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Bach’s Personality

Bach’s Personality

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 25, 2004):
Charles Francis wrote:
< For myself, Bach's spirituality is central to his music; by which I mean he is rooted in the Collective Unconscious rather than the personal ego. In this regard, the biographer Forkel noted Bach's exceptional modesty and tolerance. >
Bach wasn't patient with incompetents, or tolerant of effrontery that got in the way of his work (witness his reactions to the Scheibe attacks). Recall the incident in which he pulled off his wig and threw it at another musician, exclaiming, "You should have been a cobbler!" And the one where he disagreed with Silbermann's organ tuning so vehemently that he called 1/3 of it "barbaric". And the one where he launched into a piece in A-flat major on purpose, i.e. the worst key in Silbermann's tuning, to pique Silbermann to his face (nevertheless, he and Silbermann were friends and colleagues, and this may have been as a joke). And the one where Bach pulled a dagger on a bassoonist (nobody injured, fortunately; and according to Bach the dagger was only in self-defense against the other guy's attack; the bassoonist was upset because Bach had compared his playing with the sound of a nanny-goat). And the one where Bach got a reprimand from his boss that he had played the organ too long in a service, so at the next opportunity he deliberately stopped too early, just to tork him off. And see Bach's official complaint that he had to work with a bunch of students who were "not at all talented for music". And the one where he and two colleagues examined an organ in 1716 and reported it so seriously defective (they provided several pages describing the design flaws) that it wasn't even playable without a necessary further overhaul. And there's the famous report that no one, no one, could tune keyboards to Bach's satisfaction; he had to do it himself. And, he and CPE were both loudly opposed to Rameau's silly theories of functional harmony (and equalized tuning), putting the roots of chords where they really are not by normal function. Other people's naive guesswork and shoddy workmanship simply were not good enough for Bach: he strove for excellence in all things.

Johann Sebastian Bach simply did not put up with inferior work, or with people who tried to take shortcuts around learning! Bach's tolerance went only so far as the amount that other people took the work seriously (their own training and practice), and brought any talent and diligence to it. It's not about personal ego, but about bringing one's best to the service of the music, and expecting everyone else to do that also. Chez Bach, there is simply no substitute for DOING good work, with training in the dozens of related aspects of musicianship: a comprehensive program of study.

I personally consider him a good role model: in the value of doing the work meticulously with thorough dedication, and in not putting up with nonsense from people who would cut corners (or disdain the training altogether), or people who propose to criticize the work (as in, teaching how it allegedly "must" be done properly) without being able to do it. Bach insisted on excellence and deep understanding, and showed how it may be achieved: through comprehensive hands-on work as a musical artist and craftsman.

I don't see how Bach would have bought into any "collective unconsciousness" business: especially when it is merely a convenient front to excuse naivete, promote superficial dabbling, and to belittle the value both of serious work and of practical understanding. The music suffers when mastery is relativized away as meaningless. That's why it is not a virtue to tolerate pretentious nonsense, wherever it may be found. The music deserves much better than that. I agree that Bach's spirituality is central to his music. It's available to those who DO the work as he did, with no shortcuts, walking in Bach's own shoes to see how everything fits together. He said so: anyone who works as hard can get as far. Dabblers do not and will not understand the craftsmanship and spiritual focus that must go into doing the work, by Bach's example: performing and composing the music. There is always more there to learn, and the way to learn it (according to Bach's own remarks) is to DO the things he did as a performer/composer/improviser/teacher.

John Pike wrote (June 25, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehmasn] The perfect reply!

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 25, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
>> The music suffers when mastery is relativized away as meaningless. That's why it is not a virtue to tolerate pretentious nonsense, wherever it may be found. The music deserves much better than that.<<
It certainly does and that is the reason why he went to such great lengths to preserve what he knew as musical good sense by meticulously notating everything as carefully as he could so that pretentious musicians who think they know it all and just happen to be following a current fad (be the galant style of composing/performing or whatever) would not bring dishonor to his name as a composer. All of this which was covered recently on this list points to Bach’s not putting up with some of the improvised nonsense with extreme gesturing to the point of imprecision as practiced quite commonly by those who, at least in part, subscribe to the now-prevalent theories of what Bach’s music once sounded like.

No mention is made here specifically of Bach’s striving in his music for the ideals of ‘cantabile’ playing and singing, of ‘aequalitate,’ and ‘conformitè,’ or of his avoidance ofDefecta’ in the playing and singing of his musicians, of how still he sat and his hands remained when playing the organ or other keyboard instruments, etc., etc.

It appears that some performers have placed themselves above Bach in what they consider to be mastery of music and its performance style.

>>Bach insisted on excellence and deep understanding, and showed how it may be achieved: through comprehensive hands-on work as a musical artist and craftsman.<<
Bach also demonstrated a distrust in the good judgment of trained musicians/composers who thought that they knew better how to embellish and change Bach’s music away from what he had intended. That is the reason why he so meticiously documented through notation what he wanted the music to sound like.

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 25, 2004):
[To Thomas Braatz] [the message was removed]

Jeremy Martin wrote (June 25, 2004):
I want to say that I love the BCL. It is a wonderful thing to know others love the music of Bach deeply and search for the truth in music.

I read on in "The Study of Counterpoint" that J.S. Highly esteemed the teachings of J.J. Fux. I wonder if this is true. I suppose as long as one did not become bound by a man made system (which is futile). He may have admired Fux's search for a guideline into the limitless realm of music, a seeking of the Truth. Perhaps.

