Salomo, stop playing that [Bach]! You sound like a sewing machine!CCH Pounder in the movie Bagdad Cafe
Does Bach sound like a sewing machine? Does The Art of the Fugue sound like it was dictated by a blind man? Was Bach so good at counterpoint because he heard arguments in his head all the time, given that he was apparently always arguing with somebody? Does the emotional content reflected in St. Matthew’s Passion or the Prelude from the Cello Suite in D Minor denote the kappelmeister’s relationship to his faith or the fact that half his children died before reaching adulthood?
Sunday was Bach’s 334th birthday. In 1685, when he was born, Louis the Fourteenth was dominating Europe, William & Mary were wresting the crown away from the Stuarts in England, and Protestants were fleeing to the colonies to exchange war and religious persecution for malaria. Music at the time was focused primarily on the rise of the new public art form known as opera. Bach had no interest in opera. Luckily for us.
The Industriousness of Bach
Perhaps he would be surprised to know that all these years later his influence has lasted so long and extended to so many different styles. He wrote over 1000 musical compositions. While many argue that Mozart’s 600 works are more impressive because Mozart only lived to age 32, the precocious Amadeus also started composing ate age five. Bach didn’t really get going until he was in his mid-30s, plus he had a few other things going on, between being court musician here and choir-master there. And then there were all the children.
I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach was married twice and produced twenty children between his two wives. My brother likes to reference that Bach quote as a response to someone asking, “How did you get all these things done with all those children?” Yet, only three of the seven children from his first wife made it past into teenage years, and only seven of the thirteen children from his second wife made it to adult. Twenty children, but only ten lived. His first wife also died abruptly, and he lost both his parents by the time he was ten. That’s a lot of close family loss for a single person, even if it was an age where disease was rampant and medicine was quackery.
The Meaning of Zipfel
Johann was also a pretty argumentative guy. He complained that one employer, the city of Leipzig, was “penny-pinching.” In Weimar, he ticked off the authorities of the ducal court which employed him, first by leaving his job without permission for an extended absence to go visit the organist in Lubeck. 280 miles away, on foot, because…industrious. Do you suppose he composed music in his head on the way? Bestimmt! Weimar eventually got so fed up with his cantankerousness that they planned to dismiss him entirely. Apparently, he argued about it so much that they jailed him for a month in 1717.
The most famous incident, however, was when Bach got into a fight with one of his musicians. He called him a “Zipfel Fagottist” and the second word is not the insult, because that’s a translation for basoonist. The first word translates in more sanitary English as “tip,” but it’s also slang for a part of the male anatomy. It was fun looking up different interpretations of whether Bach intended to refer to Johan Geyserbach as weak musically or just unpleasant. In either case, the meaning was one Geyserbach took exception to, because he came after J.S. later with a stick. Bach filed a complaint with the authorities, but Geyserbach got off with a warning and Bach was told to be less demanding of his students.
If you want to get a feel for what Bach’s life was like, this excellent bio/celebration from 1978 lets Brian Blessed take you right into the middle of the choir. Take it up from 26 minutes in, and you can hear Kappelmeister Bach explaining how “not bad is not good enough.” Perhaps he seems a little cranky, but with that music in his head, wouldn’t you have wanted to make it sound right? Still, you gotta love where at 29 minutes in, he throws his wig on the floor.
Blinded by the Quack
At the age of 64, Bach was operated on by the infamous eye surgeon, John Taylor. Taylor himself confessed that he had blinded hundreds of people, and he managed the twofer: he ruined the eyesight of both Bach and his contemporary, Georg Handel.
Because Bach’s death was hastened by the eye surgery he had in the spring of 1750, several biographers and ophthalmologists have speculated about his general eye conditions. Some of have suggested, based on his portraits, that he may have squinted because he was myopic, meaning he could only see up close. It’s logical, certainly, to think that he must have been able to see up close in order to read organ music and to write his own music. Perhaps he couldn’t see far away. Should’ve gotten contacts!
However, the eye surgery was more likely for cataracts. He had one operation in late March, and then a second surgery in April, but was completely blind after that. By the end of July 1750, with his health failing, (possibly also had a stroke?) J.S. died from complications from the surgery. It might be more correct to say he died from the medical quackery that likely followed. Not only was the surgery probably unsuccessful–one doctor speculated that Taylor preferred to operate on the left eye because he was right-handed, even if that wasn’t where the problem was–but the protocol for recovering patients involved a lot of mercury (*coff* poisoning) and bleeding.
Bach’s Influence: Jazz, Gardens, and Flying
Bach seems to translate well into different instruments and art forms, perhaps because he wrote so much and also perhaps his music is more pure, more mathematical, less reliant on emotion and “style.” Of course, there is a Bach style, but I can’t say that I’ve heard many moog-synthesizer versions of Mahler or seen Haydn choreographed for ballet. Whereas it doesn’t take long to immediately think of Bach done with jazz guitar, synethsizer, the Swingle singers, and steel drum bands, or Bach translated into break dance as well as ballet. Yo-Yo Ma created a six-part video series where he worked with artists who put Bach in different mediums, one producing a garden in Toronto (which we visited back in 2012).
In 1970, trans musician Wendy Carlos released the album Switched-On Bach, a version that used synthesizers and technology only recently invented by Robert Moog and others. The instrumentation was so new that Carlos invented some of it for the project. The first album cover had to be rejected because Carlos said it was ridiculous for the seated Bach to appear shocked by what he was hearing in the headphones, and besides, they’re plugged into the Input, not Output jacks.
Switched-On Bach went on to win several awards, dominate the top of the classical music charts for months, and influence musicians and artists for ever afterwards from Constance Demby’s Flying Bach to Red Bull Flying Bach. It’s no accident that more than one musician has used the term “flying.” Bach flies, soars, glides, and streams–no coincidence maybe that “Bach” means stream. Even Beethoven said it:
He should be called not Bach [‘stream’] but Mer [‘sea’] on account of his endlessly inexhaustible wealth of musical ideas.Ludwig van Beethoven