Johann Sebastian Bach
Part 4: Leipzig 1723 - 1750
Previous Part 2:Part 3: Weimar and Cðthen 1708 - 1723
Leipzig, with a population of 30.000, was the second city of Saxony, the centre of the German printing and publishing industries, an important European trading centre, and site of a progressive and famous university.
It was also one of the foremost centres of German cultural life, with magnificent private dwellings, streets well paved and illuminated at night, a recently opened municipal library, a majestic town hall, and a vibrant social life. Outside its massive town walls were elegant tree-lined promenades and extensive formal gardens.
The old-established university drew scholars and men of distinction from far and wide, and the famous book trade contributed much to the cultural life of the city. One of Leipzig's most important features was its international commerce.
During the Leipzig Trade Fair, the respectable town was transformed into a show-ground mixing business with pleasure.
When Bach was appointed Cantor of Thomasschule, next to the Lutheran St. Thomas' Church, he also became Director of Music in the principal churches in the town.
From the window of his study on the first floor of the Thomasschule, he would look out west over the town wall, to a magnificent view of the surrounding gardens, fields and meadows, a view about which Goethe later wrote:
St Thomas Lutheran Church
When I first saw it, I believed I had come to the Elysian Fields.
Bach's arrival was clearly a major event in the musical and social world, and one North German newspaper described it in great detail:
Last Saturday at noon, four carts laden with goods and chattels belonging to the former Capellmeister to the Court of Cðthen arrived in Leipzig and at two in the afternoon, he and his family arrived in two coaches and moved into their newly decorated lodgings in the school building.
The Bach family at that time comprised his wife and four children, of eight, nine, twelve and fourteen years of age.
Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra
The Bach Family at music practice
Establish Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra and weave under:
Out of the 54 boys at Bach's disposal for use in the different choirs, he stated
17 are competent, 20 not yet fully, and 17 incapable.
Music-making was a popular pastime in Leipzig, and there were regular concerts at Zimmerman's Coffee House. So Bach could count on a fairly professional orchestra. His many arias featuring the oboe attest to the presence of a good oboist among the town's wind players.
Sebastian's contract stipulated a prodigious workload.
Bring up Concerto for Oboe and orchestra again and play out.
As well as being in charge of Latin classes from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., and two singing lessons at 9.0 a.m and 12.0 p.m., he had to write a cantata to be performed every Sunday.
For these he had to find texts or Librettists.
Establish Das Wachet Auf and take under.
Zimmermann's Coffee House
This challenging schedule produced some of his best music. Most of the cantatas from this period expound upon the Sunday readings from the Bible for the week in which they were originally performed; some were written using traditional church hymns, such as
Wachet auf, Sleeper Awake!
This piece was written in 1731 and Bach later arranged it for organ.
Bring up Das Wachet Auf and play out as appropriate.
Engraving of Bach
The aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit.
Meanwhile his family was growing apace. In April 1725 Magdalena gave birth to his tenth, and her third, child, Christian Gottlieb. Seven children now survived.
Establish St. Matthew Passion and weave under.
Two years later he completed his
St. Matthew Passion
to be performed at St. Thomas Church on Good Friday. The composer considered this monumental work among his greatest masterpieces.
It is my great passion.
His biographer Julian Shuckburgh writes that it is:
The longest and most complex work Sebastian had yet composed - and ever would - and perhaps the greatest musical composition in the whole of human history.
It required every available musician in town for its performance. Bach's representation of the essence and message of Christianity in his religious music is considered by many to be so powerful and beautiful that in Germany he is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Evangelist.
Suddenly the chorus breaks into two antiphonal choruses. 'See him!' cries the first one. 'Whom?' asks the second. And the first answers: 'The Bridegroom see. See? Him!' 'How?' 'So like a Lamb.' And then over and against all this questioning and answering and throbbing, the voices of a boy's choir sing out the chorale tune, 'O Lamb of God Most Holy,' piercing through the worldly pain with the icy-clear truth of redemption.....
There is nothing like it in all music.
Bring up St. Matthew Passion and play out this youtube excerpt
In the seven years since he had arrived in Leipzig, Sebastian had frequently been at loggerheads with his employers; mostly in the form of lengthy letters. The council members complained about his neglect of teaching and of falling academic standards at the school, while he complained of insufficient funds and support to train and employ skilled musicians. Fortunately Sebastian's circumstances improved with the appointment of a new headmaster, Johan Matthias Gesner in 1730. Here at last was somebody, who understood and appreciated Sebastian's musical skills, especially his exceptional ability as a conductor.
Singing with one voice and playing his own parts, but watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat, out of thirty or even forty musicians, the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to the one with the top of his voice, to another from the bottom, and to a third from the middle of it - all alone, in the midst of the greatest din made by all the participants, and, although he is executing the most difficult parts himself, noticing at once whenever and wherever a mistake occurs, holding everyone together, taking precautions everywhere, and repairing unsteadiness, full of rhythm in ever part of his body - this one man taking in all these harmonies with his keen ear and emitting with his voice alone the tone of all the voices.
Establish Cantata Tönet, ihr Pauken!" [BWV 214] and take under
Statue at Eisenach
He had been seeking work elsewhere but now no longer felt compelled to do so. However in 1733 to celebrate Electress Maria's birthday he wrote a secular cantata entitled
Tonet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!
Sound, you drums! Ring out, trumpets!
Resonant strings, fill the air!
