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J.S. Bach Musical Analysis

The Creative Development of J.S. Bach (Vol. 1)

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    The Creative Development of J.S. Bach Vol. 1 (1695-1717) Sheet Music Library

    Introduction

    If anyone might be said to have had music in his blood, it is Johann Sebastian Bach. In the central German region of Thuringia where he was born, the Bachs were known as musicians, and had been for generations, in the same way that other families might be known as bakers or shoemakers. Sebastian’s father Johann Ambrosius was a professional musician-director of the Stadtpfeifer, or town musicians, at Eisenach-and the family home must have been a veritable beehive of musical activity, filled with the sound of practising, tuning, instrumental repair work, and music-making of all kinds.

    Great versatility was expected of the Stadtpfeifer: despite their name (literally ‘town pipers’), they were expected to master string, wind, and brass instruments alike.

    This cannot have escaped the notice of the child Bach, who might even have learned the rudiments of a variety of instruments himself. In any case, it is likely that he learned the violin, which he is said to have played as a youth ‘cleanly and penetratingly’, from his father, who was first and foremost a violinist.

    Bach’s childhood musical experience

    was by no means restricted to instrumental playing, however. As a member of the chorus musicus at Eisenach (presumably), Ohrdruf, and Liineburg, he would have taken part in elaborate polyphonic and concerted music at church services, thereby gaining experience that would prove invaluable in later years. And in view of his natural musical talent and ‘uncommonly fine soprano voice’, he was no doubt at some stage assigned the role of concertist (soloist).

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    The repertoire of the chorus musicus at Eisenach included fifteenth- and sixteenth-century a cappella music by Walter, Senft, Josquin, Obrecht, and others, as well as seventeenth-century German music by Michael Praetorius, Schein, Schutz, Hammerschmidt, and Johann Christoph Bach. Still greater riches were available to the Michaelisschule, which Bach attended in Liineburg. Its great choir library is lost, but according to an inventory of 1695 it contained over a thousand pieces drawn from seventeenth-century Germany and Italy. Composers represented include Schiitz, Hammerschmidt, Buxtehude, Rosenmiiller, Krieger, Strunck, Weckmann, Monte­verdi, and Carissimi.

    Since the Mettenchor (Matins choir) of which Bach was a member drew its repertory from this library, he must have become familiar with a vast amount of music both ancient and modern, from a cappella motets in the polyphonic style of the sixteenth century to relatively up-to-date concerted music for voices and instruments.

    It is against this background of constant vocal and instrumental activity that we must view the young Bach’s decision to specialize in the organ and harpsichord. This should not be regarded as a sign of narrowing interest, but rather as the emergence of a specific focus amid ongoing wide-ranging musical experience. Between the ages of ten and fifteen (1695-1700) he received a thorough training in the playing of keyboard instruments in Ohrdruf from his elder brother Johann Christoph, who had studied with the family friend Johann Pachelbel in Erfurt and might be supposed to have passed on what he had learnt.

    The younger Bach seems to have made astonishing progress: ‘In a short time he had fully mastered all the pieces his brother had willingly given him to learn’; and in 1702, at the age of seventeen and only a couple of years after leaving Ohrdruf, he was unanimously elected to the post of organist at the Jacobikirche, Sangerhausen (an alternative candidate was, however, imposed by the reigning duke). In the following year he gave the inaugural recital at the new Wender organ in the Neuekirche, Arnstadt, and so impressed the local citizens that he was offered the post of organist there. Before the recital, he had been invited to examine the new organ-a testimony to the reputation he had already established, at the age of eighteen, as an organ expert.

