The Magazine

Bach to the Future

Why Johann Sebastian appeals to moderns.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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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.