JOHANN SEBASTIAN easily excelled in his singing classes, and probably led his fellow pupils as a student conductor. His extant compositions of that period reveal his unusual ability on the keyboard. During his Lüneburg days, he developed a remarkable organ technique, under the guidance of Georg Böhm, the organist of St. John’s Church in that city.
Several factors point to Bach’s student relationship with Böhm, although we lack definite proof. The scores of Böhm and Bach have several distinctive characteristics in common.1 The preludes of both incorporate long virtuoso introductions for pedals alone. The patterns of wide intervals in most of Bach’s and Böhm’s pedal solos demand that alternate footwork be used instead of the more common toe-heel sequence. The older organs were extremely difficult to play when additional stops were combined, but Bach and his mentor used this alternate footwork to overcome the instrument’s resistance to the powerful registration that both desired.
Böhm revealed his interest in powerful sound—which Bach shared— in his list of 46 stops for installation on the new organ built under his supervision for St. John’s in 1712. The pedals alone had 14 stops, six of which were of trumpet and trombone quality, plus additional 16- and 32-foot subbasses. This gigantic brass choir could indeed achieve the thundering, jovian power Böhm’s virtuosic passages for pedal solo demanded. Bach never shared with his teacher the delight of playing on this instrument but knew only the extremely old organ, which dated from 1549. This instrument had only 29 stops, a very small number when compared with the instruments of Hamburg—St. Catherine’s with 58 stops and St. Nicholas’ with 61—and with St. Lambert’s in Lüneburg with 59 stops and Lübeck’s 54-stop instrument.
Bach’s youthful enthusiasm for this sublimized form of virtuosity gradually subsided as he developed a mature style, and the virtuosic passage work of his later toccatas rises above merely powerful sound and speaks with eloquence of soaring spiritual realms. Other elements of Bach’s early work suggest his admiration for Böhm’s compositions, and the very texture as well as the form is comparable to Böhm’s. In both, the thematic material is made up primarily of motives derived from triads. The form of Böhm’s preludes and fugues (and also Bach’s) retains a close relationship with the older style for toccata—use of rhapsodic passage work; rhetorical, recitative-like melodies; slow movements; and final fugues in lively tempo, generally ending in virtuoso passages. Böhm condensed this sequence based on the sonata da chiesa, or church sonata, into fewer movements than we find in the toccatas of Buxtehude, for instance, and Bach developed this shortened form even further.
The strong influence of French culture and French music extending over the territory of Brunswick from the francophile court of Celle left its mark upon Böhm’s music. In fact, Bach probably learned more about French style from Böhm than he ever learned from his visits during the same period to Celle, where he heard an orchestra of French musicians. Böhm must have been well acquainted with French organ works, but features and manners of the style of French harpsichord and orchestral compositions are especially prominent in his own organ work. His recently discovered suites show strong French influence, and Johann Wolgast, the editor of these works,2 believes that the D Major Suite is probably a transcription of parts taken from a French opera, a theory that is compatible with the prevailing custom of Böhm’s time.
Tonality in Böhm’s art reflects the French style, which was more free of modal residue than others.3 He also shared the French penchant for abundant, and at times, excessive use of ornaments —tremblements, pincees, ports de voix, etc.4 Böhm’s chorale variations on “Vater Unser im HimmelsreicW is overladen with French agrements ; hardly any note is spared the additional adornment of a trill or mordent. Bach’s C Minor Prelude and Fugue, which dates from this period,5 incorporates mordents (the French pince) even in the pedal parts and is suggestive of Böhm’s preferences. But while French organists did not mind transferring their courtly dances to the organ (as long as the notes instructed the organist to play in a more reverential tempo), for the most part, Böhm avoided this adaptation of worldly forms. Only in the work of Buxtehude, who composed some chorale variations in the form of French dances, does the secular intrude at all into baroque church music of Germany.
