THE house of Bach’s birth was an ancient structure in Eisenach. Its medieval interior, with red-brick floors, ceilings and walls ribbed with heavy wooden beams, doors of solid oak, and heavy furniture, is an early material suggestion of Bach’s orientation to his life and work. In the room in which Sebastian was born in 1684 a portrait of robust Hans Sachs smiled down with clear blue eyes upon pious generations of Spielleute. A picture of Bach’s father Ambrosius, doubtless painted in a room of that very house, also hangs there. The steep rock of the Wartburg, with its castle turrets reaching into the clouds, dominates the view from the study window and forms the background of the portrait. Ambrosius’ face reveals a sturdy, jovial, healthy-looking burgher of good means; a certain pride of independence is expressed in his decision to be painted with flowing hair, and even a mustache, rather than in the conventional formal attire with wig.
Johann Sebastian grew up in the hospitable congeniality of the Bach clan, that famous family of musicians who for seven generations gave their musical services to towns, courts, and churches of Germany. Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Sebastian’s famous son, vividly recalls their “happy contentment,” their “cheery enjoyment of life,” and their “clannish attachment to each other.” Once a year the clan gathered from all parts of Germany, generally at Erfurt or Eisenach, and sometimes at Arnstadt. Musical frolics occupied a large part of the day’s entertainment. These skillful musicians loved to extemporize a contrapuntal mixture of popular songs, called a “quodlibet,” which aroused uproarious laughter in listeners and performers alike. The skill necessary for such polyphonic improvisation seems to have been taken for granted. The children must have been anxious to start creating such amusing combinations of melodies as soon as they could manage a clavier.
Sebastian’s first teacher was his father Ambrosius (1645-1695), a musician of the court and town whose main skill, but most likely not his only one, was the violin. Ambrosius probably introduced his son to string instruments first, beginning with the smallest and easiest for a small child to handle, the violino piccolo. The boy later mastered the violin and the instrument he preferred to play as an adult, the viola. The viola player was seated in the middle of an ensemble and could best hear all the parts.
Young Johann Sebastian must have had his first experience of hearing—and perhaps touching—the organ at St. George’s church in Eisenach where his second cousin Johann Christoph was organist from 1642 to 1703. (There were three Johann Christoph Bachs in the immediate vicinity, identified by their home city—Eisenach, Arnstadt, and Ohrdruf.) This Johann Christoph was certainly among the greatest of the musical ancestors of Johann Sebastian Bach and in later years he remembered him as “ ein profonder Componist.” One of his compositions, a motet, was long taken for one of Johann Sebastian’s.1
The Gymnasium at Eisenach
At the age of about eight, in 1692 or 1693, Sebastian was first exposed to the stern discipline of formal schooling. Every day, in the early dawn, Sebastian walked to school to gain the grammatical preparation necessary for a gentleman’s education. In midwinter the first class met at seven, and in the summer classes began at six. In those days of candlelight early rising and retiring was necessary, and the school hours did not seem as cruel as they now appear. Morning classes continued for three hours, to be resumed for two more in the afternoon.
A photograph of the Gymnasium at Eisenach2 reveals a severe stone structure, three tall stories high, facing an ancient Dominican cloisterchurch so that its tall, narrow, Gothic windows opened onto a mass of forbidding walls rather than inviting the sunlight. The term Gymnasium then covered three kinds of Latin school,3 including what we would now call a grade school, an intermediate school, roughly equivalent to our high school, and the more advanced school, similar to our college. Boys from five to 21 years old were enrolled in the same Gymnasium; not until the nineteenth century did the three types of school separate and each develop a different program of study and pedagogical approach. The rather flexible system of the seventeenth century had an advantage for a precocious student like Bach—he advanced at his own speed and showed a remarkably profound grasp of subjects at a very young age.
Following the custom of the day, young Sebastian learned to read and write in both German and Latin from the beginning. A recent reform in the teaching method had eased the students’ task somewhat by presenting the subjects in a series of short sentences in parallel columns rather than requiring tedious memorization of rules and vocabulary. The subjects described were illustrated at the tops of the pages. With this inductive method the student proceeded from concrete examples to general rules.
Comenius (Johann Amos Komensky, 1592-1671), who instituted this reform, held that “knowledge is true when things are apprehended as they exist in reality.”4 He rejected thoughtless parroting of the classics and agreed with Montaigne and Rabelais that a pupil should be furnishd with knowledge of things rather than with mere words.
