The Magazine

Bach to the Future

Why Johann Sebastian appeals to moderns.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Johann Sebastian Bach

Life and Work

by Martin Geck

Translated by John Hargraves

Harcourt, 752 pp., $40

J.S. Bach

A Life in Music

by Peter Williams

Cambridge, 418 pp., $35

It was the biologist and popular author Lewis Thomas, writing in Lives of a Cell, who proposed that mankind use Bach's music to say hello to any sentient life in the universe. Thomas recommended beaming Bach--all of Bach--into outer space, over and over again, so that if by chance another civilization were to tune in, mankind would have put the best possible face on the encounter.

If extraterrestrials do indeed respond, let's hope they stick to the music and don't ask about Bach's life, for although we can reconstruct the professional stations and main events of the great contrapuntist's career, we know painfully little about the day-to-day doings and inner thoughts of the man who wrote the "St. Matthew Passion," the B-Minor Mass, and other monuments of Western music.

The extraterrestrials would surely be shocked at our ignorance.

The biographical gaps stem partly from the age--composers were still viewed as craftsmen rather than artists during the Baroque era--and partly from a man who was so preoccupied with writing music (more than a thousand works!), with teaching (more than 80 students!), and with procreating (20 children!) that he had little time for daily correspondence or personal reflection. Documents revealing Bach's nature and personality are few and far between. We have no idea how tall he was, or how large his hands. We suspect he ate well, to judge from the robust figure that looks out from the famous Haussmann painting (the only extant portrait) completed a few years before his death.

We can be sure from complaints recorded by church and town councils that Bach was willful, and we know he had a rich sense of humor, once saying that a non-musical "Rec-tor" had a "Dreck-ohr," or filthy ear--a remark so irreverent that its meaning was noted in French when the comment was recounted later in a German publication. But how Bach ran rehearsals, or what hours of the day he used for composing, or when he met his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach (a cousin)--we know nothing.

For Mozart and Beethoven, there are volumes of letters and contemporary reports to tell us about the inner man. Mozart wrote of going out for large ice at the Palais Royal and then saying the Rosary after a surprisingly successful performance of his "Paris" Symphony. Beethoven described for posterity his inner torment at the prospect of impending deafness before penning the "Eroica" Symphony. With both composers, richly written biographies, created from early sources, have shed revealing light on their works. In the case of Bach the opposite is true: The works are the most critical surviving document, and they must be used to flesh-in the life.

This has led to highly interpretative studies of Bach in the past, accounts in which the biographers sometimes re-create their own image in the biographee. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer and an early advocate of German independence and unity, portrayed the composer in 1802 as a Teutonic national hero. Philipp Spitta, a theologian writing 70 years later, presented Bach as the "Fifth Evangelist," spreading the word of God in his cantatas, passions, and oratorios. With Albert Schweitzer, a musician greatly enamored of Wagner's operas, Bach became a "poet-musician." And most recently Christoph Wolff, university professor at Harvard, has portrayed Bach as a "learned musician," a composer whose intellectual prowess would seem to have made him a strong candidate for employment at, well, Harvard. (The university was open for business at the time but passed up the opportunity.)

So it is with some trepidation that one picks up the two latest entries in the world of Bach biography, a long volume by Martin Geck, professor of musicology at the University of Dortmund, and a shorter profile by Peter Williams, emeritus professor of music at Duke. Geck candidly points out the pitfalls at the start of his book, acknowledging the "Grand Old Men of Bach Biography" before surveying the life, works, and special issues (such as number symbolism in the music) in a highly readable 752-page overview. Geck has no axes to grind. Rather, he reconstructs Bach to the fullest extent possible while never losing sight of the music and the magical paradox of its parochial origins and its universal appeal. The book is a pleasure to read.

The Williams volume is not. Although half the length of the Geck, its tedious text makes it seem twice as long. Williams uses the famous 1754 obituary of Bach as the framework for discussion, moving through the composer's life step by step, using phrases from the necrology as chapter epigraphs. This ought to lead to a neatly structured, easily digestible account. But the author gets bogged down in endless speculation, posing literally hundreds of unanswered (and often unanswerable) questions. Bach biography involves enough head-scratching. Why create more? One wishes that John Hargraves, the skillful translator of Geck's German, had worked over Williams's text as well.

That said, both accounts agree that Bach's career displayed a steady if not meteoric climb up the ladder of opportunities available to an ambitious professional musician working in Central Germany. After a childhood marked by the early death of his parents, tutelage by an older brother, and study at a choir school in North Germany, Bach began as a provincial church organist in Arnstadt before moving through a series of increasingly better positions: Church organist in Mühlhausen, court organist in Weimar, court chapelmaster in Cöthen, and finally cantor and town music director in Leipzig (where he was third choice for the position, after Telemann and another candidate). All this suggests the ascent of a musician in search of a higher salary.

