BACH, now 18 years old, had completed his formal education. Its peculiarly seventeenth-century character was implanted in his soul, never to be changed. The roots of its theological doctrine had grown deep and formed the only key he had to the riddles of the universe. Throughout his life he pursued the objective of a career devoted to church music, a goal finally realized in his cantorship in Leipzig. He frequently wrote music for secular occasions, but even this eventually found its way into one of his church cantatas, or other religious pieces.
A Temporary Residence in Weimar
Bach began to look for his first position. He was already an organist of unprecedented ability and all of his applications aroused the enthusiasm of prospective employers. With the help of the Bach clan, and perhaps through correspondence with friends in Ohrdruf and Eisenach, Bach kept informed of vacancies in his native territory of Thuringia and was particularly interested in the organ that was being built in the New Church of Arnstadt.
The old church of Arnstadt, which was called St. Boniface after the bishop who had converted the Thuringians in the eighth century, had been destroyed by fire 122 years earlier. The pious Thuringians said that the Devil had set the spark when a foolish person had tarred the roof on a broiling summer day, against the advice of an experienced neighbor, but undoubtedly the fire was just one of the many that plagued the narrow streets and closely clustered houses in these towns. Now, over a century later, the old church had been restored and was reopened with the name of The New Church. But another eight years passed before an organ manufacturer, Wender, was engaged to build a new organ in the edifice. Bach left his school in Lüneburg in the middle of the year expecting to find an organ post and an instrument in Arnstadt with which to open his career. But the instrument was still not finished.
Bach began to look elsewhere and applied for the vacancy in the Marktkirche of Sangerhausen created by the death of Grafenhayn, the “Town’s Judge and Figural Organist” (Stadtrichter und Figuralorganist).1 (Thirty-three years later Bach recommended his son Johann Gottfried Bernhard for that same position, which he referred to as “post organist for the figured music then vacant.”)2 He was rejected for the post although the judges unanimously pronounced him the finest musician of all. Their decision had been overruled by the local potentate, Duke Johann Georg of Sachse-Weissenfels, who had a personal preference for Johann Augustine Kobelius, 11 years Bach’s senior. C. S. Terry suggests that the duke chose Kobelius for sentimental reasons—his great-grandfather had been court organist at Weissenfels.3 Indeed employing princes traditionally seem to have respected the prestige of clans and guilds—which formed the pressure groups and labor unions of older days—over strictly musical considerations.
News of Bach’s talent quickly traveled to Weimar, where he found employment in the court of Duke Johann Ernst, younger brother and rival of the reigning duke, Wilhelm Ernst. Spitta suggests that this time Bach benefited from loyalty to a musical clan, for his grandfather once had been organist at that court for Duke Wilhelm IV.4 Since the position of court organist was already filled, Bach was put to work playing the violin in the chamber orchestra. The musical family of the duke profited from his visit for besides performing he taught the duke’s young and talented sons. No doubt he found ample opportunity to display his genius at the organ as well since the official court organist, Johann Effler, was very old.
The youngest son and namesake of Duke Johann Ernst took some kind of musical instruction from Johann Sebastian Bach, and at the time of his premature death at 19, the prince left compositions of such excellence that they were mistaken first for Bach’s, then Vivaldi’s. Bach certainly initiated him in the quintessence of his creative craft, whatever else he may have been specifically assigned to teach the youth. The lessons must have been marked with stern discipline and mutual deep respect for the serious mission of music to have inspired such outstanding student creations.
The stay with this noble family though short was probably a happy one for Bach. The Dukes of Weimar, unlike most royalty of that time, shunned ostentatious pleasure-seeking in emulation of the glamorous court at Versailles. All were seriously disposed, devoted to music, and lived a simple, frugal life that Bach could admire and enjoy.
Performers and Instruments: Servants to Composition
Many noblemen in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany, like Johann Ernst, possessed impressive musical gifts. The achievements of the duke’s youngest son have already been mentioned; his second son, who himself employed Bach in 1717, was an accomplished viola da gambist. The compositions of Frederick the Great occasionally still find a place on our programs today. Beethoven met many gifted composers and performers among the nobility; his friend, the Count von Waldstein, left a large number of excellent sonatas for piano, and his pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, was a pianist whose great talent Beethoven acknowledges in dedicating the famous Hammerklavier Sonata to him.