    The question arises how he had acquired that knowledge when so young. The organ at the Georgenkirche, Eisenach, which his uncle Johann Christoph played, and the two organs at the Michaeliskirche, Ohrdruf, played by his elder brother (also Johann Christoph) were in constant need of repair; and the child Bach no doubt learnt much from discussing the problems with his relatives ( and perhaps with organ builders called in to carry out repairs) and from assisting them with routine maintenance work. Later on, at least by 1708, this direct, ‘hands-on’ knowledge would be backed up by detailed study of Werckmeister’s Orgelprobe of 1681, the best-known authority on the organ of the time, covering organ building, renovation, testing, tuning methods, and the duties of the organist.

    It is not at all clear when Bach began to compose,

    or to study composition, nor what form that study took. It seems reasonable to pinpoint the period of formal keyboard tuition in Ohrdruf, but there is no evidence that his teacher-brother Johann Christoph was a composer; and C. P. E. Bach told Forkel that ‘the instruction [he] received … in Ohrdruf may well have been designed for an organist and nothing more’. It has even been suggested13 that the young Bach might have sought primarily a virtuoso organist’s career rather than that of a composer.

    On the other hand, he might have been inspired to pursue keyboard playing and composition in tandem by the example of two illustrious relatives of his father’s generation, the brothers Johann Christoph and Johann Michael Bach. Johann Christoph was not only church organist and court harpsichordist at Eisenach, where the child Bach, before the age of ten, would have come into close contact with him, but a ‘profound’, ‘great and expressive’ composer. Johann Michael, whose daughter Bach later married, was both church organist at Gehren and an ‘able composer’ of sacred vocal music and organ chorales.

    A still more illustrious model for the young organist-composer was Bach’s brother’s teacher Johann Pachelbel, organist at Erfurt and Gotha during Bach’s childhood. Furthermore, during the first five or six years of the eighteenth century Bach would encounter three highly significant role models in the North German towns of Luneburg, Hamburg and Lubeck: Georg Bohm, Jan Adam Reincken and Dieterich Buxtehude. Reincken and Buxtehude, in particular, were versatile musicians of great professional expertise-at once virtuoso organists and erudite, technically accomplished composers.

    Bach could hardly fail to observe that, unlike his Thurin­gian relatives-who earned their living simply as humble servants of town, church or court-these two North-German masters commanded considerable status and independence as artistic personalities in their own right. Nor, incidentally, could he have remained unimpressed by the rich musical life of the Hanseatic trading cities in which they dwelt, Hamburg and Lubeck. Hamburg, which Bach visited several times in 1700-2, was not only a great centre for organ and church music but home to the first German civic opera house, founded in the Gansemarkt in 1678.

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    Lubeck was the scene of Buxtehude’s Abendmusiken, events in which sacred works on the scale of oratorios were performed publicly in an extra-liturgical context on five successive Sundays each autumn. On 2 and 3 December 1705 Bach must have heard, and possibly taken part in, two such performances: Buxtehude’s funeral music for Kaiser Leopold I, Castrum doloris (Bux:WV 134), and his homage music for Kaiser Joseph I, Templum honoris (Bux:WV 135).

    As for the study of composition,

    there is no evidence in Bach’s case of formal tuition such as Handel received from Zachow; and C. P. E. Bach may well be stating no more than the truth when he declares that his father ‘learned chiefly by the observation of the works of the most famous and proficient composers of his day and by the fruits of his own reflection upon them’.

    His insatiable curiosity, which he attempted to satisfy by the time-honoured method of copying music by hand, is illustrated by the well-known story of his copying out by moonlight a book of keyboard pieces by the South-German composers Froberger, Kerll and Pachelbel­a book that belonged to his teacher-brother Johann Christoph and that for some reason had been withheld from him. The book presumably reflected something of the repertoire that Pachelbel taught his pupils, for all three composers are also represented in a tablature manuscript belonging to another pupil, Johann Valentin Eckelt.

    In Llineburg, at the very beginning of the eighteenth century (1700-2), Bach must have encountered the music of Georg Bohm, organist at the Johanniskirche; and in a letter C. P. E. Bach at first described him as his father’s ‘teacher’ before crossing the word out and replacing it with ‘the Liineburg organist’. C. P. E. Bach can hardly have conjured the word out of thin air, and it might perhaps hint that Bohm occupied some kind of informal supervisory role.