Yet, as Geck points out, Bach constantly balanced financial ambition with musical ambition. In Weimar, after composing a vast amount of innovative organ music, Bach sought and won an attractive urban position in Halle. Rather than taking it, he used it to up the ante in Weimar, becoming concertmaster as well as organist. This earned him a higher salary, but also the opportunity to write cantatas on a regular basis. As Williams notes, the Weimar years end with Bach vanquishing by default the Parisian virtuoso Louis Marchand (Marchand left town rather than enter into an improvisation duel with Bach), playing in front of an aristocratic audience in a private home in Dresden instead of before a church committee in a country chapel.

In Leipzig, Bach arrived as the new cantor of the St. Thomas School in 1723 and immediately began to compose cantatas at a furious rate, writing approximately one a week for five years or so and adding incidental pieces such as the "Magnificat," "St. John Passion," and "St. Matthew Passion" for good measure. But after six years, with a supply of 300 works under his belt, he stopped composing cantatas almost completely and took the unprecedented move of directing the university collegium musicum, a rather motley student ensemble that performed weekly in a local coffee house. While ostensibly a step down, the switch allowed Bach to write harpsichord concertos, gamba sonatas, and other innovative instrumental works at the same weekly pace as the earlier cantata production.

Finally, in the last decade of his life, Bach retreated from both church and collegium, focusing instead on private projects--the "Goldberg Variations," the "Art of Fugue," the "Musical Offering," and the B-Minor Mass. As Geck points out, the B-Minor Mass, in particular, gave Bach the opportunity to survey the full range of available compositional styles, from Renaissance motets to Baroque dances to Pre-Classical choruses. To an extraordinary degree, Bach seized control of his professional life in a way that allowed him to compose as he wished. This was quite unusual at the time.

Casual listeners sometimes complain that much of Bach's music sounds the same. In point of fact, some of it is the same, since Bach in his later years became a strong proponent of recycling earlier works, revising the music and texts to make the pieces appropriate for different occasions. In the early Leipzig years this was a necessity, since as cantor he was compelled to come up with a new cantata every Sunday. Later Bach continued to recycle, even when he was not working under time constraints. Apparently he relished the opportunity to revamp existing scores, since it allowed him to bring the music to an even higher state of perfection.

As Geck and Williams rightly observe, the "St. Mark Passion" (now lost), the "Christmas Oratorio," the harpsichord concertos, Book II of the "Well-Tempered Clavier," and the Mass in B Minor consist almost wholly of reworkings, or "parodies," as they were termed by contemporary writers. This approach, together with Bach's obsessive desire for improvement, made composition an ongoing process. The multitude of variant readings for Book II of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" suggests that Bach never achieved a definitive version of the work.

Geck calls the B-Minor Mass, compiled at the very end of Bach's life, a final "bouquet of parodies," in which the composer refashioned his favorite cantata movements with German librettos of local interest into a new work with a more universal Latin text. The B-Minor Mass (never so labeled by Bach) was described as "The Great Catholic Mass" by Bach's descendants. Geck believes the composer was striving to create a catholic piece in the broadest sense of the word, a work capable of eliminating the borders not just between Protestant and Catholic faiths but, ultimately, between the sacred and the secular. The presence of so much dance music in the Mass points in that direction.

The B-Minor Mass does not seem to have been performed during Bach's lifetime, but when it was revived in the 19th century, it was presented as a humanistic "concert" Mass and paired with Beethoven's Missa solemnis. Today it is performed in concert halls as frequently as in churches.

Geck and Williams reconstruct the life of Bach as viewed through his music, and they do a commendable job, presenting safe, serviceable accounts in a straightforward way (despite the dialectical detours in the Williams book). Yet one finishes them wishing for a bolder, more imaginative reading of Bach's life, one in which the biographer takes informed leaps and attempts to fill in the gaps, even at the expense of subjective interpretations. Here Christoph Wolff's denser but magisterial Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (2000) meets the challenge. Wolff, too, admits that our knowledge of Bach is limited. But through clever surmise--such as assessing Bach's room-order bill in Halle to conclude that a good deal of beer, brandy, and tobacco went into the creation of a cantata--he is able to paint a fuller, fleshier portrait of the father of counterpoint than any other account.

In the end, there is also the question of precisely what it is about Bach's works that make them so appealing to modern audiences. Why is it that Bach's music remains so important today--that it continues to offer joy, solace, challenge, and assurance to general listeners as well as professionals, on a global basis? Bach has become a cultural icon, and his works have achieved a universality that transcends the borders of Germany and Europe, which makes us want to beam his compositions into space to affirm the positive spirit of mankind.

How do we explain this phenomenon? If we can't answer all the unknowns about Bach's personal life and inner being, then perhaps we ought to address this issue, just in case the extraterrestrials drawn to earth by the composer's music ask about it.

George B. Stauffer, dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and professor of music at Rutgers, is the author of the forthcoming Why Bach Matters.