Bach Lays The Foundation Of Modern Music

1723

Date:2004 

 

 

     Our first recognized triumph in the marvelous modern development of

music, the first great masterpiece which taught the world the beauty of which

the art is capable, was Bach's Das Wohltemperirte Clavier.  The production

marks, therefore, "the first great climax of musical art."

 

     Like the other arts and sciences, the story of music is that of a slow

building up.  Music "divinest of arts, exactest of sciences" - for music is

both an art and a science - has developed from the crude two - or three-note

scale melody, without semitones, to the elaborate, ornate lucubrations of the

modern oratorio, opera, or symphony.  From the beginning the "half-sister of

Poetry" has been the handmaid of Religion.  The ancients ascribed miraculous

properties to music.  Of the actual system of the Egyptians our information is

very scant; but we learn from the monuments depicting the number and variety

of their instruments that they had advanced from childish practice to

orchestration and harmony.  According to Plato, "In their possession are songs

having the power to exalt and ennoble mankind." The harp is undoubtedly of

Egyptian origin.

 

     In Israel plastic art was discouraged; the natural emotion of the people

was, therefore, expressed in poetry and music.  Miriam, the daughter of

Jephthah, Deborah, and later the Virgin, whose grand chant, the Magnificat, is

ever being upraised from Christendom's heart, portray the deep emotional

temperament of this great religious race.

 

     The artistic standard of the music of the Greeks was far behind that of

their observation and intelligence in other matters.  Their theories on the

combinations, of which they never made use, and analysis of their scales show

much ingenuity, but their accounts are so vague that one cannot get any clear

idea of what these were really like.  When art is mature, people do not tell

of city walls being overthrown, of savage animals being tamed - as run the

stories of Orpheus and Amphion.  One Greek there was, Pythagoras, who

discerned the association between the distant music of the spheres with the

seven notes of the scale.  "He discovered the numerical relation of one tone

to another." ^1 It was about the time of Pythagoras that a scheme of

tetrachords which did not overlap was adopted.

 

[Footnote 1: Naumann.]

 

     In Persia and Arabia was obtained a perfect system of intonation.  The

Chinese system is minutely exact in theory, bombastic in fancy.  The Hindus

sedulously avoided applying mathematics to their scales.  The development of

the scale is shown in the construction of the ancient Greek scale, the modern

Japanese, and the aboriginal Australian scale, and the phonographed tunes of

some of the Red Indians of North America.  Here a reference must be made to

the scale of the Scotch bagpipe, a highly artificial product, without

historical materials available to assist in unravelling its development.  It

comprises a whole diatonic series of notes, and modes may be selected

therefrom.

 

     But it is to Rome that we owe the seed of our modern methods of

treatment.  The Netherland school had been highly developed there by a long

line of distinguished masters, who paved the way for the gifted Palestrina,

who exalted polyphony to a secure eminence equal to that attained by the arts

of painting and architecture.  He brought forth a perception of the needs

which music suffered, adding an earnestness and science to a profound quality

of simpleness and grace.  It was between 1561 and 1571 that his genius

mellowed and his style took on those characteristics upon which was based the

future music of the Catholic Church.  It was while he was Maestro at the

Vatican that he submitted to the Church the famed Missa Papae Marcelli, which

determined the future of the church music.

 

     The culmination of art in music is strikingly shown in the subjoined

article from the pen of that great authority, Mr. H. Tipper.

 

     The first tonal prophet and poet of the modern era, the era in which

reason made tremendous protest against mere dogma, and the best religious

instincts of human nature called imperatively for emancipation and for nearer

individual contact with God, is Johann Sebastian Bach.  We look dazzled at the

brilliant victories of the Italian Renaissance, and amid tumultuous beauty run

riot with imagination we hear the voice of Savonarola at the close of the

period uttering his lamentations.  The great Italian reformer saw and felt

that in his own day and in his own country the glory and beauty of the

movement had vanished in sensuality; that hardness of heart and indifference

to primary human needs had diverted the waters of the Renaissance from their

main fertilizing channel.

 

     The deep need of the epoch was social, not mental, sociality in its

widest sense: the right of the individual; his inherent majesty which the

accident of birth should not be able to impair - this and this only was the

natural outcome of the new birth which came to humanity; this and this only

was the sequel which German profundity and integrity, not Italian brilliancy

and carelessness, placed before the mind of Europe.