    In any case, it is clear from Bach’s early music how much he must have learnt from Bohm, as well as from the other North-German composers he encountered around the same time, in particular Reincken, Buxtehude, and Bruhns. Many of their keyboard works are included alongside the early works of Bach himself in two manuscript volumes compiled by his Ohrdruf brother Johann Christoph between about 1704 and 1713, namely the Moller Manuscript and the Andreas Bach Book.

    It is more than likely that the young Bach was himself responsible for bringing these works south to Thuringia upon his return from Liineburg in 1702, and again, perhaps, after his Lubeck visit in the winter of 1705-6. In addition to North-German works, the two volumes include music from other parts of Germany, notably by Kuhnau, Zachow, Telemann, Pachelbel, and J. C. F. Fischer, as well as a certain amount of French and Italian music. Again, much of this music might have been made available to Johann Christoph by his younger brother, who seems to have had a voracious appetite for acquainting himself with music written in as many different styles and genres as possible.

    The presence of Albinoni trio sonatas in the Moller Manuscript ties in with the youthful Bach’s study of Albinoni, Corelli, and Legrenzi, to which his works of the time bear witness. The French ensemble works in the two volumes, by Lully and Marais, are no doubt similar in style to the music Bach heard at Liineburg Castle, played by the French orchestra kept by the Duke of Celle. From this experience the young Bach is said to have ‘acquired a thorough grounding in the French taste’.

    Moreover, in works by him, Bohm, and Telemann in the Andreas Bach Book we encounter the contemporary German vogue for transferring the Lullian style to the keyboard. At the same time, works by Lebegue and Marchand in Johann Christoph’s volumes show the youthful Bach making the acquaintance of original French keyboard music.

    All these works, whether French, Italian, or German, contri­buted to the formation of Bach’s style and technique; and their gradual assimilation helps to explain the extraordinary richness and density of his mature music in all its manifestations.

    Describing Bach’s first attempts at composition,

    his first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel talks of his tendency ‘to run or leap up and down the instrument, to take both hands as full as all the five fingers will allow, and to proceed in this wild manner till he by chance finds a resting place’.

    Despite the obvious element of caricature (like many later writers, Forkel tended to denigrate Bach’s early works, comparing them unfavourably with his mature masterpieces), one can recognize here a certain type within Bach’s early music: that which has its roots in his own developing virtuosity as a player and improviser. But contrary to Forkel’s implication, these works seldom degenerate into empty passage-work. For the young Bach, as for other player­composers, ideas emerged from the very possibilities of his instrument, and from his own skill at exploiting them.

    Thereby he made contact with a rich vein of fantasy that, pace Forkel again, imparts ideas of genuine value to the early keyboard works. There is an obvious affinity here with the so-called stylus phantasticus, or fantastic style, as exemplified by Buxtehude’s praeludia.

    Here again, the composer’s own free fantasy, called forth on the spur of the moment by direct contact with his instrument, is the decisive factor. North-German praeludia of this kind no doubt made a powerful impact on the youth from Thuringia; but free fantasy is too spontaneous to be easily imitated, and the rhapsodic effusions of the D major Toccata, BWV 912, for example, are highly personal, which perhaps explains why they sound so romantic to our ears.

    It is easy to see how this ‘most free and unrestrained manner of composing’ might have emerged of its own accord out of Bach’s training as an organist under Johann Christoph at Ohrdruf, particularly as improvisation would have been involved as an essential prerequisite for an organist’s career. But his aspirations to be a composer also have another, quite different source.

