BACH was fully aware of his immaturity and of his need for close relationships with great living artistic spirits. No one in the provincial town of Arnstadt could provide this inspiration. Even his instrument was mediocre, small and always in need of repair. Bach must have remembered with painful longing the magnificent organs of Lüneburg and Hamburg. His choir was a constant source of irritation and the libraries had only meagre offerings.
Bach asked for and was granted a one-month leave of absence to study with the famous Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck, without doubt the greatest organist and organ composer in Germany. Bach’s young cousin, Johann Ernst Bach (1683-1738), filled his position in his absence.
I cannot accept the suggestion that personal aspirations, other than refinement of his art, motivated Bach to make this pilgrimage. Some scholars have felt that Bach, like Handel before him, had hopes of becoming Buxtehude’s successor. The master was 68 years old and was probably considering relinquishing his post to a young protege. Aside from implications for Bach’s singular devotion to his faith and art, several practical reasons almost certainly would have prevented Bach from entertaining such an ambition.
Two years earlier, 18-year-old Handel, together with his 22-year-old friend Johann Mattheson had visited Lübeck with designs on that enviable position. Armed with entrees to influential and wealthy families of this rich old Hanseatic city, these brilliantly entertaining young worldlings were wined and dined, and invited to try out the famous organ as well as all the harpsichords in fashionable society. But their overwhelming ambitions quickly waned, even in the face of triumphant acceptance, when they learned the conditions for the post. Buxtehude insisted upon abiding by an ancient tradition by which the succeeding organist was obliged to marry his eldest daughter. Anna Margaretha Buxtehude at 34 did not inspire romance in a passionate young man, and custom further demanded that the new organist and his bride live with her parents. Since Bach was probably already enamoured of his cousin Maria Barbara at this time, any thoughts he may have had about seeking this prize position would surely have been quickly smothered by news of the personal sacrifices demanded. Thus it was in genuine modesty that he sought out the old master, with the sole object of “studying his profession,” as he told the Consistorium of Arnstadt.
Bach would not have undertaken the journey of 200 miles afoot. Thanks to his heritage of middle-class frugality he must have saved enough money in the two preceding years to make at least part of the journey by stagecoach. Only in this way could he have had enough time for study.
Bach chose to make this study journey in the autumn, when Buxtehude conducted the famous Vesper Concerts in the Church of St. Mary, the Marienkirche. The Abendmusiken was performed after the vesper service on five successive Sundays during Advent, the season in the liturgical year when the faithful are admonished to remember and reflect upon the spiritual significance of the coming of Christ. The “cantatas” were sung in the form of dialogues between soloists and the chorus, somewhat like a Greek tragedy. Two singers set forth the theological tenet of an allegory, paraphrasing a fitting passage from the Bible. The chorus responded in lyrical reflections and interpretations of the sacred words. Aeschylus developed a similar relationship between his characters, who talk together of man’s destiny and spiritual orientation, and the chorus that gives lyrical and musical expression to the concepts. The form of these vesper concerts made a significant impression upon Bach, for we find the same basic program in his later cantatas: the exposition of theological tenet in the recitative followed by extended lyrical comment through choruses and arias.
Today the music of Buxtehude’s cantatas does not impress us as much as his organ music, and Bach’s compositions indicate that he too was more profoundly influenced by the master’s deeply stirring organ harmonies. Although Buxtehude’s recognition today is generally linked to his Abendmusiken, his singular genius does not come into full bloom within the restrictions of this conventional liturgy. Five years after his arrival in Lübeck, Buxtehude, a Swede from Helsingborg, inaugurated the vesper music. The rich burghers of the town were delighted with these concerts and commissioned flattering cantatas for secular occasions—birthdays, weddings, political festivals—as well. But Buxtehude gave his creative energy to these duties only until 1690, and when Bach visited him in 1705 Buxtehude had withdrawn to the private pleasures of composing purely instrumental music. In 1696 some of his trio sonatas appeared, and they are remarkable for their contrapuntal skill; he also wrote suites and variations of keyboard instruments, and Bach was greatly indebted to his violin solo music. His best compositions, however, are conceived for organ. As in all Bach’s music, the idiom of Buxtehude’s favorite instrument dominates his creations.
