IN July, 1708, Bach joined the entourage of that devoutly orthodox but despotic prince, Wilhelm Ernst (1662-1728), the stern older brother of Johann Ernst (1664-1707) whom Bach had served for a short period five years earlier. The two brothers lived out their lives estranged over a struggle for political power. An imperial law of 1629 had given them equal sovereignty, with the younger bearing the title of Mitregent or coregent. Constant and sharp disagreements arose over governing the principality and Johann Ernst was driven to appeal, in vain, for division of the already tiny territory.
The two brothers had exceedingly different temperaments. Wilhelm Ernst was a stern religionist, using his faith to make his barren personal existence bearable. Johann Ernst was a much warmer person, although in historical records he is overshadowed by his stronger older brother, who outlived him by almost 21 years. He loved music and spent long hours playing and composing music. Wilhelm Ernst saw little merit in these pleasant indulgences. At nine o’clock all the lights in his castle had to be extinguished—he did not share the current enthusiasm for court theater. He surrounded himself with the edifying company of preachers and theologians, and occasionally appeared in the pulpit himself. He was ridiculously proud that at the age of nine his ability to pontificate had been recognized.
Wilhelm was a lonely man. He was separated from his wife, had no children, was estranged from his brother and later his nephew. He lived for his conviction only. He withdrew into his religion as a refuge and a means to maintain not his humanity, but his stubborn will. His motto, Alles mit Gott (Let all be with God), gave him the assurance that his own will and God’s were identical. In fact, his belief was primarily in his own righteousness, supported, of course, by God. His ostentatious claims for the doctrinal purity of his own faith justified, to him, a ban on mention of subjects of religious controversy from the pulpit. (His staunch Lutheranism was not disturbed, however, when the question of taking advantage of the services of calvinistic Huguenots, at very low wages, came up.)
The castle in which Wilhelm resided, Wilhelmsburg, was a vast, very high, square structure in French Renaissance style. Spires that seemed to be striving to outreach each other broke the severity of the style with thin elongated points, one of them strangely mounted upon a huge, round tower. The castle was surrounded by a moat, separated from a nearby stream, the Ilm, by a broad promenade.
Johann Ernst’s palace, the Rotes Schloss (Red Castle), was a sixteenth-century building connected with the Wilhelmsburg by a red corridor, the Roter Gang. Many busy personnel passed over this passage daily, carrying out the complicated business affairs of a dual seat of government. Bach too must have often trod the long passage, dressed in the ecclesiastic robe of chapel organist.
Many intellectuals of the day lived in the castle community and contributed importantly to Sebastian’s cultural and musical development. Wilhelm Ernst had one laudable virtue, that of promoting the education of his people. He erected new buildings for the schools and engaged competent men for the education of the young and for the training of the teachers and clericals. His interest in history prompted him to assemble public archives, to form a collection of coins, and to establish an excellent library.
Bach’s duties at this court are not precisely known, but his main function was organist. In the archives of Weimar he is mentioned as Hoff-organist und Cammer Musicus, court organist and chamber musician. In his own genealogy his title is Cammer und Hofforganist in Weimar An. 1708. Bach thus ranked below the Kapellmeister and the Vice-Kapellmeister in the hierarchy of musical ranks and petty powers. The Kapellmeister presided over the choice of music and was expected to perform the fruits of his own talent on most musical occasions.
When Bach arrived in Weimar the office of Kapellmeister was held by Johann Samuel Drese (1644-1716), an old and feeble man who was no longer capable of fulfilling his duties. He had been a pupil of his cousin Adam Drese, who, Bach cannot have forgotten, long ago tried unsuccessfully to introduce pietistic music in Arnstadt. The Vice-Kapellmeister was Drese’s son Johann Wilhelm, who has gained as little praise as his father for his compositions.
Little social intercourse took place between the ducal potentate and his staff of musicians, and all the musicians were employed at other tasks in the feudal relationship. A memorandum of 1714-1716 noted that a bass singer held the office of court secretary, a trumpeter was also chamber servant,1 and another trumpeter was also palace Stewart (a very lowly position). The court secretary, so the record states, boarded at the palace, while the humble trumpeters “draw table allowance.”2 The Kapellmeister was reluctantly allowed to draw “a daily ration of one small loaf of bread and one measure of beer from the cellar” in addition to his salary. A “soprano” (a male falsettist) is mentioned as “going along to the free table.” Since Bach’s name does not appear on the list, he must not have lived at the castle. This distinction suggests that Bach was held in high regard at the court.
