Tuesday, November 11, 2008

J.S. Bach (Part II)

J.S. Bach

(excerpts from the book, Bach, Beethoven and the Boys by David Barber)

Having studied hard and soaked up everything, it was time for Bach to get a real job. His first position was as organist and choirmaster of the little church of St. Bonifacius in Arnstadt. The choir members, all boys, weren't very good singers and were very rowdy. The young Bach had trouble keeping them in line. His bullish temper didn't help matters. He once got into a street brawl with one of his choristers, a boy named Geyersbach, who called Bach a "dirty dog." (Bach had earlier called him a Zippelfagottist, or "nanny-goat bassoonist.")

[Ed. note: In the course of the fight, according to one source, Bach drew his sword and tore Geyersbach's clothes to shreds.]

A little later, Bach asked permission from his employers to go to Lubeck to hear the great Danish organist Dietrich Buxtehude.  They weren't terribly keen on the idea, but they gave him four weeks off anyway.  Bach set out, again on foot.  It was more than 200 miles, but he made it somehow.

Bach had a wonderful time in Lubeck and was thrilled to bits by Buxtehude's playing.  Since Buxtehude was thinking of retiring, he offered his job to Bach.  The only catch was that Bach had to marry Buxtehude's daughter Anna Margreta.  This seemed perfectly reasonable to Buxtehude, since he had done exactly the same thing to get the job from his predecessor, Franz Tunder.  Bach, however, was not so thrilled by the offer.  He said thanks but no thanks.  Two other great musicians of the time -- Johann Matheson and Georg Frideric Handel -- also turned down the offer of the job complete with wife.  It wasn't the sort of fringe benefit they had in mind.  [Ed. note:  OK, I'm sure you're all curious now.  The position was eventually filled by one Johann Christian Schieferdecker who, taking the whole deal, acquired a new Frau Schieferdecker.  Let's hope the Schieferdeckers were happy.  No historical evidence one way or the other survives - which may be a good sign.]

Bach wasn't keen on Buxehude's daughter because he'd had his eye on someone closer to home.  Very close to home, in fact.  Her name was Maria Barbara Bach and she was his second cousin on his father's side.  She was an orphan, living with her aunt and uncle in a little house called "The Golden Crown."  Bach lived there for a while too, and that's how they met.  It was convenient, anyway.  She was cute as a button and had a lovely soprano voice.  Pretty soon the church authorities noticed that the two of them were spending a lot of time alone together up in the choir loft.  They truly were only practicing, but, well, it was kind of like Christendom College.  People liked to speculate.

And they were right.

[Ed. note:  Interesting difference between Palestrina and Bach in their choice of spouses.  Both of them married a second time after the first wife died.  Both of Bach's wives were, at least, amateur musicians - women who would have had a respect and, even, technical appreciation for what he was about.  Palestrina, at least according to the superficial evidence in both cases, seems to have had business considerations as an important factor.  The first wife had an inheritance, the second owned a fur business.  I don't know if either of his wives knew anything about art or music.  The marriages seem to have been happy enough, though.  While I greatly admire Palestrina's music, I don't know if I could have made the personal choices he did.  Perhaps, putting the two together, the ideal wife is a soprano who owns a fur business! ]

So all things considered, Bach decided it might be a good idea to move somewhere else.  He and Maria Barabara got married and moved to Muhlhausen and a new church job.  Bach's salary in Muhlhausen was 85 gulden a year and "3 measures of corn, 2 trusses of wood, one of beech, one of oak or aspen, and 6 trusses of faggots, delivered at his door, in lieu of arable."

When the young couple were married, they were helped along financially by an inheritance from Tobias Lammerhirt, Bach's uncle on his mother's side.  Fourteen years later, in 1721, when Maria Barbara had died and Bach was about to be married again, he got an inheritance from the widow of Tobias Lammerhirt.  (It was a good thing Bach did not marry a third time.  He was running out of Lammerhirts.)

Things didn't work out well in Muhlhausen.  The church authorities were a sour-faced old bunch who didn't believe in having any fun.  Within a year, Bach had accepted a job as court organist to Wilhelm Ernst, "His Ducal and Serene Highness of Saxe-Weimar." The duke offered Bach double his previous salary and Bach said, "When do I begin?" 

The duke was a kind man, if somewhat stern.  Everybody had to turn out all the lights by 8 pm (9 pm in the summer), and the duke had a habit of asking the servants at random about the subject of the chaplain's sermons.  He wanted to make sure they'd been awake.  The duke liked music and the organ at Weimar was a good one, but the first things Bach did was to install a set of chimes.  Then it was even better.

(to be continued)


healthily sanguine said...

It's an interesting question, Dr. Poterack. I've wondered myself whether I could marry someone who didn't appreciate the music I do or who really wasn't interested in philosophy. On the one hand, you could imagine vocation touching you on a deeper level (for instance, your mentioning how Victoria intended to give up music for the sake of the higher--there are probably others who have done that, and indeed St. Thomas counted all his work as "so much straw" at the end), so marriage as a vocation could be a calling in itself that would surpass career/activities. On the other hand, though, if you have developed skills, talents, and desires for a reason, it would make sense for your spouse, your other self, to also share in these things. :)

Phantom Seraphim said...

Dear Lambie,

I can't say that I'm Dr. Poterack, but here's my $0.02. It seems to me that marriage is one of those things where you wouldn't contract it with anyone with whom there wasn't a mutual sharing of at least some of your interests. For instance, while one person may enjoy philosophy, hiking, and Star Trek (in that order), the other may enjoy hiking, Star Trek, and philosophy. But person 2 loves music and has a phenomenal voice and person 1 can't sing but enjoys music.

Yeah, you know who I'm talking about.

However, it is not necessary for both people to love the same thing, as long as the couple is complementary. My Dad loved mechanics, carpentry and theology arguments. My Mom, on the other hand, never participated in any of the above unless she was called upon to do so. Alternately, Mom had her interests and hobbies which Dad never participated in, unless called upon to do so.

Just my $0.02. :)

healthily sanguine said...

Lambie resents your saying he can't sing. He also says it wouldn't work out between you and me because you are not a tenor. Being a mezzo-tenor isn't good enough, sorry!