The Young Bach

Source: Alex Ross writing about John Eliot Gardiner: “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven” (Knopf) in The New Yorker, January 2, 2017

BachWe see Bach emerging from a society still traumatized by the Thirty Years’ War and by outbreaks of plague. Life expectancy was around thirty. In the Thuringian town of Eisenach, where Bach was born, quasi-pagan notions of devilry still prevailed. Bach’s education would have been doctrinaire and reactionary. “History is nothing but the demonstration of Christian truth,” one popular textbook said.

Gardiner highlights German research that notes rampant ruffianism among Eisenach’s youth and a troubling trend of “brutalization of the boys.” Gardiner may go too far in characterizing Bach as a “reformed teenage thug,” but the young composer is known to have drawn a dagger in the midst of an altercation with a bassoonist.

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6 responses to “The Young Bach

  1. Now I understand counterpoint.

  2. OK, but as someone who actually knows the musicologists and their work cited by Alex Ross (namely, Michael Marrisen and Raymond Erickson), and has actually conversed with them on the subjects, I want to post a caveat: the “history” is more complicated than Ross may know. Erickson and Marrisen are in opposing camps regarding Bach’s possible anti-Semitism. The record is certainly not clear, and probably changed with time.
    Ross mentions a book, The Bach Reader, which I recommend enthusiastically to anyone who really wants to know what is actually known about JS. It is a book of contemporary documents, including JS’s own letters to his church employers, It’s quite thrilling, in its way. It puts you there. The rest is speculation, and with luck, valuable insight, informed and researched with more or less care by their authors. Another useful book is about Bach’s Leipzig: Bach’s Changing World, ed. Carol Baron. Here’s the blurb, which tells it like it is:
    “The Leipzig middle-class evolved with the cooperation and gratitude of an extravagant, greedy, and disinterested absolutist ruler. Bach’s Changing World documents how this community and other German communities responded to a variety of religious, social, and political demands that emerged during the years of the composer’s lifetime. An accepted, admired, and trusted member of this community, as evidenced by the commissions he received for secular celebrations from royalty and members of the middle-class alike — in addition to functioning as church composer — Bach shared its values”.
    The Enlightenment did reach to Leipzig even during Bach’s lifetime, one of the points Erickson makes.

  3. p.s. I see that Eric’s post is about the portion of the New Yorker’s Bach article dealing with Gardiner’s book, which in fact I don’t know. But the article it appeared in is “Holy Dread”, by Alex Ross in the New Yorker of Jan 2 ’17, an extended book review of Marrisen’s latest book, “Bach & God”, a seeming preoccupation in some quarters these days.

  4. May I draw your attention to the novel “And After the Fire” by Lauren Belser which tells the story of a fictious anti-Semitic Bach cantata.

    • Correction: the author is Lauren Belfer. Star roles are played by Friedemann Bach, the Mendelssohns, and the unpleasant Achim von Arnim, one of the authors of “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.”

  5. Lauren Belfer is the wife of Michael Marrisen, who helped her with the historical details. Several of which, according to other of my colleagues who are in this discussion up to their necks, are quite incorrect. I myself heard her give a talk on her novel at the Center for Jewish History in NY (West 15th St.), and was actually rather appalled, in particular, at her rendering of the character of Felix Mendelssohn. For one thing, Felix did not join the Lutheran Church, but rather the French Reformed Church, close by the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. And the notion that he willfully published compositions by his sister as his own is quite untrue: they were included in a volume of his music to help her, because their father would not allow his daughter to lower herself by publishing. In performing one of them before Queen Victoria, the Queen remarked that it was her favorite; Felix told her straight away that it was Fanny who had written it. Where Lauren got her story from I cannot say, as I didn’t get a chance to ask her.
    This is a highly charged subject because there is a group of Mendelssohn scholars who take the position vociferously that Mendelssohn was a devout and enthusiastic Lutheran (I think Marrisen is one of them), and another group who are not nearly as certain, but are equipped to read Hebrew and are therefore more atune to the nuances of Moses Mendelssohn’s writing, and presumably therefore, to how his son Abraham would have interpreted those ideas. One really needs to know the conditions of the Prussia at the time of the Mendelssohn conversion (under Friedrich Wilhelm III, who was promoting a Christian state which would have denied citizenship to all but Protestants, and where no Jew could hold any kind of public position). The idea that the conversion was the result of a joyous embrace of Lutheranism is dubious, to say the least.
    Another book one might enjoy, if this topic continues to be of interest, is a history of the Mendelssohn family until their disappearance as a German cultural force under the Nazis: it is Die Erbe der Mendellsohns: Biographie einer Familie, [The Mendelssohn Legacy, Biography of a Family] published by S. Fisher in 2009, with wonderful illustrations. Alas, only in German. The author is Julian Schoeps, a 5th or 6th generation Mendelssohn, who returned to Germany (from Sweden) after WW II, and is now a prolific figure in German-Jewish studies.
    Are you getting the feeling that nothing is as straight-forward as it seems? !!

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