|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
By Heinrich Fleischer
WHEN, IN 1723, IT BECAME NECESSARY to select a new Cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig, the choice fell to Johann Sebastian Bach simply because three other candidates had withdrawn their applications. A member of the nominating committee ventured regretfully: "Inasmuch as we could not obtain the best, we had to take the mediocre." By the "best" he meant Fasch, Graupner, and Telemann, all three of whom were certainly respected and famous composers of their day, but none of whom, according to present day opinion, even begins to approach Bach's greatness. In listing the greatest living composers of his day, a contemporary authority on music placed Bach in fifth place and, with the exception of the great Handel, gave preference to such lesser musicians as Hasse, Telemann, and Graupner. It is easy for us, two hundred years later, to smile at such erroneous opinion, but it would be far better if we tried to understand it. It is true that Bach was respected as a composer during his lifetime, but none theless, he was not fully appreciated. The clavier compositions that appeared in print were treasured; his students clung to their master in veneration, but in general there seemed to stem from his compositions a spirit of specialized musical erudition which in his day had already become questionable. He was viewed as a rather old-fashioned pedant.
But in one respect, his glory shone brilliantly and uncontested. Bach was esteemed as the top organist of his day. Whenever his name was mentioned, he was considered first of all as a great virtuoso and only secondly as a composer. In their reports, his contemporaries outdo themselves in trying to describe his mastery in superlative, occasionally exaggerated, and even downright legendary terms. It is most revealing, bearing these reports in mind, to try to picture to oneself just what there was about Bach's playing that impressed his hearers in such a manner. His hearers were amazed, above all, by his unparalleled manual dexterity, his pedal technique, the independence of his hands and feet, his capacity for actually being able to play polyphony, and his ability to use the pedals as easily and skillfully as the manuals:
"Whenever it suited him, he could realize such astonishing, exciting, and lively chords at the organ through the use of his feet alone (whether or not he was playing anything else with his hands) that another could never quite imitate him even by playing with the hands. Once, when he was invited from Leipzig to Kassel to dedicate a reconstructed organ, he ran over the pedal-keys with such agility that his feet seemed to be winged."
Furthermore, all were astonished by his extraordinary choice of organ registration and his imaginative selection of tone color:
"His method of registration was so unconventional, that many organists and organ builders were horrified when they saw his selection. They believed that such a combination of voices could not possibly sound well, but they marveled when they later noticed that it was exactly in this way that the organ sounded its best and that it had only received something heterogeneous and unconventional which their own manner of registration had lacked."
And finally there was his unheard of and strange art of improvisation at the organ:
"Whenever J. S. Bach would sit at the console outside of the congregational church services, which he was often asked to do by visitors, he would select a theme at random and work it out in all forms of organ pieces in such a manner that it would always remain his material, even though he might play for two or more hours without a break. First he would use this theme in a Prelude and Fugue for full organ. Then he would display his mastery of registration in a trio, a quartet, and the like, always using the same theme. He would follow this with a chorale, the melody of which was surrounded by the first theme in three or four voices in the most varied manner. He would conclude with a fugue for full organ in which either only a new treatment of the original theme would dominate, or one or, according to its nature, two others would be intermingled."
TODAY THE STUDENT OF PRE-BACH ORGAN LITERATURE knows that what Bach's contemporaries found so strange and novel in his playing was, after all, not so new and unusual. To be sure, Bach's mastery of the organ reached an unprecedented pinnacle. Yet it was firmly rooted in the very best tradition of the 17th century, a tradition which at his time was almost, if not completely, lost. His masterful art of polyphonic playing and his independent use of the pedal had been a self-evident matter for the German organists of fifty years before, as can be readily seen over and over again from the existing compositions of Scheidt, Buxtehude, Bruhns, and others. On the other hand, however, Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, a renowned organist himself, admitted that he would not use the pedals for years at a time, and with very few exceptions, the organ compositions of Bach's young contemporaries are rather simple and somewhat mediocre. Bach's art of registration was based on the tonal concept of the type of organ constructed in north and central Germany around 1680. Organs of this north German type were available in such cities as Hamburg and Lubeck, and they were instruments of such classic design and merit that they have not yet been equalled to this day. Bach was very well acquainted with these organs and was also familiar with the rules by which they were to be registered. As is the case with the compositions of his north German predecessors, the majority of Bach's own organ compositions were written for such instruments. However, the 18th century was already a period of incipient decadence in German organ construction. This decline was also true of the highly developed art of improvisation of earlier times, when every good organist had to master and understand the art of improvization by which was understood skillfully ex tern pore playing of polyphonic chorale treatments, using the Protstant chorale as the basis. No doubt J. Adam Reinken, the renowned Hamburg organist, who was almost a hundred years old at the time, was thinking of this disappearing art when he said to Bach after the latter had played for him: "I thought that this art had died, but I see that in you it is yet alive."