Buxtehude’s Organ Music
Buxtehude’s treatment of the Lutheran chorale particularly interested Bach and the fruits of his prolific composition of chorale-preludes for the organ provided Bach with a lifetime of inspiration. Bach’s own chorale-preludes would reach the zenith of a historical development that started before the Reformation, when Gregorian chants, as well as secular songs, were ornamented (coloriert) with diminutions (motives with half the time value), augmentations (double time values), modified rhythms, imitations and inversions of fragments taken from the main melody, and other contrapuntal filigrees. The Latin term for such devices was color— hence the German colorieren and the Italian coloratura. In the north Bach had found many forms of chorale treatment: the chorale-fantasies, the chorale-variations, the motet-like treatment of the chorale, and various fusions of these forms, each of which could be written with or without a slow cantus firmus in long notes, appearing in any of the voices, and sometimes canonically in two voices. Buxtehude’s inspired imagination in this his favorite form of composition, and his application of a free, almost licentious ornamental improvisation on the melody, must have deeply inspired Bach to pursue the further possibilities of this form.
Buxtehude’s Passacaglia in D Minor is a most striking example of his lasting influence on the young organist who came to him. Its intrinsic beauty, its powerful expressive appeal, its daringly passionate harmonies are notable, but we are most interested here in the work’s striking affinity to Bach’s famous Passacaglia, which he composed 11 or 12 years later. Buxtehude has transformed this dance of barbaric though rather recent origin1 into a medium of ecstatic contemplation. Its short obligato bass theme (only four measures) is endlessly repeated under an unbroken chain of variations that flow together in continuous musical thought. The melodic theme itself, as well as its treatment, builds up intense emotion in the listener. Instead of a dual construction, consisting of a forephrase as a thesis or subject, followed by an answering phrase or predicate, giving grammatical completion to the idea, the passacaglia and chaconne melodies have only one phrase. This fore-phrase is perpetually unanswered, or rather postponed indefinitely during a long chain of variations. Bach uses this device to create a feeling of awesome suspense.
No similar mystic effect emanates from Andre Raison’s Passacaglia, the other work intimately related to Bach’s masterpiece. His variations were strung together for practical expediency, linking the Kyries in the service, and easily broken off whenever the priest was ready to begin the next part of the Mass.
Bach combined the two composers’ themes, using Raison’s identical theme for the first half of his motif and completing it with four measures strongly associated with Buxtehude’s masterpiece. Thus he was working with a theme twice as long as either of his predecessors’. Here again we are confronted not with plagiarism, but with an age-old conception of the craft and function of composing. Passacaglia and chaconne themes were borrowed so often, with slight modifications, that they became cadential patterns. Bach’s absorption of Raison’s and Buxtehude’s “ideas” is remarkable not for his use of their obligato skeleton melodies but for both his persistent allusions to Buxtehude’s variations—that is, to the composition proper—and his genius for lifting the same inventions to greater heights of sublimity.2 The same phrases that seem to give way with romantic abandon to personal reveries of a visionary under Bach’s masterful treatment call to mind prophetic pronouncements of divine inspiration. Bach’s Passacaglia is conceived on a larger plan (170 measures as compared to Buxtehude’s 119) and a stupendous climactic fugue crowns the masterwork that taken as a piece conveys cosmic import.
Besides Buxtehude’s Passacaglia and his Chaconne in E Minor, the work of Lübeck’s master bears striking resemblances to Bach’s great preludes, toccatas, and fugues. From Buxtehude’s Fugue in F Major3 Bach found the idiom and learned the almost rhapsodic treatment of this toccata-like fugue4 that would later inspire his Prelude and Fugue in D Major. Both Buxtehude’s work and the Pachelbel piece5 on which it was based are rarely remembered except in Bach’s interpretations of them.
The fruits of Bach’s musical pilgrimage to Lübeck did not come immediately, but he gained impressions and ideas during his short association with Buxtehude that remained with him for the rest of his life. His works that show definite influence from Buxtehude, including his great Passacaglia, actually date from a later period in his life (about 1709-1711) but confirm the clarity of Bach’s memory of the sound of Buxtehude’s organ and his music, this master’s dazzling virtuosity, and his imaginative rubato treatment of his rhapsodic toccatas. Above all the color-fantasies elicited from Buxtehude’s famous instrument, so rich in registration, engendered and brought to fruition ideas too sublime for full realization on any of the inferior organs Bach himself had to tolerate most of his life.
Resignation from Arnstadt’s Neue Kirche
When Bach resumed his duties at the organ in Arnstadt in midwinter of 1706, he had begun to become conscious of his future as a sort of musical apostle of his faith. He knew that years of study and labor lay ahead, but he was possessed with a conviction of his mission. His musical imagination was fired with visions incomprehensible to anyone in Arnstadt. In the liberal and progressive Hansa city, long accustomed to a cosmopolitan outlook of a widely traveled and affluent merchant class, Bach had witnessed the absolute freedom of a church organist at the height of his fame. Buxtehude was in a sense a musical sovereign, free to follow any whims of inspiration no matter how subjective or “romantic,” apart from the judgment of nonmusical superiors. Bach had heard modulations, harmonic combinations, chorale variations, and improvisations more daring in their unconventionality and personal expressiveness than could be heard anywhere in Germany.