 

     The Reformation, then, this Protestantism, is distinctive of the new era.

It was a protest, not only religious, as the word is usually applied, but

scientific.  It is the basis in the modern Western world of those laws of

criticism which have submitted, or will submit, everything to searching

analytical investigation, and as in the case of the natural world, so in the

moral and ethical, men, by the light of revealed truth, or by those higher

instincts of nobility which emanate from the Eternal Love, seek to apply to

the reformation of society those principles of love, justice, and recompense

which each would wish applied individually to self.

 

     As an inspirer of thought and man of action, the world has seen few such

men as Luther.  His genius, as it were, discovered and laid bare the

inexhaustible treasures of the German language; his sympathy and genial

humanity sent a thrill of song, poetical and tonal, throughout the fatherland.

He was the great awakener of German emotion.  To Luther, a man who cared not

for song was without the pale of humanity.  But his enthusiasm was practical.

In the church, as we have seen, he gathered from all sources whatever was of

the best, and gave it to the people.  In the schools he advocated the cause of

song.  In the streets the people needed not advocacy. Wherever two or three

gathered together, song was in the midst of them, and it is not too much to

say that the Lutheran hymn was the saviour of Germany poetry and a font of

German song.  In the seventeenth century there was in Germany little poetry

worthy of the name save that inspired by the devotional character of Luther's

genius.  His heir and successor in the realm of tone was Sebastian Bach.

 

     True, two centuries had elapsed between the death of the great reformer

in morals and the birth of the great reformer in tone; but the work of the

latter could not have been without the former.  The chorale was introduced by

Luther; it was perfected by Bach.  To what other influence than the Lutheran

can we attribute the growth of Bach?  Are there any other resources of German

art and thought which can account for the advent of the great musician?  In

art Duerer stood by the side of Luther.  In him again we find a man. Thought,

thought! help me to express my native thought.  Teach me to express in my art

the reality of Nature, its wonderful beauty, thrice beautiful to me an artist;

the pathos of life, its realism, far apparently from the ideal, yet most

precious to me as a man.  This was the aim of Duerer, and he seems a man after

the Lutheran mould.

 

     The aim of Duerer may be found in some respects in Bach's work, because

both men were men of integrity, great and patient in soul.  This, of course,

is not to say that Bach was affected by Duerer, but is merely an endeavor to

find what was noblest in Germany preceding Bach.  One more allusion.  In

Bach's art we trace the mystic; not shadowy outpourings of hysterical emotion,

but beauties of eternal verities disclosed in vision - faint, it is true - to

none save the noblest of mortals.

 

     One such kindred spirit preceding Bach was Boehme, the father of German

mysticism, the poor cobbler, whose soul lay far away in the regions of

celestial love, and whose utterance is of the realities thereof.  These three

men, Luther, Duerer, Boehme, are those to whom the great musician Bach is

akin, but he is truly the child of the former, and the father of the highest

aspirations in instrumental music.

 

     For confirmatory evidence we have only to trace the growth of the Bach

family.  The progenitor, Veit Bach, was born at Wechmar, near Gotha, in 1550,

and, following his trade as a baker, settled, after considerable wanderings,

near the Hungarian frontier.  Veit Bach was a stanch Lutheran.  Whether the

Lutheran services had given him a love of music, or whether they had only

quickened a constitutional sympathy, it is impossible to say.  Certain it is

that he was passionately fond of music, and, cast for a period among a

population whose emotions found constant and ready utterance in tone, he

brought back to Wechmar, whither he had returned on account of religious

persecution, his beloved cythringa and the art of playing it.  There is

evidence that this knowledge afforded him consolation and enjoyment in the

quiet monotony of his life.  While the mill was working, Veit Bach was often

playing; and doubtless the peculiar charm and rhythm of old Hungarian

melodies, songs of the people, which he had learned from the wandering

gypsies, recurred to him, as well as those grand devotional hymns on which he

had been nourished from childhood.  We have said that Veit Bach was a stanch

Lutheran.  From father to son through generations, the Lutheran doctrine, pure

and undefiled, had been handed down, accompanied by the musical gift, until

both, uniting in Sebastian Bach, born at Eisenach in 1685, served to glorify

the Lutheran chorale and the art which perfected it.

