“The Famous Mr Bach”: Concert talk on Johann Sebastian Bach

~ Below is the text, slightly edited, of the concert talk I gave at North London Collegiate School for a Bach Concert on 8 February 2012 ~  

‘Johann Sebastian Bach belongs to a family that seems to have received a love and aptitude for music as a gift of nature to all its members in common’ is how the obituary begins for ‘The World Famous Organist, Mr Johann Sebastian Bach”. Johann Sebastian Bach, born within a month of Handel’s birth – Handel born 23 February 1685 and Bach 21 March – was often referred to as ‘the famous Mr Bach’, particularly for his organ skills. He was very proud of his musical heritage and the Bachs, along with the Couperins, were a well known clan of professional musicians. It is interesting that Bach was proud enough to compile a family tree – leaving out those who didn’t make it into a musical profession – and by the time of his death there had been seven generations of Bach musicians. It is fascinating to know that Bach achieved little recognition outside of his native Thuringia, as his son Carl Phillip Emmanual Bach notes in the obituary: ‘it would be a matter for astonishment that such excellent men should be so little known outside their native land if one did not remember that these honest Thuringians were so well satisfied with their nativeland and with their station in life that they did not even dare to wander far to seek their fortune”. Composers in the 18th century made their fame through travelling – perhaps studying abroad, and holding posts across Europe.

‘Great’ composers receive the highest accolades upon death – their skills become something super-human, and CPE Bach is nothing but proud of his father’s abilities, as he notes many of them in the obituary. All we have left know are the musical works by JSB but at the time it was his organ playing that was most revered, as his reputation as a composer declined after his death – his music being considered ‘old fashioned’ in comparison to the emerging classical styles.

He claims that Bach was the greatest organist that ever lived, and his improvisation skills; he performed his own works, as CPE writes, ‘with the greatest perfection’. He also writes that Bach was considered a fine judge of organs and mentions the ‘exacting trial’ JSB gave of a new organ built for the church near to where he would be eventually buried. ‘But despite with all this knowledge of the organ, he never enjoyed the good fortune, as he used to point out frequently with regret, of having a really large and a really beautiful organ at his constant disposal.’

In 1727 an organist heard Bach play and wrote: “I could wish that you should once hear Mr Bach on the organ, for neither you nor anyone else … could hold your head before him: I never heard anything like it, and I must completely change my whole style of playing, for it is worth nothing.” The first reference to Bach in print, in 1717, is by Johann Mattheson, and he writes: “I have seen things by the famous organist of Weimar, Mr Johann Sebastian Bach … that are certainly such as much make one esteem the man highly. He was considered a highly respected teacher, and one of his pupils writes with pride in a letter of application for an organist post in 1729 that he studied with ‘the famous Mr Bach’. Even in 1790, forty years after his death, his pedal technique was legendary – “On the pedals his feet had to imitate with perfect accuracy every theme, every passage that his hands had played. … he used to make long double trills with both feet, while his hands were anything but idle”.

His composing skills are mentioned, albeit later in the obituary, and CPE Bach remarks “if ever a composer showed polyphony in its greatest strength, it was certainly our late lamented Bach. It ever a musician employed the most hidden secrets of harmony with the most skilled artistry, it was certainly our Bach. No one ever showed so many ingenious and unusual ideas as he in elaborate pieces… he needed only to have heard any theme to be aware of almost every intricacy that artistry could produce in the treatment of it – hear he is undoubtedly referring to his exemplary skills as an improviser. I particularly like the description of his melodies as ‘strange’ but always varied, rich in invention, and resembling those of no other composer.

CPE Bach was later to draw a comparison between Bach and Handel in a letter from 1788, in response to Charles Burney’s account of Handel’s life. Burney celebrates Handel as a great composer, and writing of Handel’s organ-fugues he claims Handel has ‘surpassed Frescobaldi, and even Sebastian Bach and others of his countrymen’. CPE Bach criticises such praise, claiming Burney does not know the works of his father Johann Sebastian Bach sufficiently to make an accurate comparison, and goes on to write of how his father’s keyboard works are superior – particularly in the use of the pedals on the organ. Bach remains synonymous with the fugue – a compositional method and structure synonymous with the baroque period – and CPE Bach ‘doubts whether Handel’s fugues will ever bear comparison with Bach’s. You’ll hear some of this fugal writing skill in the Magnificat after the interval. CPE Bach ends his comparison by warning future critics at comparing ‘famous men’; not to place them side by side in respects in which they cannot be compared. CPE Bach was undoubtedly rather proud of his father and his Bach family heritage.

His hearing was so fine that he was able to detect the slightest error even in the largest ensembles. It is but a pity that it was only seldom he had the good fortune of finding a body of such performers as could have spared him the unpleasant discoveries of this nature. [interesting that so much of his music was performed by amateurs, so Bach is unlikely to have heard his music performed the way it is today =- and of course the way it is performed tonight! My piano teacher told me about the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion – not that he was there of course – but the performing forces for his choral works particularly were drawn from the locals so you might hear the butcher on a violin, the baker on the ‘cello rather than a band of professionally trained players.

Bach died on the 28th July 1750 – he had undergone eye surgery earlier that year – “his naturally somewhat weak eye-sight’ due to his ‘unheard-of-zeal in studying, which made him, particularly in his youth, sit at work the whole night through’ had lead to what CPE Bach termed as a eye disease. The surgery was not particularly successful, and further illness ensued. He died after suffering a stroke. JS Bach’s output is extensive and covers all major genres except opera. Interestingly relatively little was published in his lifetime except for some keyboard works mostly and even after renewed interest in his music in the 19th century – what is termed the Bach revival – and publishers remained reticent in the first half of the 19th century about publishing his music, one referring to a proposed publication of cantatas as a waste of paper. Mozart and Mendelssohn did much to lead the way of the Bach revivial – notably the latter’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, in Berlin. It wasn’t until after 1850 – the centenary of his death – that a more systematic approach to publishing JSB’s began.

It is a testament to JSB’s significance that three of his works were added to the Voyager Spacecraft ‘golden record’ – and I remember hearing at the start of a documentary on Bach as a child – what the documentary is escapes me – that when someone involved in preparing the golden record was asked, what would you include on the craft, they responded – “I would include the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach as the summation of human achievement”. As of 2008 the first Voyager space probes launched in the seventies escaped the solar system, so potentially somewhere there could be another world encountering a movement from Brandenburg 2, the prelude from the Violin Partita in E and the first c major prelude from the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier…

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