We tend to think of these wealthy amateurs as a species of the amateur of our own day, a person capable of playing some instrument in a commendable manner but without finished technique or sufficient knowledge of harmony and other phases of the metier. But the eighteenth-century musician, whether music was a profession or past-time for him, had an entirely different attitude toward his art than the vast majority today. He was expected to be first of all a composer, for traditionally and naturally, any musician engaged in a position of responsibility—in court or in church—would perform chiefly his own music. As soon as a student could read music and understand the principles of harmony, he was taught to compose, to write in prescribed forms and for particular occasions. The ability to read at sight and to improvise was always stressed above memorization of music.
In general instruments were mastered with greater ease then than today, and this allowed musicians to play many instruments and at the same time devote most of their time to composition. Bach was not unique in his ability to play the viola, the ‘cello, the lute, and the violin, and the violino piccolo5 as well as the viola pomposa.6 Violin players, for instance, were never called upon for the virtuosity demanded in a Brahms or Beethoven concerto. The old violin bow with its convex stick was incapable of wide dynamic range, but could produce a sweeter tone with less effort than our long concave stick. Vibrato, an indispensable element of modern violin playing, was used very little.
Double notes and contrapuntal pieces were more successful and also easier when played with the old convex bow. A chord of four notes (as in Bach’s Chaconne) could be bowed without breaking it up. A violinist’s tone then was akin to that of the old viol ensembles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which vibrato was entirely ruled out by the design of these instruments. The fingerboards were fretted with gut bands; their convexly-curved bows further eliminated dynamic fluctuations; and all instruments of the viol family were held between the knees, like our ‘cello, the bow held palm up, an attitude that precludes all accentuation. A viol ensemble sounded more like an organ, and when in Bach’s time violins began to replace viols the basic esthetics of the quality of tone did not suddenly change: convex bows continued to be used. Bach’s ideal of serenely quiet sonority for his violin compositions is borne out by the organ versions of his famous violin solos— the E Major Prelude and the G Minor Fugue. It is not even certain whether Bach transcribed them from the violin to the organ or vice versa.
Clavier technique was also transferred to a number of instruments; treatment of the organ, the harpsichord, the pedal-harpsichord, the spinet, the clavichord, and the lute-clavier,7 differed very little. Like the violins, the keyboard instruments did not require the physical dexterity and power to control dynamics that the modern instruments demands. On the organ and on all harpsichord varieties (such as the pedal harpsichord, the spinet, and the lute-clavier) dynamics were produced by the drawing of stops. Only the clavichord was capable of spontaneous dynamics by sensitive finger pressure, but its loudest tone was but a whisper.
The attitude of the eighteenth-century musician toward his instruments was that of a master toward his tools. Instruments were merely the media through which his music was made audible. During the first decades of the twentieth century this attitude was almost completely reversed. The virtuoso not only displayed his dexterity on his particular instrument, but projected his own individual insight into the composition of a chosen master. This concept of interpreting music was unknown in the eighteenth century. The musician as well as the listener was concerned with the craft of composition; he admired its construction, its modulations, the manipulation of contrapuntal themes, etc. The amateur of the eighteenth century shared the secrets and technical delights of composition with the professional. Bach’s title page to the Klavierubung neatly reveals this relation between composer and music lover: “Klavierubung . . . Constructed by Sebastian Bach for music lovers, and particularly for connoisseurs of such works, for the delight of the soul.” The eighteenth-century attitude toward music was at once more professional and more naive.
Despite this general versatility it is only natural that various musicians cherished a preference for certain instruments. Bach already preferred the organ, partially because this instrument was capable of realizing the most complex contrapuntal structures. At the organ he was master of an entire orchestra. The polyphonic creations that flowed from his pen could all be brought to sound by one person only. His patience need not be taxed with an unruly choir of boys; nor with His Highness’ chamber musicians, whose musical comprehension was considerably slower than his own. Above all, of course, the organ was the core of the musical service in church and fulfilled his primary desire to devote his genius to “the exaltation of God’s glory.”
Bach in Arnstadt
As soon as the organ was ready, Bach accepted the invitation of the townsmen of Arnstadt to examine it, and on July 13, 1703, he inaugurated the instrument. On August 9 he received a certificate, the equivalent of a contract, on which was recorded the date of the inauguration, the concert that was played, and the sum that Bach received in payment —4 Thalers, a good fee according to the standards of the day.8
The certificate of appointment Bach received from the consistorium, a body of officers appointed by the reigning sovereign, bore the seal of the chancery of His Lordship, Count Anton Giinther, and indicates the high official honor this post bestowed upon him:
Whereas The Highborn our most Gracious Lord Count and Lord, Lord Anthon Gunther of the four Counts of the realm, Count of Schwarzburg, etc. has caused you, Johann Sebastian Bach, to be accepted and appointed as an organist of the New Church, as you shall, above all, be faithful, gracious, and obedient to His High Countly Grace.
