Today 336 years ago, on March 23, 1685, the youngest of eight children of Eisenach town piper Johann Ambrosius Bach was baptized in the city’s St. George church (Georgenkirche) and given the name Johann Sebastian Bach. “Sebastian” was the name he would later go by to relatives and friends.
In honor of the day (and perhaps to avoid talking about our elections?) an amusing anecdote from Bach’s early career.
After he had taken his first “real” job, as the town organist at Arnstadt, he for the first time had to assemble a cast of musicians to perform church music other than his own organ playing. Most scholars today assume that the very oldest surviving cantata by Bach, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich [freely: For Thee, O L-rd, I yearn], BWV 150, was written in Arnstadt, when Bach was maybe 20 years old. As John Eliot Gardiner pointed out and demonstrated here [go to timestamp 24:07 in the video if the link doesn’t already get you there] , the cantata includes an obbligato part for bassoon (Fagott in German) that in places requires considerable skill due to the rapid modulations involved.
Bach was used to the musical proficiency of his extended family, or to that of the prestigious Weimar court orchestra (where he had briefly temped as a violinist before coming to Arnstadt, and where he would later return as organist and then concertmaster). Arnstadt’s town musicians were of a much lower skill level, and Bach did not have the experience yet to customize parts to players’ abilities (a skill that is highly evident two decades later, in the educational works he would write for his children and keyboard students).
So the bassoonist — a man named Geyersbach, a few years older than Bach yet still in high school[*] — struggled with the part until an exasperated Bach threw up his hands and called him a Zippelfagottist. (More about this spicy insult below.)
An offended Geyersbach got together with his busking and drinking buddies, and lay in wait for Bach as he returned from a concert at the castle, accompanied by his cousin Barbara Catherina Bach. Geyersbach demanded an apology, and when that wasn’t forthcoming, cried out “you dirty dog!” and attacked him with his walking stick. Bach defended himself with his rapier until students separated the two, Geyersbach’s jacket having acquired a few ventilation holes.
To Bach’s fury, the town council sided with Geyersbach, and demanded that Bach go easier on the town musicians — although they did not punish him. That was one of a number of reasons why Bach ended up leaving for another position in Mühlhausen: others were complaints that his organ accompaniment was too complex for the congregation to sing along; that his organ preludes were too long (at which point he passive-aggressively “complied” and got complaints they were too short); and, oy vey, that he’d “brought a strange maiden to the organ loft” (
probably apparently not his fiancee, his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach, as commonly thought [**]). But from Bach’s side, the clincher must have been the much higher salary they were offering at Mühlhausen meant he could marry and start a household — which he would do promptly upon moving. (Both at Arnstadt and at Mühlhausen, he was paid well above his predecessors and successors.)
But being an amateur linguist, I became intrigued about what Zippelfagottist really meant. It’s usually translated as “nanny goat bassoonist” (implying that his playing sounded like the bleating of a nanny goat) but I couldn’t quite see the jump from Ziege (goat) to Zippel. Christoph Wolff translates it as “greenhorn bassoonist”. But it seems it’s actually something worse.
As a fellow amateur linguist points out in a discussion on Aryeh Oron’s priceless Bach Cantatas Website, Zippel was probably the local dialect pronunciation of Zipfel, “tip”. A Zipfelmütze is the kind of pointed cap that dwarves wore in fairy tales (or, closer to today, the Smurfs in the eponymous comic strip). Hence the insult would be more like “You dunce-capped bassoonist!” or “you dopey bassoonist”!
But it could also mean the end of a Wurst (sausage)… which would make it more like “weeny bassoonist”, “d*ckhead bassoonist”, or (UK English) “bell-end bassoonist”. I particularly like the latter translation, as it puns upon the instrument having a bell-end (not just on the player being one).
Bach, while a devout Lutheran, shared Martin Luther’s love for simple earthly pleasures[***] as well as for earthy “pardon my German” language. I can totally see an exasperated Bach calling Geyersbach a, well, “bell-end bassoonist”.