It's very clear Bach was a wise man. It appears a key that led him to greatness was the truth of "Knowing the truth by being reconciled to the fact that you know nothing." At the same time of being reconciled to this fact one should never cease to earnestly seek for the Truth. For when we think we have a man made system that works and that we know it all we only Limit ourselfs and wrap ourselfs in the cords of ignorance. As the Bible says in 1 Peter 5:5&6 "God resists the proud, But gives Grace to the humble." Therefore humble yourselfs under the mighty hand of God, that He may exhalt you in due time. In Bach's case it was a few hundred years later that God exhalted His humble servant who in the letter to the Margrave of Brandenburg shows his humilty in saying "the small musical talent Heaven has given me" Also concerning zeal in the same letter he says "since I am with matchless Zeal" It was clear that he was indeed reconciled to the fact he knew little concerning the Truth being a mere man and he then expresses his continual search for truth by saying he had matchless zeal. In this letter you find three things showing his wisdom, first, his Humilty, then his desire to Serve as the Bible says in Matthew 20:26 " But whoever dto be to become great among you, let him be your servant." has there ever been a greater musical servant than J.S.Bach? and the third his Zeal.

All throughout Bach you'll find wisdom lifting her voice. Musicians would do good to learn from Bach. One could look through the book of Proverbs and see Bach in it's pages for Bach was not wise in his own eyes. Proverbs 3:7 "Do not be wise in your own eyes." Proverbs 2:3-6 says "Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding, If you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will Understand the fear of the Lord, and find the Knowledge of God. Again, I quote Bach "Since I am with Matchless zeal" Proverbs 24:24,27 & 13:4 "But the soul of the Diligent shall be made rich." Surely the music of Bach is as riches and thank God we all can enjoy the fruit of his labor (What a Gift!) as the writer of Proverbs says in Ecclesiastes 2:21 "For there is a man whose labor is with Wisdom, Knowledge and Skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it." Bach was truly a wise man following the example his maker.

Proverbs 3:19&20 "The Lord by Wisdom founded the earth; By Understanding He established the heavens; By His Knowledge the depths were broken up, And clouds drop down the dew."

Exodus 31:1-4 "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying; "See, I have called by name Bezalel, "And I have filled him with the Spirit of God in Wisdom in Understanding in Knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, " to design artistic works."

Bezalel had something in common with a German man born March 21st 1685.

I will leave with a Question. If Bach was Elisha who was Elijah?

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (June 25, 2004):
Jeremy Martin wrote:
< I will leave with a Question. If Bach was Elisha who was Elijah? >
Didn't Bach study with his Dad?

Bradley Lehman (June 26, 2004):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] Not for long. (His dad died.) He learned quite a bit from his uncle Christoph (the Eisenach organist), and his own cousins and siblings.

His cousin Nikolaus (one of Christoph's boys) is especially well-known as an instrument builder, and as the guy who whupped Neidhardt in a tuning contest in 1706. Nikolaus tuned part of an organ by ear, while Neidhardt did another part by a monochord, and the musicians judging this agreed that Nikolaus' results sounded better. Neidhardt went on to become an expert tuning theorist anyway. Nikolaus, by the 1740s, was the oldest living Bach and very well-respected for his all-round musical achievements.

p.s. If we're picky about the date of March 21st 1685, that's old calendar. It changed during Bach's lifetime, lopping off 10 days. By the position of the earth in orbit around the sun, JS Bach's birthdate by our current calendar is March 31st.

Jeremy Martin wrote (June 26, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] I didn't know that. Now he has more in common with Bezalel being he was mentioned in Exodus 31 and Bach was born on the 31st. =P

Charles Francis wrote (June 26, 2004):
Charles Francis wrote:
<< For myself, Bach's spirituality is central to his music; by which I mean he is rooted in the Collective Unconscious rather than the personal ego. In this regard, the biographer Forkel noted Bach's exceptional modesty and tolerance. >>
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Bach wasn't patient with incompetents, or tolerant of effrontery that got in the way of his work (witness his reactions to the Scheibe attacks). >
Yes, he didn't even bother to respond to Scheibe. Why would a teacher of Bach's stature be at all concerned about the remarks of a former pupil?

< Recall the incident in which he pulled off his wig and threw it at another musician, exclaiming, "You should have been a cobbler!" >
I don't know this one, please provide a reference!

< And the one where he disagreed with Silbermann's organ tuning so vehemently that he called 1/3 of it "barbaric". >
This is a second hand report by Andreas Sorge, and one should therefore not assume its veracity.

Bach wrote: "In denen vier schlimmen Triadibus aber ist ein rauhes, wildes, oder, wie Herr Kapellmeister Bach in Leipzig redet, ein barbarisches Wesen enthalten, welches einem guten Gehör unerträglich fällt"

Regarding the word "barbarisches", please consider that Albert Schweitzer used this term to describe Bach's short masses:

Barbarischere Parodien (als BWV 233 und 235) lassen sich nicht denken"

[More barbaric parodies (than BWV 233 and BWV 235) cannot be imagined].

< And the one where he launched into a piece in A-flat major on purpose, i.e. the worst key in Silbermann's tuning, to pique Silbermann to his face (nevertheless, he and Silbermann were friends and colleagues, and this may have been as a joke). >
This is a report of a -tradition- made by an -Englishman- John Hopkins, in -1895- As such it has very little credence.

