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Bach The Teacher

[Bach And The 20th Century]  [Bach The Preacher]  [Bach The Teacher]  [Bach The Tone Poet]  [Bach And The Organ]  [Bach And Hausmusik]  [Bach Yesterday, Today, And Tomorrow]  [Bach And Volksmusik] 



By Paul Nettl

BACH'S ENTIRE WORK FOR THE CHURCH cannot be judged strictly from the point of view of the twentieth century with its purely aesthetical approach. His cantatas and Passions were real church music which, as such, form an essential part of the service. All his cantatas were written for a special ecclesiastical purpose, and when composing a cantata text he placed himself in the role of minister or preacher. In that respect, Bach's musical philosophy is related to the musical philosophy of the middle ages rather than to that of our time (i.e., music would be considered not a matter of entertainment but of edification and education.) We are reminded of Luther's word that: "A good schoolmaster must also be a musician; otherwise I would not look at him as an educator." This educational philosophy of music goes back to a time when music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry built the "quadrivium" of medieval education. Whereas modern man listens to church music as a kind of emotional accompaniment, music in Bach's time (thanks largely to Luther) was an actual working part of the service. Many characteristics of Bach's choral music can be understood from this view. The definite musical and theological character of the cantatas with the exclusive emphasis on the "de Tempore et de Sanctis"; the tremendous importance of the chorale and its symbolism; Bach's predilection for tone-painting ... all show the ancient ideas of the "ethos" in music rather than that of "pathos."

It is only natural that Bach, who may be considered (particularly by way of his cantatas) as an arch theologian, should have been a great teacher in his practical life. In concordance with his background and social standing, he was a typical bourgeois who lived in the circle of his family and never bothered to pass the borders of his country. In that respect he was the diametric opposite of his great contemporary, George Frederick Handel. Bach belonged to the category of the German "cantors," although he had the ambition to be a "kapellmeister." The fact is that the cantor had to be a schoolman and frequently taught humanities, particularly Latin, in addition to music. For a certain period of time, Bach's obligations were such in Leipzig.

Schweitzer has pointed out the great importance of the educational side of Bach's musical activities. It is well known that Bach transcribed a copious amount of compositions by other composers. He enjoyed, of course, the arranging, adapting and correcting of these works,but he also felt a tremendous educational value in such an activity. Bach's educational character may, in addition, be observed in his literary hand. His letters and applications, with their clear and distinct pen, reflect his magnificent sense for order and organization. These letters are, one might surmise, the counterpart of his fugues and ricercares, of his inventions in double counterpoint. Not the slightest clue towards uncontrolled emotionalism is seen in his hand. Everything is planned. What a contrast to Beethoven! Bach-the musical exponent of Leibnitz' "pre-established harmony" in which man is only a "monade," and Beethoven-the highest exponent of individualism. Whereas Beethoven had scarcely a real student, Bach's studio was a place of serious studying for both himself and his students.

True he did not achieve very much as a teacher at St. Thomas, due to unfavorable circumstances around the school more than to Bach's character and teaching ability. Schweitzer rightly observes that there was no greater teaching talent than Bach, although he appears to have been a poor teacher.

FORKEL, IN HIS BIOGRAPHY IN 1802, dedicated a whole chapter to "Bach as a teacher." We read: "Only he who knows much is able to teach much; only he who has become acquainted with the `dangers' first-hand and has surmounted them is able to expose them in teaching his disciples succesfully. Bach was undoubtedly in possession of both virtues, and consequently his teaching offered an instructive, useful and secure foundation, and all his pupils, (at least in one branch of the art) , followed the great master, although none of them was able to excell or even reach him." Forkel then goes on to describe Bach's keyboard teaching: "For this purpose the pupils had to practice finger exercises aimed at achieving a distinct and clean touch." According to Bach's opinion these exercises had to be continued from six to twelve months. For his more impatient students however, Bach composed (and even during their instruction periods!) small pieces which incorporated his prescribed exercises. To this category belong the six short preludes for beginners and the two-part inventions.

After such periods of orientation Bach is said to have presented his own more important works to his students. His method was to play them himself for the student (e.g. an entire suite, from beginning to end), saying as he played, "that has to sound like this." Forkel explains at length the educational and psychological values of Bach's method of instructive presentation for his pupils and points to the vital importance of the highly artistic performance of the great master.

AS A COMPOSITION TEACHER Bach was in sharp contrast to most other music teachers of his time who began with dry counterpoint exercises and a discussion of acoustical problems. Bach relegated such matters to theoreticians and instrument builders, respectively, and began with the pure four-part figured bass with very special attention to good voice-leading. When the course of study got to chorale harmonization, Bach set the basses himself and let the pupils invent alto and tenor. Gradually, of course, the students had to invent the basses also. Although Bach was constantly concerned with the highest purity of harmony in student work, he was perhaps more concerned with the natural flow and cantability of the voices. "Everybody knows," Forkel remarks, "what wonderful examples Bach gave in that respect. His inner voices are frequently so melodious that they can be used as upper voices." Bach did not encourage his students to compose freely until they had reached a very high degree of proficiency. Their feeling for purity, order, and coordination of the voices had to be sharpened first, until it had become, so to speak, habitual.

The ability to think musically was a sine qua non for each and every Bach composition student. Those who were deficient in this respect were advised to attempt something other than composition. Even in the case of his own children, Bach held off the teaching of composition until he was convinced that they could be classified as "near-genius."