The most important musician in Lüneburg besides Böhm was Johann Jakob Loewe (1629-1703), who composed synfonien, galliarden, and similar old dance forms, and songs for solo voice—something of a novelty in these northern regions. We might surmise that Bach would have especially wanted to know this pupil of Heinrich Schiitz, but instead Bach preferred the most recent and modern compositions, and Loewe at 72 did not inspire the budding 15-year-old musician. The dances of Loewe undoubtedly seemed antiquated to Bach, and their tonality and meter outmoded. Bach’s Dance Suites show no affinity to his older style of the pavane and galliard. The young explorer was seeking the latest music, and every opportunity to learn more about organ technique.
Bach and Reincken
Lüneburg was relatively near several famous music centers. Hamburg, with a flourishing opera under Reinhard Keiser and some famous organs, was only 30 miles away. Böhm’s former teacher, the venerable Johann Adam Reincken (who was 77 in 1700) was organist on the magnificent instrument at St. Catharine’s Church there. Not much farther, in Lübeck, Buxtehude was in command of another of the finest and largest organs in the world. Celle, 60 miles in the opposite direction, was the home of a famous, almost entirely French musical assembly in the service of Duke Georg Wilhelm. Lübeck probably attracted Bach most, but unfortunately his visit there did not materialize until years later.
Bach did visit Hamburg, probably on the basis of an introduction to Reincken through Bohm. Thus the boy, now between 15 and 18 years of age, met a musical master older than Loewe but much more sensitive to the modern tendencies that Bach fervently sought and understood, in spite of his conservatism in all other matters.
No definite traces of Reincken’s influence can be found in Bach’s work of this early period. Some 20 years later he freely—indeed very freely—transcribed two of Reincken’s sonatas, taken from his “Hortus Musicus,”6 the only work that was printed during Reincken’s 99-year life. This group of suites may be performed either in church or in more worldly circles. Some have the character of the Italian sonata da chiesa, and the influence of Corelli (1653-1711) is quite apparent in them. Others fit the title of sonata da camera. All are written for string ensemble with a continuo part taken by the organ or harpsichord depending on whether or not it was performed for sacred occasions. In comparison to Bach’s profoundly human music, the small number of Reincken’s works that are extant seem rather cold and formal. His Chorale Variations on “W ‘asserflussen Babilons” are elaborate and long, and demand great virtuosity from its performers. Although we must regret that too little of the famous musician’s work is available today to form a meaningful judgment of his original work, Bach was probably more interested at this time in mastering the organ techniques required in his music than in delving into his compositional style. For the foundations of Bach’s prodigious organ technique were laid during this period.
Bach’s overriding interest in technique and registration probably meant that the chief attraction for him in Hamburg was not its composers but the 51-register organ of St. Catharine’s Church, on which the great master performed his famous improvisations. Hamburg’s church of St. Nicholas also boasted one the world’s largest organs, with 61 stops. In his entire career Bach was never fortunate enough to have an organ at his disposal that compared with either of the Hamburg organs, or with Buxtehude’s in Lübeck; undoubtedly he depended on memories of these early journeys for inspiration.
Journeys to a French Community
Fired with sacred enthusiasm, combined with insatiable curiosity and sure conviction of his purpose, Bach also tramped the rough and then dangerous road to Celle more than once. His way led through an unfriendly landscape of sandy regions and lonely marshes, varied only by tufts of heather and occasional clusters of birch emerging from brackish peat bogs. In the eighteenth century the roads were in such universally weather-beaten condition that traveling on foot, though more dangerous on account of robbers, was really not much slower or less comfortable than being tossed about in the stagecoach. Bizarre as this attire may have seemed on a pious musician, Bach chose to travel in the student’s uniform of the Ritteracademie, including the traditional—and undoubtedly useful—sword on his side.
