Illustrations of three keyboard works by Bach

  1. View to Eisenach with Bach baptism font in Georgenkirche
    illustrating Bach-Siloti: Prelude in B Minor
  2. Bells and Arches from churches where Bach played
    illustrating J.S. Bach: Toccata in G Major
  3. Leipzig Thomaskirche with Bach tombstone
    illustrating Bach-Busoni: Organ Prelude in F Minor — "I call on Thee, Lord Jesus Christ"

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A window opens inwards letting in the fresh morning air from the hills of Eisenach in the district of Thuringia, ‘a pleasant and harmonious land where plain and mountain meet’. The clock on the tower of St. George’s Church tells us that it is 15 minutes before 6, the hour when, reportedly, Johann Sebastian was born. At the center of the interior of the church, we see the font at which Johann Sebastian was baptized. Stacks of paper, inks and raven quills, copper gallic ink powder, a box of fine sand for ink blotting, and a knife for sharpening and erasing lie on the window sill.  A large wooden music stand displays pages from Bach’s Toccata in G Major, Organ Preludes and other manuscripts. (Illustration 1)

For generations, the Bachs had lived in the south-west region of Germany and were the dominant musical dynasty in Northern Europe. The 80-strong Bach family met once a year to play music together. In the winter of 1695, at the age of 10, Johann Sebastian lost both his parents. He and his brother set off by foot to Ohrdrüf to live with their older brother, Johann Christoph, who was the town organist. 5 years later, at age 15, Johann Sebastian, with a fellow scholar, walked 200 miles to Lüneberg, a rich, old town, to further his education and musical studies at the Latin school of St. Michael’s. Hamburg was only 30 miles away. The largest, most famous organ in Germany had been built in St. Catherine’s Church and it was there that the young Sebastian heard the great organist, Johann Adam Reinken.

Although proficient in many instruments, Bach’s ambition was to be an organist. After giving a recital on the new organ at the Neuekirchen in Arnstadt, aged 18, Bach was offered the post of church organist. Determined to hear and learn from the most celebrated organist of the time, Dietrich Buxtehude, Bach was granted one month’s leave and walked over 250 miles to Lübeck, a port located between the North Sea and the Baltic. The Lutheran church of St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck was an outstanding example of Gothic church architecture with magnificent soaring pillars, ribbed vault ceilings and stained glass windows, creating a beautiful interior with diffused light. Bach stayed away for 4 months, learning many new harmonies from Buxtehude who was also an organologist. In those days, a musician was owned by the court, municipality or church; to further his passion for knowledge and to pursue his immense curiosity, Johann Sebastian, by prolonging the permitted one month absence from Arnstadt, took a big risk, even of imprisonment.

Over the next two decades, Bach extended both his knowledge of ‘musical science’ and his reputation as an extraordinary keyboard player, taking positions as court organist, capellmeister and chamber musician in Mülhausen, Weimar, Dresden and Cöthen. Images of arches, altars, bells from the churches and court palaces where Bach played are incorporated in the painting ‘Bells and Arches’ (Illustration 2). The first movement of Bach’s Toccata in the cheerful key of G Major, which inspired this illustration, begins and ends with the joyful peal of bells.

As keyboard virtuoso and princely capellmeister in Cöthen, Bach accompanied Prince Leopold on several visits to important cities in Germany. It was during a visit to Carlsbad in 1720 that Maria Barbara, Bach’s beloved wife of twelve years, died, leaving him with four young children. The oldest was Wilhelm Friedemann Bach for whom Bach composed the Clavierbüchlein. The tragic news greeted Bach on his return home to Cöthen. Four months later, Bach traveled to Hamburg where the post of organist at the Church of St. Jacobi was vacant. He gave a recital on the famous organ of St. Catherine’s Church. The aged Reinken was in the audience and commented: ‘I thought that this art was dead, but I see that in you it lives.’

One and a half years after the death of his beloved Maria Barbara, Bach married the 20 year old Anna Magdalena, a top rank singer in Prince Leopold’s capelle. She became Bach’s companion and assistant until his death in 1750. They had 13 children, six of whom survived past childhood. The last 27 years of Bach’s life were spent in Leipzig where, after a rigorous examination that included knowledge of theology in Latin, he held the post of Cantor at St. Thomas School and Music Director, responsible for the music and services in the four main city churches. Weekly concerts by the prestigious Collegium Musicum were also given at the Zimmermann coffee house and garden. This was a municipal, in contrast to a court, appointment. At that time, Leipzig – place of the linden trees - was known as ‘the market place of Europe’. In the illustration (illustration 3), branches of the linden tree can be seen in the foreground of the church and in the decoration framing Bach’s gravestone. The most famous of Bach’s sons, Wilhelm Friedemann (then aged 12) and the 9 year old Carl Philip Emmanuel, were able to receive the highest education at St. Thomas School, as were their younger brothers.