 

     Again, the traditions of the great reformer must have been imbibed by

Sebastian Bach from infancy.  Surrounding his native town lay a circle of

wooded heights, from one of which arose the Wartburg, that illustrious shrine

of the German nation whither in mediaeval and modern times her sons have

repaired to exhibit and replenish their lamp of genius.  There the

minne-singers had gathered in contest a song; thither as a modern Elijah came

the great monk, weary of soul, yet whose immortal genius unfolded the page of

Sacred Writ; and down the woodclad slope came issuing the melody of the Hebrew

psalmist, translated into German speech and entering into German hearts,

mingled with the narrative of the Redeemer's passion lit by awful and solemn

glory of Eternal Love.  Who shall say that young Back knew not of these

things?  Who will contend that, when his genius matured and ripened, the

immortal tones in which the eternal passion was portrayed owed nothing to this

sympathy of association, this spiritual life with the great reformer born two

centuries before?

 

     Yet once more.  The Bach family was full of affection and sympathy one

toward the other.  Each year witnessed a reunion of the various members of the

family scattered throughout Thuringia, and each came bearing the gift of

music.  As a child among the elders we can imagine how the young Sebastian

revered his uncles, Johann Christopher and Michael Sebastian, in whom were

conserved and developed the Lutheran tonal principles and traditions; how he

somewhat feared the austere character of his elder brother, Johann

Christopher, to whose charge he was intrusted upon the death of his father.

 

     But we need not imagine how the soul of the young boy was filled with

inexpressible yearning for the art of music.  We know that it was so.  His

brother, who instructed him, gauged not the nature of the lad.  Often and

often did the boy's wistful eyes and loving heart covet the possession of a

manuscript book kept by his brother in strict reserve, containing a priceless

collection of compositions by the great German masters and mediators.  The boy

extracted them from resting-place, and we see the young tone-prophet striving

to master the art-forms of Reinken, Buxtehude, Frescobaldi, Kerl, Froberger,

and Pachelbel, endeavoring to wrest from them their style and inmost meaning

by the light of the moon's pale rays, which led, alas! in after-years to

blindness.

 

     What revelations came to the soul of the young musician we know not. But

his genius thus directed knew no pause until it had won forever the freedom of

the tonal art, until the last fetter of conventionally had been removed, until

in all dignity and beauty music came forth, henceforth to comfort and solace

the human heart.  But of this anon.  We trace the young boy to school; we see

him a chorister in the choir of St. Michael's, Lueneburg.  Here he entered the

gymnasium, studying Greek and Latin, organ- and violin-playing.  Here, too, he

exhausted the treasures of the musical library.  But at Hamburg the great

Reinkin was giving a series of organ recitals.  Thither young Bach repaired.

At Celle he became acquainted with several suites and other compositions of

celebrated French masters.  In 1703 he became violinist in the Saxe-Weimar

orchestra, and in the same year, aged eighteen, he was appointed organist at

the new church at Arnstadt, where other members of his family had held similar

positions.  Thus already we have ample evidence both of intense activity and

catholicity of taste, and now, a mere youth, he enters upon his life-work: the

perfecting of church music, especially the chorale form, and the emancipation

of the art from any influence whatsoever other than derives from contact with

nature and emotion. If we ask what equipment he had for his task, we answer:

enthusiasm, so deep, so tempered in all its qualities, that, though in a few

years he became the ablest performer of his time upon the harpsichord and

organ, yet never once is the term "virtuoso" associated in our thought with

the purity of aspiration which characterized him.  His enthusiasm was

religious, deep-seated, his vision far and wide, and no temporary triumph, no

sunlit cloud of fame, could satisfy the imperative needs of his inmost nature.

And this nature was calm, with the calmness of strength and with that tender

purity and homely virtue which characterized the surroundings of his boyhood.