His student attire served as his passport into the exclusive court of Celle. As a rule the princely castles were inaccessible to the common man. But Celle distinguished itself as one of the most hospitable courts in Germany, especially to students, artists, and musicians. In a history of this “most Serene House” of Brunswick7 we read that the “costume of a warrior, a chasseur [infantry officer] or a musician” insured easy admittance to its wearer. The predominance of nobility in a Ritteracademie contributed to this open attitude. Since Bach’s name does not appear in the records as a member of the school orchestra which might have performed at Celle, we assume that this welcome was extended to commoner students as well.
The little court at Celle had a glamorous history. Duke Georg Wilhelm, who presided there, was jovial, generous, adventurous, and a lover of the arts. As a young man he was often criticized for preferring the pleasures of travel to political duties, and he frankly favored the gay spectacle of a Venetian carnival to the dreary landscape of his northern realm.
He enjoyed romantic love as well—Eleonore Desmier d’Olbreuse, one of the most beautiful women of Europe, a member of an exiled and impoverished Huguenot family. She followed the duke to Celle-Lüneburg, where she became his mistress until his brother’s death cleared the political obstacles to her rights to succession. On their marriage she became the queen of her court and strongly influenced its character.
At the castle of Celle Bach observed French gallant life. Its population was predominantly French, for Eleonore d’Olbreuse had induced her husband to proclaim a special edict of protection in his territory for her compatriots and Huguenot exiles. She spent large sums for the erection and maintenance of churches in which the refugees could worship in their own creed. The entire entourage of the Duchess was French, including the personnel for the theater and the chapel orchestra. At the time Bach was in Celle only 2 out of the 14 instrumentalists were German. The art of the dance, which Eleonore loved above all, flourished in the Rococo ballroom as well as in ballet.
When Bach visited the court, so famous for its elegant gaiety, the shadow of deep tragedy enveloped the lives of the aged ducal pair. Their daughter Sophie-Dorothea was imprisoned in the dismal castle of Ahlden. The growing power of Eleonore had incurred the hatred of the Hanoverian branch of the family. Sophie was wed against her will to her Hanoverian cousin, the future king of England. When he proved unfaithful with one mistress after another, her young and passionate heart yielded to the temptation of a true romance. The lovers’ plans to elope were discovered, the lover murdered, and Sophie condemned to spend the rest of her life in the gloomy confinement of Schloss Ahlden. Only her mother was allowed to visit her throughout her 32 years of suffering. Horric de Beaucaire’s history of the unfortunate family8 relates that “after the affair of Sophie-Dorothea was concluded he [Duke Georg Wilhelm] took up his quiet existence dividing his time between politics, visits to Hanover, his days at Celle near Eleonore, and the chase, which always was his favorite relaxation.” The opera troupe was disbanded,9 and the family had no desire to attend the theater or ballet.
The small orchestra, die Capelle, continued its private concerts in this now strangely silent castle, and its members continued to receive salaries until the death of Duke Georg Wilhelm in 1705.10 What type of music might Bach have heard this group perform? French concert music, independent of opera and ballet, was then still in its infancy, but at this time concerts of the music of Lully, Campra, Colasse, Destouches, and others became quite common. Such programs, usually introduced by an opera overture, marked the birth of the orchestral suite.11 (The independent keyboard suite was already flourishing and Bach had played those of Bohm, Pachelbel, and Froberger.)12
The works of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1665-1743) were played most frequently in these concerts, since he was famous and revered by the French, and was also one of the most recent composers. Overtures from his operas frequently opened these concerts, followed by the music from his ballets, and ballets comiques, and possibly by some of his table music (musique de table). Lully composed the latter for les petits violins of Louis XIV, a private band of 24 string players, intended for performance at some state occasions of the Roi Soleil. The music, now lost, was under the spell of dance forms and dance rhythms, like all French instrumental music. The prevailing custom of improvising melodic and rhythmic variations on the written melodies during these performances probably interested Bach far more than the substance of the music.
