BACH could not have been aware that he was the last composer to give voice to Lutheran philosophy, to construct a gigantic musical architecture in the Lutheran liturgy; he could hardly have recognized his role as the historical climax of an epoch. The idea that he was living at the dawn of a new era, that his art actually belonged to a dying age, was totally inconsistent with his providential conception of history. Bach correctly judged his own talent as a musical craftsman and knew full well that his art surpassed that of all his contemporaries, as well as of the Lutheran composers of the past two centuries. But his art work was not, as he envisaged, one more link in the development of the Lutheran service, but the culmination—and end—of this long evolution of music for the sanctuary. In fulfilling his gigantic task of constructing “well-conceived and well-regulated” church music, he was continually confronted with irritating obstructions by church and school authorities, whose opinions and desires infringed on his domain as musical director of Leipzig. He attributed these interferences to personal ambitions and misplaced officiousness of these “strange folk,” as he called them, when in retrospect such personal interferences were surface tremors of deeper historical and cultural displacements.
Bach was always vigilant for any such encroachment upon his authority and his rights as director musices. Only invested with the full authority of his office could he accomplish his life work. In the second year of his directorship in an action of remarkable independence and pride he revealed himself as an artist unwilling to compromise his musical standards. According to a custom established in 1721 a Passion was performed on Good Friday, alternating each year between St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches. In 1724 the performance was to be in St. Nicholas church, but Bach decided that the choir loft at St. Nicholas was too small for his St. Johns Passion and besides the harpsichord was in need of repair. He therefore took it upon himself to print programs announcing that the performance would take place at St. Thomas. This unexpected move forced the church council into action: the seating capacity in the choir loft was enlarged, and the harpsichord was repaired. Then new programs were printed.1
At the same time Bach was involved in a much more serious controversy, one not as amicably and obligingly concluded, and one that threatened the integrity of his office. Since time immemorial the services at the Leipzig University had been the responsibility of the general Musical-Director of the city. In 1710 the University instituted a regular Sunday service in its church, in addition to the traditional five festal services, the Reformation anniversary, and four academic celebrations, all of which were known as the Alt Gottesdienst, the Old Service. For the Neu Gottesdienst the University appointed its own director, thereby disregarding the traditional prerogative of the general director. No new city laws had been passed to make this new arrangement legal, and Bach’s predecessor Kuhnau filed a protest for his right to the directorship. Eventually he was accepted but only after promising not to expect any extra remuneration. When Kuhnau died, Johann Gottlieb Görner (1697-1778) took this position temporarily, receiving the 12 Thalers that really were part of the Director’s salary. Thus the University was performing music at the expense of the city and its employed musicians.
The musical equipment of the University—its organ, chorus, and orchestra—was of such excellent quality that the conductors preferred to perform their works there. They also could draw on this superior organization for various secular occasions. Görner, an inferior2 and scheming musician, profited from this fine musical equipment and the diverted funds.
As soon as Bach arrived in Leipzig he put in a claim for the directorship of the Old Service, and naturally also for its remuneration (12 Thalers was not an inconsiderable sum in days when 5 Thalers could buy a pedal harpsichord). The university council at first tried to ignore him, but Bach stubbornly persisted and after two years the council restored the directorship of the Old Service to him—but still withheld part of his fee.
At last Bach appealed to higher authority. He wrote a letter on September 14, 1725, to the King of Saxony himself. The government in Dresden, acting with remarkable speed, ordered the university council to present its version of the case. Bach was well acquainted with his opponent’s evasions of the truth and requested a copy of the council’s report from the government. Point by point he refuted the council’s misstatements in a precise, systematic, and complete account of the facts.
Again, the government acted promptly. The Saxon Solomon, as C. S. Terry calls the royal arbiter, gave concessions to both parties. Bach won responsibility for the Old Service and its emoluments, and Görner was allowed to continue directing the Sunday services. The matter of the direction of special state occasions, however, was left undecided, to be settled less than two years later.
