MUSIC FOR THE SPIRIT LIVING IN A CHANGING WORLD
THREE days later the composer was buried. There was no special service. It cannot even be proven that he was honored with the customary procession of the entire school, led by a crossbearer.1 He was given no memorial of any sort, not even a stone. A tablet on the wall of St. John’s Church indicated only the approximate location of the grave, a careless procedure that caused great difficulties when 150 years later his remains were exhumed.
The Church lost no time in replacing their troublesome cantor. One day after Bachs death, even before his interment, the council held a confidential meeting2 to decide on the appointment of a new cantor. Among the six applicants was Bachs son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who had put in his application long before his fathers death. Other famous musicians on the list included Karl Heinrich Graun of Merseburg, and Johann Ludwig Krebs, esteemed by Johann Sebastian Bach as his outstanding pupil; but all had to yield to the irresistible pressure of the infamous Count Brühl, all-powerful prime minister to August II. A year earlier he had pressed for appointment of his own private musician, Gottlob Harrer. Mayor Stieglitz reminded his fellow councilmen that the school needs a cantor and not a Capellmeister, although he also must understand music.3 Subsequently Harrer was chosen unanimously.
This decision evidently was kept secret for some time, because 11 days later (August 9) Count Brühl wrote another letter to the council recommending his protege. He suggests in circuitous phraseology that Harrer will satisfy the modern taste better than the ponderous predecessor, whose art was regarded by more recent generations as turgid and laborious, to quote Scheibe. He praises Harrer whom I had sent to Italy at my own expense, not only to learn composition thoroughly, but also to acquaint himself with the brilliant taste of today4 Count Brühl, in a shrewd estimate of the council, assured them that they would have no trouble with Harrer, since he is furthermore a quiet and well-behaved man.5
Anna Magdalenas lot was sad indeed. Since her husband had died intestate and without funds to insure her maintenance, she was forced to sell his estate. According to law she inherited one-third while the remainder was distributed among the nine children. Only three of them were living in the parental house, but soon Johann Christian, age 15 and destined to be known as the London Bach, was put under the care of his brother in Berlin for his education. The widow thus had two daughters to provide for, Caroline, 13, and Regina Susanna, only 8 years old. The estatecomprising a little cash, 19 musical instruments, some silver, tin, copper, and brassware, household furniture, a few clothes, and Bachs library of theological worksbrought in 1,122 Thaler and 16 groschen.6 Although the inventory gives the impression of a prosperous, if not affluent family, the unlucky widow had to appeal to the almighty council for the traditional right to live in the cantors home for six months after his death. Even so, she was forced to sell some of her husbands manuscripts to augment her income, and she spent her last lonely days ignominiously in an almshouse.
To all appearances the art of the great master sank into oblivion. Contemporary celebrities like Telemann and the members of the Mizler Society wrote some eulogistic rhymes about Bachs unequalled skill at the keyboard and in his art of counterpoint, and a few newspapers mentioned his death with respectful regret, but the general public of the eighteenth century did not realize his greatness as a composer. At that time music rarely appeared in print, and only a few of Bachs works were printed during his lifetime. Of these even fewer copies were circulated, and then only among connoisseurs, an esoteric group of pupils and sons of the master. It was not until the turn of the century, when the publishing business began to flourish and music was available to a wider public, that Bach was rediscovered. At the time of his death only those who had actually heard him play in church or recital could appreciate this great skill.