< And the one where Bach pulled a dagger on a bassoonist (nobody injured, fortunately; and according to Bach the dagger was only in self-defense against the other guy's attack; the bassoonist was upset because Bach had compared his playing with the sound of a nanny-goat). >
I imagine it really was self-defence, as Bach claimed (otherwise, you assume Bach was lying). I also imagine Bach was making a factual statement, which wasinterpreted in a pejorative manner.

< And the one where Bach got a reprimand from his boss that he had played the organ too long in a service, so at the next opportunity he deliberately stopped too early, just to tork him off. >
References please.

< And see Bach's official complaint that he had to work with a bunch of students who were "not at all talented for music". >
A factual statement, presumably. To this day, German speakers tend to be very direct in speech.

< And the one where he and two colleagues examined an organ in 1716 and reported it so seriously defective (they provided several pages describing the design flaws) that it wasn't even playable without a necessary further overhaul. >
Again, a presumed factual statement.

< And there's the famous report that no one, no one, could tune keyboards to Bach's satisfaction; he had to do it himself. >
As he needed Well Temperament, this is hardly surprising.

< And, he and CPE were both loudly opposed to Rameau's silly theories of functional harmony (and equalized tuning), putting the roots of chords where they really are not by normal function. Other people's naive guesswork and shoddy workmanship simply were not good enough for Bach: he strove for excellence in all things. >
References please.

< Johann Sebastian Bach simply did not put up with inferior work, or with people who tried to take shortcuts around learning! Bach's tolerance went only so far as the amount that other people took the work seriously (their own training and practice), and brought any talent and diligence to it. It's not about personal ego, but about bringing one's best to the service of the music, and expecting everyone else to do that also. Chez Bach, there is simply no substitute for DOING good work, with training in the dozens of related aspects of musicianship: a comprehensive program of study. >
Your assertion is in clear contradiction to Forkel's account. For homework, please read his chapter on Bach's character.

< I personally consider him a good role model: in the value of doing the work meticulously with thorough dedication, and in not putting up with nonsense from people who would cut corners (or disdain the training altogether), or people who propose to criticize the work (as in, teaching how it allegedly "must" be done properly) without being able to do it. Bach insisted on excellence and deep understanding, and showed how it may be achieved: through comprehensive hands-on work as a musical artist and craftsman.
I don't see how Bach would have bought into any "collective unconsciousness" business: especially when it is merely a convenient front to excuse naivete, promote superficial dabbling, and to belittle the value both of serious work and of practical understanding. The msuffers when mastery is relativized away as meaningless. That's why it is not a virtue to tolerate pretentious nonsense, wherever it may be found. The music deserves much better than that. I agree that Bach's spirituality is central to his music. It's available to those who DO the work as he did, with no shortcuts, walking in Bach's own shoes to see how everything fits together. He said so: anyone who works as hard can get as far. Dabblers do not and will not understand the craftsmanship and spiritual focus that must go into doing the work, by Bach's example: performing and composing the music. There is always more there to learn, and the way to learn it (according to Bach's own remarks) is to DO the things he did as a performer/composer/improviser/teacher. >
Didn't Bach say something like:

"I had to work hard. Anyone who works as hard will get just as far."

I take this as a reflection of his natural modesty.

John Reese wrote (June 26, 2004):
<< Recall the incident in which he pulled off his wig and threw it at another musician, exclaiming, "You should have been a cobbler!" >>
< I don't know this one, please provide a reference! >
The "Book of Musical Anecdotes" has this on page 18. The other musician was Goerner.

<< And the one where Bach got a reprimand from his boss that he had played the organ too long in a service, so at the next opportunity he deliberately stopped too early, just to tork him off. >>
< References please. >
Bach Reader, page 47. It was in Arnstadt.

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 26, 2004):
[To Charles Francis] The bits about Rameau are in the back section of the old Bach Reader (David/Mendel) and explicated more fully in Rita Steblin's dissertation, which I recommend very strongly. All the other questioned references here are in the New Bach Reader (Wolff). The anecdote about Bach playing too long, and then not long enough, is in the collection of young Bach's reprimands near the front of that book.

Forkel's biography, a good but brief one, is not the only account worth taking into account. Bach, a complex person, simply had much more to him than Forkel was able to present in the allotted space. That's why it's worth reading more than one source, and understanding the musical issues of the story (from Bach's most direct evidence: his music), to comprehend the context around Forkel's summaries. Spitta was much more thorough. So have other biographers been. It's good to read a lot, and to know Bach's music by playing it, not simply to read a couple of books and believe that everything's been covered. I also recommend music school in that regard: a worthwhile and comprehensive experience, for those well talented for music.

The story of Bach's response to Scheibe is in Wolff's book Bach: The Learned Musician, and (again) the NBR; also, the way Bach was not at all modest about using his earned titles when pressed by those who would seek to knock him down with silly accusations.

Bach's well temperament (even though that's an ungrammatical modern phrase) is an extraordinarily easy one to tune by ear (in under 15 minutes, as I've confirmed empirically by doing it at least a dozen times). Its content makes it clear why nobody else's temperament satisfied him: the resulting sound is different. The statement makes perfect sense: not from any alleged difficulty, but simply from the way other musicians were unfamiliar with the specifications. This is all covered in my paper. The A-flat major anecdote has credence because of the musical content of it (I believe I even know which A-flat piece it probably was, from the evidence of the piece itself); direct musical evidence from Bach is just as strong or stronger than anybody's attempted assassination of other evidence alleging that it's merely "tradition".