In the spring of 1727 August the Strong visited Leipzig and from the balcony of one of the gabled houses on the market place listened to a cantata in honor of his birthday. The university students showed their discrimination by choosing Bach over Görner for the composition and conducting of the work. The libretto for Bach’s celebration of August’s presence is trite and affected, but typical of the common man’s attitude toward royalty.3 The dignity of royalty, regardless of the character of the person wearing the crown, was revered, and even a man of Bach’s genius and religious strength paid respect to the rulers. In this case, August II hardly deserved such tribute; he loved wine, women, and war and had won the throne of Poland by renouncing the Lutheran faith and becoming Catholic. The music of Bach’s cantata in his honor is lost, although parts of it may be in some of the known church cantatas, for as we have seen he often recast his secular works.
Four months later the students again sought Bach out, this time to compose music for the mourning demonstrations for the death of Queen Christina Eberhardine, wife of August II. She had been estranged from the king ever since he renounced his native faith to gain the throne. At her death the Lutheran Saxons demonstrated their respect for her loyalty to the state religion by observing a mourning period of four months.
Hans Carl von Kirchbach, a student of noble birth representing the student body, wished to deliver a funeral oration in her honor and have a mourning ode performed on words by Gottsched, the famous poet and university professor. The old strife between Bach and Görner stirred again. Görner demanded the right to compose and conduct the music, or else at least receive part of the fee.4 Why the faculty sided with him can probably be explained by their feeling of superiority and independence of the city. The students in this case showed finer discrimination than their professors.
Kirchbach informed the Concilium Professorum (faculty council) that Bach had already received his fee, and was busy composing the funeral ode, performance of which was only a week away. The council’s proposal that Bach’s music should be conducted by Görner raised ultimatums from both sides. The final decision awarded Görner the 12 Thaler, but allowed Bach to compose and conduct the music.
Görner had prepared a document for Bach to sign, in which Bach was to pledge never to claim the right to act as director in St. Paul’s church or to compose music for any University celebration. The beadle of the University took this document to Bach, but after an hour of futile persuasion he returned with the document unsigned.
Two weeks before its performance Bach finished the score of the Mourning Ode and little time could be spent in rehearsal. This proves the superlative capacity of the university chorus to read such difficult music at sight. Bach conducted from his seat at the harpsichord in the gallery. In the church, where a large catafalque with the emblems of the Queen, a Hohenzollern, was erected, the beadles distributed the printed texts of Gottsched. The programs stated that the music had been “set by Herr Kapellmeister Bach in the Italian style.”
Although his victory in this shameful case was obvious, Bach was never again asked to deliver any occasional music for St. Paul’s church. The university students did invite him to compose a serenade in 1734 when August III was elected King of Poland. But this performance took place outdoors with torch light and illuminations.5
These squabbles may seem trivial and contemptuous, but Bach was determined to protect the dignity of his office—and the integrity of his art. So far his difficulties had been in the defense of his office of general director and his prerogative as composer and performer of its secular functions. His next conflict concerned his broadly conceived integration of the musical service. His choice of hymns was one of the basic elements in his vast musical architecture, but in 1728 the deacon, Gottlieb Gaudlitz, took it upon himself to select the hymns for Sunday Vespers. Bach refused to perform them, and the matter was laid before the council. (In Lutheran state churches a consistory, composed of a body of clerical officers, is appointed by the sovereign of the state. This body could dictate policies to the council of each particular church, and in the absolute monarchy, could in turn be ordered by the King.) When the council informed Bach that it expected him to comply with the deacon’s choice of the hymns, Bach immediately appealed to the consistory.