But the reform of Comenius affected only the method; his other ideas on education reflect a lingering medievalism. His popular aphorisms pinpoint the predominant philosophy of learning of that time: “universal knowledge, so far as it can be obtained by man, has as its object God, nature, and art;”5 “The ultimate end of man is beyond this life. There are three stages in the preparation for eternity: to know one’s self, and with one’s self all things; to rule one’s self; and to direct one’s self to God.”6 Although physics is included in Bach’s curriculum, the science taught Comenius’ belief that the world was composed of the three elements of matter, spirit, and light; the “qualities” of all things were “consistence (salt!), oleosity (sulphur!), and aquosity (mercury!).”7
Comenius denounced classical literature and its pervasive influence in the world of scholarship and theology: “If we really want Christian schools, we must get rid of the heathen teachers. The principal schools of Christians confess Christ only by name; in truth Terence, Plautus, Cicero, Ovid, Catullus, Tibullus, Venus (sic!) and the Muses form their treasure and have their affection. That is why they are more at home in this world than in that of Christ, and that is why in the midst of Christianity hardly any Christians can be found. . . . our greatest savants, even among theologians, the trustees of Divine Wisdom, carry the mask of Christ, but have the blood and spirit of Aristotle and the rest of the heathenish flock.”8
The sum total of Comenius’ reform then amounts only to a more realistic method of teaching and a more humane attitude toward students. In fact, he was not rigidly followed in Bach’s Gymnasium; several of the classics that were condemned by Comenius appear in his curriculum. These were carefully selected, of course, to avoid contradictions of theological doctrine. Latin remained the mainstay of study, and the reading material in German for the first year consisted of the Catechism, the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and Bible history, all of which were also read in Latin.
Sebastian’s studies were interrupted after only two years by the deaths of his parents; in May, 1694, he lost his mother, and in January, 1695, his father was buried. The orphan, hardly 10 years old, and his older brother Johann Jacob were taken as apprentices into the house of their eldest brother Johann Christoph (1671-1721), organist in Ohrdruf.
Ohrdruf: Stepping-stone to a Musical Career
Ohrdruf, which derives its name from the shallow river Ohra, lies about 30 miles southeast of Eisenach. The small, walled town with a long feudal history is dominated by a medieval castle which boasts of an eighth-century origin, when Saint Boniface built an altar by a spring that still flows from St. Michael’s Church into the river. In Bach’s time marks of past cultures were evident in several buildings: a Renaissance Rathaus, a castle in Italian style, the gabled houses of the late Middle Ages, and the old Klosterschule, where Sebastian was to spend the next four years.
When Johann Christoph became organist at St. Michael’s, the principal church in Ohrdruf, in 1690, he was 19 years old and had just completed a three-year apprenticeship under Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) in Ehrfurt. Pachelbel himself had been influenced 12 years before by Sebastian’s revered second cousin, Johann Christoph of Eisenach. These two had worked together from 1677 to 1678, when Pachelbel was 24 and Johann Christoph, at 34, was at his professional peak. Pachelbel’s influence is clear in several of young Johann Sebastian’s compositions.9 Along with the music of the church, the young student was probably introduced to the easier movements of clavier suites by Pachelbel, Jakob Froberger, Ferdinand Fischer, Johann Caspar Kerll, Dietrich Buxtehude, Bruhns, and Georg Bohm. Froberger (1616-1667), a favorite of young Bach, was the most brilliant pupil of the Roman composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, and surpassed his master in the composition of toccatas. We see traces of the freedom and improvisatory imagination of his style —which grew out of Italian, French, and English influences—in Bach’s work.10
Bach responded with ardor and insatiable curiosity to the manner of musical training of his day. He was spared tiresome keyboard exercises and immediately introduced to the secrets of harmonic structure underlying and carrying the tune. He was able at once to try his own hand at making melodies, and this, combined with the arduous practice of copying the music he played (because of the scarcity of printed music), soon made him aware of his own creative powers. Like most enthusiastic children, Sebastian apparently was anxious to play more difficult music than his conservative master deemed wise. Sebastian succeeded in extracting the desired but forbidden music through the latticed front of the locked bookcase, and for many nights laboriously copied them by moonlight. For his diligence, the stern master did not praise him, but took away the manuscripts.11 It is possible that the young genius was a rather unmanageable little fellow, with whom Johann Christoph did not quite know how to deal. The persistent stubbornness typical of Bach as an adult may have come out early. In any case, he showed unusual self-reliance for his age.