As for Schweitzer, his opinion about Bach's masses is irrelevant here, and says more about Albert Schweitzer than about Bach.

I hope that's answered all the questions. Plus, I don't need to be given "homework" assignments as noted below; I've already completed four degrees in this.

Charles Francis wrote (June 28, 2004):
[To John Reese] Thanks John. I don't have the anecdotes book, but I could look up the Bach Reader, page 47:
"The organist Bach had previously played rather too long, but after his attention had been called to it by the Superintendent, he had at once fallen into the other extreme and made it too short."

I found this very amusing - it is so human!

 

JS Bach - the man

Continue of discussion from: Richard Wagner & Bach [Bach & Other Composers]

Julian Mincham wrote (June 12, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
<< I'm sure that Bach held conventional social, religious and political views which today would be branded sexist, racist, intolerant, anti-semitic and anti-democratic >>
< I'm not trying to attack or disparage Bach. I'm merely saying that he was a man of his time who, from his public writings, appears conventional and conformist from our perspective 250 years later.

So conventional in fact, that I remember being surprised when I first read that he had used the poetry of Christiane Mariane von Ziegler in his cantatas. In a patriarchal society where women were not permitted any role in public worship, there must have been a few eyebrows raised that the poetry of a woman -- and a woman who may have been sitting in the congregation at that! -- was sung in a service where no woman's voice was heard in the pulpit or the choir loft. It certainly would have offended social conservatives in
Leipzig to contemplate the Cantor discussing cantata texts with a mere woman! (if in fact they ever met). Perhaps Bach's switch to Picander was more socially acceptable.

All of this is conjecture of course. We simply don't know if Bach sat in Zimmerman's coffee house and discussed the dangerous state of politics in France and the American colonies, or if he had an opinion about the moral debate raging about slavery. Or if he held beliefs about religious tolerance and liberty. But it is unfair to the man to pluck him out of his historical context, declare him a timeless genius and assert universalist values to his music which he never intended.

History unfortunately is a dirty business. >
My questioning of Doug Cowling's original statement (quoted below) does not arise from a misguided attempt to pluck the Bach from his times and imbue him with a sense of timelessness or modernity (perish the thought). Nor does it arise from a wish to 'bowdlerdise' his nature or personality. He was a human being and it does not make sense to strip him of human fault or frailty or to deify him.

However, in my view, it similarly does not make sense to assume that he held the views inherent within the texts he set. No-one (I suggest) would claim that Shakespeare believed every statement he put in the mouths of his characters. Why should Bach hold to the views and prejudices expressed in the words (supported by the authority of the church) which he set for his singers to sing?

Secondly I think it is the mode of expression that I challenge as much as the view. The words 'I am sure that-----' convey a sense of certainty, even an implication of authority which is not sustainable by the evidence. I would
prefer something like 'As considered from the viewpoint of the 21st century, Bach's views might appear to be-------'. You can't argue with that!

Where Doug Cowling and I might come to some point of agreement is in his statement 'all of this is conjecture, of course' However, there is conjecture without basis and there is informed conjecture based upon the available
evidence (sparse though it might be). Wolff's book 'JSB the Learned Musician' contains a great deal of conjecture. One frequently comes across phrases like 'It is possible/likely that------', 'It seems probable that---------', or 'Bach may well have been thinking that------'. I would go so far as to suggest that this is what makes the book so readable and fascinating. It is not just a dry compendium of facts and figures. The conjecture brings much of the man to life; anessential process after the long and weary years of Romantic disinformation about this (apparently) 'sad, lonely, unloved, awkward and unappreciated' man.

But Wollf's conjecture is extremely well informed, sensible and imaginative and leads us further along in our own individual quests to understand this most complex of men and composers.

My own teaching, writing and lecturing on Bach (and many other composers) is based upon a steady output of conjecture, based upon scrupulous study of the scores and a reasonable knowledge of the periods. But it still
conjecture--it has its place but is always challengable, especially by those with greater knowledge and stronger arguments than my own.

And following this line, my own reading of the evidence of the brandy and beer drinking, smoking, seemingly attentive father and great teacher (who even invited some of his students to join his household--see Wolff once more) leading his family quodlibets about cabbage and flatulence, is that he just may have been a more interesting and liberated person than has frequently been portrayed. And I was amused to see in Doug Cowling's first email on this topic the suggestion of sexism, followed in the second by two pieces of evidence which suggest quite the contrary.

Finally I recall a broadcast some years ago when famous Bach interpreters were asked to give their views about the man's personality as derived from his music. One claimed that Bach's was essentially a medieval mind, another that he was a true renaissance man, another that he was a Romantic and another that he was very much a man of the 20th century. Like the blind men seeking to describe an elephant after touching different parts of its body, they were all right--but only partially so.

Finally an observation; that when the subject of racism and prejudice is referred to on list there is always a flurry of responses. There is usually less interest in commenting upon (or conjecturing about) the music itself.

Jean Laaninen wrote (June 12, 2006):
[To Julian Mincham] You have covered it very well...no arguments here. The English Suites and The Italian Concerto are not about prejudice, it seems to me. I think that Bach explored the depths of human life. I enjoyed some details in this letter that were new to me. I'm glad I had a chance to read it.

