Copyright
J. Cuthbert (James Cuthbert) Hadden.

Master musicians; a book for players, singers and listeners online

. (page 3 of 17)
Online LibraryJ. Cuthbert (James Cuthbert) HaddenMaster musicians; a book for players, singers and listeners → online text (page 3 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


GEORGE FREDERICK HANDEL 31

his style has suited the English nation better than any
other, owing to its directness and vigour and robustness ;
and also, no doubt, because the nation has always had
a great love for choral music, of which he is one of
the greatest masters. Beethoven's judgment on him
was perfectly sound. " Handel," said he, " is the
unapproachable master of all masters. Go to him
and learn to produce great effects with little means."
Similarly, Haydn, in reference to Handel's choral work,
exclaimed, " He is the master of us all ! " No composer
has ever understood so well how to extract from a body
of voices such grand results by means so simple and
yet so skilfully conceived. In oratorio at least Handel
is the people's composer, and such he must remain so
long as oratorio holds its place with the public.



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES

There is only one Bach ! only one Bach !

FREDERICK THE GREAT.

JOHN SEBASTIAN BACH was Handel's greatest con-
temporary. Curiously enough, they never met nor even
corresponded, though more than once they just missed
meeting. On one occasion Bach went to Halle, hearing
that Handel was there and expecting to greet him, but
Handel had left for England an hour or two before his
brother composer arrived. The two, Handel and Bach,
are often spoken of as if they were a sort of Siamese
twins of music. They were both Germans, and they
were born within a month of each other. Both, again,
were fine organists, both gave great religious works to
the world, and both were stricken blind in their later
years. Beyond that, they had not much in common.
Handel, as we have seen, enjoyed a prominent place
as a popular composer, and died rich after a residence
of more than forty years in London. Bach, a quiet,
stay-at-home man, who married twice and had a family
of twenty sons and daughters, laboured with small
resources in the little town of Leipzig for the last
twenty-four years of his life, and outside a rather limited

32



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 33

public in Germany he was hardly known at all. Never-
theless, of all the works of that period, the ones which
have real influence on art at the present time are those
of Bach.

Handel's influence was felt almost solely in oratorio
and in England alone ; whereas Bach had a real and
lasting influence on all the great composers who
followed him. All looked up to him, and took, as it
were, their cuefrom his seriousness and his calm dignity.
Beethoven was enthralled by his stupendous Mass in
B minor, the chief monument of his genius. Mozart by
chance heard some of his compositions and came away
" deeply impressed and wondering." The first time he
heard one of Bach's hymns he said, " Thank God ! I
have learnt something absolutely new." Schumann
exclaimed, " Only from one might all composers find
ever-new creative power from John Sebastian Bach."
Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner all revered Bach as
their godfather in music. And that position is in
nowise changed to-day. In spite of modern develop-
ments, " old Bach " remains the musician for musicians,
just as Spenser remains the poet for poets. Still he
commands the attention of the musical world, whether
in church, in concert-room, or in study. Of him, more
than of any of the other great composers, it may be
said that he is " not for an age but for all time."

Bach is the best example that we have of the de-
gree to which music may sometimes be inherited. He
bore the name of a Thuringian family, in which the
pursuit of music was uniquely hereditary and carefully

D



34

nourished from childhood. In course of time the family
held practically all the musical posts in Thuringia.
With its numerous branches, and many members in
each branch, all dwelling in the same province, they
spread in every direction, and it was a queer place
where one did not find a Bach as cantor or organist
or town musician. The whole family lived on the most
affectionate terms with each other. They intermarried
freely, and one day in the year was set apart for a
grand Bach gathering, after the manner of the nobility.
In Erfurt, Eisenach, Arnstadt, Gotha, Miihlhausen,
Bachs were established as organists ; and still, at the
end of the eighteenth century, the town pipers in Erfurt
were called "the Bachs," although not one amongst
them was a Bach ! Not that the musical Bachs had
ceased to exist. It was not until as late as 1846 that
the great line, the most honourable in the history of
music, became extinct, when Wilhelm F. E. Bach died.
Even now the name of Bach is quite common in Ger-
many. In 1 899 no fewer than thirteen families of Bachs
were living in Erfurt alone, and there were others else-
where.