 

     This enthusiasm, this religious instinct, for what was noblest and best,

led him early, as we have seen, to seek inspiration from the works of men who

combined in their compositions all that the great previously existing schools

had taught.  Bach was never weary of learning if perchance he could attain a

more lucid or more beautiful expression of his thought.  We have, then, this

enthusiasm, this capacity for at once discerning what was best.  Add to it one

more quality - the religious, in its best sense, which young Bach possessed to

the uttermost, the feeling that his art was but the medium of expression for

the deep things of God - and we have the equipment with which the young

musician started on his quest.

 

     Young Bach had received no great instruction in the schools of

composition.  That which he had he gathered with a catholicity of taste from

all renowned masters.  Not one of his immediate ancestors had stirred beyond

the confines of their simple home.  Well for him was it so.  No late

meretricious Neapolitan tinsel could exist in the quiet, calm beauty of his

Thuringian dwelling-place.  Nature lay before him.  "Come, she said, "seek to

understand me.  I have treasures that ye know not of, treasures that can only

be gathered by the pure in heart and patient in spirit.  Here around you, in

your quiet German home, are the elements of all your strength.  Here there is

no distraction.  Riches shall not allure you.  Honorable poverty shall

minister to your purity"; and young Bach knew that the voice was true, and,

heeding it, there came to him likewise an inner voice, relating spiritual

things, even as the voice of Nature related natural things.

 

     Comprehending, then, his character, we pass on.  His work at this period

was formal.  He felt, but could not express.  But at Lubeck the noble-hearted

Buxtehude was endeavoring to bring home to the hearts of the people the

mission of music.  Bach went thither.  Fascinated by the grand organ-playing

of the Lubeck master, and listening with heart-felt love to those memorable

concerts of which we have previously spoken, Bach forgot both time and

engagements.  When he returned to Arnstadt, the spirit of Buxtehude was upon

him.  Henceforth the quiet people of Arnstadt knew no rest.  Variations,

subtle, beautiful, a refined and fuller contrapuntal treatment, mingled with

the chorale.  The conservatism of Arnstadt received a severe shock - a

dreadful experience, doubtless, to the quiet German town.  Such genius could

come to no good end, and so the consistory and Bach agreed to part.

 

     Bach had married in October, 1707.  In 1708, while at Muehlhausen, his

first considerable work, composed for the municipal elector, appeared.  His

election at Saxe-Weimar was undoubtedly owing to his playing before the Duke

Wilhelm Ernst, and we can imagine with what pleasure the young musician,

conscious of great power, looked forward to the intellectual and cultured life

for which Weimar was renowned.  In the course of a few years Bach was

appointed orchestral and concert director to the Duke.

 

     The liberal atmosphere of Weimar, the appreciation of men whose opinion

was of worth, could but stimulate the mental faculties and widen the range of

thought, and there is a breadth of conception and majesty in Bach at this

period unknown before.  With the assiduity of genius he labored for the

realization of his ideal.  Palestrina, Lotti, and Caldara were laid under

contribution.  The master transcribed the works of these composers with his

own hands, and arranged the violin concertos of Vivaldi for the harpsichord

and organ.  It is ever with the greatest artists.  They assimulate all the

forms of kindred art, yet never sacrifice their individuality.  The means

enabling them to express their inmost soul must be found, but their soul will

alone dictate the form which its expression will assume.

 

     But Bach is approaching the close of the first period of his career.  An

invitation has been given him (1717) to become conductor of the orchestra at

the court of Leopold of Anhalt-Koethen, a prince remarkable for his

benevolence and cultured attainments.  Here his duties were comparatively

slight and his leisure abundant.  Hitherto he had been engaged, as it were, in

the temple service.  At Weimar he had developed into a great tone-poet of

sacred song.  With refined strength and exquisite perception he had gathered

up the related parts of song, weaving them into a unity of impassioned and

majestic utterance.

 

     But the great poet must have a wider experience.  He must enter, as it

were, into the great deeps of sacred emotion in things natural; he must

perceive in the universe a deeper, a more majestic beauty even than in the

temple.  Then he will become a great prophet among his fellows, and illumine

for all time the pathway of life, giving strength to the weak, consolation to

the weary, and song to the blithe and pure of heart.  This is what Bach became

in tone.  His attention at Koethen was directed mainly to instrumental music.