The organist was engaged by the state, not the church. Bach had thus attained a higher social position than his class-conscious society afforded him in his semifeudal function of chamber musician at the Weimar court. Although his position was not as high as that of a cantor or Kappellmeister, he was freed from the additional duties that inevitably befell lower echelon musicians and took them away from their music. The old organist Effler at the Weimar court, for example, had to spend most of his day penning documents and letters in the secretarial offices of the chancery; Johann Paul Westhoff, an eminent violinist and composer who had toured the courts of Italy, France, and Holland, was kept busy as a “Cammer-secretarius.” Eilenstein divided his time between teaching the young prince Johann Ernst and serving as gentleman-in-waiting. A bassoonist at the Weimar court had the honorable position of inspector at the court of justice. All musicians except the Kapellmeister, Vice-Kapellmeister, and Concertmeister had to make time for extra duties.
The minimal demands made of Bach, even of his musical skills, reflect the count’s artistic indifference rather than his great consideration for a budding genius. In aristocratic circles Anton Giinther was regarded as an upstart. He was elevated under protest to the dignity of a princely rank in 1697, but with the death of Emperor Joseph I in 1711, he lost the imperial protection and Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, with the consent of the Elector, August the Strong, invaded Arnstadt and dethroned the count.
Bach’s certificate of employment admonished him to good conduct as well as subservience to the count, and above all “in particular in your office, profession, practice of your art and your science which is given in charge of you with manifest diligence and fidelity.” The organ was under his special charge and “no one but he shall have access; and he is promptly to report any defects that may be detected in the instrument.” He was expected to be a model of good behavior as well: in his “daily life . . . practice the fear of God, sobriety, and a peaceful temper in his dealings with people,” avoid “bad company and distraction from his profession,” and “disport himself faithfully toward God, the High Authority, and his superiors.”
The last clause states the yearly salary—50 florins, plus 30 Thaler toward living expenses, board, and home. At this salary, about the same as a field marshal’s, Bach was able to acquire a harpsichord and several books. Besides, as one of the most respectable citizens in Arnstadt, Bach had to be well dressed. He often visited the court of Count Giinther.
Five days after receiving his contract Bach was ceremoniously inducted into office. The keys to the organ loft were handed over to him, and the contract made legal by a traditional pledge of a handshake in the presence of witnesses. His schedule was indeed light. The Sunday morning service lasted only from 8:00 to 10:00. On Thursday there was an earlier service (7:00-9:00), which required less music. And on Tuesday at a short hour of prayer organ music was interspersed with hymns and Bible readings.
At times Bach may have been summoned by Count Giinther to assist as a violinist in performances by his band of musicians, though there is no evidence of it.9 Countess Augusta Dorothea only a few years earlier had completed a pleasure palace (Lustschloss) where concerts and theatricals were performed. Performance of a secular cantata on a text by Salomo Franck—who later wrote such excellent librettos for Bach’s cantatas—entitled “Frolockender Gotterstreit” (Victorious Battle of the Gods),10 had celebrated its opening. In May, 1705, the public was admitted, “on payment of a certain price,”11 to hear a rather rustic, though pompous Singspiel entitled “Von der Klugheit der Obrigkeit in Anordnung des Bierbrauens” (Of the Sagacity of the Authorities in the Regulations for Beer Brewing). As this farce required a great number of actors, some of the local amateurs were not unwillingly pressed into service. Bach was probably given the trying task of training his church-school choir as well for that occasion.
The music of this “musical comedy” was written, according to all indications, by Johann Philipp Trieber (1675-1727), a man of great musical gifts and universal erudition. He had studied philosophy, theology, jurisprudence, and medicine at the University of Jena, and his unorthodox ideas on religion branded him as an atheist, for which crime he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Gotha. When this rustic play was performed, he was living in Arnstadt, but Bach would surely have shunned the company of such a free thinker.
