Trying to Outperform Johann Sebastian Bach

From a lecture series presented by Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.

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?

Before anything else, I must read you a contemporary anecdote—contemporary with Bach—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 comes to us from Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, a contemporary of Bach’s who wrote extensively on subjects musical. Even if it’s not true, and I would say it would be—I would say other such events would have taken place at other times—Bach was a phenomenon. What do we make of our angel, our Sebastian Bach?

Bach’s Mundane Life on the Surface

portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach, the German composer

His life on the surface would seem to give few hints as to the depth and spiritual power of his music. Our sources tell us that he led a relatively uneventful life. He was twice happily married, having lost his first wife at the age of 35. He fathered 20 children, of whom 10 survived into adulthood—sadly, not atypical for the time. He was born and lived his entire life in one part of Germany, north-central Germany. He was a deeply religious man who was at peace with his God, if not at peace with those people for whom he worked. He seems not to have suffered any particular moral or spiritual crises in his life. He had a well-developed ego and he well deserved to have one, although he apparently was not arrogant or conceited. He had a raucous sense of humor and he liked his beer, wine, and his schnapps as much as the next guy.

Johan Gottlieb Goerner Meets the Great Bach

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

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.

This is like having Ty Cobb as your batting instructor or cooking dinner on a regular basis for Julia Child.

This comes to us, by the way, from Karl Ludwig Hilgenfeldt, who was an early biographer of Bach whose biography appeared in 1850. By the way, the unfortunate organist described in this true story was Johan Gottlieb Goerner, who had the unenviable task of having to play under Bach’s direction. This has got to be the hardest gig anyone could have. This is like having Ty Cobb as your batting instructor or cooking dinner on a regular basis for Julia Child. It’s a no-win situation. You can’t possibly aspire to the level they have already achieved and you can’t possibly outdo their own expectations for themselves. You’re doomed to abuse and a certain degree of failure. Too bad for Mr. Goerner.

An Entrepreneur, a Practical Joker, and a Workaholic

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

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

From the lecture series Bach and the High Baroque
Taught by Professor Robert Greenberg, San Francisco Performances