Sebastian entered the Klosterschule, which in medieval times had been an adjunct to the monastery with an inner school and an outer school reserved for laymen. Theology formed its main course of study then, as in Bach’s time, and its discipline was notorious. During the Reformation when many of these schools were taken over by Protestants, they retained their ancient name of Klosterschule (cloister school). The terms Gymnasium, lyceum, Klosterschule, and Particularschule were freely interchanged by various writers at that time. Medieval methods of discipline were still condoned there in Bach’s time and included all kinds of mental punishment as well as the rod—the use of which was usually delegated to one of the older students. Comenius and Reyer deserve credit for beginning a vigorous protest against these practices.
At first Bach’s curriculum did not differ much from the one at Eisenach, but soon arithmetic and natural science, which included geography and history, were added. The instruction of arithmetic given students at the end of the Thirty Years’ War had not progressed much beyond the requirements at the beginning of the sixteenth century— they were expected to achieve the ability to count, subtract, add, and calculate fractions in German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.12 Knowledge of physics still came from the classics, unlike the universities where interest in new ideas on the science was growing.
Musical instruction, in conformity with Luther’s view, took its place in the curriculum second only to theology. Very often theology and music were taught by the same master—as they were by the cantor in Bach’s school—when the music teacher had studied theology at a university. Approximately one-fifth of the study time was taken with singing lessons, an equal amount devoted to theology, and the remainder was grudgingly divided among arithmetic, history, and geography.
At the age of 10 Sebastian began to study the rudiments of Greek. There are no signs, however, that he ever achieved his object of reading the New Testament in the original. Only one Greek textbook is mentioned during his school years in Ohrdruf, a moralistic work entitled the Poiema Nouthetikon or “Preceptive Poem” of Phocylides.13
Spitta states that in Bach’s time in Ohrdruf the study of history “was entirely neglected,”14 but this opinion, based upon the investigations of Johann Christian Rudloff, covers the curriculum only up to 1660. In 1685 some changes were made and the new curricula included history in the plan of studies. Thomas quotes the school law by which “the Historiae Universalis of Buno and the geography [of the same author] shall be explained ... and that furthermore Curtius and Terence shall be treated.”15 The study of history in Bach’s time is treated in depth in Chapter 3.
At the age of 12 Sebastian was first introduced to the study of theology. Despite his erratic school attendance due to the death of both his parents, and despite the extreme thoroughness and harsh discipline of the times, this precocious student had progressed so fast that he had covered in four years material that normally took six. Bach’s master in theology was the cantor Elias Herder (or Herda), a young man of 24 who had just finished theological work at the University of Jena. These studies completed his musical and theological work begun in Lüneburg, a school famous for its music. According to custom the cantors of the Gymnasia were held responsible for the instruction of other subjects, and Herder’s inspired combination of music and theology may have been a deciding factor in Bach’s career. At the end of his four years’ study at the Ohrdruf Gymnasium, Bach seemed definitely “drawn, if not already dedicated, to the service of the sanctuary.”16 This kind master had just succeeded a harsh and sadistic cantor, Johann Heinrich Arnold, who is described in the town record of his dismissal as “the pest of the school, the scandal of the church, and the cancer of the State.”17 Had Bach been forced to suffer under this master, his musical talent might have been directed into secular channels.
During these four years Bach became a favorite with Herder,18 who expressed his genuine and personal interest by obtaining a free scholarship in the famous school of Lüneburg for his student. Herder was well acquainted with the great opportunities of his alma mater: the large library, a flexible school curriculum well suited to a music student, its orthodox tenets, and its proximity to several centers of music such as Celle, Hamburg, and Lübeck, all promised rich rewards for an eager and talented student.
Sebastian’s brother Johann Christoph had been married five years now, and his family was increasing with regularity. Sebastian’s opportunity in Lüneburg was probably a welcome solution to the crowded conditions in his modest home. Bach’s departure was duly explained in the school register: “Luneburgum ob defectum hospitiorum se contulit die Martü 1700.”19 Thus Sebastian, together with another deserving student, Georg Erdmann, undertook the long journey to Lüneburg in March, 1700.
The Knight’s Academy in Lüneburg (1700-1703)
The two vigorous and adventurous boys made the entire journey of 200 miles on foot, perhaps occasionally accepting a ride on a passing wagon, or on the stagecoach. Their destination, Lüneburg, was one of the oldest cities, dating from Carolingian times. Its prosperity during Hanseatic times had been undermined during the Thirty Years’ War, and yet some of the city’s monuments to the worldly and spiritual aspirations of past generations that young Bach came to know have survived to this day. The town hall, with its famous Furstensaal, the Hall of Princes, shows wood carvings and stained glass of the thirteenth century. Its churches enclose Gothic vaults of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A tenth-century chapel was still standing in Bach’s time.