His letter of September 20, 1728, sets forth his rights, basing them on the “traditional usages” giving him “the exclusive right to select the hymns preceding and following the sermon . . . their selection to correspond with the Gospel, the Dresden tradition, and their places in the season.”6 Bach’s arguments based on tradition and the self-contradictory claims of the council ultimately brought victory, but only after the consistory spent a year and a half deliberating. In a letter of February 16,1730, “The Electoral and Royal Saxon Consistory” wrote that “in the name of His Most Serene Majesty” (followed by 17 other royal titles) no new and untraditional songs should be sung in the church service.7
Homage to Köthen
In the meantime, on November 19, 1728, Bach’s friend Prince Leopold of Köthen died. On March 23,1729, his entombment took place in the church of St. Jacob, where Bach performed the funeral music the following day. His wife, his eldest son, and his choir accompanied him to Kthen. Instrumentalists were gathered from Halle, Merseburg, Zerbst, Dessau, and Giisten. There was no time to compose special music, for the performance of the St. Matthew Passion was only three weeks away, and the composition and preparations for it occupied all Bach’s time. Bach therefore utilized several parts of the Passion and of the Funeral Ode for Queen Christina Eberhardine—both eminently suited for this sad loss of his dear and highly esteemed friend.
A new text was provided by the facile Picander, who had a convenient talent for hammering out verses in the identical rhythm-word for word and syllable for syllable—of the lyrics in the Passion. His text for this occasion appears in the third volume of his poems of 1732.8 Smend has discovered a text that was especially printed for the occasion in Köthen. The score, if one ever existed, is presumably lost, but Smend suggests9 that for that occasion, as for similar ones, the parts were copied separately and perhaps slightly altered here and there.
The death of Bach’s dear friend meant great personal sorrow, and loss of professional status; he had to relinquish the title of Kapellmeister. It was more than vanity or professional pride that caused Bach to regret the passing of this honor. In the German hierarchical ranking, the loss of a title meant loss of prestige. In Leipzig, where he had been confronted with so much animosity, jealousy, and disrespect, his title had helped greatly, impressing his provincial adversaries. (In his letter to Erdmann he clearly states that “at first [he] found it not altogether agreeable to become a simple cantor after having been a Kapellmeister .”) He did receive an honorable title of Kapellmeister “von Haus aus” to the Duke of Sachsen-Weissenfels in 1723,10 and Bach’s visit to that court three months later probably confirms a mutual recognition of the honor. Upon the death of that duke in 1736 this title also expired.
Bach was fully aware that his provincial church authorities regarded the function of cantor mainly as that of an instructor, and not of a composer. Their complaints about him were always based on his indifference toward his job as teacher. They also accused him of too many absences from the town and were annoyed by his persistent failure to ask permission to leave. Bach naturally did not accept this conception of his office as a mere instructor, but saw his role as creator of a great musical monument in the service of his God. The pedestrian church officials were incapable of such visions—the only thing they understood was prestige in the eyes of powerful upper classes.
A Choir of Rogues
Only a few weeks later the council again proved its contempt of the mere cantor, and its total ignorance of a great artist’s needs. These first rumblings of cultural conflicts between old and new standards in education were recognized on both sides as merely conflicts of personalities.
During the Easter examinations nine scholarship students graduated and left school, and 23 new candidates applied for the rather remunerative stipends. Bach examined them for musical talent and the quality of their voices, and considered it his duty to examine new students according to Luther’s criterion of giving “after theology music the nearest locum and highest honor.” When he reported his findings to the council, he pronounced ten students “possessed of musical qualifications,” eleven completely lacking such, and two of passable quality.11 The council ignored Bach’s verdict, choosing five boys from Bach’s approved list, four of those who were rejected, and one whom Bach had not even examined. The arrogance of the council appears all the more insulting in view of the momentous first performance of the St. Matthew Passion that had just taken place.
It is surprising that Bach did not appeal at once to authority. The history of the following year is obscured by a lack of precise information. Bach may have been discouraged. Spitta expresses surprise that Bach did not immediately resign from his office, but suggests that Bach hoped to draw better students from the Collegium Musicum, an organization initiated long before by Telemann. Every week Bach rehearsed this group, the best singing organization in town, and they performed on several festive occasions. (Like his predecessor Kuhnau, Bach cherished the hope that the Thomas church might pay the singers of the Collegium to assist its choir, but the council seemed to expect those boys to give their services free.)