 

     We have previously remarked upon the endeavors which certain German

masters made to bring home to their countrymen an appreciation of instrumental

music.  How long the seed lay germinating in Bach's mind we know not.  A new

idea had taken possession of him, or, rather, he contemplated the application

of the principle of his former labors in polyphony to instrumental music pure

and simple.

 

     At Koethen he supplemented his labors at Weimar.  At Leipsic, whither we

shall presently follow him, he brought them to completion.

 

     But we are anticipating.  We have seen how patiently, how toilsomely,

Music has broken one by one the fetters of conventionality; how she has grown

in strength and beauty, anticipating the moment of her final deliverance.  It

has come at last.  With the patience and impatience of genius Bach strikes in

twain the last fetter of conventionality.  He has realized his quest.  The boy

who, far away in future thought, studied the art-forms of his great

predecessors and contemporaries in the lowly chamber or by the light of the

silent moon, has found his beloved, the Tonal Muse.  She stands free before

him to serve his will - his will purified by conception and incessant effort -

and he will lead her in her new-found freedom and place her in the path of

progress.

 

     Bach's compositions at this time include the early part of one of the

greatest of his works, the Wohltemperirte Clavier.  In this work - the second

part of which was composed at Leipsic - Bach attained the full mastery of

form.  The strivings and efforts of the great Netherland masters found

completion in this work of Bach.  In it are compressed the labors of

centuries.  The works of the masters, Okeghem, Dufay, Josquin des Pres, and

others, are but prophecies in tone, announcing a realization of their ideal in

the centuries yet to come, that ideal which they felt so particularly, yet

could not express.  The Wohltemperirte Clavier them marks the first great

climax of musical art.

 

     The evolution was certain, and it consummated in a kindred mind.  The

deepest expression of human feeling, the agony of the dire distress and

conflict of life, the calm majesty of faith which enables the soul to overcome

every obstacle, its pathetic appeal to God for rest and comfort, the strength

of victory, are possible in music, are expressed in music as no other art can

express them, because of Bach.

 

     True to his trust, he extracted all that was best in the works of his

predecessors and, vivifying it by his genius, created forms of expression

which the greatest that have followed him have utilized and extolled.

 

     But, as we have said, the great poet must perceive in things natural, in

the beauty of the universe around him, in the sacred feelings of human

emotion, a sacredness as worthy and as earnest, though less concentrated in

character, as that which exists in the more direct function of religious

worship.  To the great poet, however he works, all things are sacred.  He it

is who reveals the heaven that lies around us.  He opens the portals of

Nature, and we enter in to find strength and consolation.

 

     Bach does all this in the masterly work we are considering.  Not to the

Italian, but to the German, did Nature at length disclose her choicest method

of expression, and this because the German had ever lived in close contact

with her.  In all Bach's works at this period the work of emancipation goes

forward.  Take, for instance, the Brandenburg concertos leading to the

combination of the present orchestra.

 

     But a new sphere of action here again opens to Bach.  His master and

friend, the Prince of Koethen, was distracted from the pursuit of music by his

wife's want of interest therein, and so Bach sorrowfully looks around him for

a more congenial appointment.  This he found at Leipsic, in 1723, as cantor to

the school of St. Thomas.  Leipsic, like Weimar, was celebrated for its

intellectual life; but the various vexations which the great musician

encountered from the action of the authorities reflects but little credit upon

them.  Bach's labors here were simply Titanic.  There were four churches at

Leipsic, the principal being St. Nicholas and St. Thomas.  Bach seems to have

been responsible for the musical service at each.  How innate and healthy was

his genius may be inferred from the fact that for these musical services alone

three hundred eighty cantatas seem to have been composed. Bach entered upon

his labors at Leipsic at the age of thirty-eight, and continued therein until

his death, in 1750.  Let us examine briefly the nature of these labors, and

endeavor to glean from them their characteristic principles.

 

     When Bach came to Leipsic he came full of experience and power.  As a

youth he had devoted himself to the perfecting of church music.  Untiringly,

unceasingly, with steadfast love, he had brought the laws of counterpoint and

fugue to mingle with the grace of melody and the genius of a noble

imagination.  At Koethen his poetic and artistic temperament roamed through

the realms of nature, and brought us near to the understanding of their varied

utterance.  At Leipsic he finished the education of his life and his career as

a tone-poet.  He seeks again the shelter of the temple, but his genius has

matured and ripened.  He has examined the mysteries of life.  His enthusiasm

for the pure and good is stronger than ever, but life is still a mystery.

