Happy Birthday, Bach!
March 23, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685. He would be 329 years old this year. Time does fly! JS Bach ended up being the most famous and most historically important member of a family that had been producing musicians for at least a century before his birth. By contrast, Bach’s contemporary, G.F. Handel, did not come from a musical family, and this proved to be his first challenge in life: how to get into music against his family’s wishes. Bach’s fortuitous family situation must have been a great boon to his growth as both a musician and a composer; being exposed to the creation and performance music so early surely gave him certain advantages. His father, Johann Ambrosius, was the director of the town musicians in Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace. JS probably learned the basics of music at his father’s knee, and likely took violin lessons from him as well. When JS was just ten years old, he lost both his parents within eight months of each other and went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph (who should not be confused with his uncle the organist and composer, Johann Christoph). JS went off to school and got his first organ lessons from Christoph, who had studied with Johann Pachelbel. It was his knowledge of the organ that helped Bach get work once he was old enough to leave school.
Most of the early stories about Bach’s youth were collected by his son Carl Philip Emmanuel and his student J.F. Agricola right around the time of JS Bach’s death in 1750. J. N. Forkel wrote a biography of the composer in 1802, and the book contained a lot of stories that Forkel heard directly from Bach’s two oldest sons. Since then, new facts have come to light that question Forkel’s timing of events, and a lot of the stories from the Bach children have been revealed more as legend than truth. It hardly matters, of course. The most important thing is the music, and we have a great deal of that, even if some of the compositions were lost to time. I have as much curiosity as anyone about why artists become artists, and I think some of the reason we become so interested in the early years of geniuses is because we imagine that there is some magic formula that makes someone like Bach so special. If only it was so easy to create genius!
Although there have been many musical dynasties in music history, the Bach family is impressive and unique for its incredible scope. There are generations of musical Bachs, a family tree full of composers, court organists, fiddlers, and choristers. Granted, many of the earlier generations came to light because of Johann Sebastian, but they would have existed anyway, plying their trade in churches and courts, opera houses and even taverns. The main advantage to having a family full of musicians is that you are surrounded by music for your entire life, living and breathing music from a very early age. You are around people who can teach you about music or answer any questions you might have. Children who grow up in a musical environment might have the ability to develop “perfect pitch,” the ability to identify or perform a given note without any outside reference. (Although no one yet agrees on how this ability might be taught—if it can be taught—it is generally understood that there is a critical period in the development of hearing that might hold the key.) It also appears that musical siblings—even those born to non-musical parents—also share advantages. Two of music’s best known child prodigies, Mozart and Mendelssohn, had older sisters who were also musicians.
In musical families like Bach's, manuscripts were probably treated like valued heirlooms, but unfortunate things like fires and floods do happen. The musical records of many of the Bachs have been lost to history. Johann Bernard (1677-1749) was JS Bach’s second cousin and contemporary, and just one of his instrumental compositions survives. Wilhelm Friedemann, JS Bach’s oldest son, struggled during his career, and much of his music does not survive into the present. We have excellent records of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, who was well known in his own time and participated in the publication of his own music. The fact that we have any of JS Bach’s music is miraculous, considering that when he died, the Baroque period was on its way out and he was virtually unknown to the greater public. His sons, especially Carl Philip Emmanuel, proudly carried on the Bach family name into the Classical Period. And his musical manuscripts, entrusted to his children, were mostly treated with care.
To many people, JS Bach was the living representation of the Baroque period, writing music in a complex, almost mathematical fashion that embodied the High Baroque style. This is not the entire picture, of course. Although many of his compositions have intricate imitation and meticulously adhere to the “rules” of counterpoint, Bach also wrote beautiful, singing melodies that were as subtle and sublime as anything found in the operas of the time. Ironically opera, one of the Baroque period’s most defining developments, was a genre that Bach never touched. His various jobs over the years did not require Bach to compose such popular entertainment, but we can discern his talent for vocal writing from his Lutheran cantatas and his oratorios. Bach seems to have had a unique talent not just for creating music quickly but for absorbing the various styles and practices of the composers who came before him. He was known to have copied out manuscripts of various composers of both instrumental and vocal music, and his music—fully unique—is so much richer for his willingness to learn.
To look at Bach’s life from this vantage point more than three centuries later, I can’t help but wonder what makes a family good at a particular thing. The Bach family absolutely excelled at music. To what can we attribute this musical talent? Is it partially genetics? Or maybe it’s just a ridiculously productive work ethic. From what we know about him, JS was a workhorse, churning out piece after piece, week after week, for the entirety of his career. But it's not just fecundity that makes Bach important. There is something special, maybe even magical, about Bach and his music. Perhaps it's something indefinable. As we wish Johann Sebastian a happy birthday this March, let’s also remember his father, his uncles, and his brothers, the musicians who helped mold this raw talent into one of music history’s most important figures. To them, we say thank you.