UPON CLOSER EXAMINATION, we see that the underestimation of Bach as a composer and the admiration for Bach as an organist were only manifestations of the same fact, that Bach had the misfortune to live at a time of complete change of artistic style and artistic perception, as well as a time of complete change in religious conviction. In the midst of, and in opposition to these new tendencies, he was destined to make a final and crowning summation of his heritage as an organist, as a teacher, and as a composer. Very seldom, and then in his earlier rather than in his more mature work, does one find this new mode of expression which was sought after by his more easily persuaded and more successful contemporaries, a mode which was to become completely dominant during the half century after Bach's death. He must therefore have seemed an oldfashioned outsider in his day. His contemporaries, to be sure, were amazed at his virtuosity, but in viewing the rigidity of his compositions, they condescendingly considered him outmoded. This attitude left him misunderstood and solitary "My father, the old fossil" (mein Vater, die alte Perucke) was what Philipp Emanuel somewhat disrespectfully called him. When the master died, he was soon forgotten. Only a few disciples kept his memory alive and passed it on until, two generations later, his work underwent a victorious resurrection, hesitatingly at first and under completely different circumstances, but unmistakably until today his work exerts an ever-increasing influence on our spiritual life.
THE HISTORY OF music reveals several composers of first rank who stand at the beginning of an era. 1Vlonteverdi and Schutz molded the century after them to their ideal; and today we are still subject to the influence of Beethoven. It is seldom, however, that the course of an era is concluded by the overtowering stature of a single composer, and of Praetorius, Handel, and Brahms we may claim this only with reservations. Yet this is the case with Bach. "He is no beginning," says Albert Schweitzer, "but an end." The era which he brought to a close is not only the epoch of German Baroque music or of Protestant church music since the time of Luther, it is the age-old history of Occidental culture, unified by the idea and ideal of Christianity, the manifold musical symbols of which find their synthesis and therefore their ultimate meaning in him. In this culture, music had a definite mission. It was a gift of God and also reflected His divine plan. Even when music found its voice outside the ecclesiastical realm, it had to remain conscious of its destiny. It dared not be the expression of ungodliness nor the reflection of an order hostile to God. Above all, music (including worldly music) had to be dedicated to the "greater glory of God," as Bach expressed it. The Italian Renaissance brought forth the first considerable counterstream to this ideal in its proclamation of the self-sufficiency of man. It made man the measure of all things in music as well. But Luther's Reformation in Germany and, to a lesser degree, the Catholic Counterreformation in Latin countries, had been reasserting the old theocentric ideal for almost two hundred years. Luther's musical concept, in particular, coincided with the medieval concept and had the greatest influence on the artistic development of Protestant Germany. And even Bach was still rooted in this tradition, not only in his individual expression of faith (he was a most orthodox Lutheran), but also in his perception of music and of his calling as a musician. He was thoroughly convinced that egocentric music was not only bad, but sinful and godless as well, and he once described it as "a satanic wail and tinkle" ("ein teuflisch Geplarr and Geleier"). And yet, in this respect he was increasingly standing alone in his days. The tide which stemmed from the Renaissance and which the Reformation had tried to turn back, swept irresistibly over the Lutheran lands in the eighteenth century. Finally, and almost coincidental with the death of Bach, the new order in art won out. This completed secular art sought only to express human sensations and to serve man.