    At an early stage he seems to have shown a remarkable aptitude for fugal and contrapuntal writing-though it must be confessed that we find nothing in early Bach to approach the contrapuntal achieve­ments of the 25-year-old Frescobaldi in his Il primo libro delle fantasie of 1608, or of the 21-year-old Purcell in his ensemble fantasias of 1680. And although subject-based music, such as fugues and chorale arrangements, were often improvised at the time, their advanced pursuit in the long run required tuition or, at the very least, a careful, patient study of models.

    This the youth willingly undertook, according to C. P. E. Bach: ‘Through his own study and reflection alone he became, even in his youth, a pure and strong fugue writer’.

    Here we catch a glimpse of the studious Bach who, rather than using his fingers to call forth fantasy, set his mind to the art of construc­tion in sound. From an early age he seems to have been drawn towards the learned, academic side of music-never for its own sake, however, but in the service of a strong, expressive content, for, as we are told by his son, he was ‘no lover of dry, mathematical stuff’. The development of the mind plays a key role here, and the young Bach showed exceptional intellectual ability, his school work repeatedly outperform­ing that of his older fellow students at the schools in Eisenach, Ohrdruf, and Liineburg where he was educated.

    The two opposing elements of intellectual control and spontaneous fantasy tend to jostle for the upper hand in Bach’s early music. In time, however, the intellect would increasingly predominate to the extent that the composer’s reliance on his own instrument for inspiration gradually diminished. No weakening of fantasy was involved in this process, but that element no longer arose primarily from the interaction between player and instrument; instead, it emerged from within.

    Even the player-composer of Bach’s early years, however, must have composed according to his own inner lights, so it is worth asking what personal resources he could call upon beyond agile hands and feet and a fine intellect.

    Already we find some evidence of the personal characteristics that we tend to associate with Bach in his maturity. Consid­erable independence and single-mindedness are shown by the long, arduous journeys he undertook in pursuit of his educational and musical goals. Leaving his native Thuringia, home of the Bach family of musicians, in March 1700, just before his fifteenth birthday, he travelled over 200 miles north to Liineburg in order to complete his education.

    On several occasions during his stay there he traversed the 30 miles from Liineburg to Hamburg in order to hear Reincken play the great four-manual organ of the Catherinenkirche. And later on, after his return to Thuringia, he journeyed over 250 miles on foot from Arnstadt to Lubeck in order to hear Dieterich Buxtehude, organist of the Marienkirche, and his famous Abendmusiken, lingering there for about three months ‘in order to comprehend one thing and another about his art’ despite having been granted only one month’s leave of absence. We encounter here a single-minded determination to further his personal aims as a musician, even at the expense of his public obligations.

    The other side of this purposefulness, however, is an obstinacy and truculence, a tendency to take offence, which makes itself felt much later in Leipzig, but is already evident in his first post at Arnstadt (1703-7) in difficulties with students and the church authorities: he ‘had a reputation for not getting on with the students’, and even got involved in a brawl with one of them; and he fell foul of the local consistory for refusing to perform concerted music with the students, and for outlandish chorale playing (by local standards) during services.

    We are told that he played for too long, but after being reproved by the superintendent, ‘had at once fallen into the other extreme and made it too short’. Again, in Bach’s letter of resignation from his second organist’s post, at Miihlhausen (1707-8), he complains of the ‘hindrance’ and ‘vexation’ he had experienced during his year there -words that bring to mind his endless disputes with the Leipzig town council in later years.

    Although it may be right to impute Bach’s sense of annoying impediments at least partially to a municipality that ‘clung to old fashions and customs’, it seems most unlikely, in view of what we know of his failure to get on with the authorities elsewhere, that he was entirely blameless in the matter. And it seems natural to suppose that this stubborn, pugnacious side of Bach’s personality-his fighting spirit, to put it in a more positive light-was to some extent sublimated into the immense energy of his music.
    As a child Bach was no stranger to sorrow.