Besides these concerts the main function of the Capelle was the performance of the concerted Masses and motets for the duke and his wife in the little court-chapel. The ducal family attached great importance to religious exercises, especially in these sorrowful days, and they even engaged a special organist for Sophie-Dorothea13 in the castle of Ahlden. The court-chapel was one of the most precious buildings within the ducal estates, a happy melding of two religious traditions. Instead of an empty, whitewashed building of calvinistic taste, that one might expect in a Huguenot colony, the chapel was “a priceless miniature” with “winged altar, pulpit, organ, galleries, and loges a blaze of pictorial decorations set in a golden frame.”14 The duke was still officially a Lutheran and his place of worship reflects that religion. But Madame d’Olbreuse must have been consulted during its construction for C. S. Terry adds that it was “an unsurpassable epitome of the Dutch Renaissance.”
The miniature organ, suspended at an angle from the lofty height of the gallery above, was such “as Ste. Cecilia may have played.” It was fashioned after Italian instruments, with only 8 stops, and probably reflects the musical preference of Georg Wilhelm in his younger and more carefree days. While the northern French organs of the seventeenth century already had approached in character those of Germany and Spain—with the exception of a very weak disposition in the pedals—the Italian organs still resembled the small positives of the Renaissance. The largest organs found in Italy, those of San Marco in Venice and of St. Peter’s in Rome, had only one manual and the pedals usually did not encompass much more than an octave. The pedals, moreover, did not even control their own sets of pipes, but merely borrowed their tone from the ones controlled by the manual. In contrast to the German organs with their thundering 16- and 32-foot basses, the Italian organs had no deeper tones than one single set of 8-foot open pipes, the rest of the meager array of stops consisting of sweetly warbling octaves of 4-, 2-, and l-foot tones above that one soft 8-foot diapason. A few pipes produced high partials faintly reminiscent of the cymbals of the powerful north German organs, but true mixtures did not exist.
The cantor of the ducal chapel was a Frenchman named Louis Gaudon,15 but little is known of the repertoire Bach might have heard, if he was allowed to attend services in the chapel. No doubt Cantor Gaudon chose the classical French repertoire, and possibly directed some Italian motets. Bach probably did not admire the pompous Masses and motets of Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier (16367-1704) that were regarded as the best French church music. Largely cantatas composed for chorus, solos, and an orchestra including strings, trumpets, and kettledrums, they were more suited to the glorification of the Roi Soleil than to the needs of a simple Lutheran congregation. In Lully’s motets fragments of the Gregorian chant are transformed by adjusting accidentals to a modern, almost secular setting; its rhythm is as regular and precise as in a court dance or an overture to an opera.
Only outward gestures of piety distinguished the church music of these worldlings from their musical parlor gallantries. They wrote in full and sonorous harmony—often using five voices—but missed the deep tone of spirituality the meaning of the music demands. Others followed Lully in subjecting Gregorian chants to pleasing, well-regulated, but inappropriate rhythms, and most composers intermingled court dances, played in slower tempo, with Kyries, Offertories, Sancti, and other parts of the sung Mass. The works of Andre Raison, for example, include a Passacaglia in G Minor16 (that we shall compare later with Bach’s monumental work in C minor using the same theme). Raison’s work served only as an interlude between a series of Kyries derived from the Gregorian missal, and none of his Passacaille was longer than this pretty one of 27 measures. The little organ in the ducal chapel was perfectly suited to music of this limited scope.
When Bach incorporated secular elements such as dances, overtures, trumpets, and kettledrums in his later church music, he endowed them with the spiritual character of the entire work. Lully seems to do the reverse—interpreting spiritual elements in a secular, courtly, though stately and regal tone. He ornaments the medieval melody of the Dies Irae, for instance, with numerous trills and ornaments and transposes its somber modality into a bright major key.
Bach’s disdain for the “flimsy contents” of these works did not prevent him from seeing their pedagogical value and using them later in teaching students. But the lasting value of Bach’s arduous journeys to Celle lay in his experiences of hearing performances of an authentic French orchestra playing the latest French instrumental music.17 He obviously felt he had gained from them. Both his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil Mizler related stories of his impressions of the trips in their memories of their master.18