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13 January, 2012
Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians|
by Walter Rowlands
|Bach's position as one of a numerous family of musicians is unique, for it cannot be said of any other composer that his forefathers, his contemporary relations, and his descendants were all musicians, and not only musicians, but holders of important offices as such.
Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest of all that bore that name, considered the founder of his family to be Veit Bach, a Thuringian musician who settled in Pressburg in Hungary as a baker and miller. Later, because of religious persecution, he returned to his native country, where he lived at the village of Wechmar near Gotha, dying in 1619. Of his numerous musical descendants, Johann (1604-1673) became organist at Schweinfurt, and afterward director of the town musicians at Erfurt. Here, though the town suffered much from the effects of war, he founded a family which quickly increased and soon filled all the town musicians' places, so that for about a hundred and fifty years, and even after no more of the family lived there, the town musicians were known as "The Bachs."
Heinrich Bach (1615-1692) was organist of the Franciscan Church at Arnstadt for fifty years, composed much, and had six children, three of whom were, in their day, noted musicians. Of the twin brothers, Johann Ambrosius and Johann Christoph, born in 1645, the first was town organist of Eisenach, and the second court musician at Arnstadt. These brothers were remarkably alike, not only in looks, but in character and temperament. They both played the violin in exactly the same way, they spoke alike, and it is said that their own wives could scarcely tell them apart. They suffered from the same illnesses, and died within a few months of one another. Johann Christoph once figured in an action for breach of promise of marriage brought before the Consistory at Arnstadt by Anna Cunigunda Wiener, with whom he had once "kept company." The court decided that Bach must marry her, but, with the independence of his family, he refused to do so, and he kept his word.
Another Johann Christoph, uncle of the great Sebastian, was organist at Eisenach for sixty years, and is, together with his brother Michael, distinguished as a composer. Maria Barbara, the youngest daughter of Michael, became Sebastian Bach's first wife. One Johann Jacob Bach was an oboe-player in the Swedish guard, and followed Charles XII. to his defeat at Pultowa, later becoming court-musician at Stockholm.
A vigorous, ambitious, and altogether remarkable family was this of the Bachs, and one of the most notable things about it is the uniformly high moral character of its members. Only one, of all those who flourished before Sebastian, is spoken of as being given to drink.
Wilhelm Friedemann, the oldest son of the greatest Bach, unfortunately had the same failing, and died in Berlin in 1789, poor and miserable through intemperance. His musical talent was exceptional, authorities calling him the greatest organist in Germany after his father. He is sometimes spoken of as the "Halle Bach," from having been music director of a church there.
The "father of modern piano music" was also the father of a large family, not less than twenty children having been born to him. The most celebrated of his twelve sons was Carl Philipp Emanuel, who is called the "Berlin Bach," having lived there in the court service for nearly thirty years. Emanuel was a prolific composer in all styles, and occupies an important place in the history of music. Another son, Johann Christoph Friedrich, was a composer and also chamber musician to Count von Lippe at Bückeburg, from which circumstance he is called the "Bückeburger Bach." Sebastian's youngest boy, Johann Christian (the Bach family evidently never wearied of the name of Johann), called the "Milanese" and afterward the "English" Bach, composed a large number of works, - songs, operas, oratorios, what not. He lived and worked at one time in Milan, where he was organist of the cathedral, and from there went to London, where he died in 1782. The daughters of Sebastian Bach - there were only eight of them - mostly died young, nor did they exhibit any special musical talent, and, after his sons' careers were ended, no one bearing the name has, we believe, won distinction in the art.
The Bach family were as a rule both sincerely pious and fond of innocent pleasure. Their tribal feeling was strong, and it was a custom to meet together once a year at Erfurt, Eisenach, or Arnstadt, and spend a day in friendly intercourse, exchanging news and relating experiences. Of course on these occasions they devoted some of the happy hours to music, and a favourite pastime was the singing of "quodlibets" - a kind of musical medley - wherein portions of several well-known songs would be dovetailed together.
Bach's home life was a happy one. Both his marriage ventures turned out well, and he was beloved by children and pupils alike. His large family circle was often added to by friends and visitors, who enjoyed his never failing hospitality, especially toward musicians. In the midst of all his occupations, he found time for music in the family circle, and a German-American artist has produced a charming work showing the great composer seated at the clavichord and surrounded by his children, who are singing their morning hymn. This painting, which belongs to the Museum of Leipsic, the city where Bach laboured so long and where he died, is by Toby E. Rosenthal, who was born in Germany in 1848, but was brought to the United States by his parents when but a few years old. He grew up here, but, at the age of seventeen returned to study art in the land of his birth, where he became a pupil of Professor Raupp and also of the celebrated Piloty. Most of his life since then has been spent in Germany.
The dead Elaine, passing to Lancelot on her funeral barge, and Constance de Beverley, before her judges in the Vault of Penitence, have been finely pictured by Rosenthal, who has also treated lighter topics in "Grandmother's Dancing-lesson," "The Alarmed Boarding-school," and "The Cardinal's Portrait."
The last visit which Bach ever made was to the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam, in 1747.
His son Emanuel had been capellmeister to Frederick since 1740, and the king had frequently, and always with more insistence, thrown out hints that he would like to hear the great artist. Bach, being much occupied, and disinclined for travelling, did not accede to the king's wishes until they amounted to a positive command. Then, taking Friedemann with him, he started for Potsdam, which he reached early in May. The story of the meeting with Frederick is variously told. We will tell it in Friedemann's own words: "When Frederick II. had just prepared his flute, in the presence of the whole orchestra, for the evening's concert, the list of strangers who had arrived was brought him. Holding his flute in his hand, he glanced through the list. Then he turned around with excitement to the assembled musicians, and, laying down his flute, said, 'Gentlemen, old Bach is come.' Bach, who was at his son's house, was immediately invited to the castle. He had not even time allowed him to take off his travelling clothes and put on his black court dress. He appeared, with many apologies for the state of his dress, before the great prince, who received him with marked attention, and threw a deprecating look toward the court gentlemen, who were laughing at the discomposure and numerous compliments of the old man. The flute concerto was given up for this evening; and the king led his famous visitor into all the rooms of the castle, and begged him to try the Silbermann pianos, which he (the king) thought very highly of, and of which he possessed seven. The musicians accompanied the king and Bach from one room to another; and after the latter had tried all the pianos, he begged the king to give him a fugue subject, that he could at once extemporise upon. Frederick thereupon wrote out the subject, and Bach developed this in the most learned and interesting manner, to the great astonishment of the king, who, on his side, asked to hear a fugue in six parts. But since every subject is not adapted for so full a working out, Bach chose one for himself, and astounded those present by his performance. The king, who was not easily astonished, was completely taken by surprise at the unapproachable mastery of the old cantor. Several times he cried, 'There is only one Bach!' On the following day Bach played on all the organs in the churches of Potsdam."
Rosenthal portrayed the composer making music among his family; Hermann Kaulbach has depicted him playing before Frederick. The artist has given such a look of naturalness to the scene, that we are quite satisfied to accept his presentment and believe that thus the king and his court listened
"While the majestic organ rolled
Contrition from its mouths of gold."
Hermann Kaulbach is a son of the renowned painter, Wilhelm von Kaulbach. A pupil of Piloty, he was born at Munich in 1846, and has produced some works of a historic character, such as "Lucrezia Borgia," "Voltaire at Paris," "Louis XI. and His Barber," and "The Last Days of Mozart," but is perhaps still more successful with his admirable pictures of childhood. We must not forget to mention his "Madonna," a work which should add much to his fame.