The genealogy of the Bachs has naturally given
some trouble to the biographers, but it is now clearly
proved that the root of the great tree was a certain
Veit Bach, a miller and baker, who, after being chased
from Germany to Hungary and back again on account
of his Protestant faith, finally settled near the German
frontier. According to our composer, " Veit's greatest
pleasure was to play on a guitar which he brought



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 35

back with him from his travels. This he was in the
habit of playing while the mill was in motion, and,
notwithstanding the noise of the mill, he kept strictly
to time, and this, I think, may be looked upon as the
beginning of the musical feeling of his descendants."
About the year 1580 there was born to Veit a son,
Hans, who inherited so much of the family gift that
he threw up the mill and became a musician. Hans
married and gave his name to three more Bachs John,
Christopher, and Henry who also took up the pro-
fession of music. Christopher was our composer's grand-
father. This Christopher had twin sons, who were so
like each other that even their wives could not tell
them apart ! Nay, they " were exceedingly alike in
temperament as well, so that when one suffered from
any disorder, the other was almost sure to be afflicted
in the same way." One of the twins, Johann Ambrosius,
became Court and town musician at Eisenach, and it
was at Eisenach that his famous son was born, on the
2ist of March 1685, just a month after Handel.

The little Johann did not long enjoy the protec-
tion of his parents, for he was left an orphan when
only ten years old. But already he had received in-
delible musical impressions from hearing his father play
on the violin, an instrument which he himself learnt
very early. When the father died, Sebastian was taken
under the care of his elder brother, John Christopher,
who was organist at a small village near Eisenach. The
brother, a hard and stern specimen, gave the boy lessons
in music until he began to realise that the boy would



36 MASTER MUSICIANS

soon outstrip himself, and then, with jealousy most
contemptible in a brother, began to put all the
obstacles in his way that he could think of. There
was one particular volume of music in the brother's
collection that Sebastian eagerly desired to get hold
of for the purpose of study. But the book was kept
under lock and key, and it was a long time before he
could lay his hands on it. Then, at night, whenever
there was sufficient moonlight for the purpose, he
managed by degrees to copy out its contents. The
task took him six months, and when the monster of
a brother discovered what he had been up to he at once
robbed the boy of his precious copy. It was no doubt
to this moonlight labour that Bach partly owed the
blindness which came upon him in later life.

The main thing to be noted from the incident is,
however, the zeal with which young Sebastian pursued
his studies. That zeal may be said to have continued
with him to the end. Some years later, when the ogre of
a brother was dead, and when he had begun to make a
little money as a choir boy (for he had a lovely soprano
voice), he saved every trifle in order to get to Hamburg
to hear the great Reinken, then the leading organist
in the country. Sometimes he travelled on foot. He
certainly did so when, later, he was at Llineberg, which
is about thirty miles from Hamburg. In his old age
he was fond of telling a curious story connected with
one of these trips. He was half-way home after a feast
of Reinken playing, and nearly all his money was spent.
He arrived at a country inn where the savoury odour



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 37

of cooking made him hungrier than he already was.
He sat down by the road, musing on his hard fate.
Suddenly a window was opened and two herring-heads
were flung at him. He picked them up and found a
Danish ducat in each of them. Some kindly disposed
stranger had observed him, and guessing the cause of
his despondency, played this trick on him. It enabled
him to get a good dinner, and he resumed his way
rejoicing. Bach went, in 1720, a last time to hear
Reinken, who was still at his post, though then ninety-
seven. The young man played to the veteran for
two hours, and Reinken was so overcome that he
shed tears of joy while he tenderly embraced Bach.
" I did think," he said, " that this art would die with
me, but I see that you will keep it alive." Here he
referred especially to the young player's gifts of
extemporisation.

Bach was eighteen years old when he received his
first musical appointment. It was as a violinist in the
band of the Duke of Weimar. But Bach had never
taken very kindly to the violin. The organ was his
favourite instrument, first and last, and so we are not
surprised to find him installed a year later as organist
at Arnstadt. Here he put in a quiet life of steady
work for two years, writing some of his early church
cantatas for his choir, and toiling at the organ like a
galley slave. He made long excursions to hear famous
organists, and on one notable occasion he obtained
leave of absence for a month that he might go to
Liibeck and listen to Buxtehude, the greatest organist



38 MASTER MUSICIANS

in that part of the country. Lubeck was fifty miles
from Arnstadt, but Bach cheerfully performed the
journey on foot. His month of leave passed all too
quickly, and he found himself so infatuated by Buxte-
hude's playing that he resolved to extend his holiday
at the risk of losing his place.

