Updated: Feb 16
In many cultures and traditions, music is said to be a divine gift.
Musicians that spend their lifetimes refining both their skills and their characters,
may be able to express otherworldly beauty. One of the greatest composers in the western tradition praised as more than just a genius is Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach’s music is said to reflect life itself, with the power to heal, evoke deep emotion, penetrate the soul, and connect us with the Divine. That might be the reason he’s been called the Fifth Evangelist.
Because of his well-known outbursts of anger and many conflicts, some have opposed calling Bach the Fifth Evangelist. In today’s program, we want to investigate the source of Bach’s inspiration and his inner world, revealing what might be the secret to creating everlasting art.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685. In seven generations his family had produced 53 prominent musicians and he was taught at an early age by his father to play different instruments. Bach’s difficulties started at the early age of 10 when both his parents died. Traditionally, one would be taught by one's father. So how would Bach now be able to complete his musical education?
Luckily, he could move in with his older brother, Johann Christoph, a church organist, in Ohrdruf, who would pass on what he had been taught by one of the best organ players at the time - Johann Pachelbel. By age 15 Bach had put a great deal of effort into mastering the keyboard and also training his voice, which led him to earn a university scholarship at the prestigious St. Michael School in Lüneburg. Shortly after his graduation, Bach was appointed as a court musician and his reputation spread fast. Later he was offered a position in Arnstadt as an organist.
Here, he earned a good salary and had light duties, but he was not satisfied with the quality of the singers in the choir and he would be very frank with them about that. One singer got so upset that he even went after Bach with a stick.
Bach then took some time off to further his musical education. He had applied for a leave of absence of four weeks but was gone for four months, which led to grave conflicts with his employer. Bach was considered a Christian, but there has been speculation by scholars questioning the sincerity of Bach's convictions, who claimed that to Bach, work was simply working and that he just happened to be in an environment that required the production of sacred compositions.
Because of Bach's many disputes and temper, some scholars have questioned why Bach has been called the ”5th Evangelist”. The next two periods of Bach's life will put some light on these issues and will get us closer to an understanding of his values and ideals. Europe was ravaged after a 30-year-long war and further exhausted by the plague that followed. The Baroque period was an era that was dominated by ornaments where art from paintings to architecture was dramatic in style with many embellishments. In this time period, all art forms were deeply connected and inspired by devotion to God. Bach applied for a post in Mühlhausen, where he was accepted and worked with a much better choir. But once again Bach would put his whole career in peril due to his stubborn behavior, creating new conflicts. Bach’s convictions didn't lead him to a dead end. He was invited to the Royal Court in Weimar, which would become the most important stepping stone in Bach’s career. Here, Bach was promoted to Director of Music. On top of that, he was given access to the courts collection of an international repertory of the most beautiful and finely crafted music in the world. After a few years in Weimar, Bach was able to imitate all the leading European musical styles and then even combine them. In Weimar Bach had advanced his career and was now named ”concert meister” or Director of Music. Bach’s goal, however, was to be promoted to Kapellmeister, which didn't happen. Other tensions also arose as the Duke and his musical advisors only wanted the traditional hymns. Bach was an innovator, exploring counterpoints and breaking from the engrained habits of church music. When he suddenly saw an opportunity for a post in Köthen that would grant him more freedom and the ability to excel in his musical craftsmanship, he forced the question of his dismissal.
However, after his arrest in 1717, Bach had an even better opportunity to experiment on his counterpoints at the court in Köthen, where Prince Leopold hired Bach as his director of music.
Not only did the Prince love music, but also he knew a lot about music. The Prince was a Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship. Therefore, it is said that most of Bach's work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, solo suites, sonatas, and partitas for violin and the Brandenburg Concertos.
However, there's something written on the notes from these times that reveal something important about Bach’s fundamental motives. The concept that music comes from God or the Divine and that it affects human conduct can be seen in many ancient traditions from around the world.
The word ”music” comes from Ancient Greece, which means ”art of the Muses”. The Muses were goddesses that provided the songwriters with inspiration - when they saw that they deserved it, based on their virtue and moral standards. Bach’s work was profoundly shaped by Luther's reformation. Luther had paved the way for a new form of worship, as he wanted the ordinary man to be able to join in the music and not solely to be sung and understood by church choirs and clergymen. Because of these reasons, Bach once again walked away from a dream position and came to find a position in Leipzig instead. So, would that enable Bach to compose more sacred music and fulfill his life mission, or would his temper get the best of him, getting him embroiled in even deeper conflicts…?
During the later years of his life, Bach stayed in Leipzig, where he worked as a musical director and choirmaster of Saint Thomas Church and School. These were not easy times for him.
Hearing Bach’s thoughts
”I have had to work hard…. Endless self-correction…. Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection… That is my secret.”
Not only did Bach have to struggle with all the chaos and noise, but in his later years his music was also at times considered old-fashioned, too complex with too many notes. During this period, it appeared as though Bach’s faith deepened. He collected in his library over 52 religious books and a copy of the lutheran Calov Bible - a three-volume Bible with commentary by Martin Luther and also the lutheran theology professor Abraham Calov.
One passage in Luther's commentaries that are partly underlined says ”As far as your person is concerned, you must not get angry with anyone regardless of the injury he may have done to you. But where your office requires it, there you must get angry. But it was in this most difficult setting that Bach wrote some of his most enduring music. He composed the Passion of Saint John and the Passion of Saint Matthew, which has been called the Supreme cultural achievement of all Western civilization.
Bach composed more than 1000 masterworks throughout his life, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy of music.
During his lifetime, Bach was better known as an organist than a composer, but Bach’s musical compositions were still admired by those who followed in his footsteps, including Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig von Beethoven.
Even though Bach tried to find a position elsewhere, he never succeeded and thus he remained in Leipzig. In his final years, Bach created a work that could have been meant to be his testament to the world - the B minor mass. ==
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