanimously for him. Nevertheless he kept friendly relations with Cothenand he provided a funeral cantata in 1729for the death of Prince Leopold. Bach’s duties as the Kantor were a mixture of schoolmaster, director of music at severalchurches, and composer for civicoccasions. He and his pupils provided music at four churches, two of which had elaborateSunday services including a cantata onalternate Sundays. He was generally restricted to inadequate forces for a back-breakingtask. Though his appointment as Kantorwas in fact at Thomaschule, the school associated with the nearby Thomaskirche, he wasrequired to provide a great deal ofmusic in another church, the Nikolaikirche. In the first year at Leipzig, he had to write (orsometimes reworked) a cantata forevery Sunday and major festival, composing some 150 between 1723 and 1727. Many ofthese are extraordinarily difficult toperform, especially the solo parts, and they were probably given inadequately. Hecomposed the Passion according to St Johnshortly before he left Cothen, and was one of the things that was first to be heard atLeipzig, on Good Friday 1724. He probablycomposed other works which had been lost, but his finest setting, the St Matthew’sPassion was to elaborate for the taste of thecongregation and the city elders. His stay at Leipzig was not a smooth one: in 1726 he had a extended disagreement withthe local university over the way in whichthe services should be conducted, and about his Accidenten, the extra salary laid-on forspecial occasions. The new service thatthe university proposed was based on lower payment of Accidenten, and Bach preferredthe better-paid old service. Eventually heappealed to the King of Saxony, and the old service was reinstated with the correctamount of Accidenten. However, for somereason that we may never know, he did not take up the offer and from 1726 he onlyassociated himself with the university onspecial occasions. In some ways these disputes are brought on by his own ability. Gorner,the university director of music, wasextremely unhappy with the way Bach was often preferred on formal occasions, and hadrepeatedly attempted to deny him rightsto perform for the university. If it had not been his honourary title Kapellmeister von Hausaus at Cothen, he could well havebeen eliminated long ago. The title ensured that the university council had a good excuseto rule in favour of him. Bach’s energy during this period was exceptional, and he was keen to expand his activities.By 1730 he was disenchanted with thewith the conditions of St Thomas and wrote a stiff memorandum to the church authorities.They threatened to reduced his salary,so he began to look for a job elsewhere. His letter to Erdmann, an old schoolfriend fromOhrdruf, did not bring much success. Butwith his abilities he could have moved on fairly quickly. The only reason he had stayedwas because he was appointed the directorof the collegium musicum and he was able to meet intellectuals and students from the localuniversity. He is now composingfewer cantatas, and instead he turned to keyboard music, and wrote numerous harpsichordconcerti, some for more than twoharpsichords. He also wrote or revised a vast amount of Organ works, including theGoldberg variations, which was published infour volumes. In his last years Bach composed little, but he sorted out many of his earlier pieces andmade collections suitable for publication. Hepublished the second edition of the well-tempered clavier, and the B minor mass wasrevised thoroughly. He started on the Art ofFugue after his trip to Berlin, where he was received with great enthusiasm, however, hedid not live to finish the collection.Towards the end of his life he became blind, and John Taylor (Handel’s oculist) was unableto revive his eyes. A first operationrevived his eyesight a little, but a few days later a second operation was necessaryfollowed by the complete loss of sight. Onemorning in the middle of July he found his eyesight suddenly restored, but a few hourslater he was seized by a stroke, and diedlater that evening despite attention from two of the best doctors in Leizpig. He was buriedhonourably near the South door of StJohn’s Church, but the precise location of the grave was soon forgotten. It was not until1894 that his remains were exhumed andidentified; in 1950 they were transferred to their present resting-place in theThomaskirche. Anna Magdalena did not receivemuch from his will (she received one-third of all the properties, and the remainingtwo-thirds was equally shared among his ninesons.) She was rather meanly treated by the church authorities, and died of poverty in1760.