Little information is available about the artistic life at the court of Anton Giinther and his wife Augusta Dorothea, but the motivations for their cultural endeavors seem to have sprung from jealous ambition rather than from cultural need. The countess was of the Brunswick family, a daughter of Duke Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig-Wolffenbiittel (1633-1714) who had set a famous example of ostentatious court life for his daughter with a continuous round of festivities, operas, concerts, masquerades, fireworks, illuminations, balls, etc. But Anton Ulrich had also been a true Maecenas of science and art; he founded the University of Helmstedt and surrounded himself with artists, architects, and literati. This talented nobleman was no mean writer himself, and may be counted among the first authors of historical novels. To judge from the few known performances at the Augustenburg, the daughter had neither the talents nor the artistic discrimination of her father.
The town of Arnstadt had little to offer the eager young student seeking knowledge of his art from living example as well as from written scores. Even Arnstadt’s libraries—in church, town, and at the castle-were discouragingly poor. Nor could he gain much from personal intercourse with his colleagues; Bach’s talent far surpassed that of any of the other organists in Arnstadt. At the main church, the Oberkirche, Christoph Herthum was either of lesser talent or his natural gifts were not tapped for he also performed duties at the castle that were “engrossing and laborious.”12 Paul Gleistmann, the most talented man in the community, was an able performer on the violin, the viola da gamba, and the lute. But he too was occupied with extramusical duties, as Groom-of-the-Chambers at the court. Trieber and his father, Johann Friedrich, who was rector of the Lyceum, were connoisseurs of music and displayed interest in music theory; the son published a harmony treatise. But Bach demanded that those he chose as friends and mentors share his religious beliefs as well as his passion for music.
Besides the artistic isolation Bach must have felt, he was on a bad footing with the choir he was given to train, a band of ruffians from the Lyceum. (Bach was perhaps experiencing the universal disillusionment of young graduates in their first teaching positions.) Herthum, the organist, picked the best students and singers for his church choir, leaving the rest to young Bach. Olearius, the local school inspector, was lax in his discipline, and a council member described the boys (in a document dated 1706) in the following manner:
The students behave badly . . . They carry swords, not only in the street, but also in school. . . they play ball during religious service and in the classes . . . they frequent places of ill repute . . . cause disturbance during the night by shouting and carousing . . .13
A senior student in this gang bore a special grudge against Bach for being called down as a miserable or mediocre bassoonist—a dumbhead (a rather free translation of Zippelfagottist).14 The invective had aroused his rancor more than Bach realized, and one day as Bach was strolling with his cousin Barbara Catharina, he was stopped by the boy brandishing his stick. In spite of the five other belligerent boys who supported this student, Bach refused to apologize. The young upstart called his teacher a Hundsfott, a dirty dog,15 and threatened him. Bach kept the ruffian at a distance with a sword until the other boys intervened and ended the brawl.
The sword that spared Bach a black eye may have been the same one that protected him on his long journeys from Lüneburg. It would not have been unusual for Bach to be wearing the students’ uniform of the Knights’ Academy, which he left two years earlier. Or he may have worn the attire of an Hungarian Hussar or hey due, like members of the ducal orchestra in Weimar—high boots and tight-fitting breeches, a stiff jacket, heavily braided with horizontal tresses, a cape on one shoulder, and a huge cap of cloth or fur.
Bach’s victory over his students was short lived. When the council considered the incident, Bach, after some hesitance, admitted his rash use of words. The impulsive youths were dismissed with a mere admonition for better behavior, undoubtedly leaving Herr Olearius shaking his head over such free abandon to youthful passion.
Compositions of the Arnstadt Period
Most of Bach’s compositions stemming from the Arnstadt period bear the mark of immaturity. Some 20 works have been identified as dating from this time, although in many cases their authenticity cannot be fully established. The prevalent practice, mentioned above, of apprentices and young composers transcribing and remodeling other composers’ works in the course of learning their metier makes the task of attribution extremely complex. The cost and difficulty of music printing in those days made copying commercially as well as pedagogically practical. Faithful reproduction suffered in the process; very frequently an imaginative scribe imposed improvements of his own on his model. The usual lack of dates and signatures on such manuscripts compounds the difficulties of authentication. Thus many youthful compositions of Bach have turned out to be his more or less free transcriptions of known or unknown models.
