Trying to Outperform Johann Sebastian Bach

From the Lecture Series: Bach and the High Baroque

By Robert Greenberg, Ph.D, San Francisco Performances

What do we make of Bach? How do we draw a bead on this truly extraordinary composer and performer? How do we evaluate the nature of his talents and his inspirations?

(Image: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

Bach’s Mundane Life on the Surface

Reviewing sources, Bach’s seemingly-uneventful life seems to give few hints for the depth and spiritual power of his music. He was born and lived his entire life in north-central Germany and he was twice happily married, having lost his first wife at the age of 35, fathering 20 children, of whom 10 survived into adulthood. Sadly, this was not atypical for the time. He was a deeply religious man who was at peace with his God and with those people for whom he worked. Unlike contemporaries of his time, Bach appears not to have suffered any particular moral or spiritual crises in his life. He had a well-developed ego and he was neither arrogant nor conceited. In addition, he was also known to have a raucous sense of humor and he liked his beer, wine, and his schnapps as much as any man.

Learn more about Bach’s early career, the death of his first wife and his remarriage

portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach, the German composer. (Image: Elias Gottlob Haussmann/Public domain)

The Talented Mr. Bach

To get a better sense of how extraordinary he was, let’s read a contemporary anecdote titled “The Unknown Organist”:

A virtuoso was traveling and came to a town where there was a very able organist in whose church there were two organs, a larger and a smaller. The visitor struck up an acquaintance with the organist and they agreed to give themselves the pleasure of “leading each other astray,” as the saying is, on the two organs, and of trying their powers in turn in all sorts of fantasies, duets, trios, and quartets, fugued and unfugued.

The contest proceeded for a time as something like an equal match. With the harmony one man concluded on his organ, the other one began on his and carried the harmonic texture forward. The next player completed the rhythm of the preceding one that had been left unfinished. It seemed for a while as if the four hands and four feet were being directed by one and the same head.

Gradually, however, the visiting virtuoso began to employ the more hidden arts of counterpoint and modulation. He made use of augmentation and diminution for certain ideas, combined several melodies at once, employed them in contrary motion, introduced an alla stretta, and all at once fell into the most distant of keys.

The local organist observed what the other man was doing and he sought to imitate him, but harmonic gaps began to appear in his playing. He began to feel his way around, stumbled, was set straight by the traveler, and then led into new bypaths from which he, in the end, simply could not extricate himself.

So he arose from his keyboard, ran to his opponent, whom he acknowledged to have won the contest, and treated him to continue his intricate organ playing as long as he cared to, admired him, embraced him, and said that he must either be Sebastian Bach or an angel from heaven.

It was indeed Sebastian Bach, with whom the organist would never have tried to match talents if he had recognized him.

This is a transcript from the video series Bach and the High Baroque. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

This primary source comes from Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, a contemporary of Bach’s who wrote extensively on musical subjects. Even if it’s not true, other such events would have taken place at other times; Bach was a phenomenon. What do we make of this genius, Sebastian Bach?

Learn more: Bach and the French Style, Part II—The Keyboard Suite

Famous Virtuoso, Infamous Temper

Although he was generally good-natured, he was also known to have had a fierce temper. An anecdote, “Bach and the Bungler,” demonstrates this:

Peaceful, quiet and even-tempered though Bach was, he was yet quite another man when anyone slighted art, which was sacred to him. In such cases, he would don his armor and give expression to his wrath in the strongest ways. The organist of the Thomas Church, who was in general a worthy artist, once so enraged Bach by a mistake on the organ that during a rehearsal of a cantata, Bach tore the wig from his own head and, with the thundering exclamation, “You ought to have been a cobbler!” threw the wig at the organist’s head.

Karl Ludwig Hilgenfeldt, an early biographer of Bach, whose biography appeared in 1850, wrote this example of Bach’s anger. The unfortunate organist described in this true story was Johan Gottlieb Goerner, who had the unenviable task playing under Bach’s direction. A hard gig to be sure, this would be similar to having Ty Cobb as a batting instructor or cooking dinner regularly for Julia Child. It’s a no-win situation.

Learn more about the Bach fugues 

An Entrepreneur, a Practical Joker, and a Workaholic

Bach was not considered in his lifetime a composer of the first or even of the second rank.

Temper notwithstanding, Bach was an entrepreneur, practical joker, and workaholic who would seem to have wasted little time. In his lifetime, Bach was more highly regarded as a performer than as a composer. He was considered one of the great keyboard virtuosos of his age. While he was not nearly as obscure a composer as we are led to believe, in his lifetime he was not considered a composer of the first or even of the second rank. Today we know better as we explore Bach and the High Baroque to become more familiar with this vibrant, spiritually profound, expressively rich, and seemingly technically perfect music Bach left behind.

Common Questions About Bach

Q: What is Bach best known for?

Today, Bach is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of Baroque music. However, during his lifetime he was better known for his organ performances than for his compositions.

Q: Why is Bach so famous?

Bach was intensely devoted to his craft. He widely studied other musicians and his compositions were complex and deeply emotional, which is why he is famous today. In his own time, he was famous for being a virtuoso performer.

Q: What is an interesting fact about Bach?

Bach learned how to play the violin from his father, but both of his parents died when he was 10. He learned organ from his older brother.

Q: Was Bach a genius?

It could definitely be argued that Bach was a genius, as he is considered one of the best Baroque composers of all time. Mostly, though, he was an extremely hard worker who performed frequently and took the time to master his craft.

This article was updated on September 12, 2019

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