Meanwhile, the conditions of the Thomas choir and of the entire school had deteriorated alarmingly, partly because of the venerable rector Johann Heinrich Ernesti (1652-1729), who was then 77 years old. He had been a worthy scholar of theology and philosophy, but he had no talent for leading and guiding his faculty in their inevitable human frictions, he had no disciplinary influence over the students,12 and he lacked enterprise to improve the physical equipment. The school buildings under his regime were antiquated and inadequate. Often several classes had to be held in the same room.13 The bedrooms for the students were cramped and unsanitary, and harbored disease.
Although the reputation of this historical institution had suffered under the long regime of this unrealistic and inert old man, applicants kept coming, lured by the availability of scholarships to musical students. These, however, were seen as valuable positions with little responsibility attached. Gradually, uncouth and undesirable boys began to fill the jobs. They received their board and room, and had opportunity to earn extra as mendicant students, in the traditional currenden, the singing groups that went from door to door. This custom had lost some of its earlier romance; now only people of the less fortunate classes had any taste for it.
Moreover, the big city of Leipzig, that gay “second Paris,” offered these rowdy bands of boys many activities not compatible with a choir of angels. The more talented and ambitious boys left school, attracted by the nearby operas in Dresden and Weissenfels, where good singers could be used in minor but remunerative capacities. Leipzig also had a short opera season, at fair times, until 1729.
An iron hand was needed to discipline this raw material for heavenly choirs and neither Bach nor old Ernesti possessed it. But the old rector died on October 16, 1729, and Bach’s old friend Johann Matthias Gesner, who had been preacher in Weimar when Bach was there, was appointed to the post.
Two months after Gesner’s installation Bach had another disagreeable encounter with the church council. On the second of August this parochial body met; “their magnificencies” expressed their displeasure with Bach’s neglect of his classes and with his boldness in sending a chorist to the country without their consultation. They complained: “The cantor not only did nothing, would not even explain himself, does not keep the singing hours.” They reported “other additional complaints; a change became necessary, because some day things would inevitably break anyway, it therefore [became] necessary to make other arrangements.” At first it was suggested that Bach should be admonished. But, as one dignitary remarked, “since . . . the cantor was incorrigible ... it was resolved [by a majority vote of seven to four] that the cantor’s earnings [ Besoldigung] should be impounded.”14
The earnings referred to were not his regular salary,15 but benefit from extra fees that had accrued during the interim between Ernesti’s death and Gesner’s appointment. The council customarily paid those who took over the extra duties during that time, but since Bach had neglected his classes—using his time to compose the Saint Matthew Passion and other works equally unnoticed by Their Magnificencies— he received nothing.
Bach did not argue their charges of neglecting the lessons. Instead, he prepared a detailed statement of the bad conditions of music at the Thomas school, vainly hoping to enlighten the council as to the true causes of the choir’s deficiencies. Now Bach, who hitherto “would not explain himself,” presented to them “A short but extremely necessary outline of a well-regulated church music with a few unprejudiced reflections on its decline.”16
The report begins with a simple outline, in layman’s terms, of Bach’s requirements for the performance of church music. To our modern standards they seem ridiculously modest, as they were even then, in comparison with musical organizations elsewhere in Europe. For the chorus he required at the absolute minimum three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and three basses, plus some ready substitutes in case of illness; four choirs were needed for the four churches of Leipzig, a total of at least 36 singers. Hitherto, the university students and the Thomas alumni had been called upon, for a small remuneration, to make up for any gaps in the Thomas group. Financial support had gradually been withdrawn, “and with it also their willingness is lost; for who wants to work for nothing?” He complained that the string instruments, played by untalented students, gave little support to the singers, and the choirboys too lacked ability; they cannot even produce the interval of a second. Moreover, to train them would take at least a year.