Bach’s position in Arnstadt was totally different, as he was to become painfully aware of shortly after his return. His lack of rapport with the congregation brought up renewed frictions with the church council. After he had resumed his organ-playing in service, Bach was summoned to the castle of Count Günther, where he was subjected to a court hearing by Herr Superintendent Olearius, possibly accompanied by other members of the council, and a servile scribe, who faithfully took the minutes of the hearing, which as though for our instruction and amusement, have been preserved through all the years. The document is in the scribe’s official language, mixed with some obscure Latin pedantries that may or may not have been understood correctly by either the pompous council or their faithful secretarius.
Thus the “actum de February 21, 706” [meaning 1706] reads in part:6
Nos [we, the consistory]:
Charge him with having hitherto been in the habit of making [surprising] variationes in the chorales, and intermixing strange sounds, so that thereby the congregation were [confused]. If in the future he wishes to introduce some Tonus Perigrinus he must keep to it, and not go off directly to something else, or, as he had hitherto done, play quite a Tonum Contrarium.
The meaning of this high-sounding jargon is a little vague, as it doubtless was to the scribe and the pedants sitting in judgment of an art so new and strange to them. The term variationes probably referred to the type of ornamentation that Bach at that time imitated from Buxtehude. The term tonus perigrinus can be interpreted in various ways— but not in the ancient sense as applied on Gregorian psalm tones, that is, as a different reciting tone sung in the two halves of a chant. Bach did not play any Gregorian chants, but harmonized Protestant hymn tunes. Tonus can mean melody, mode, tonality, or just tone; perigrinus means strange and foreign. Tonus perigrinus, some scholars believe, describes a theme against the melody7 while a tonus contrarius would be a theme conflicting with the melody. Mr. Terry quotes from the Leipziger Kirchenstaat (church regulations of Leipzig): “Finally the morning service shall be concluded with the song: Gott sey uns gnadig und barmhertzig, sung to the Tonus Perigrinus Meine Seele erhebt den Herren.” Here Tonus Perigrinus appears to mean a borrowed melody, a wandering melody to which different texts may be applied. Others8 believe that both of these expressions mean some unexpected element in the melody or the harmony such as passing tones, short cadences, chromatic progressions, cross relations, and sudden modulations. Pirro interprets the term as simply sudden caprices of accompaniment.9
Whatever the precise meaning of this language, we may be sure that Bach had been presenting his naive and untutored audience with a new and disturbing style. Since they had not had any organ in their New Church for so many years, they had not been educated to the style of chorale-variations that was practiced in many other parts of Germany-Hamburg, Lüneburg, Lübeck, and Eisenach. Of course, this new style was actually just an imitation of Buxtehude’s florid manner.
The protocol of this same court hearing reveals yet another contention. The superintendent Olearius politely, perhaps somewhat sarcastically, stated that “it was rather strange that so far no concerted music had been performed;10 and that he [Bach] was the cause of such neglect, since he did not choose to get along with the students who formed the choir. Therefore, he should declare himself whether he wished to perform figured [instrumental and vocal] as well as choral music with the students, because a conductor could not be engaged for him. If he did not want to do so, he should say so categorically and openly, so that other arrangements could be made and someone could be engaged who was willing to do this.” “Ille [Bach] stubbornly responded to this that he would be willing to play, if he would be provided with a competent conductor.” It was then resolved that he should answer these charges within eight days.
Bach was not entirely to blame for his poor relationship with the choir. His praefect, or assistant choir director, was not able to keep the necessary discipline among the young rowdies (the protocol admits that his misbehavior even contributed to the disorders in the choir). He is accused of setting a deplorable example when he “entered the wine cellar during last Sunday’s sermon,”11 a misdemeanor for which he was forced to sit in carcer for two hours on each of four successive days. Whether this ridiculous punishment succeeded in pointing up a moral for the snickering choir boys evidently did not occur to Herr Olearius.
In view of these semifeudal relations between employer and employee Bach’s resolute refusal to conduct took real courage. His contract did not require him to conduct, and he could have pointed this out to the court. The existence of this contract probably explains why Bach did not comply with the council’s demand for a statement in a week. About 1 o months went by before he was summoned to appear before the council. Neither Bach nor Olearius had mentioned the matter during the interim. In a protocol of November 11, 1706, Bach is asked again, this time in a more angry tone, “to declare, as he had been instructed already, if he wished to make music with the students or not; for, if he considered it no disgrace to be attached to the church and receive its salary, he must not be ashamed to make music with the students until some other orders were given”12 Again Bach replies that he will give his answer—this time in writing.