The organ in the ducal chapel was very small, compared to those with 55 to 65 stops that Bach had known in Hamburg, Lübeck, Lüneburg, and Eisenach. The instrument had only two manuals, 25 stops, and was even smaller than the one in Mühlhausen. But Bach’s artistic imagination would always transcend the limitations of the physical medium in his charge.
The Fruits of an Inspired Organist
Although Bach himself aspired to a higher rank than organist, we may be grateful that for a few years his duties were limited to this office, for in no other period of his life did he compose so many preludes, toccatas, fantasies, and fugues for this instrument. Thirty-nine major organ compositions are extant for the years 1708-1717. He composed more than three times the number of large organ works produced in the 33 years after he left the duchy. Bach wrote the greatest organ music of all time between his twenty-third and thirty-second year; a dozen works of later years equal this body of works but only his chorale-preludes, composed later, surpass his early achievement.
These organ compositions stand as eternal monuments, profoundly expressive of deep, ecstatic spiritual experience. Yet the models upon which Bach conceived these glorious works are easily discernible. But in them Bach achieved the consummation of the artistic aspirations of his predecessors. In several, like the Passacaglia and the D Major Prelude and Fugue (BG, XV, 88)* the styles of Bohm and especially Buxtehude are evident—in the idioms, the virtuosity, the harmonic counterpoint, and the form. In others we recognize the physiognomy of Pachelbel’s music. The famous A Minor Fugue (BG, XV, 189) uses a theme derived from a similar work of that master. The same theme is transformed once more in a clavier fugue of this period (BG, III, 334). But in Bach’s hands these works reach a maturity while still burning with his ardent fire of youth.
Conspicuously absent from the list of works of this period are chorale-preludes. Perhaps Duke Wilhelm or Kapellmeister Drese wished to shorten the service by omitting these meditative preludes to congregational singing. Bach was dedicated to this traditional art, for all his teachers and his illustrious relatives had cultivated it. As soon as his connection with this court was terminated he began working on a set of chorale-preludes for the entire liturgical year, which are discussed in Chapter 18.
Bach’s toccatas pose another but related problem. The composer’s choice of musical forms was determined by their particular job; musicians always composed with a specific occasion in mind, and these factors dictated the choice of personnel and instruments. At first glance Bach’s toccatas do not seem to fit any of the occasions for which he was composing at this time. Today the works are performed exclusively on the piano or the harpsichord, and this practice suggests that the music was not played on the organ in religious services. But at the time Bach wrote these works, no sharp distinction was ever made between organ, harpsichord, or clavichord works—they could be performed on any of these instruments—and in most of the extant manuscripts the titles of the toccatas are given as Toccata manualiter or Toccata clamat manualiter. Only a few are called Toccata, Cembalo (for the harpsichord).3 They were performed on the organ as well as the harpsichord, and probably in the Lutheran church service as extra music during Communion, which followed the regular main service.
Indeed not long before Bach’s time toccatas were part of the service. Bach was fully aware of this custom, for continuing in Weimar his practice of copying numerous Italian compositions, he wrote out the entire Fiori Musicali of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643),4 the Roman organist of St. Peter’s. The toccatas, ricercars,5 and other pieces found in this collection, served at the Catholic Mass and at other liturgical functions. The rhapsodic parts of the toccatas grew out of the improvisations of the organist during the unpredictable span of time that the priest might take for his various changes of robes and mitres, and swinging of incense. In general these interludes—toccatas connecting the more set ricercars—took the form of a dexterous display and sometimes served as preludes to larger compositions. Some of Bach’s more virtuosic preludes, followed by large fugues, bear the title of toccata. Frescobaldi’s toccata style was introduced to Thuringia by his pupil Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667), who undoubtedly shared his master’s ideas on the functions of this musical form. He studied with Frescobaldi from 1637 to 1641. Bach’s love for Froberger’s art is well known, and his compositions, which were among the first that Bach mastered as a young student in Ohrdruf, impressed this conception of the toccata on Bach.
So when our modern piano virtuosi use these toccatas to introduce the more appealing fare of romantic, impressionist, and other entertainment, the original function and import of this music is missed entirely. Bach may have played the rhapsodic parts of these clavier toccatas as the preacher moved around between the performances of his sacred duties in the Communion service, shortening or extending the section as needed. The quiet ricercars were played during the administering of the bread and wine, and the gigue-like, joyful finale echoed the grateful gladness of the communicants as they walked away from the altar.