The Clavierbüchlein, an instructional document prepared for the 10 year old Wilhelm Friedemann, includes preludes, chorale and dance pieces; the pieces are intended for the teaching of not only technical skills but the principals of composition, harmony, voicing, ornaments and fingering as well as knowledge of different keys. The B flat minor prelude transcribed by Alexander Siloti was originally set in the key of E flat Minor, a relatively difficult key for a young child. Siloti, a student of Liszt and teacher of his younger cousin, Rachmaninoff, placed the opening one line melody bars, originally played in the left hand, in the upper register. The piece appears simple but demands a high level of technical skill to sound even and flowing. Though written for Bach’s son, this piece inspired the painting of Eisenach (Illustration 1), Bach’s birthplace, because of its youthful, airy quality.

It is hard to imagine a day in the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. His prodigious output, the cantatas (on average 60 a year) alone never mind the Passions, his duties as Cantor, his knowledge of musical science, his commitment to his children and student-apprentices, many of whom lived in his apartment, are truly extra-ordinary. His son, C.P.E. Bach, described the household as ‘like a pigeonry, and just as full of life’. Bach’s working day was governed by the school schedule: 5 a.m. – 9 p.m. Fortunately, Bach was able to retreat into the solitude of his composing studio on the south west corner of St Thomas School. Felix Mendelssohn who, one hundred years later was responsible for resurrecting the unknown and unsung St. Matthew Passion, painted a most delicate and detailed watercolour of St. Thomas School in winter that shows three windows of Bach’s first floor study.

Like so many composers, Bach was known for his formidable industriousness and humility. Never stressing, yet sure of, his talents, Bach was said to have commented: ‘I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.’ And his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, tells us that when a pupil complained that a piece was too difficult, Bach replied: ‘Only practice diligently, and it will go very well; you have five just as healthy fingers on each hand as I.’

Bach was known and consulted all over Germany because of his knowledge of organ building, his restoration skills and maintenance of many musical instruments. It is fascinating to compare today’s formulae for musical education with the training that went into the mastery of ‘musical science’ in Bach’s time. Students spent as many hours copying, transposing, studying harmony and polyphony, perfect tuning, instrument repairs as they did in practicing their instruments. As a young boy, Bach had learned his art through hours of copying and transcribing. He transcribed for keyboard many concerti composed by his contemporaries, Telemann, Vivaldi and Marcello. Musical science included mechanical engineering, acoustics, chemistry and metallurgy, mathematics, architecture, carpentry and plumbing. All these skills were required for organ building as well as the building and maintenance of keyboard and orchestral instruments.

Bach was unique amongst his peers for his understanding of instrumental sound production and the mechanics and ergonomics of playing. He introduced a new way of fingering, focusing on the thumb as a ‘principal finger’. He also stressed the importance of the hand position, the maintenance of equal pressure of the curved fingers, the gliding of the tip of the finger on the key so as to create a clearness and precision, and connectedness, of notes. Bach’s ability to bring forward the most hidden secrets of harmony through his knowledge of polyphony (often 5 voices) was and still is unsurpassed. All this musical science was in the service of ‘gaining understanding into the wisdom of the world’ and to make a ‘well sounding harmony’ to the glory of God and the ‘recreation of the soul’.

One of Bach’s last works, the Musical Offering, BMV 1079, was conceived for the new fortepianos built by Gottfried Silbermann for King Friedrich. Master of Invention, one can only imagine the wealth of compositions and transcriptions that Bach might have written for the new fortepiano keyboard. Bach had enjoyed good health for most of his life but, in March 1750, he underwent two eye surgeries from the same well-known English surgeon as his contemporary, George Frederic Handel. He died of a stroke, following complications from the surgeries, on July 20th 1750. His widow and youngest daughter died in poverty, his work forgotten until the next century. The gravestone on the floor of St. Thomas Church (Illustration 3) was placed over a century after Bach’s death. The moonlit, shadowy painting of St. Thomas’s illustrates the Bach-Busoni Organ Prelude which is a prayer of supplication: ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’:

‘I call on Thee Lord Jesus Christ, hear the voice of my complaint,
To Thee I now commend me;
Let not my heart and hope grow faint…’