It is hard for us in the twentieth century to excuse those many persons close to Bach who survived him but did little to preserve his musical creations. Even his sons and devoted pupils neglected the simple task of collecting and saving manuscripts of their master. Poor devoted Anna Magdalena was forced to sell pieces of her husbands work in order to survive. Bachs successor found the library of the Thomas School too cramped and so disposed of the old style cantatas that the master had carefully filed there, each neatly marked with its title and designated place in the liturgical year. The manuscripts were still useful as paper, and some of these masterpieces of all time found their way into meat and butter shops, where they were used as wrapping paper. Others ended up outside in orchards, smeared with tar and bound around fruit trees as protection against insects. One copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier was found in the Danube. Three Passions have disappeared, Spitta believes, because Bachs son Friedemann sold them for cash when in later years he held no position.7
In the light of these astonishing instances of apparently gross neglect of valuable art, we must remember that eighteenth-century man conceived of music solely in terms of its function. And this functionto which Bach was deeply committedwas serving God and His church. Music was not worshipped for its own sake but regarded as an integral part of religious ceremony. Music was written to be played and sung, not to be stored away in a museum or library. When music was not longer used, there was no need to keep manuscripts of it. The nineteenth century revered art for arts sake, the twentieth century is concerned with the historical view, but the eighteenth cefntury viewed music as a medium and incitement to the knowledge of its own motivation. Music was a means to the penetration of the absolute, to the exalting awareness of the spirit. Music was not self-sufficient, even for Bach who devoted his life to it; music was a branch of science. For that reason, and because belief in the Absolute and musics relationship to it, not historical importance, was the primary concern, the need for museums and means of perpetuating music was not understood.
In 1829, when Mendelssohn performed the St. Matthew Passion for the first time since its composition a hundred years before, he had received his copy of it from his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, who had bought the score as wrapping paper sold at an auction of a cheese store. Zelter was an old man when he taught Mendelssohn. He had inherited the Bach tradition from several of Bachs pupils: Agricola, Kirnberger, his teacher, and Johann Friedrich Fasch. He became director of the Berlin Singakademie and is remembered today mainly for his correspondence with Goethe. He was born only eight years after Bachs death. Although a great enthusiast of Bachs immortal music, he was a son of the Enlightenment and found the religious texts of the German chorales offensive, and did not wholeheartedly admire Bachs daring and gripping harmonies. Mendelssohn, who was more sensitive to the musical and religious mind of Bach, had to purge the score of Zelters alterations and refinements of the original.
Mendelssohn had been converted to the Lutheran faith as a young man. He was brought up in a cultured Jewish family. His religious decision was guided by the philosophy of his grandfather and that of his idealistic contemporaries, including Hegel, whose lectures he attended. His performance of the Passion penetrated deeply the emotions of the German public. It gave the impetus to a growing interest in the study of Bachs music, and to new insight and evaluation of his religious intent. Hegel, the transcendental idealist among philosophers, was present at this memorable performance. Keenly aware of history, he saw this revival as both the end of the Enlightenment and a truer estimate of Bachs Protestant genius.
Nevertheless Mendelssohns performance would have given offense to musicological critics of today, for he was less interested in the purity of Bachs style of performance than in the intensity of its spiritual and esthetic reawakening. Mendelssohns audiences understood music only in the idioms of their own immediate past heritage. He used massive choruses, a large orchestra scored like his own symphonies, and full-throated singers, male and female, accompanied by the pianoforte, singing with altered phrasing. He drastically reduced the length of the work. If it had been performed with the modest and meagre setting of the score and the tiny chorus of half-grown boys that was at Bachs own disposal, the work would probably never have been successfully revived.
Today we have much more historical knowledge of the original and authentic style of performance of Bachs works than Mendelssohn had when he decided to perform the Passion. But still, consistent performances in pure style are extremely rare. And it is questionable whether they will ever be possibleor desirable. The true rebirth of Bachs art does not depend upon stylistic purity alone. Above all it needs the inspiration of its original motivation. It is clear that we are not living in an age of faith; Bachs world does not blend easily with our own. To know Bachs music as he intended it to be heard means to know what shaped his intellectual life, what theology formed the basis for his deep faith, in short, to truly know Bachs music we must try to comprehend the spiritual forces that inspired it. Whether our world is moving toward such renewed awareness of the metaphysical essence of Bachs religion is an unanswered question. May Bachs music help us to find the way if this is our destiny.