Most Lutherans I have known in my life hold some disagreement with some teachings they encounter in the church, and again, it seems to me that would have been the case in Bach's day. The Scripture texts for the day then were assigned...it is likely there were times when Bach just was doing his job as expected.

So, getting back to Bach's music--I find it a celebration of life. Regarding the details therein, I'm eager to get back to the subject of music.

Douglas Cowling wrote (June 12, 2006):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Finally I recall a broadcast some years ago when famous Bach interpreters were asked to give their views about the man's personality as derived from his music. One claimed that Bach's was essentially a medieval mind, another that he was a true renaissance man, another that he was a Romantic and another that he was very much a man of the 20th century. Like the blind men seeking to describe an elephant after touching different parts of its body, they were all right--but only partially so. >
Actually, we are in agreement. It's always entertaining to speculate about a figure in history. Bach had two wives and twety-odd children: that's a lot of sex. Compare him with Händel for whom there are no reports of sexual liasons. Does that make Bach a sex addict and Händel a closeted gay? There are certainly scholars who hold the latter opinion. What we do know about Bach is that his position demanded tremendous physical and intelllectual
stamina. Merely rehearsing and performing the weekly choral music would exhaust a lesser man. Add to that the physicality of playing the organ and the intensie creativity of writing a cantata a week and we are presented with a formidible person. Bach is no Romantic composer swooning on a couch waiting for inspiration: he worked bloody hard.

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 13, 2006):
BWV 173/BWV 184 JS Bach - the man

Julian Mincham wrote:
< Finally an observation; that when the subject of racism and prejudice is referred to on list there is always a flurry of responses. There is usually less interest in commenting upon (or conjecturing about) the music itself. >
But what a wonderful job Aryeh does sorting it all out, and making the archives look like we are a bunch of intellectuals.

As to the music itself, I may just as well flaunt (or flout) the traverso one more time. I was so anxious to get on to Jahrgang II, get my iBook returned, etc., that I commented on the architecture of the alto arias, without mentioning:
BWV 173 opens with a recitative, an unusual structure already, followed by aria with traverso (pretty new sound)
BWV 184, the very next next day, again opens with rec., this time with traverso accompaniment (new sound).

The Suzuki versions are the only ones I have. Naturally they sound wonderful, like Bach, like heaven. I did not understand why the programming on CD is in reverse chronological order. I found that the traverso development was much clearer by playing BWV 173 followed by BWV 184.

To the colleague (flute) of Doug Cowling, it appears well documented that Bach (the man) took the trouble to write traverso lines for Wild (the grad student) to help him get a job. Not to mention music for the glory of God. The job didn't work out, but the music has proved durable (not to struggle for words like exquisite, etc). See Oxford Composer Companion, Wild entry. Keep us up to date on the flute publication.

Jean Laaninen wrote (June 13, 2006):
[To Ed Myskowski] I am interested in the flute parts in the works you mentioned, and hope I can look at an orchestral score of them one of these days. Interesting background on why Bach created these cantatas with the flute included. Thanks for sharing.

Tom Hens wrote (June 13, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Actually, we are in agreement. It's always entertaining to speculate about a figure in history. Bach had two wives and twety-odd children: that's a lot of sex. >
Without wanting to be prurient, fathering twenty children (I also always forget the exact number) with two women over a period of decades doesn't take all that much sex, does it? Especially when one considers for how much of that period his wives were pregnant.

< Compare him with Händel for whom there are no reports of sexual liasons. Does that make Bach a sex addict and Händel a closeted gay? There are certainly scholars who hold the latter opinion. >
The people who think that Händel was gay don't do so solely on the basis of a lack of contemperaneous reports of sexual liasions with women. (Basically, when faced with what is known of Händel's life, there are only two possible explanations: he was either gay, or pretty much asexual.) "Closeted gay" is a complete anachronism. Christianity, that ever-peaceful religion of love, for a very long time made sure that gay people risked violent death if they were found out.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (June 13, 2006):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< Actually, we are in agreement. It's always entertaining to speculate about a figure in history. Bach had two wives and twety-odd children: that's a lot of sex. Compare him with Händel for whom there are no reports of sexual liasons. Does that make Bach a sex addict and Händel a closeted gay? There are certainly scholars who hold the latter opinion. >
Let's see, Robert Schumann had, as I recall, seven kids with his female beloved wife, Clara. Robert went mad. Clara put him in the nut house. Clara never visited him for the last two years of his awful life. She was concertizing all over Europe and supporting the kids. Later at least one of the kids went mad too and most of them lived unhappily ever after.

Robert's Jewish convert friend Felix was a happy and non-neurotic being and then Fanny died and then Felixdied both very young.

Clara may or may not have had a thing with Brahms or Brahms may have only attended prostitutes. Franz Schubert may or may not have visited boy brothels and gotten syphilis.

Frankly we don't know but we have the genius of all these beings some of whom suffered terribly and some of whom were happy and fortunate.

Seems that Händel and Bach were long-lived for their time, extremely productive of music and Bach very prolific in kids but not necessarily in sex. Many persons screw just as much but don't produce so many kids and of those kids none is ever brilliant (Siegfried Wagner excepted:Duh!).