Poor Mr. Olearius must have felt his dignity threatened by this adamant resistance, for now he flung another and extremely petty accusation at Bach: “he recently has invited a strange maiden into the choir loft and allowed her to make music.” But again Bach is unperturbed: “Ille [he] has informed Magister Uthe [his clergyman]13 about this.” The strange maiden whose singing some righteous gossiper had heard from outside the church probably was Bach’s cousin, who soon was to become his wife. Bach apparently did not feel constrained to follow the prejudices of that time against female singers in church choirs.
Throughout the meager outline of historical evidence furnished by these protocols we discern Bach’s firm character and personality, fired by his sacred and deeply rooted urge to obey only his genius, which he dedicated entirely to his God. At this early age he seems merely headstrong and unmalleable, but as we compare these actions with his dealings with subsequent church authorities we can find a common thread, total dedication to the qualities of sacred music, a motive incapable of compromise. He considered it a waste of time to attempt the education of such crude material of student singers, even if perhaps “some day they might be usable for music,” as the consistory had suggested.14 Instead, Bach used his time for the development of his organ playing15 and composing, mainly of organ works.
Bach was aware of personal benefits to be gained from bending all his efforts to the perfection of his extraordinary virtuosity on the organ. His reputation for this unusual gift was spreading, and it was in his capacity of organist that he could best expect to advance his career— a youth of 22 would probably not be engaged in the capacity of a cantor.
On December 2, 1706, his opportunity for an advantageous change came with the death of Johann Georg Ahle, the organist at the Saint Blasius Church in Miihlhausen. The position held some honor, since a number of distinguished musicians had given fame to “Divi Blasii.” The title of poet laureate had been bestowed on Ahle by Emperor Leopold I “for his virtue and splendid talents, . . . for his admirable proficiency in the noble science of German poetry and for his rare and delightful style in highly commended music, and his elegant compositions.”16 Ahle’s father, Johann Rudolph, also had been organist and composer at this church, and had been honored with the office of member of the town council, and later with that of burgomaster. Bestowal of high civic offices on musicians reflects the high esteem in which they were held in Miihlhausen. Other musicians of fame had preceded these men of distinction, among them Johann Eccard, notable pupil of Orlando Lasso. In every respect the Miihlhausen position represented great promise to Bach, especially from the vantage point of his unhappy situation in Arnstadt.
The church also employed both a cantor and a choir director, and the concerted music thus was not so difficult to perform as in Arnstadt. The cantor of St. Blasius does not seem to have had the position of prominence that usually goes with such a post, for his name is not mentioned by any of the biographers. Judging from the bulk of church music that both the Ahles have left and the honors bestowed upon them, we may safely assume that at St. Blasius Church the musical direction was firmly controlled by the organist. According to an ancient tradition in Miihlhausen the organist—not, as elsewhere in Germany, the cantor—was expected to compose a cantata to celebrate every new election of the Town Council.
After other organists had been properly examined, Bach was approached and asked what salary he would demand for the position. He merely asked for the same amount he was drawing in Arnstadt—85 gulden—besides the payments in kind that Ahle had received in addition, amounting to “three measures of corn, two trusses of wood, one of beech, one of oak or aspen, and six trusses of faggots, delivered at his door, in lieu of arable.” Small as it seems, this salary amounted to an increase of 20 gulden over Ahle’s, and what anyone in a respectable profession could demand.
On June 29 Bach informed the city council of Arnstadt that he had accepted the new post and officially returned the key of the organ. His resignation did not take effect until September 14, when he actually began his duties in Miihlhausen. At the time the city of Arnstadt was in arrears of payment of Bach’s salary, but since his cousin Ernst (who had taken his place when Johann Sebastian was studying in Lübeck) succeeded him at the New Church, Bach generously assigned part of the last quarter of his year’s salary to his cousin, who was in financial distress. Bach could easily afford this act of generosity because on August 10, through the death of his uncle Tobias Lammerhirt, Bach had inherited 50 gulden, a sum well exceeding his yearly salary. This solidarity of the Bach clan and their willingness to aid one another in time of need helped to insure Johann Sebastian’s artistic independence.
One month after his arrival in Mühlhausen the handsome young genius took Maria Barbara to the nearby town of Dornheim to be married by the local pastor, Johann Lorentz Stauber, who was related by marriage to Bach’s bride. She was the granddaughter of Heinrich Bach (1615-1692), who had been an organist in Arnstadt. He in turn was the uncle of Bach’s father Ambrosius of Eisenach. Her father, Johann Michael (1648-1695), was an organist and parish clerk near Arnstadt, and a prolific composer. This intermarriage, the only one that ever occurred within the entire clan, produced the great talents of Carl Philipp Emanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Johann Gottfried Bernhard Bach.