The ancient cloister buildings that housed the school where Bach finished his academic studies were attached to St. Michael’s Church in a quadrangular cluster. During the Middle Ages the entire establishment had been a Benedictine abbey. In 1655 the Klosterschule was changed into a Ritteracademie (Knights’ Academy), an institution born during the second half of the seventeenth century as a school of practical and fashionable education for young noblemen. There future rulers and military heroes became versed in the worldly savoir faire necessary at court, in political life, and on the battle field. Courtly and chivalric exercises in dancing, fencing, and riding, plus some knowledge of modern languages, fitted the requirements of the court. Roman law, state and feudal law, politics, and history that the young gentlemen studied there would later be applied to the serious business of managing their state affairs, while their military abilities were enhanced through the study of practical sciences such as mathematics, physics, optics or the science of sundials, ballistics, and geography. Genealogy and heraldry occupied a part of their historical studies. These mundane studies were supplemented with training in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history, and theology, for the academy also prepared students for the university. The music school (die Cantorei) was famous in all of Germany.
In the academy the students had a certain amount of freedom in the choice of their subjects, and just what academic subjects Bach studied in Limeburg is not definitely known, beyond the fact that he must have selected subjects pertinent to his chosen musical vocation. He undoubtedly continued his study of theology since in Lüneburg, as in Ohrdruf, the cantor taught both theology and music. Bach, who later collected a large theological library, surely would not have neglected this subject in the academy. Did Bach partake in classes in dancing, fencing, and riding? No one knows. He wrote numerous dances, but they are sublimated art forms rather than serviceable ballroom ditties. The young musician may have learned the steps that went along with the rhythms of his later suites; more likely, however, middle-class choristers did not mix with the sons of noblemen in these social or athletic exercises.
Bach’s knowledge of French probably did not extend beyond the few French terms used in his suites. Names of dances, tempo indications (he uses the archaic French term vitement), and the like were written in French, but this usage presupposes no more knowledge of the language than the use of conventional Italian terms does for the average musician today.
Even though Bach’s music reveals unmistakable French influences, and he did include a preface to the Brandenburg Concerti written in immaculate French, we can be very certain that he did not study the language in school. He did not select a single French book for his own library. The formal style of the preface mentioned above suggests that one of Leopold’s scribes actually composed it. Whatever conversations Bach might have had with Frederick the Great were undoubtedly conducted in German; all of Bach’s business correspondence was in German. Anna Magdalena, his second wife, had some rudimentary knowledge of French; grammatical exercises are scribbled on the title page of her music notebook, but the Bachs’ stay in Kothen ended shortly after these were written so that efforts to learn the language would soon have been abandoned. Bach never learned the fashionable language of the courts of his day.
Most of Bach’s time at the Ritteracademie was taken up with musical studies, applied as well as theoretical. The scholarship that Cantor Herder secured for his student was given primarily on the strength of Bach’s musical talent—chiefly his beautiful soprano voice and unfailing ability to read any part at first sight. Schools at that time were always eager to enhance the quality of their choirs.
St. Michael’s Church choir, the chorus symphoniacus, totaled between 23 and 27 singers,20 a larger number than usual for that time. Within this choir a select group of 13 to 18 boys, the Matins choir, performed the most difficult and the most important music. Especially gifted boys, who were generally given financial assistance in the form of either lodging or free meals, belonged to this group. Most of the choir boys dined at the “Altfrau,” the “Viehmagd,” or the “Vfortners,” established boarding houses in town.21 Some, who tutored high-born families, had rooms on the top floor of the school building. The singers had ample opportunity to earn extra money by singing for weddings and other occasions.
These rather extensive professional activities (discussed at greater length in Chapter 4), combined with Bach’s devoted efforts in his study of the keyboard instruments and composition, obviously left little time for a full program of academic studies. Nevertheless, the courses that Bach took in school had a lasting influence on his life and art. The content of the texts he studied provided an intellectual basis for his faith, and he often turned to them even long after he had left school. When Bach was an old man and an esteemed musician, he returned to the studies of his youth and these protected him from dangerous doubts raised by the increasingly popular rationalists. But perhaps more basic to an understanding of early influences on Bach the artist was the belief among all Bach’s teachers that the purpose of all education was religious. This conviction dictated the choice of subjects to be studied and their content. And this belief in the divine purpose of all man’s efforts, conveyed to Bach in so many, often subtle ways, transformed the talented schoolboy into a creative genius who accepted and achieved a monumental musical mission.