To students of composition today it may be interesting to know that Bach was most stringent in prohibiting his students from composing at an instrument. To those who were not able to write without the instrument he applied the chaffing title "clavier-ritter" (keyboard squire). Not less important was his rule that no part, even an inner voice, was to discontinue before it had reached its logical destination. Each tone had to have a good relationship to the preceding one; an illogical note without connection was automatically rejected. Bad voice-leading was branded as "mantschen."

IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT BACH wrote a few rules summing up his ideas on figured bass and incorporated them into the Klavierbuch f ur Anna Nlagdalena Bach from 1725. They offer considerable insight into eighteenth century keyboard harmony which attempted to correlate voice-leading with fingering. Another more extensive manuscript about rules and fundamentals of playing from figured bass (for his scholars) is found among the papers of Johann Peter Kellner (1705-1772) whose autobiography appeared in Marpurg's Historisch-Kritische Beytrage, in 1755. The autobiography was recently reprinted in Willi Kahl's book: Selbstbiographien Deutscher Musiker. Kellner may be considered as a "spiritual student" of Bach. His son, Johann Christoph, wrote to the publishers, Hoffmeister and Kuhnel, that his father was a good friend of J. S. Bach and that they had a great collection of his compositions. The mentioned manuscript, dated from 1738, stems, as Kahl maintains, from a "personality of not too pure musical training" . . . it is evidently a copy of a written textbook fabricated by a real pupil of J. S. Bach. Kellner wrote the title of the manuscript and made some additions and corrections. Spitta reprinted the manuscript in his biography of Bach, but discovered, after publication, that the great composer had used the first nine chapters of Friedrich Erhardt Niedt's Musikalische Handleitung from 1700. Spitta mentions in his article "Der Tractat uber den Generalbass und F. Niedt's Musikalische Handleitung," printed in zur Musk (Berlin 1892) that evidently Bach valued Niedt's tractate highly since he drew from it some thirty-eight years after its publication. But, as Kellner wrote the year 1738 personally on the manuscript, there is little evidence that Bach was still using the mentioned tractate in that year. Spitta goes on to say that Bach became acquainted with Niedt's book possibly in Hamburg shortly after 1700 when he visited Luneburg. Bach's version of Niedt differs considerably from the original, and the points of difference give us more evidence about Bach as a teacher.

FIRST, NIEDT'S BOOK is characterized by considerable verbosity whereas Bach's version is concise. Then, we find that whereas Niedt brings up the importance of figured bass in conjunction with operatic compositions, Bach omits any mention of opera. Neither does Bach take pains in explaining the nature of consonance vs. dissonance, a fact which is evidently in accordance with Forkel's above-mentioned statement. One can almost observe a grim brevity in Bach's version. Bach also seems to be much more progressive than Niedt-the fact is noticeable even in trifles. For instance Niedt goes into a discussion, in his third chapter, of the position of the mezzo-soprano and baritone clefs on the staff, but Bach doesn't bother to take up such "old-fashioned" devices at all.

There are a great number of lesser or greater deviations which the meticulous Bach scholar may find in Spitta's essay, but one, in particular, seems important in reference to Forkel's statement about Bach's teaching of four-part writing. Whereas Niedt heads his sixth chapter: "Several General Rules to be Observed in the Playing from Figured-Bass," Bach changes the title to: "Several Rules on Playing the Figured-Bass Thoroughly in Four Parts." Here, again, we have a reference to Bach's typical accentuation on four-part playing. The following paragraphs did not say anything about the number of parts, but it was, so to speak, second nature to Bach to teach the student exclusively four-part writing. Niedt's original title could possibly have had an unfavorable reaction on the student, who might have believed that occasionally three-part writing would be satisfactory. We have (through Gerber) a realization of a sonata by Albinoni from the figured bass. Bach's realization is strictly four-part. The Master had eliminated everything from Niedt which was incongruous with his ideas of "four-part dogma."

ALTHOUGH BACH WAS METICULOUS in respect to four-part playing and writing, he permitted his pupils a great deal of liberty in other respects. He permitted the use of any interval melodically or harmonically as long as that liberty did not contradict musical logic. Forkel rightly says that other teachers of composition such as Berardi, Buononcini, and Fux were much more strict than Bach in that respect because they were unwilling to "lead their students into danger." Of course the teachers mentioned were more objective, whereas Bach's teaching was quite personal.

Forkel is hardly mistaken in evaluating Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel as the most outstanding of Bach's students. Johann Christoph (the so-called Buckeburg-Bach) was, according to a statement of Friedemann, the strongest performer among the Bach sons, and the best performer of Sebastian's clavier works. Johann Christian is said by Forkel not to have enjoyed his father's instruction, a statement which seems to be not quite credible since the young boy was fifteen when his father died. "Bach's original spirit," Forkel says, "is not found in one of his works. However, he became a `popular' composer, who was very much liked in his time." This statement of Forkel is understandable: indeed, a whole world lies between the philosophies of Sebastian and Christian. He evidently got a great deal of instruction from his father, but turned to become almost a "maestro italianissimo" and a Catholic, and led the musical development to the Viennese classical school.

Indeed, Bach as a teacher belongs to a period in which men believed in God and in a higher order, an order which is symbolized by the art of the fugue and of counterpoint teaching. Without criticizing his son Christian, we may say that Bach was fortunate not to witness the artistic and human development of his youngest son who, although rooted in the philosophy of the Baroque and in the higher order of Leibnitz' theocratic edifice, chose the more pedestrian fields of philosophy of Rousseau and Voltaire. Certainly J. S. Bach was a teacher of the older generation, which permits Forkel to speak about Christian Bach with a slight shrugging of the shoulder in spite of the fact that the "London-Bach" was the most gifted of Sebastian's sons.