    When only six years old,

    he had to come to terms with the death of his eighteen-year-old brother Johann Balthazar, whom he must have looked up to as an apprentice of his father’s; and only three years later, at the age of nine, he had to confront an even greater calamity when he lost both parents within the space of about nine months (May 1694-February 1695). It is reasonable to assume that the deeply moving expressions of grief and meditations on death in his music, from the early Actus tragicus cantata ( Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106, c. 1707) onwards, had their roots in these devastating childhood experiences.

    They may also have contributed to that ‘serious temperament’ that ‘drew him by preference to music that was serious, elaborate and profound’. Bach’s capacity for serious thought and feeling must have fostered the spiritual depth that we recognize in his mature music, but which is already apparent in some of the early cantatas, especially the funeral cantata No. 106, mentioned above, and the Easter cantata No. 4, as well as in certain early organ chorales, notably Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, BWV 741. This deeply spiritual side of Bach’s nature was, of course, channelled into the Lutheran Church, with which he was intimately associated from his earliest years and almost continually throughout his life.

    He would have gained early familiarity with the liturgy of the main service, the Hauptgottesdienst, structured around the Mass Ordinary (including German paraphrases such as ‘Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr’ and ‘Wir glauben all an einen Gott’), with the words of the Lutheran Bible, and with the rhythm of the church year. And he would have become aware that the church, whether in words or music or in both combined, was capable of giving expression to our deepest feelings, either on occasions of great sorrow, such as the family funerals he had to attend, or of great joy, such as the wedding of his elder brother Johann Christoph in October 1694.

    The church, whether in Eisenach, Ohrdruf, Liineburg, Arnstadt, or Miihlhausen, was beyond question his spiritual home, and it is in this light that we should understand his almost continuous involvement in church music from Eisenach onwards.

    The divorcing of Bach’s sacred music

    from its liturgical context and even from the meaning of its words is a modern, secular phenomenon that bears no relation to its true origins. The very depth of response, which cannot be overlooked in his church music, testifies to the intimacy of his involvement with the texts and with what they signify. From early childhood he must have dwelt on the meaning of the increasingly familiar biblical words he heard in church, begun to evaluate and compare different musical settings of them, and in time noticed that, in the context of the whole church year, they covered the entire gamut of states of the soul in relation to the divinity.

    We approach here one of the most profound sources of Bach’s life as a creative artist. Through regular and intimate involvement with the church and its music, he must have learnt by experience that music, linked to appropriate words, could reach the very depths of our being and thereby offer fulfilment to the soul.

    In the various churches where Bach was active in the 1690s and 1700s, he would have encountered a vast quantity of music, whether for organ, congregation, a cappella choir, or combined vocal and instrumental ensemble. At the heart of this music lay the Lutheran chorale, the German congregational hymn, with which he would have been acquainted from a very early age, having grown up with the Eisenach hymnal of 1673, the Neues vollstiindiges Eisenachisches Gesangbuch, which contained no fewer than 612 chorales. Hymnals of this kind formed the staple diet of Lutheran church music, and the child Bach must have been struck by the association of the old familiar melodies with sacred verse that constantly echoed the Bible and tied in with the specific occasion, the readings, and the sermon.

    Much of the more elaborate church music that he heard or participated in, either for organ or for choir, would have been based on a chorale cantus firmus, employing time-honoured techniques of deriving a new composition from an existing melody.

    The most popular chorales were employed in this way countless times by various composers, and at a very young age Bach must have learnt to evaluate and compare the different versions. This would no doubt act as a spur to his own creativity, for he must have been filled with a desire to emulate the best composers and their work. An organist’s duties typically included not only accompanying the congregational singing of chorales but introducing them with an improvised or pre-composed piece of music based on them. Bach would have learnt this art of ‘preluding’ from his elder brother Johann Christoph in Ohrdruf; some of his very earliest compositions, such as the organ chorales attributed to him from the Neumeister Collection, might have been written with this function in mind.