It was not, in fact, until he had been four months
away that he took the road for Arnstadt. Naturally
on his return he was severely reprimanded for his be-
haviour. It seems that the church authorities had not
been entirely satisfied with his performance of the
duties before he left, and this too was now made a
matter of complaint. A formal examination was held,
and the local magnates reported : " We charge him
with having hitherto been in the habit of making sur-
prising variations in the chorales, and intermixing
divers strange sounds, so that thereby the congrega-
tion were confounded." Bach, one fears, lost his
temper with these would-be dictators, for we find that
his answers, eight months delayed, though short, were
not submissive.

By and by there arose a fresh ground for com-
plaint against the young organist. In one of the re-
ports it is thus written : " We further remonstrate with
him on his having allowed the stranger maiden to show
herself and to make music in the choir." Which means
simply that Bach, who was described by Mattheson
as " a constant admirer of the fair sex," had given his
sweetheart a place among his singers. This was very
wrong of him. In the older church cantatas women



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 39

did not sing ; so that Bach committed almost as great
an indiscretion as the organists of Westminster Abbey
and St. Paul's Cathedral would commit if they allowed
a woman's voice to be heard in their choirs.

Bach's answer to the Arnstadt authorities was that
he had " mentioned the matter to the parson." Per-
haps when he spoke to the parson he confessed his
love and his betrothal. At any rate, he was married a
year later to this " stranger maiden," who bore his own
name, and was indeed a cousin from a neighbouring
town. Cousins, they tell us, should not marry. But it
is worth remarking that the most distinguished of
Bach's sons were all the children of his first marriage.
It was the " stranger maiden " who was the mother of
Wilhelm Friedemann, the father's favourite, and of
Philipp Emanuel, whom the musical world long pre-
ferred to Sebastian himself. There is an amusing
entry of the composer's marriage in the parish register.
"On October 17, 1707," it reads, "the respectable
Herr Johann Sebastian Bach, a bachelor, the surviv-
ing lawful son of the late most respectable Herr Am-
brosius Bach, the famous town organist and musician
of Eisenach, was married to the virtuous maiden, Maria
Barbara Bach, the youngest surviving unmarried
daughter of the late very respectable and famous artist,
Johann Michael Bach, organist at Gehren," and so on.
Only in Germany have the registrars time to cultivate
such flowers of rhetoric. Yet how we like to read it
all of Sebastian, after these two hundred years have
elapsed !



40 MASTER MUSICIANS

It was not at Arnstadt but at Miihlhausen that
Bach was married. Perhaps he found Arnstadt
uncomfortable after the above -recorded incidents.
Even now, Arnstadt does not seem to be sufficiently
appreciative of her greatest organist. Quite recently
the chief music-seller there told a well-known English
musician that Bach's music is out of date. " No one
has now any interest in such old-fashioned stuff," hesaid.
Bach seems to have had no trouble at Miihlhausen,
but he stayed there only long enough to set up house.
His salary was about 7 a year, with certain et ceteras,
including "three pounds of fish a year." A paltry
inheritance of 4. presently came to him. But alas !
" modest as is my way of life," he wrote, " with the
payment of house rent and other indispensable articles
of consumption, I can with difficulty live." Thus, to
better himself, he was soon on the move again this
time to Weimar, as organist, of course.