Eric Bergerud wrote (June 14, 2006):
[To Julian Mincham] As I recall Wolff made it quite clear that he was writing a musical biography of Bach as opposed to trying to develop a picture of a whole man. Lack of sources was the reason given and it's a good one. Although Bach might have wished otherwise, he lived in a relatively small world throughout his life. Serving as cantor in Leipzig beat the devil out of plowing some aristocrat's field, but it was not the center of the universe. Had Bach set up shop in London, Holland or even Hamburg he might have generated the kind of international attention that would have created correspondence. It didn't happen and we'll be very lucky indeed to find additional correspondence to or from Bach. It is a real pity after all. We know Bach spent considerable time with students and faculty from the Leipzig University. What did they talk about? Kind of hard to believe it would have been music only, especially if lubricated with a little wine or ale. The burning issues of politics were in the future (although Mozart seems to have slept through the American and French Revolutions) but the subject in general was a hot item in many intellectual circles.

Anti-clerical ideas were beginning to kick around and there was considerable ferment in Protestant circles. Was young Bach interested in the campaigns of War of Spanish Succession or Charles XII. Did old Bach follow August III's claim to the Austrian throne which helped convince Frederick to take his amazing gamble? Did Bach follow science in any way? Bach did not act the rebel, but not many people did in the early 18th century: order looked pretty good to Europeans after the adventures of the 17th century. We don't know and we'll never know. At least we're left with most of his music. Not such a bad trade.

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (June 14, 2006):
[To Eric Begerud] At least Bach did what most people of his day did not do---and that was to travel in a day that most folks rarely ever left their villages and when they did did not wander to far afield. Yet despite this Bach seems to have known what was going on in Italy at the time.

As for Mozart; I doubt that he really slept through the French Revolution had he lived (unless you are being facetiously sarcastic)--the revolution got started on 14 July 1789 with the storming of the Bastille just about the time that Mozart died; it raged on for nearly 10 years until Napoleon took over the reigns of Government completely much to Beethoven's initial joy and then disgust. Mozart instead would have known to kept the hell out of France since the Revolutionaries would have probably guillotined him during the Terror by reason that he had close connections to Marie-Antoinette, the French Court and the Austrian Court. Austria and other allies were attempting to invade France at that time which led to the Napoleonic wars over the execution of Marie-Antoinette and an attemps to restore Louis VXI to the throne. Louis ruined it for himself when he could not tolerate being hungry and stopped near the border at someone's home who he had previously treated like the English Parliament had treated Benjamin Franklin--which was responsible for the full fury of the American Revolution. Franklin until that time was a very loyal British subject who loved his King.

It seems to be implied by what we know of Bach that he was a faculty member of the Unversity of Leipzig but we can not find any documentation of this to the best of my knowledge and if such documentation did exist it probably was burned during the destruction of Leipzig in WWII and for all of you who were not around: Leipzig looked like an atomic bomb had hit it when the allies left it---barely any buildings at all were left standing---what you see today is for most a reconstruction of what was there before.

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 15, 2006):
Jean Laaninen wrote:
< Interesting background on why Bach created these cantatas with the flute included >
Just speculation on my part, based on the OCC entry, and I probably should have been careful to label it such. If you have not already seen it, there is much background and discussion in the flute section of General Topics, including a list of the many upcoming 1724 cantatas with prominent flute parts.

Jean Laaninen wrote (June 15, 2006):
[To Ed Myskowski] Thanks, Ed. No, I haven't seen the flute section, but I will check it out.

Santu de Silva wrote (June 16, 2006):
< Compare [JS Bach] with Händel for whom there are no reports of sexual liasons. Does that make Bach a sex addict and Händel a closeted gay? There are certainly scholars who hold the latter opinion. >
I hope we can get past this fake proto-deconstructionism. How much sex a person enjoys really has little bearing on how creative, or hard-working, or musical he or she is. Or even how many children he or she left behind.

In any case, as someone pointed out --if no one has, let me be the first--the fact that J.S. Bach had 20 children only shows that he had at least 20 minutes of sex in his married life; heavens, any modern American has that much sex in, well, a year. Even I've had 20 minutes of sex, and I only have one kid, and I haven't composed a thing. Shouldn't I have composed one-twentieth of Bach's volume of work? Oh, I was forgetting; Händel had no children, but he composed a volume of music comparable to Bach's output! That simply proves how relevant this discussion is.And then, what if Bach did have a lot of sex, but hated every minute of it? He was a Lutheran, remember?

The serious question is: did Bach's sexual activity or tendencies impinge on his music? Does ANYONE's sexual makeup impinge on their music? This is a question as meaningful as: If Wagner was infinitely wealthy, would he have been a great philanthropist? (Would he have lent a few thaler to Mozart, if Wolfie asked nicely?) The answer, by the way, is yes.

And another thing. This whole thing of being homosexual. When I was a teen, I thought this question was one of the greatest ideas anyone had ever invented. Was Napoleon a homosexual? George Washington? John the Baptist? Karl Marx? Joan of Arc? NOAH'S ARK?I was convinced that this issue was a veritable Rosetta Stone, and could explicate every eccentricity --and later, every incidence of genius--that had fascinated man forever. And then someone invented Bisexuality, and I realized that people could lust after anything, from their wives and husbands to --a mailbox. And different things on different days. In the last analysis, looking at a person's sexual desires may be a legitimate way of doing certain things, such as explaining certain literary tendencies of some author (and in modern academia, it appears that you can't get away from this kind of thing if you really want that paper published) but, to me, it's all uninteresting. When someone brings up Bach's sexuality, it is uncomfortable to think that any statment that person makes is relative to his or her own sexuality --or at least what that person thinks he would like us to believe about his own sexuality. Because, make no mistake, we are all anxious about the perception of our sexuality in others. The less said, the better! I'm not much of a prude, but yes, I like to keep discussions of sex restricted to occasions in which it is really useful.

