Category Archives: Music

Don’t be a willful barbarian: listen to some Bach this weekend.

J.S. Bach: The Learned Musician


Biographies of great artists or writers are my favorite histories because they allow us who today cherish their works to see them not only in the context of the artist’s personal development but also in the context of the times and the local conditions that may have occasioned their genesis. When I began, a couple months ago, obsessively listening to Jesu, meine Freude, a motet by Johann Sebastian Bach, every morning on my way to work, I didn’t think it would lead to picking up Christoph Wolff’s biography Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Wolff’s biography, weighing in at about 600 pages with notes, musical examples, appendices, bibliography, and indices, is a heavy weight read, and only devoted lovers of Bach and baroque music need apply. Why anyone would shirk cultivating such a devotion or resist the enchanting complexity of his music I cannot understand. Willful barbarism? Whatever the reason, Wolff’s tome nicely serves as a stepping stone for the amateur who does aspire to connoisseurship.

I don’t consider myself accomplished in music or very knowledgeable about music history and theory. I played in high school band, received some voice instruction in college, and sang with choirs there and at different times in my adult life. I’ve dabbled with piano and guitar. So I know some basics and most definitely fit into the category of amateur. I listen to the St. Matthew’s Passion every Lent and have my favorite movements, but by no means am I deeply knowledgeable about the entire body of Bach’s compositions. Nor did I know anything much about his life before reading this book. I mention these details about my own background to encourage any other listeners and dabblers out there. Pick it up and not only will you overhear a great music scholar wax eloquent over counterpoint and coloratura, but you will discover the rich fabric of life in 18th century Germany as a professional musician, subject to king, court, and councils.

To be sure, Wolff assumes a certain proficiency in musical vocabulary among his readers. The uninitiated may benefit from keeping a musical dictionary handy and those seeking a fluency in the language of musical analysis would do well to read this book while listening to recordings of the pieces for illustration and education. Wolff offers frequent discussions of this cantata and that sonata, in the service of illustrating not only a predominant technique of a particular stage of the composer’s musical development but also the relationship between Bach’s music and the larger European context, with its varied styles and trends. The reader learns to distinguish French, Italian, North German, and Netherlandic points of contact, but especially so in relation to the biographical details of Bach’s journeys, appointments, or personal acquaintances.

For example, we learn that early on, the young organist made a 250 mile trek by foot to hear the famous organist Buxtehude. With scant biographical data, Wolff must construct “plausible sequences of events” for this episode and others, using anything from the rare letter to communion records, from town council proceedings to invoices. Next, probable scenarios are brought to bear deftly on his musical development, such as when Wolff, after a musical analysis of Bach’s early organ compositions, speculates on their original use and their relation to the 250-mile pilgrimage. Later, Wolff will point out the relation of his musical compositions to specific organs. One is impressed in these discussions, aided by photographs, with the imposing character of an organ both as an architectonic environment for music and the most complex machine of the time.

This emphasis on the physical limitations of music making is also reflected in discussions of the physical transmission of music during the time. This is most helpful in shocking us out of our 21st century digital assumptions, where instant and simultaneous access to music is the norm. We little think, for example, how important personal libraries or collections were. Their physicality is obliterated in digital space. But Wolff emphasizes Bach’s lifelong use of hand copied scores—based on the predominant practice in his Latin school education of copying exemplars—for his adaptation of various musical influences. So we have an episode reported of Bach secretly copying by moonlight one of his brother’s handwritten copies of a Pachelbel composition—an early example of pirating. And one episode that illustrates reliance on personal contacts is when the Weimar Duke’s half-brother, an accomplished musician, travels to Amsterdam to meet a blind organist and returns with Netherlandic compositions for the Weimar library, which then becomes a point of contact for Bach’s development.

Of course theoretical discussions about the music come out of a well-organized narrative that doesn’t neglect the broader details of Sebastian’s—yes, we learn to call him this early on—personal and professional life. Each of the twelve chapters follows him from city to city, or position to position, depending the length of his appointments. I have a special weakness for perusing maps, so I was happy to linger over the contemporary engravings, watercolors, or maps of each city. And I referred to the “Places of Bach’s Activities” map in the Appendixes section constantly. In total, the book contains 43 illustrations that include portraits, churches, organs, palaces, hand-written musical scores, and even floor plans of his townhouse in Leipzig—all of which enhance our imaginative immersion into the personal and political backdrop. Tables organizing Bach’s works or listing his ancestors, relatives, and descendants recap Wolff’s discussions for easy reference later.

As a Lutheran myself, I was interested to follow Bach through the varied politico-religious divisions in Germany and read about the Lutheran liturgical practices of the time. Sunday mornings you might find me perusing the hymnal during particularly long sermons. I love the hymnal because it’s such a repository of Christian tradition and musical forms—with multi-lingual notes–as well as a nice compendium of English hymn poetry for a church that has replaced the King James Version with the very unpoetical NIV. Admittedly, my Lutheran hymnal is heavy on the German chorale, but this is a help when studying Bach, who did so much with the old school Protestant hymns, especially those of Luther’s time. Again, for the liturgically uninitiated, Wolff provides a liturgical calendar for easy reference. Interestingly enough, Bach’s life provides plenty of illustrations of the tripartite confessional landscape (Lutheran-Catholic-Reformed) of the times. While he remained a lifelong and pious Lutheran, and served as Cantor and Musical Director of Lutheran Leipzig from 1723 to his death in 1750, he had served as Capellmeister to a Reformed prince for five years prior to this and while in Leipzig dedicated his first Kyrie-Gloria mass to the Catholic Saxon prince there, whose coronation as King of Poland was later celebrated in Leipzig in a bi-confessional service.

Throughout we find many examples of Bach the professional in conflict with his employers, whether duke or burgomaster. He even spent a month in jail over a conflict with the Duke of Weimar. I came away with a picture of a man who in every circumstance zealously guarded his artistic prerogatives against professional constraints and keenly sought out better opportunities for himself and his family when such positions offered more artistic freedom and also more money. Wolff doesn’t hold back on the financial details, including even such piquant details as the allowances of beer and firewood delivered as part of Bach’s salary.

Wolff’s biography, for the most part, doesn’t dwell on the common idea that Bach’s music is a culmination of all Western music styles preceding him (Bach the conservative); rather, it emphasizes Bach’s innovations and contemporaneity: his interest in and perfecting of emerging styles all over Europe, his lifelong reputation as a keyboard virtuoso, his involvement with the details of organ construction, his interest in developing and using new instruments (like the pianoforte) and playing techniques, such as five finger keyboarding, and his ever-evolving expansion of the science of harmony and counterpoint.

Jason McBride is a father of three, a teacher, and a Lutheran who lives in Indiana. At least, I think that’s accurate. He didn’t get me his two sentence bio, probably because he’s actually trying to do extremely irresponsible things like take care of his children and make a living. 

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