Bach Day post: Encountering BACH (2+ hour documentary by Dr. David Chin); a few J. S. Bach “did you know”s

(1) March 21 is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. It is also the conventional birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. (He was baptized two days later, on March 23 — this is mistaken by some people as his birthday.) In honor of the day, I am sharing this fascinating documentary by the musical director of Bachfest Malaysia, Curtis Institute of Music-trained conductor Dr. David Chin. He travels around Germany (mostly Thuringia and Saxony), exploring all the sites Bach lived and worked, and sharing his music and its context by the way. Highly recommended. Enjoy!

(2) A few details about Bach’s early life I found out recently (or remembered again):

  • his great-great-grandfather Veit[*] Bach, the patriarch of the extended Bach family of professional and semi-professional musicians, was a Protestant baker and keen amateur musician who fled his native Pressburg [present-day Bratislava, Slovakia] as a religious refugee and resettled in Thuringia, the birth-region of the Reformation.
  • JSB got his first musical instruction from his father, Eisenach town piper Johann Ambrosius Bach, who taught him the violin, and from his uncle Johann Christoph Bach the Elder, organist at the St. George church in Eisenach.
  • JSB became an orphan at age nine when his parents died within months of each other. He and his young brother were then taken in by their eldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach [the Younger], organist at the St. Michael’s church in Ohrdruf and a former student of Pachelbel’s. Contrary to the BS story that was peddled by imaginative biographers, JSB maintained friendly relations with his elder brother until the latter’s death in 1721, then returned the favor he’d been bestowed by taking JCB’s underage son into his own household at the Thomaskantorei in Leipzig
  • JSB attended the local Latin school as a choir scholarship student. When his voice changed and he could no longer participate in the boys’ choir, he and his lifelong friend Georg Erdmann (who was to have a diplomatic career) traveled to Lüneburg, and were accepted at the prestigious school there, again on singing scholarship (now with their adult voices)
  • Bach’s grades in school were only so-so, but he graduated high school at age 17 when other pupils often did so in their early twenties
  • More important than mingling with fellow students from the upper crust were Bach’s musical encounters with Georg Böhm, then a famous organist and composer for that instrument. (I remember sight-reading through some music by Böhm and wondering if I was playing misattributed Bach youth works.) In 2006, scholars apparently discovered Bach’s hand-written copies of music by Böhm on paper with Böhm’s watermark — which implies Bach studied either formally or informally with Böhm.
  • Bach applied for a vacant position as organist in Sangerhausen fresh out of high school. He gave a demonstration concert, was offered the job — and then the Duke of Saxony-Weissenfels twisted the arm of the town council to withdraw the appointment and give it to a former pupil of his own court music director.
  • Bach then worked an interim job of about six months as a violinist at the Weimar court (where he would later return) until the church in Arnstadt needed somebody to test-play their new organ, he showed up, and impressed the town council to such a degree with his playing that a few months later they offered him the now-vacant organist position. There begins Bach’s real career.

One more thing about the mature Bach: many people know he was not the first choice of the Leipzig town council for the position of Thomaskantor (musical director of the St. Thomas church and vice principal of the venerable high school attached to it). In fact, he was the third choice — but not for the reasons you might think. You see, Bach is the only Thomaskantor I know of since the 16th century who didn’t have a university degree. The town’s first choice, when the previous incumbent Kuhnau died, was G. F. Telemann — an “old boy” of both the high school and Leipzig University, then working as music director in Hamburg. However, Telemann went back to the Hamburg town council with the offer and they made it worth his while to stay with a hefty pay raise. (Telemann and JSB were on friendly terms — in fact, Telemann had been godfather of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach — and may have tipped JSB off about the opening.) The second choice, Christoph Graupner, court music director of the Landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt, was denied resignation by his employer. J. S. Bach was eager to take the job (despite its paying much less than his princely salary at Cöthen) for a variety of reasons, but his sons entering adolescence and the important city of Leipzig offering them much better educational opportunities than “cow-Cöthen” [**].

Let me leave the last word to Mauricio Kagel:

Es mag ja sein, dass nicht alle Musiker an G-tt glauben. Alle aber glauben an Bach.

It may well be that not all musicians believe in G-d. All, however, believe in Bach.

יתכן שלא כל מוסיקאי מאמין באלוקים, אך כולם מאמינים בבאך. (מוריסיו קגל)

Het is best mogelijk dat niet alle muzikanten aan G-d geloven. Ze geloven echter allemaal aan Bach.

C’est bien possible que pas tous les musiciens croient en D-eu. Tous, cependant, croient en Bach,

Può darsi che non tutti i musicisti credano in D-o. Tutti, però, credono in Bach.

[*] Veit is the German cognate of Vitus, Vivian, or Vital — of, for that matter, of Chaim in Hebrew

[**] Bach has a rather earthy sense of humor. “Kuh-Cöthen” is a German pun on “Kuh-Kot” (cow droppings)

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