The stylistic means of this new music was homophony, the authority of the accompanied solo voice, a symbol of the emancipated self-righteous individual. Its major form was the symphony in which the contrasting themes and modulations are both an expression of and an appeal of human emotions and desires. The new music found its sonorous expression in the orchestra whose bold colors and dynamic flexibility was able to keep pace with the most delicate nuances of human emotion. In contrast to this personal appeal, the musical symbol of the Christian congregation from the Middle Ages to the time of Bach had been the chorale and the polyphony based upon the chorale, the very expression of the bond and unity of the individual human being living under an eternal verity and law. The instrument best suited to express this ideal of unity is the organ, for the organ is itself a symbol of greatest unity in diversity. Its numerous individual voices are meaningful only if they accommodate themselves to its organic unity. Its spirit is superhumanly great, and it does not deign to permit itself to express petty human emotions. It was because of a profound inner urge that the organ stood in the very center of Bach's life and work, and even his works for choir, for orchestra, for the cembalo, and for chamber ensembles seem to be allied with the spirit of the organ, objectively speaking.
WHAT WAS THE OUTLOOK IN GERMANY concerning organ performance when Bach came on the scene? There was, first of all, a group of organists active in those provinces most favorable to the Ref ormationThuringia and Saxony in central Germany. The composers in this group, among whom were Johann Pachelbel of Erfurt and Nuremberg, Bach's uncle Johann Christoph Bach of Eisenach, and Haendel's teacher, Johann Friedrich Zachau of Halle, had adopted the Protestant Chorale as the basis of their art. More than any other kind of organ music, they composed chorale preludes and organ chorales in a skillful polyphonic style. The melody of the chorale (cantus firmus) always appeared clearly and unabridged in one voice (frequently it might even appear in augmented values), while the other voices enclosed the chorale in a compact network. In essence, this was the form of the medieval choral motet, and, actually, the tradition of these masters extended back into almost unbroken succession to the Middle Ages. Not until in the century immediately preceding Bach, Samuel Scheidt of Halle, a most significent composer who was greatly influenced by the English and Dutch variation style and cembalo music, had freed the organ from the vocal style. Thus he evolved the organ motet, i.e., the organ chorale, from the choral motet. To Bach, the tradition established by these forerunners of central Germany was of prime significance, and he remained throughout his life closely attached to it and to its spiritual basis.
AT THE SAME TIME, THERE EXISTED in north Germany a school of organ music whose chief mentors were Nikolaus Bruhns of Husum, Vincent Lubeck of Hamburg, and the genial Dietrich Buxtehude in Liibeck. This school was rather independent of central German influences and its traditions did not reach back so far. It did not foster the organ chorale to any extent, but rather the free fanasy and showed likewise the influence of Anglo-Dutch thought. However, it mastered all the possibilities of organ technique and discovered the richness of its specific expression. Buxtehude's preludes, toccatas, and chaconnes literally overflow with brilliant, loosely-bound phantasies, spirited passage work, virtuoso pedal figuration, and colorful chords; to be sure, in respect to their contrapuntal art these compositions must be placed second to central German organ music. It was also a fact that north Germany became the home of the most glorious organs. There were great instruments in Hamburg and in Lubeck, the majority of which contained several independent divisions equipped with rich and majestic reeds and brilliant mixtures. Bach always retained a special partiality for these instruments.
FINALLY, A THIRD SCHOOL OF ORGAN MUSIC had developed in the south, that part of Germany which is predominantly Catholic. The representatives of this school, Georg Muffat in Passau, Johann Jakob Froberger in Vienna, and Johann Kaspar Kerll in Munich had been disciples, directly or indirectly, of the great Girolamo Frescobaldi in Rome. They favored the developed Italian form of the fugue and its subordinate species, the canzona and the ricercare. They paid even less attention to the chorale than did the musicians in north Germany. They did, however, write in a clear, singing polyphonic style based on quiet euphony and classic symmetry, a style similar to the Italian choir music from which the organ music of the south developed.