Among the best of Bach’s organ works of this period is the tender and serene Pastorale in F Major, a composition distinguished from other works by its free flow and logical unfolding of melody, more characteristic of Bach’s later works. The authenticity of even this exquisite gem of sustained lyricism is under suspicion, however.16
A curious capriccio, composed for the occasion of the departure of Bach’s brother Johann Jacob to Sweden, also comes from this period. This adventurous young brother, then 22 years old, had obtained an engagement as oboist in the guard of the King of Sweden, Charles XII (1682-1718), who at that time was waging a war of immediate and sensational, but not permanent success, against Denmark, Russia, and Poland. Before departing to the triumphant court of Sweden Johann Jacob visited his family in Thuringia, and at one of the clan’s gatherings ;which may have taken place in either Eisenach or Ohrdruf, Johann Sebastian presented his brother with this piece of program music for piano—or rather harpsichord, or pedal harpsichord—bearing the fashionable Italian title of “Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo Fratello dilettissimo” (Capriccio on the Departure of his beloved Brother). The work is an ancient type of quaint program music describing the rather sentimental joviality of the occasion. Its first movement has a German inscription that this Adagia “is a coaxing by his friends to dissuade him from his journey.” The second, Andante, “is a presentation of various casuum (calamities) that might befall him in foreign lands.” “A general Lamento of the friends” follows. The fourth movement announces “here the friends come, since they see that it cannot be otherwise, and take leave of him.” The last is a fugue in imitation of the stagecoach’s horn, bearing the Italian title of Aria di Postilione.
We find some exquisitely tender touches in this rather childish music. The first piece especially consistently expresses a sweet sentiment that grows in its closing phrases into a youthful melancholy, sadly repeating a little motive suggesting a nodding of farewell into an ever-vanishing distance. Not all the movements are equally poetic. The Aria di Postilione is a brilliant and difficult fugue, strangely alien to Bach’s style, even in works dating only a few years hence. Even the physical feeling one gets when playing it on the keyboard is unlike any other clavier music of Bach, partly due to the fact that Bach probably played it on a pedal harpsichord.17 The entire capriccio, which might be called a fantasy or a suite, is strongly reminiscent of the “Biblical Sonatas” of Johann Kuhnau, and young Bach may well have used these species of descriptive music as his model. And Froberger, a great favorite of young Bach, had a gift for musical representation of stories and personal characters. Both composers gave Italian titles to their “program music.” The world probably will never know whether the work is an original composition imitating someone’s manner or a free transcription of a lost composition.
Another work of this period, the precise model of which is not so easily assigned, is his church cantata “For Thou wilt not leave my Soul in Hell.” Although edited as Number 15, in the Bach Gesellschaft edition, the work actually is the first cantata that flowed from Bach’s pen. We know it only in a 1735 revision that Bach made for a performance in Leipzig, however, and so cannot use the cantata as a true gauge of Bach’s creative powers at this young age.
We can learn something of Bach’s early ideas on style and form from the cantata because Bach did not disturb these aspects in revision. Here he had not yet adopted the outer form of the Neapolitan opera, with its separate divisions in recitatives, arias, da capo arias, duets, overtures, and closing chorales. Later he commonly used the recitative resembling the recitative secco of the opera (literally dry reciting, accompanied only by a keyboard instrument) to narrate biblical events or present doctrinal thought. His succeeding aria or duet would then give lyrical expression to the text. In the older form used in this first cantata a type of continuous melody, the arioso, an aria-like musical soliloquy, carried the text of verses from the Bible or hymnal. In the later cantatas Bach used libretti prepared by a poet presenting his own version, often of rather doubtful literary value, of Bible or hymn text.
We may conclude from the quality of Bach’s youthful output in Arnstadt that he was not a wonder child like Mozart. And neither Bach nor Mozart displayed the epoch-making originality of Schubert—the “ErZ-king’ at age 16—or Mendelssohn—the music to Midsummer night’s Dream at 17. Both Bach and Mozart were more bound to the styles of those predecessors and contemporaries from whom they learned their craft. Bach’s compositions especially fail to reveal any traits of his powerful genius. He concentrated more on performance than creation. Although composition was a necessary part of any musician’s role, originality in composition was not. An organist or cantor did not have to be an innovator to fulfill the duties of his post successfully. Bach’s 10 or so chorale arrangements of this period merely follow the general practice and skill of the times: full harmonization and glittering passages linking verses of the hymns.
Schubert and Mendelssohn lived in an age of romantic genius worship; originality and genius had become synonymous. In Bach’s time music-making was a craft in the service of either the church or the courtly amateur and connoisseur. Composition followed given themes, folksongs, hymns, as well as more learned material, and was made in given forms and for given occasions, with whatever raw materials-voices or instruments—were at hand. The art of Bach’s time was not practiced for art’s sake.