[*] The claim that Bach did poorly in school is a myth. He had middling grades in elementary school because he was absent so often, but graduated from the prestigious Latin high school at Lüneburg 2-3 years before his peers, at age 17.
[**] [Added:] “In any event, the incident […] must have involved an out-of-town singer and not, as often assumed, Bach’s distant cousin Maria Barbara, whom he married the following year. Maria Barbara had been living in Arnstadt for several years, so she could scarcely have been described as unfamiliar.” (Christoph Wolff, “J. S. Bach: The Learned Musician”, revised edition, Kindle location 2293.
[***] Bach loved to eat and drink well, wrote an ode to tobacco and pipe smoking (BWV 515), and liked coffee (then something of a novelty in Leipzig) well enough to write a secular cantata about it (BWV 211). Moreover, his having fathered twenty children suggests there were yet other pleasures he greatly enjoyed. (Only half of those children survived into adulthood — sadly, par for the course in Thuringia in the early 18th Century. Four of them became famous as musicians in their own right: W. Friedemann Bach, C. P. Emmanuel Bach, J. G. Friedrich Bach, and J. Christian Bach. A fifth also sought that career path but died at age 24, leaving no compositions behind.)
ADDENDUM: possibly the thing that got the Arnstadt town council the maddest at Bach was when he requested (and obtained) a leave of absence of 4 weeks to go visit the famous organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude (then already over 70) in the Hanseatic trading city of Lübeck (about 350 km on foot!) — and stayed away for 4 months. (To be fair, he had paid, out of his own pocket, his cousin as a substitute — eventually, said cousin would be hired as his successor, at a much reduced salary.) Bach was likely already familiar with some of Buxtehude’s organ music, but more formative were likely the Abendmusiken (“evening music”, a Lübeck tradition that survives to the present day) where Buxtehude staged what were effectively sacred cantatas under a different name.
A constant through Bach’s career was his ability and willingness to soak up the musical language of other composers like a sponge — cf., for example, the several Vivaldi concerti he transcribed for harpsichord or organ — then absorb the language into his own singular voice.
ADDENDUM 2: If you watch the entire John Eliot Gardiner BBC documentary, the enjoyable counterpoint of the conductor’s very incisive observations with Bach’s music is marred by a sour note: namely, the pop-psychological and “presentist” analysis by one Prof. Tamar Pincus, who tries to analyze a man whose shoes neither she nor I are fit to tie in terms of “trauma”, “bullying”, and “paranoid personality”. When I say ‘presentist’ (I forgot who invented this priceless neologism), I mean that she looks at Bach’s life outside its historical context (early 18th-century Middle Germany) and sees him through the lens of 21st century developed society.
Sadly, Bach’s early confrontation with deaths of siblings and even parents was nothing unusual then; unlike many of his (artisan) class, he had a fairly tightly-knit extended family as a support system to fall back upon (and remained on good terms with his family throughout his life); Bach’s lackluster school performance in Eisenach had zilch to do with bullying and everything with frequent absences to sing solo in various choir and small vocal ensemble performances and rehearsals, while at Ohrdruf and Lüneburg he was a choir scholar making music on a school schedule; and Bach was even more demanding of himself than he was of his musicians. Above all, as both Christoph Wolff (the revised edition of whose “J. S. Bach, The Learned Musician” I am now reading) and John Eliot Gardiner show at length, on many occasions Bach was not in a struggle with his employers so much as an unwilling (not necessarily unwitting) pawn in rivalries that transcended him: between rival Dukes; between what one might call “royalist internationalist” and “municipal autonomist” factions among the Leipzig burghers; between orthodox and “Pietistic” Lutherans;… there were plenty of material reasons for Bach’s behavior that defy “simple, elegant, and wrong” psychological models.
[AD-ADDENDUM: the Oxford English Dictionary has “presentism” first used in this sense in 1916, but it may actually have been used as early as the 1870s.]