Since, however, the present state of music is so different from what it was; since artistry has risen so much; taste has so wonderfully changed . . . the more assistance we need. But the little financial support that should be increased, has instead been withdrawn. ... Of our boys more is required than from professional opera singers; for the former have to learn our music at once, read it at first sight, while the professional virtuosi have studied it long in advance, so that they almost know it by heart. Besides, they are well paid.
(One may well imagine how this comparison to the opera was received by this stingy and artistically callous group.)
Bach concluded by stating that he leaves to the council the responsibility to choose whether music can continue to exist or shall still further decline, and by listing the names and abilities of his students-three assistant conductors and 17 singers are usable, 20 not as yet usable, and 17 are unfit. Significantly, Bach signed the document as Director Musices, not as Cantor St. Thomae.
Apparently, Bach’s effort to enlighten Their Magnificencies accomplished nothing; no money was raised. History is silent as to Bach’s reaction. He did begin a rather active search for another position. A short time later (October 28, 1730) he wrote the letter to Georg Erdmann referred to in Chapter 16, describing conditions in Leipzig.
1) this situation is not as good as it was represented to be, 2) various accidentia relative to my station have been withdrawn, 3) living is expensive, and 4) my masters are strange folk with very little care for music in them. Consequently, I am subjected to constant annoyance, jealousy, and persecution. It is therefore in my mind, with God’s assistance, to seek my fortune elsewhere. If your honor should hear of a convenable station in your town, I beg you to let me have your valuable recommendation.17
No answer is on record from Erdmann or any of the other friends Bach presumably contacted. It was his ill luck that other positions did not come within his reach at this time.
Gesner: Reformer and Patron
Promise of better conditions came with Gesner’s appointment as the new rector for the Thomas School. A great lover of music and an ardent admirer and warm and devoted friend of Bach, he shared with Bach that sacred fire of enthusiasm for the role of music in the Lutheran service. At the same time he was endowed with unusual tact and diplomacy.
It is entirely appropriate that Gesner should be Bach’s spokesman in this age of philosophical upheaval, for he combined conservative ideals in religion and music with progressive ideas in education. Not only did he effect enlargement of the old building which had stood unchanged since Luther’s days, but he also improved sanitary conditions. But most important were his new and healthier conceptions of education, through which the students felt again genuine interest in their studies. As a result, discipline was considerably improved.
Gesner’s modernized methods of education contrasted remarkably with those Bach knew as a youth. He relaxed the arid discipline and awakened an interest in the contents of the classics rather than in the form. Instead of a minute study of each grammatical turn of phrase, Gesner read authors’ entire works through with his students. Moreover, while formerly the authors of the classics were regarded as heathens intent on corrupting the reader, Gesner now revealed their lofty thoughts and elegance of style. He even had the courage to admit that Homer’s Greek was superior to that of the New Testament, a statement equated with rank heresy in Bach’s time. Much to his regret, he still had to teach New Testament Greek first because beginning students were not ready for Homer. Only a very broad-minded and spiritually secure soul could dare to expose youth to the beauties and true enjoyment of pagan philosophy and culture without diverting them from their Christian education. Gesner lived at the dawn of Goethe’s era. He was the first to make German translations of the classics. By the next generation the market was flooded with various translations.18
Despite this awakening of interest in the subject of their learning, other disciplines remained as severe as in ancient times. And they were just as naturally resented by adolescents as similar restraints are today. Total lack of recreation drove the older students to drinking and smoking, for which severe punishments were dealt. Attendance at the Sunday services was still enforced by law, although Gesner softened the punishment somewhat. Instead of the birching required by the 1723 regulations,19 Gesner allowed students to be excused, in extreme cold weather, to be read the sermon when they returned to school.
But even Gesner was not free from a schoolmaster’s vindictiveness; he prescribed special punishments for intentional mistakes in singing. The custom of appointing young students from among their own midst as assistant conductors (praefects) did nothing to encourage respectful behavior. The poor students were still subjected to a daily discipline that to us appears as beyond human endurance. From five o’clock in the morning their daily life was a dreary succession of prayers, sermons, lesson, funeral services (for which the scholarship students had to sing), and studies under constant supervision. It seems strange irony that Gesner, who rejoiced in Homer’s affirmation of life, should commend to these weary young souls the Pythagorean practice of contemplating their spiritual profits of the day before sinking into that blissful oblivion provided by nature.