These three so divergent schools of organ composition (to which we can allude only briefly in this essay) came into being quite independently of each other, even though individual masters served as important intermediaries. Georg Boehm in Luneburg and Johann Adam Reinken in Hamburg attempted a sort of synthesis of the north and central German styles. Johann Pachelbel often united the central and south German styles in his writings, and Jan Pieterszon Sweelinck in Amsterdam introduced the Italian influence into the north German art of organ composition. These three schools experience their real synthesis in Bach. There is not much evidence of a combining of these influences in his earlier works, but later, after unnecessary externals were eliminated, they were welded together by the fire of his genius, and from this fusion there arose the immutable speech of Bach's organ music, the magnificent unity of his style. Actually, Bach did not contribute a new style element, at the most his effort to adapt contemporary Italian orchestral music to the organ brought about an additional enrichment to organ music. All the completely developed materials were at his disposal, and they needed but his genius to synthesize them. Through this synthesis and through the mighty broadening and deepening of the above mentioned styles, the organ works of Bach actually became a new and complete accomplishment. At the same time, they were also a final culmination beyond which further development would be impossible and incredible.
IT WAS OF A HIGHER DISPENSATION and a part of his destiny that Bach was born at the very time when all these forms of musical expression were reaching their peak and were awaiting their ultimate master and finisher and that he was born in the only place where such a synthesis could be made. He grew up in the central German provinces, in Luther's city and homeland. From his youth on, he was closely allied to the strictest, most powerful, and most profound German organ tradition namely, with the Saxo-Thuringian art of the organ. A considerable number of members of the Bach family were allied to this tradition. At the head of this retinue was Bach's uncle, Johann Christoph, whom the youth must have heard play quite often at the organ of St. George's in Eisenach. Bach's parents were in friendly relations with the famous Johann Pachelbel in nearby Erfurt. Just exactly how the young Johann Sebastian learned music, the organ and composition, we do not know. He had no special teacher nor did he have a regular professional education. He must have absorbed the fundamentals almost without effort in the family circle, in the Latin school, and later with his brother in Ohrdruf, just as one learns one's native tongue. The other aspects of his art were probably acquired with the facility of his genius through copying and studying organ pieces, by occasional association with finished organists, and by observing the playing of great masters. His receptive and flawless instinct in choosing the right model was astonishing, and none the less astonishing was his industry and strict selfdiscipline.
During his school-days in Luneburg, he became acquainted with Georg Boehm and his organ works and gained a first impression of the new north German art. This impression he deepened by several trips to the not too distant city of Hamburg. Then, as an eighteen year old youth, he obtained his first position as organist in the Thuringian city of Arnstadt. It is from here that he made his famous visit to Dietrich Buxtehude in Lubeck where he remained for two months and where he received a powerful impression of the north German organ art.
HIS FIRST ORGAN COMPOSITIONS were written in Arnstadt, or even perhaps earlier, in Luneburg. They truly reflect the state of Bach's accomplishment both as an organist and composer, for in his day, organ technique, compositions, and improvisation were still closely bound together. Bach did not bother to write mere dry contrapuntal exercises. Everything he wrote was intended for direct, practical use, and it was always live music. He wrote toccatas and preludes in Buxtehude's style which were brilliant, spirited and quite individualistic. These compositions gave distinct evidence of a carefree youthful joy over the development of his virtuoso technique even though they sometimes contained unpolished voice leading. The well-known Toccata in D Minor is of this period. Besides, he composed chorale preludes and variations which reflect both the Thuringian tradition and the style of his teacher, Georg Boehm.
His mastery developed rapidly and (after a one year's sojourn in Muhlhausen, Thuringia) When he became court organist in Weimar in 1708, he was truly a perfect master. Through the music of the ducal chapel in Weimar, he came into close contact with the Italian style. He studied the works of Frescobaldi and the organ music of south German and French masters who were under Italian influence. And then came the years of synthesis and clarification. In Weimar Bach wrote his first "classic" organ compositions, and from that time on, his fame as an organist spread. It may therefore appear to us that it was a deviation from his calling for Bach, in 1717, to give up his position as organist in Weimar for that of ducal kapellmeister in Coethen. In this new position he had scarcely any contact with the sphere of organ music. The court was Calvinistic Reformed and Bach's assignment was restricted to orchestral and chamber music. But in spite of this, he remained true to his ideals. His numerous secular compositions of this period indicated the same disciplined mastery and humble sense of responsibility that had been evident in the organ music of his Weimar period. Six years later, in 1723, he returned to the field of church music which he served until his death. It was with hesitation that he decided to go to Leipzig and, according to his own confession, it was not easy for him to "become a cantor after having been a kapellmeister." It was probably truly an inner sense of the importance of his calling and mission that moved him to forsake the more free and glamorous life at the head of a ducal orchestra for the heavy, confining, and often thankless task of a cantor and schoolmaster.