Sing your songs, you lively poets
Long live the Queen! This is our joyful shout.
Long live the Queen! This is the wish of Saxony.
As Shuckburgh puts it:
The lines go on to affirm that music-playing is a powerful source of self confidence, that nature represents optimism, and that the Muses - who were themselves divine singers - encourage the aristocracy to settle quarrels and become dear to their subjects. Music, with the Queen's help, can help penetrate into the wide circle of the earth.
Bring up Cantata Tönet, ihr Pauken! and fade as appropriate
Count Kaiserling, the Russian ambassador to Saxony, suffered from insomnia and had his fourteen year old harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, play to him.
Establish Goldberg Variations and take under:
Sebastian composed the Goldberg Variations for him to act as a soporific for the Count. In return the grateful Count helped Bach to receive the title of Court Composer to the King of Poland and the Elector of Saxony.
Bring up Goldberg Variations and fade as appropriate
In the spring of 1742 Sebastian was commissioned to write a wedding cantata. It is believed he wrote the text.
Establish Wedding Cantata BWV 216 and take under:
Do we really believe that music leads us astray and does not harmonize with love? Oh no! It is like love, a great child of heaven, except that it is not so blind as love.
It steals into all hearts, be it high or low. Music comforts in the hour of death.
Bring up Wedding Cantata BWV 216 and fade as appropriate
In 1745 King Frederick the Great's expansionist Prussian policies led to his troops occupying Leipzig. After their withdrawal in 1747 Sebastian made the long, uncomfortable journey to Potsdam near Berlin to visit his son Emanuel who had become the King's harpsichordist.
The King was a gifted musician who played the flute. On hearing of Sebastian's arrival, the King called for 'old Bach' to visit him. He played a theme and challenged the famous musician to improvise a three-part fugue based on it.
Establish Musical Offerings and weave under
Bach presented the king with a Musical Offering including several fugues and canons based on the 'royal theme.' A Berlin newspaper reported:
Frederick the Great playing the flute
Herr Bach found the theme proposed to him so exceedingly beautiful that he intends to set it down on paper as a regular fugue and have it engraved on copper.
Bach returned to Leipzig within a few days and worked non stop on what he entitled
Bring up Musical Offerings and play out
He was inspired by the success of this venture to produce what his son Emanuel later called:
My father's great Catholic Mass.
Establish the Gloria from the Mass in B Minor and weave through to the end
It was unusual for composers working in the Lutheran tradition to compose a complete Mass and Bach's motives remain a matter of scholarly debate.
The Mass in B minor
is partly made up from pieces previously composed. The Mass was most probably never performed in totality during Bach's lifetime, and the work largely disappeared in the 18th century. Several performances in the early 19th century, however, sparked a revival both of the piece and the larger rediscovery of Bach's music. The three trumpets in the
symbolise the Trinity. Alberto Basso, the Italian professor of music history, has written:
Started in 1733 for 'diplomatic' reasons, it was finished in the very last years of Bach's life, when he had already gone blind. This monumental work is a synthesis of every stylistic and technical contribution the Cantor of Leipzig made to music. But it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross.
I have been greatly impressed by Iain Mcgilchrist's insight into poetry and music in his book,
The Master and His Emissary
. Here is what he says about Bach:
"Bach's music is full of discords, and one would have to be musically deaf not to appreciate them - in both senses of the word 'appreciate', because such moments are especially to be relished, as are the wonderful passing dissonances and 'false relations' in the music of, for example, Byrd and his contemporaries. But they are introduced to be resolved. The same element that adds relish to the dish makes it inedible if it comes to predominate. The passing discords so frequent in Bach are
into the wider consonance as they move on and resolve. Context is once again absolutely critical - in fact nowhere can context be more important than in music, since music is pure context, even if the context is silence. Thus, in harmony as elsewhere, a relationship between expectation and delay in fulillment is at the core of great art; the art is in getting the balance right, something which Bach consummately exemplifies."
Bring up the Gloria from the Mass in B Minor and take under again
Bach had overworked in poor light throughout his life, and his eyesight now began to fail him. On the advice of friends, Bach put himself in the hands of a visiting celebrated English ophthalmic specialist, John Taylor (who also operated on Handel, the Pope and King George II. Two cataract operations were performed on Sebastian's eyes, in March and Apri1 1750, and their weakening effect was aggravated by a following infection which seriously undermined his health.
He spent the last months of his life in a darkened room. Then, on the morning of the 28th of July, 1750, he woke up to find he could bear strong light again, and see quite clearly. That same day he had a stroke, followed by a severe fever.
He died 'in the evening, after a quarter to nine, in the sixty-fifth year of his life, yielding up his blessed soul to his saviour'.
During his life time he composed over 1,000 pieces. Forkel wrote:
Bach at 60
And this man the greatest musical poet and the greatest musical orator, that ever existed and probably ever will exist, was a German. Let his country be proud of him, but at the same time, worthy of him.
Albert Schweitzer added:
In his innermost essence he belongs to the history of German mysticism. This robust man, who seems to be in the thick of life with his family and his work, and whose mouth seems to express something like comfortable joy in life, was inwardly dead to the world. His whole thought was inwardly transfigured by a wonderful serene longing for death.
But let us give the last word to Bach:
The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. Where this is not observed there will be no music, but only a devilish hubbub.
Bring up Gloria from Mass in b minor and play out under credits
Music of the Great Composers
The Flying Palaces of Angkor
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