Seventeen other compositions of this period, primarily small fugues for other instruments, are extant. Few of them, however, show the maturity of the organ works. Six are of questionable authenticity;6 six others are modeled upon examples by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1750), Wilhelm Hieronymus Pachelbel (son of the famous composer), and possibly others. One wonders either if they might be attempts by his students or if they belong to an earlier period. The only composition of this group that unmistakably shows the hand of the master is the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BG, XXXVI, 91). Later Bach worked this piece out as a triple concerto for flute, violin, harpsichord, and orchestra, and again, just a few years before his death, he used the theme in a chorale arrangement. The “Aris Variata alia Maniera Italiana,” as the musicologist Ernst Naumann points out (BG, XXXVI, lxxxvi), has come to us only in the form of copies by pupils and other contemporaries. If this charming composition is really by Bach, he intended it frankly as “all’imitatione Italiana,” as the manuscript of a copy by Kellner reads.
After 1714 when he was given a higher rank of “concertmaster and organist” he was required to compose and direct cantatas for the service in the ducal chapel. Bach had earlier proven his ability in this form: in the fall of 1713 he had performed his cantata No. 21, “Ich hatte viel Bekummernis,” (I had much Sorrow) in Halle, and five other cantatas date from before 1714.7 In all, 20 cantatas can be identified in the Weimar period with relative certainty; at least two others presumed to date from the same period were either revised or actually composed at a much later date.8
Since Bach had a rather small orchestra at his disposal, the Weimar cantatas do not require a great variety of instruments. There were plenty of trumpeters who served in various capacities—including the chase, the one indulgence the austere duke allowed himself. The list of musical employees does not mention an oboist, so one of the trumpeters, perhaps the bassoonist listed, or occasionally one of the town pipers must have filled in. The total number of singers in these ensembles amount to six boys. Tonal balance was practically unknown at this time.
A Congenial Musical Environment
In sharp contrast to the antimusical atmosphere in Mühlhausen, Bach found, at the palace and in the city, a circle of kindred minds who recognized the spiritual power of music. Johann Christoph Lorbeer, a poet in Wilhelm’s entourage who won the laureate’s crown from the emperor, wrote an extensive lyrical poem, “Lob der Edlen Musik” (The Praise of the Noble Art of Music). He even conducted public polemics against pietistic opposition to music. Lorbeer was 40 years Bach’s senior, and age probably interfered with any close relationship between the young composer and him. Bach was closer to Salomo Franck, a younger poet who had a decisive influence upon Bach’s new stylistic achievements in the composition of the church cantata. Franck, like almost all writers in Germany at that time, followed the cantata reforms of Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756), who used operatic devices such as the recitative and the da capo aria composed upon free poems paraphrasing Bible and hymn texts. This new treatment (discussed at greater length in Chapter 19) called for a new kind of poet—the librettist, an able manipulator of rhyme and meter willing to submit his art to the more powerful claims of music.
Salomo Franck loved and respected music deeply and was willing to collaborate with the composer. In addition to his sympathetic attitude, Franck stands out among all the librettists that Bach employed as the most poetic. Even in his later years in Leipzig, Bach would refer his librettist Picander to Salomo Franck as a model. Bach must have found this happy collaboration exhilarating; the new style and this master of its written form encouraged him in his pursuit of a purely musical expression of his faith, unfettered by binding literary restrictions. His enthusiasm for Neumeister’s innovation was fanned by the antipietistic zeal behind it. Neumeister’s passionate and violent attacks upon Pietism —widely read all over Germany—must have supported the convictions of the young master that the new style moved in the right direction.
Bach’s circle of friends included another ardent admirer, Johann Matthias Gesner (1691-1761), the great classicist, historian, ecclesiastic, and educator. As an enthusiastic music-lover, Gesner was in complete sympathy with Bach’s conceptions of the role of music as an integral part of the Lutheran service. Seventeen years later, when he again became Bach’s associate as rector of the Thomas school at Leipzig, he gave him the staunch support that Bach so needed. He has described his impression of Bach’s musicianship in action in his edition of Quintillian’s Institutiones Oratoriae, where he says that Bach is “worth any number of Orpheuses and twenty singers like Arion.”9 Johann Christoph Kiesewetter, Bach’s former master at the Ohrdruf Gymnasium, and Georg Theodor Reineccius, able cantor at the Weimar Gymnasium, contributed to Bach’s rich social and intellectual life in Weimar.