Bach spent the four years of Gesner’s directorship in profitable and productive work. Gesner’s unbounded admiration for him, combined with his tact and generosity, brought about an improvement in the relations between the council and their “incorrigible” cantor. Gesner succeeded in lightening Bach’s teaching duties by getting the council to agree to release him from all teaching except musical subjects if Bach would practice more with his singers. Even the fees impounded by the council were now restored to him. With the new building program, Bach’s living quarters were enlarged. In June, 1732, the new buildings were inaugurated with the usual procession, speeches, sermons, and festive music set to rhymed eulogies. In his inaugural speech, which emphasized the particular importance of music to the Lutheran service, Gesner showed that he was not unaware of the growing tendency among academicians throughout Germany to shift the weight of their values from musical studies toward academic pursuits. (Gesner’s school laws of 1733 also gave music a prominant place, pointing out its spiritual force and its traditional function.)
During Gesner’s directorship, Bach composed the B Minor Mass, between 40 and 50 church cantatas, overtures for orchestra, and a dozen concerti for one or more harpsichords with orchestral accompaniment. He also undertook the publication of his Klavierubung, made up of keyboard compositions written in earlier periods.
Busy as he then was with composing, engraving, rehearsing, teaching, and performing, he was far from idle at the various keyboards, judging from the number of clavier concerti of the period. He had enough instruments and competent musicians in his own household to have performed his multiple harpsichord concerti in his own newly enlarged apartments. As he told his friend Erdmann he could “form an ensemble both vocaliter and instrumentaliter” within his own family.
Although as cantor he did not play the organ at the Thomas church (the organist was Christian Gräbner, and later the incompetent and unmanageable Görner), Bach’s prodigious keyboard technique had not slackened in the least. In September, 1731, he astonished a large audience of notables and connoisseurs in an organ recital at the magnificent Sophia church in Dresden, where the night before he had attended the first performance of the opera “CXeofxde” by his friend Johann Adolf Hasse. At this occasion the entire staff of royal musicians was present.20 The next day a local poet with the pseudonym Micrander wrote a poetic tribute to the master in a daily paper, the Dresdener Merkwiirdigkeiten, relating the amazement of all who had heard him.
One wonders if Their Magnificencies of the Leipzig council ever read this news report and whether, even if they had, they still would have muttered their discontent among each other at Bach’s absences without their permission. In any case, during the next year Bach traveled three times for similar occasions. In February, 1732, he was invited to examine an organ at Stöntzsch, and in September he examined the organ at St. Martin’s Church at Cassel, where Prince Friedrick royally entertained Bach and Anna Magdalena for a week. They were lodged (at the Prince’s expense) at the most fashionable hostelry, where only nobility and royalty could afford the extravagant charge of 84 Thalers. (The King of Sweden had stayed there on a visit in 1714.)21 “Porteurs” with a sedan chair awaited Bach and his “Bachin” to carry them to their various destinations. Bach gave a public recital on the recently renovated organ on Sunday, September 28. In those days when only the aristocracy was privileged to hear great artists and others heard them only during the religious service or at state festivals like royal birthdays, the burghers must have been bewildered by these mighty toccatas and fugues.
For these services Bach was well paid, and with Anna Magdalena’s companionship the trip must have been a refreshing recreation and a source of gratitude and pride for both after the humiliations suffered in Leipzig in the previous year.
The recognition and appreciation accorded Bach by the secular, artistic world contrasted sharply with the opposition he had faced from congregations to whom he humbly submitted his efforts. Perhaps he realized that he had accomplished all he could in creating a complete musical liturgy—surely he knew he had outstayed his welcome in the churches of Leipzig. In 1733 he applied to the Saxon king for the office of Court Composer.