Unveiling the Forgotten Genius Resurrecting the Timeless Mastery of J.S. Bach

ByQuyen Anne

Jul 3, 2023

This edited article about J S Bach originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1028 published on 21 November 1981.

J S Bach, picture, image, illustration
Bach playing music with two of his talented sons, by Andrew Howat

The headmaster of St Thomas’s School in Leipzig and the organist and master of the school choir were at loggerheads.

The whole town knew about their feud. It had started because the headmaster, Herr August Ernesti, was determined that his boys should have more instruction in languages and science. Far too much of their time, the headmaster declared strongly, was being devoted to choir singing and music practice.

Organist and choir-master Johann Sebastian Bach disagreed violently. The choir was already bad enough, he said. And if their practice time were cut still more there would be no use carrying on.

St Thomas School, Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach taught from 1723-50
St Thomas School, Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach taught from 1723-50

When the squabble became apparent, Bach’s rebellious choirboys helped to widen the breach between the two men.

One Sunday they caused an uproar in church, and the congregation complained. The choir prefect dealt severely with the boys – with the result that one of them complained to the headmaster.

The headmaster’s reaction against the unfortunate prefect – one of Bach’s best singers – was so violent that the young man fled the town.

Bach appealed to the town council for support, but in vain. For the council did not want to lose their valued headmaster, although they were equally aware that they had a genius for their choir-master – or cantor, as the Germans called him.

This absurd quarrel dragged on for two years. Only then did the town council relent and agree to the demands of their now famous cantor.

Born in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach was the most famous musician of Germany’s most famous musical family. For nearly two hundred years the Bach family held an important place in the world of music.

Bach's Favorite Instrument You've Probably Never Heard Of: The Long-Lost Lautenwerck : Deceptive Cadence : NPR

The family was so big that there was hardly a large town in the Thüringen district of Germany that did not have a Bach holding some municipal musical appointment.

Yet it was a family where death was ever present. Sebastian was orphaned when he was ten, and he went to live with his elder brother, Johann Christoph, who was the organist at Ohrdruf. But his brother died five years later. When Bach grew up several of his children died in infancy.

Sebastian Bach was still a young man when he became Cantor of St Thomas’s, Leipzig, a title he held for the rest of his life. He never left his native Germany, and seldom even the small area of that country where several generations of his family had settled.

The schoolboys of St Thomas’s were boarders, earning their education by singing in the choir, and when Bach arrived the boys were living in appalling conditions.

The school buildings were old and dirty, the boys hungry and sometimes crowded three in a bed – and not surprisingly most of them were not enthusiastic about singing for their keep.

Bach, a devout churchman, never allowed the hard life he was forced to lead at the school to interfere with his tremendous creative power. During his life at St Thomas’s he composed some of the world’s finest church music, including the Church Cantatas, and the deepest and most moving of his choral works, the St Matthew Passion.

After his death in 1750 Bach’s genius was forgotten, and his wife and youngest daughter died in poverty.

It was not until the early nineteenth century that another musician began to study Bach’s works – to realise the brilliance of them and to popularise them again. Strangely, the man who rediscovered Bach’s work was himself to become one of the world’s great composers. His name was Mendelssohn.

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