We read now of his reputation as an executant, as
a composer, and as an extemporiser spreading all over
Germany. There was no need for him making tiresome
journeys to hear great organists any more, for he was
now among the greatest himself, and lesser men were
soon coming to hear him. By and by he removed to
Cb'then as kapellmeister and organist to the Prince of
Anhalt. Here was produced what is perhaps the most
generally known of all his works, the collection bearing
the title of the Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues. Bach
called it The Well- Tempered Clavier \ well-tempered
being a synonym for well or correctly tuned. The




BACH



HANFSTABNGL COLLECTION



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 41

title requires some explanation. In olden times, when
fewer keys were used in composition than now, it was
considered enough if a key-board instrument had one
or two keys in tune. Keys with several flats and sharps
were never in strict tune. In this way, owing to a
curious scientific fact, the few keys could be " better
in tune and sound better in some ways than if all the
keys were equally considered." Gradually, however,
composers desired to use more keys, and it came to
be a question whether it were better to endure some
keys which were out of tune for the sake of the few
which were in perfect tune, or to make all the keys alike.
Bach foresaw clearly that the time must come when
composers would write in every possible key, and so
he made himself a beginning in this Well-Tempered
Clavier. The famous work has not only been "the
constant source of happiness and content and comfort
to most of the musicians of any standing in the world
since the beginning of last century, but it has all the ele-
ments of the most lasting value imaginable. In it men
find almost all the shades of feeling they can desire,
except such as are tainted with coarseness or levity.
The very depths of pathos and sadness are sounded in
some numbers, in others there is joy and lightness, in
others humour and merriment, in others the sublimest
dignity, and in others that serenity of beauty which
seems to lift man above himself, and to make him free
for the time from the shadows and darker places of his
nature, and all pieces alike are cast in a form of most
perfect art, and in that scale which can be realised



42 MASTER MUSICIANS

completely at home with no more elaborate resources
than one little keyed instrument." Every virtuoso of
the piano knows the value of the matchless " Forty-
eight." When Chopin was to give a recital, he never
practised the pieces he was to play, but shut himself
up for a fortnight and played Bach. " Let the Well-
Tempered Clavier be thy daily bread," said Schumann ;
and better advice could not be given. Whether for
technical practice, intellectual enjoyment, or spiritual
nourishment, the " Forty-eight " are of priceless worth.
They are perfect little cameos of art, and if Bach had
written nothing else, he would still have endeared him-
self to us.

But there is more to be said in this connection.
We must never forget Bach's reforms in the matter
of key-board fingering. Before his day players hardly
used the thumb and fourth finger at all. Scales used
to be played by turning the second and third fingers
over one another, and only now and again would the
fourth finger be used, to get over peculiar difficulties.
Bach changed all this, and so we may, in a sense,
regard him as the father of modern piano playing. Of
his own style of fingering an early biographer says :
" He played with so easy and small a motion of the
fingers that it was hardly perceptible. Only the first
joints of his fingers were in motion ; his hand retained,
even in the most difficult passages, its rounded form ;
his fingers rose very little from the keys, hardly more
than in a shake, and when one was employed, the
others remained still in their positions."



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 43

At Cothen one of Bach's most serious domestic
calamities befell him. He had been from home, and
when he returned to get, as he expected, the glad
greetings of his wife, he found that she was already
dead and buried. Bach was a man of deep emotions
and few words, and he suffered keenly from this bereave-
ment. But he was essentially a family man, and it
was not long before he married again, this time a lady
of musical taste and accomplishment, who helped him
appreciably in his professional work. She sang and
played well, and she had, besides, a beautiful hand for
copying music. Bach taught her the harpsichord, and
a good deal of his music was expressly written for her.
The new wife, who bore her husband thirteen children,
made the Bach home a little musical paradise. Seven
years after the marriage the composer wrote of his
family : " They are one and all born musicians, and I
assure you that I can already form a concert, both
vocal and instrumental, of my own family, particularly
as my wife sings a clear soprano, and my eldest daughter
joins in bravely." A pretty picture that is, to think of!

In course of time Bach got tired of Cothen, and the
office of cantor to the school of St. Thomas in Leipzig
falling in his way, he accepted it, and settled down to
what was his last appointment. This was in 1723. He
now turned his attention chiefly to church music, and
produced those magnificent settings of the Passion
which have given him a place as a religious composer
beside Handel himself. To the end his life went on in
the same placid and uneventful way in which his earlier



44 MASTER MUSICIANS

years had been spent. True, his post at St. Thomas
did not prove a bed of roses. It is recorded in a Leipzig
paper of 1749 that the officials had then actually chosen
a successor, "when Kapellmeister and Cantor Herr
Sebastian Bach should die." It was also contrived to
perform an elegy over Bach ere he vacated the post,
in the shape of a cantata entitled " The rich man died
and was buried." There were other annoyances. But
Bach took them all calmly and philosophically. He
loved his own fireside and his art, his friends and his
family better than anything else in the world, and these
were his consolation amid all the troubles and vexa-
tions of his career.