And the crowning glory, the closet asexual! Oh lord.

Alain Bruguieres wrote (June 16, 2006):
< the fact that J.S. Bach had 20 children only shows that he had at least 20 minutes of sex in his married life >
Does it show that, though? Bach's wives had 20 children. Considering the state of 18th century biotechnology we may reasonably assume that they totalized at least about 20 minutes of sexual activity. The rest is wildly conjectural.

Jean Laaninen wrote (June 16, 2006):
Alain Bruguieres wrote:
>>"The rest is wildly conjectural."
Amen. Scientifically most of us got 'here' the same way. I hope we agree.

So I have to sat that while all the speculation and conjecture can be quite humorous, a good share of what Bach wrote had to fall in the case of the Cantatas within the expectations of the formal guidelines of the church. The less said in relation to the Cantatas about his or the sex lives of others, the better. The details of composition and performance history are much more interesting to me. I am so pleased that each week I can learning something about one Cantata. I used to wonder how I could ever get a picture of these works completely, and now Aryeh and this group have provided an answer to my wish.

I enjoy reading the academic descriptions of the motifs, in particular because for a number of years now I have edited DMA dissertations for students in exchange for my continuing music lessons, and I find these writings informative as they continue to develop me both intellectually and as an editor.

I cannot say how much I appreciate what I get to read from the scholars in the group, and from those who write about the recordings.

This is from a woman's point of view.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (June 16, 2006):
Santu de Silva wrote:
< When someone brings up Bach's sexuality, it is uncomfortable to think that any statement that person makes is relative to his or her own sexuality --or at least what that person thinks he would like us to believe about his own sexuality. Because, make no mistake, we are all anxious about the perception of our sexuality in others. The less said, the better! I'm not much of a prude, but yes, I like to keep discussions of sex restricted to occasions in which it is really useful. >
I have a friend who vociferously objects to discussing world news. He quotes the dictum with which he was brought up: Never discuss sex, politics or religion.

Since he has no interest in Bach or Wagner, Hell, that doesn't leave much to discuss.

Eric Bergerud wrote (June 16, 2006):
[To Jean Laaninen] It's obviously silly and irrelevant to speculate about Bach's libido. However, I think it's also a little silly to argue that Bach fans don't care about Bach the man. I should think for most the opposite is true. (East German musicologists a generation back kicked up quite a storm by questioning Bach's religious faith - something that could also be considered irrelevant to the enjoyment of his music.) I'd guess the Bach world would be in a tizzy if we discovered a collection of correspondence between Bach and a friend that extended over many years and contained the kind of idle chatter that was the norm among recreational letter writers of the day. And the twenty children? Is that a simple oddity? Contraception has been around in one form or another since prehistory. Artificial contraception was, the last I read, probably developed for sale to 17th century soldiers. In any case, it was available. I should think that fathering 20 kids would argue that Bach liked children and was probably not anti-social. I suppose that some cynics today might tag Bach with the title of "breeder" or "natalist" - terms of derision in one circle I frequent occasionally. Yet for some reason the idea of the master having kids under-foot throughout most of his adult life (not to mention his students) makes me like Bach the man. I just wish we knew more about him.

Teddy Kaufman wrote (June 17, 2006):
Q: Why did Bach have so many children?
A: His organ had no stops.
-------

Q: What happened to Bach after he had 20 children?
A: His Organ Baroque!

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (June 17, 2006):
[To Teddy Kaufman] Thanks LOL

Ed Myskowski wrote (June 17, 2006):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< Yet for some reason the idea of the master having kids under-foot throughout most of his adult life (not to mention his students) makes me like Bach the man. >
I agree, and I continue to enjoy the speculation that the flute parts of 1724 were partly motivated to help his student, Wild. Present day academics (and grad students) take note.

Raymond Joly wrote (June 17, 2006):
Santu de Silva wrote
< How much sex a person enjoys really has little bearing on how creative, or hard-working, or musical he or she is. >
Full agreement. I am persuaded that a person's sexual make-up influences all he or she does, including their artistic creativity. But if you want to understand how and to what effect, rating Bach, Bruckner and Picasso on a Kinsey scale leads nowhere.

Human sexuality is not the same as the birds' and the bees'. It is not a matter of certain bodily parts doing what nature wants them to perform. We are governed not by instinct, but by desire, law, language, fantasy and inhibition. Sexual behavior is just one indicative of what possibly goes on in the person's mind; in no way does it reveal the core of their attitude towards sexuality.

Considering this is as important a part of their mental equipment and world view as their attitude towards death (no need to explain why both are so intimately linked), one should not be surprised that sexuality is at the center of much investigation.

Mr. Desilva goes on (again right in my opinion): "In the last analysis, looking at a person's sexual desires [not easily done; they are mostly concealed] may be a legitimate way of doing certain things, such as explaining certain literary tendencies of some author [it is admittedly more difficult with music]".

He is of course free to conclude: "But, to me, it's all uninteresting". Others might feel quite the opposite.

Right again (with reservations): "When someone brings up Bach's sexuality, it is uncomfortable to think that any statement that person makes is relative to his or her own sexuality [...]". Why is that "uncomfortable"? Should not we be prepared to read any statement as an utterance reflecting reality as perceived by one particular person? How can we better our understanding of matters human other than by comparing, sifting, modifying, rectifying subjective utterances?