Evil, pain, love deep as hell and high as heaven, the Titanic conflict of

opposing principles, Nature and her decrees, sorrow, remorse, sweet,

unaffected joy, and tranquil resignation - what mean they all?  The answer,

the solution, is on Calvary.  There is no other solution.  Intellect, deny it

how it will, is baffled by the complex problem.  The solution is of love

through trouble and anguish.  The Passion music of Bach rises to the sublime

understanding of this grand mystery, and again the evolution of the old

mystery and Passion-play consummates in a kindred mind.  Again the triumph of

faith is with the German.  Luther frees the understanding from tyranny.  Bach

raises it to the region of genius and sympathy, and closes the labors of a

thousand years of Christian tonal effort by his Passion music of the Redeemer.

But while this is so, he initiated the modern period of tonal art, leaving,

however, this Passion music as his noblest legacy, as if to warn men that no

other solution of life exists.

 

     But though Bach's genius was thus supreme, it was not because he was

undisturbed by the vexations of daily life.  Rarely, if ever, has an artist

equally great produced in such boundless profusion the highest works of

genius, when engaged with men most frequently unable to understand his

thought, and immersed in the arduous duties of teacher in an art noteworthy of

producing fatigue and exhaustion of spirit.  But his enthusiasm and strength

were equal to the task.  With grand integrity, and desire for the welfare of

the congregations of the churches alluded to, he obtained from their

respective ministers the texts of their discourses for the ensuing Sundays,

and produced, apparently without effort, hundreds of cantatas to convey to the

hearers the inner meaning of the words which fell from the preacher's lips.

These cantatas frequently opened with orchestral introduction followed by a

chorus, usually very impressive, and imbued with the meaning of the text.  The

recitatives and solo airs would still further convey this meaning, while a

chorale or hymn in four parts, with elaborate instrumental accompaniment,

served to express the feelings of the whole congregation.  To each instrument

was assigned a separate part, and the whole accompaniment was separate from

the singing.

 

     But if Bach in the consummation of the chorale perfected Luther's work in

the realm of music, he in his Passion music finds worthy expression of a

nation's devotion.  His genius, as it were, felt the spirit-life of the past.

His soul vibrated to the yearnings of the unknown millions of his race who had

passed away in the centuries preceding him, and whose consolation in their

humble toil, in the various hardships of their lives, was the narrative of

this Passion music of the Saviour Christ.  The rough, dramatic presentation

accorded to this narrative gathered, as time went on, elements of beauty and

traditional treatment around it.  It was powerfully to affect the drama proper

and oratorio, but in its direct and proper functions it was to inspire the

first, and in some respects the greatest, of the great musicians of the

Germany to his utmost effort, to his most lofty flight of genius, as his

winged spirit soared through the ages of the past toward the future ages yet

to come.

 

     This Passion music of St. Matthew is the noblest presentment of the

characteristics of the German mind, and is unsurpassed in the realm of

religious art.  It is an unfolding of the German spirit, and evidences

qualities the possession of which makes for national greatness.

 

     As we have said, Bach is the great lyric poet of his nation, the first

great German genius after the devastating horrors of war.  Looming on the

sight, or as contemporaries, are Handel, Leibnitz, Wolf, Klopstock, Lessing,

and Winckelmann.  The modern era, with its philosophy and revolution, has

arrived.  The domain of thought is enwidened, and the Middle Ages blend and

fade in the historic vista of the past.  But the modern era commences with

these great affirmations in art and poetry.  Bach takes the narrative of the

Passion, and erects the Cross anew with sympathetic genius of art and love.

Handel, as if he had caught Isaiah's prophetic fire, gave to Europe its most

beautiful and noble epic, the Messiah; and Klopstock, the first of the great

line of Germany's modern poets, devoted his genius and labor to the same

subject.  But with Bach and Handel no miserable conflicting elements of

theology sully the conception of the Saviour Christ.  These great artists rise

to the universal and the true.  The highest art is absolute and knows no

appeal.  It is in harmony with universal law, both spiritual and physical.

 

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