His cousin Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748) was Bach’s most stimulating companion, because of their mutual interest in musical theory, the history of this science, and the erudition in philosophical speculations on the divine nature and the spiritual import of this art. Walther’s father, Valentine Lammerhirt, was a half-brother of Bach’s mother, Elisabeth Lammerhirt, and Bach and Walther were fast friends; the report that has found its way into most of their biographies that their friendship later cooled has been proved false.10 Had Walther’s friendship for Bach cooled, he surely would not have copied Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier and 29 chorale-preludes many years after Bach had left Weimar.11
The two friends spent many profitable and pleasant hours together. Walther was only one year older than Bach, and an anecdote from Forkel confirms their jovial comradeship. Bach’s continued boasting that he could play anything at first sight inspired Walther to compose a musical trap for his friend. When at a breakfast party Bach found himself stumbling over the little composition, he laughingly admitted defeat to the triumphant Walther. The two composers also exchanged musical riddles, and the solutions to these puzzle canons were mutually challenging and stimulating. Walther’s expertise in the art of counterpoint led to one of his chorale-preludes being mistaken for Bach’s (in the highly respected Peters edition).
Walther: Guiding Spirit in Musical Study
Walther was an ardent collector of musical manuscripts and books dealing with philosophical speculation on the nature of music and harmonic and contrapuntal theory. Together with his apprentices and pupils—Johann Martin Schubart, Johann Caspar Vogler, Johann Tobias Krebs, Johann Gotthilf Ziegler, and his nephew Johann Bernhard from Ohrdruf—he copied much music of Vivaldi, Corelli, Benedetto Marcello, Bononcini, Bontempi, Legrenzi, and Frescobaldi. Through this large collection Bach received an education in Italian music. He based numerous concerti on models of Vivaldi, both in almost literal transcriptions and as points of departure for his own development.
The year that Bach arrived in Weimar Walther completed an instruction book on the art of composition in which he discussed the entire history of harmony and counterpoint from Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590) to his own time. The work has received lavish praise from his contemporaries12 as well as from musicologists of our time,13 who say that its scientific accuracy and thoroughness surpasses any work of contemporaries such as Printz, Werckmeister, Heinichen, and Mattheson. For some unknown reason the work has never been printed, but its manuscript was preserved until very recent times.14 Bach was certainly well acquainted with it.
Walther’s manuscript—which indirectly reveals much about the scope of Bach’s knowledge—reviews the history of all music theories of the seventeenth and the latter half of the sixteenth centuries, concentrating on the severe disciplines of composition technique. The work deals principally with changes in the conception of dissonances, the changing relation between melodic and harmonic considerations in the writing of counterpoint, the new role of the bass since the introduction of figured basses, modes and their modern transpositions, and ancient notation. Ornamentation is also considered; all this historical knowledge is directed toward attaining a sound understanding of practical technique in counterpoint. The book contributed to Bach’s towering contrapuntal skill, which has roots reaching deeper than the teaching and the examples of Bohm, Buxtehude, or his brother Johann Christoph, and suggests that he studied the science of counterpoint from the works of the older masters and from their instruction books.
It is easy to reconstruct the general content of Walther’s library from the erudition displayed in his work. Walther spent a great deal of money on books,15 and the authors he selected—and discussed in his own work—included Cyriakus Snegasius, Zarlino, Sethus Calvisius, Lippius Baryphonus, Johannes Criiger, Thomas Balthasar Janowska, Adam Gumpelzhaimer, Christoph Thomas Walliser, Christoph Bernhard, Giovanni Bononcini, Johann Georg Ahle, Friedrich Erhard Niedt, Printz, Athanasius Kircher, Andreas Werckmeister, Reishius Kaspar Schott, D. Angelo Berardi, Marcus Meibom, Johann Andreas Herbst, and Michael Praetorius. Walther’s knowledge grew to be encyclopedic. In 1732 he published the Musical Lexicon, the first work in the German language of such comprehensive scope. Short biographies as well as musical information on many subjects are given. Even today it is an indispensable source.
Bach’s own library once included a collection of books dealing with musical matters, according to the English music historian Charles Burney. (None of these appears in the inventory of his library.) During a visit with Carl Philipp Emanuel, Burney stated, “He presented me with several of his own pieces, and three or four curious ancient books and treatises on music, out of his father’s collection, promising, at any distant time, to furnish me with others, if I would only acquaint him, by letter, with my wants.”16 Since hardly any of the older works on musical subjects (before the first decades of the eighteenth century) neglects philosophical speculation, Burney’s report confirms Bach’s interest in the theoretical aspects of music, ideas which Walther helped shape into permanent formulation. These speculative thoughts undoubtedly strengthened and were integrated with his faith in the divine function of music.
* BG refers to the Bach Gesellschaft edition of Bach’s works.