Mr Silva's last word is the only one I strongly disagree with: "The less said, the better!"

 

Enshrouded in mystery

Julian Mincham wrote (February 7, 2007):
Alain Bruguieres wrote:
< One thing I find really fascinating is how Bach manages to remain enshrouded in mystery; >
An interesting point and to a degree I suppose that all 'great art' is mysterious in that it is impossible to understand or explain why it is that one individual can bring tears to the eyes by putting together just a few notes or chords; and another, doing something quite similar, produces only the trite and trivial.

With Bach it is also the enigmatic personality of the man that continues to fascinate us; that 'uncommon' mix of the earthy and the celestial, the plodding day to day grind and the sublime.

However, perhaps now there is a little less mystery than there was a few years ago. One of the pleasures of my later years has been to see scholarship sweep away the Victorian notions of Bach which were foisted upon me in my youth:- the images of the poor, unwanted, unsupported, unappreciated hack, weighed down by the demands of his family and the unreasonableness of his employers. There is a wonderful counterbalancing line in Wolff where he suggests that, after he had established himself in Leipzig Bach was so powerful as to have been 'virtually ungovernable'

I like that---along with the attendant implications that employers loathe and resent this sort of situation and frequently try to establish their authority in petty and juvenile ways.

Well, having probably had too much to say on list in the last couple of weeks (I'll get in first!) I am going to join the lurkers at the back of the bar foa while.

Mine's a pint of bitter and a packet of nuts (No pork scratchings, please!)

Santu de Silva wrote (February 7, 2007):
Alain Bruguieres wrote:
< One thing I find really fascinating is how Bach manages to remain enshrouded in mystery; >
I must belong to a different generation; Bach's personality seems quite straightforward to me! Though I grant that any person is ultimately a mystery, Bach is less of a mystery than, say, Mozart. Perhaps this is because I was brought up close to a pietistic religious tradition, and familiar with people who were doctrinaire and somewhat inflexible, but at the same time warm and creative and understanding, and even quite passionate.

 

Bach handwriting analysis

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (February 17, 2012):
I can not recall the documentary, but there was a segment where a handwriting expert offered her analysis of Bach's letter where he specifically mentioned his frustrations with the Leipzig town council, and what he desired for the nominal performance ensemble for his Sunday services. Can anyone recall that documentary or who the German specialist was that offered the analysis. I would like to contact them more directly in regards to their readings of other composers from the periods.

Would it be possible to get an insight to a composer's mind set and or personality from their musical scores too?

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (February 18, 2012):
[To Kim Patrick Clow] Judging solely what we know about Bach; he was a very devout religious person who was somewhat an ogre who, in general, was difficult to get along with because he was all business, trying with great frustration, to deal with people who compared to his genius were idiots---who unfortunately for him were wealthy enough to hold him within their powers. We can almost hear him praying"Oh Herr, nur mich durch diesen Tag und vergib mir meine Mängel. ( "oh Lord, just get me through this day and forgive me for my shortcomings"). He was polite when needed to be but was no diplomat and that is what led to many of his personality problems with other people and particularly at least one student. His great intellectual powers are unquestionable. He was fluent in Latin, Greek, German and there are hints that he also was in Italian and French. His creative powers extended beyond music---he was an inventor not only of musical instruments but other things also. He probably loved Beer, as most Germans do, typical German Cuisine of the period but also was a great lover of Coffee for which he probably had an addiction for. He probably smoked but not regularly. He was the kind of man who you either loved or hated with not much room in between for neutrality. If you were his friend you were for life and he was your best same sex friend ever unless you had the temetry of doing him a great injustice for which he was slow to get over his hurt feelings about. He was a very sensitive man which is ironic considering his difficulties with others.

He was a family man who could not live without a wife and plunged in depressive states of grief when his first one died but at the same time he had a lustful eye for anything in skirts. He, perhaps, was intolerant of Catholics and Jews ( a teaching of Luther) and in some ways by today's standards, some would consider him somewhat bigoted. He probably had frequent sex almost daily, judging by the number of children he fathered over a +20 year period. He knew the Organ inside and out from a builder's point of view as a critic and was a great performer upon it and became a man of great wealth towards his middle life. However, with as many mouths to feed and care for as he did that included a daughter who supposedly was mentally handicapped and all the funeral expenses he had to bear with man of his children dying in infancy; all his wealth evaporated almost into thin air at his death leaving his wife Barbara penniless with sons who apparently had issues with her as they almost never came about and left her to the streets or the kindness of the Church and Strangers and what friends the Bachs still had left.

Now if you are anyone on this list is a member of Mensa--then you know that many of us who are members or former members have these same kind of problems Bach had with other people because it is difficult to communicate with people of 'normal' intelligence who are not as intelligent and gifted as you are.

 

Bach and Personal Conflict

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (July 3, 2013):
The Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale blog (The World's Most Comprehensive Music Bibliography) blog has a great entry today on Bach's psychological profile called "Bach and personal conflict."

The journal paper that it refers to is viewable now on the free JSTOR Beta (which recently launched). "From Ohrdruf to Mühlhausen: A subversive reading of Bach's relationship to authority" by Sara Botwinick (*BACH: Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute* XXXV/2 [2004] pp. 1-59)."

You can't download PDFs and you have 13 days to read the article once you put it on your account's "shelf."

 

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