AS ST. THOMAS CANTOR, according to the terms of his contract, he no longer had anything to do with the organ. This assignment had been given to an organist who served under him. Bach himself was director of the choirs and instructor in music at the St. Thomas school. Besides these duties, he had to compose and perform the choir music for each Sunday. Often, however, he had occasion to play for friends, students, and distinguished visitors and he was especially happy to play on the beautiful new organ of the university church, St. Paul's, an instrument whose design he had approved. He was also often called abroad to play at ducal courts and at dedications of new organs and was a respected expert on matters of organ construction because of his strict though accurate and objective opinion. The fact that he no longer had to play the organ daily was perhaps a good thing for his later works. In this respect, Bach's last organ works are comparable to the later Beethoven piano sonatas, for both reach out beyond the confines of the keyboards of their respective instruments. The last great Preludes and Fugues are gigantic in their dimensions, classic in the perfect balance of their expression and form, and plainly set forth the sublime.
It was during his stay at Leipzig that Bach became estranged from his contemporaries, reflecting as he did on problems that no one else at that time could understand. He gathered in the harvest not only of the experience of his own life, but also of the entire period of occidental Christian music. In a mighty cycle of Chorale preludes (part three of the Klavieriibung), he grouped together the choice hymns of Luther in the form of a Mass and composed them in the manner of the old masters. So he established an immediate bond with the contrapuntal and spiritual ideal of the Middle Ages and the Reformation. During the last years of his life he revised earlier organ chorales and only then gave them their timeless and lucid form. His last work, the chorale prelude "Vor Deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit," which the blind master dedicated from his deathbed, harks back to the tradition of the central German homeland from which he had come forth and demonstrates the form of the medieval and Reformation chorale motet, but elevated to timeless significance.
THE WORKS BACH LEFT FOR THE ORGAN are so great in number and so varied in form that they almost defy classification. It is impossible in these few lines to give more than a sketchy description of this marvelous bequest. As one pages through the nine important volumes of the collected organ works published by Peters a hundred years ago, one notices that the works immediately divide themselves clearly into chorale treatments and free compositions (that is, compositions not based on chorales). Bach has left us one hundred forty-five chorale preludes, of which many are of the greatest dimensions, and also five series of chorale variations. Bach grouped a large portion of these chorale preludes into meaningful collections as, for example, the Orgelbuchlein (which is arranged in the sequence of the church year), and the previously mentioned third part of the Klavierubisng. The major portion of the free compositions consists of twenty-six pairs of preludes (or toccatas or phantasies) and fugues. In addition, there are six sonatas, six concertos, and about twentyfive miscellaneous pieces, such as trios, fugues, and the like, including the famous Passacaglia. The expression of all these works range from jubilant joy to dejected sadness, from quiet meditation to majestic sublimity. His compositions share one thing in common, however; they express much more than mere human emotions and desires. Joy and sorrow are placed on a higher sphere, the sphere of prayer. It is not true that Bach was an abstract, methodical mathematician who dealt with sound. Every one of his measures breathes a human warmth, and all of his organ works are vigorous and euphonous, even those of his later years. Yet, because of their strict ordered discipline and their humble submission to a higher Law, they place everything that is human under the surveillance of God. The subjective and the objective; the temporal and the eternal; all of these things have been forged by Bach into a complete harmony. The organ is the sonoric symbol of this harmony; and the organ works of Bach are its greatest manifestation in the realm of musical art. Would that they might help us of the twentieth century to sense something of the happiness that comes from communion with God and to find our way back to that communion!-[Translated from the German by M. ALFRED BICHSEL]