He seldom went from home, and the limits of his
journeyings hardly exceeded a small portion of his
native country at any time. One of his excursions
deserves special mention. Bach lived in the time of
Frederick the Great. Now Frederick was musical (he
played the flute), and he had engaged Bach's son,
Philipp Emanuel, as accompanist. He had heard much
of Bach's musical powers, and he took a notion to have
a visit from the great organist. So Bach, now an old
man over sixty, set out on the journey. The King was at
supper when his arrival was announced. Springing from
the table, Frederick broke up the meal with the words :
" Gentlemen, Bach is here ! " and took him, weary as
he was with travel, through the palace. Bach played
upon the new Silbermann pianos, of which Frederick
was very proud, and improvised upon a bit of melody
given him by Frederick himself. " There's only one



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 45

Bach ! only one Bach ! " exclaimed Frederick, in a
transport of delight. And then Bach frankly told
Frederick that he preferred the organ to his pianos
that the piano seemed fitted only for light rondos or
variations ! It is said that the King sent Bach a
substantial sum of money after this visit, which was
embezzled before it reached the composer.

This journey seems to have laid the foundation of
Bach's last illness. He was feeble before he started,
and his return brought grave anxiety to his house-
hold. He had to undergo a dangerous operation on
his eyes, too. For several years before, his sight had
been affected, and now, like Handel, he found that
the operation led only to total blindness. It was a
short struggle at the last. Bach's sight most unex-
pectedly returned, but he became frenzied with such
joy at this that an apoplectic seizure followed, and he
suddenly expired on the evening of July 28, 1750.
He was laid to rest, with sincere and general mourn-
ing, near the church of St. John, in Leipzig. A strange
fate has attended the remains of certain of the great
musicians. Bach did not escape. No record marked
the place where he was buried, though it was known
that he had been buried in an oak coffin and in a
single grave. " One evening," says Schumann, "I went
to the Leipzig churchyard to find the grave of a great
man. Many hours I searched around and about. I
found no J. S. Bach, and when I asked the sexton
about it, he shook his head over the man's obscurity
and remarked 'there were many Bachs.'" In 1894,



46 MASTER MUSICIANS

when the old church was being demolished for re-
building, somebody suggested that an effort should be
made to recover Bach's remains. The skeleton of an
elderly man was found, which, by a process of reason-
ing, was supposed to be Bach's. It was accordingly
taken to an anatomical museum, " cleaned up," and
clothed with a semblance of flesh to show how Bach
looked in life. One can only hope that it wasn't Bach's
skeleton after all.

Bach left no will, and his children, some of whom
suffered dire straits in later years, seized his MSS.
What little money remained from his miserable salary
of 13 a year they divided with the widow, the gentle,
talented Anna Magdalena. What were all her brave
sons doing that, ten years later, when she died, it should
be as an inmate of the poorhouse ? They all went away
to other towns, some of them to considerable success.
Mother and three daughters were left to shift for them-
selves, which meant the selling of Bach's musical re-
mains and an appeal to charity. It was a disgrace to
Leipzig that this should come to pass, though it must
be remembered that Germany did not then recognise
the greatness of Bach as we do now. When Anna
Magdalena died in 1760, her only mourners were a
daughter and some of the public-school children, who,
according to custom, had to follow the very poor to
the grave. In 1801 Bach's daughter, Regina, was still
living, a " good old woman," who would have starved
but for a public subscription, to which Beethoven
contributed.



BACH, OLD FATHER OF FUGUES 47

Something of Bach's character as a man will have
been gathered from what has preceded. As a rule he
was genial and kindly, but his temper would occasion-
ally show itself. Thus at a rehearsal, when the organist
had made a very bad blunder, he flew into a towering
rage, tore his wig from his head, and threw it at the
offender, shouting that "he had better have been a
cobbler." He was very modest about his own abilities


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryJ. Cuthbert (James Cuthbert) HaddenMaster musicians; a book for players, singers and listeners → online text (page 3 of 17)