    Organists also had to play preludes, fantasias, fugues and the like at the beginning and end of the service, and some of Bach’s early non-chorale-based organ music must have been designed to serve this purpose. Not all of it, however, for some of the preludes and fugues, alongside the suites, sonatas, capriccios, and toccatas, must have been written for performance in the home. It is impossible to draw clear dividing lines here, either in the function served by the music or in the instrument for which it was written.

    The sources, rather than naming a specific instrument, merely describe the work concerned as ‘manualiter’ or ‘pedaliter’-that is, playable on manuals only, or requiring a pedalboard. Thus Bach, like his older contemporaries, was in many cases not writing with a particular keyboard instrument in mind, but for whichever instrument the player had to hand, either in church or in the home. All the composer had to do was to stipulate whether or not pedals were required; the player could then choose whether to perform the music on church organ, house organ, pedal­harpsichord, manuals-only harpsichord, spinet, or clavichord.

    The elaborate vocal music in which Bach participated at Eisenach, Ohrdruf, and Liineburg was of two kinds: on the one hand, a cappella motets in a traditional polyphonic style; and on the other, concerted vocal and instrumental music (sacred concertos, cantatas and so on) in a much more up-to-date idiom. Motet style and the closely related stile antico clearly made a deep impression on him, for he would return to it for certain movements of his church works throughout his career. But it soon became clear that his aspirations as a composer lay primarily within the field of concerted vocal and instrumental music.

    Opportunities for this were limited in Arnstadt and Miihlhausen, mainly because, as elsewhere, concerted music was primarily the responsibility of the local cantor, while the organist, by contrast, was normally able to perform it only at weddings, funerals, or other special occasions. However, there were also local difficulties. At Arnstadt Bach found the student choir unruly and hard to get along with, and he consequently failed to perform concerted music with them-an omission for which he was repeatedly taken to task by the church authorities.

    He may have done so, however, towards the end of his tenure: the two cantatas he would have had to submit for his Miihlhausen application might have been drawn from a stock he was building up in Arnstadt, rather than newly composed for the purpose. At Miihlhausen, Bach not only composed and performed occasional cantatas himself (among them, BWV 71, 106, and 131); he also ‘acquired from far and wide, not without cost, a good store of the choicest church compositions’ by other composers, for use not only in his own town church, the Blasiuskirche, but in local village churches too.

    Here in Miihlhausen, as later in Weimar and Leipzig, his central goal was, in his own words, the provision of ‘a well-regulated church music to the glory of God’.40 It is obstacles to that goal that he cites, without going into details, as the grounds for his resignation after only one year.

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    The Best of J.S. Bach

    Tracklist:

    THE BEST OF BACH Johann Sebastian Bach 1. Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046 Allegro (00:00) Adagio (4:43) Allegro (9:10) 2. Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048 Allegro (13:40) Allegro assai (19:11) Allegro (24:05) 3. Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049 Presto (31:42) Andante (36:37) Affettuoso (39:32) 4. Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 Allegro (45:02) 5. Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060 Allegro (50:38) Largo (54:59) Allegro (59:32) 6. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067: Menuet (1:02:35) 7. Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068: Air on the G String (1:05:35) 8. Cantata BWV 147: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (1:10:07) 9. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (1:13:32) 10. Harpsichord Invention No. 1 in C major, BWV 772 (1:22:23) 11. Harpsichord Invention No 8 in F major, BWV 779 (1:23:43) 12. Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067: Badinerie (1:24:42) 13. Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach: Minuet in G major, BWV Ahn. 114 (1:27:24) 14. Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach: Musette in D major, BWV Anh.126 (1:28:59) 15. Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006: Bourée (1:30:06) 16. Sonata for Viola da Gamba & Harpsichord, BWV 1028 (1:31:48) 17. Concerto in D minor, BWV 1059: 2nd Movt. (1:35:44) 18. Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010: Courante (1:38:54) 19. Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012: Gavotte (1:42:32) 20. Cello Suite No. 6 in D major BWV 1012: Prelude (1:46:42)