Dirk Bertels

The greatest malfunction of spirit
is to believe things (Louis Pasteur)

Compiled excerpts on Bach

Last updated 05 November 2012



Indicative of Bach's era
Personality & Constitution
Instruments & Tuning
Links and References


When the biologist Louis Thomas was asked what message he thought mankind should take to other civilisations in the Voyager spacecraft, he replied "I would send the complete works of Bach ... but that would be bragging".

Bach's music stands on its own, it is unlike any other composer's, with its dense harmonies, melodic inventiveness and mastery over contrapuntal forms including canons. It is so well crafted that it comes at some cost: listening to Bach requires a learned appreciation that grows and blossoms as time goes by. Performers too share a burden: Bach's music is difficult to execute. His music has been studied by great composers following him and analysed and set to rules in theory books by music scholars.

Every 5 years or so, I tend to throw myself into the monumental crevices that constitute Bach's music - every time discovering new things and appreciating its art more deeply. During this time I have accumulated many excerpts from books and articles on Bach. This compilation consists of a chosen selection from this material.

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Indicative of Bach's era

Formerly, skill in fugue was so indispensable in a composer that no one could have attained a musical post who had not worked out a given subject in all kinds of counterpoint and in a regular fugue.

Marpug 1752

This epoch could not resign itself to regarding mere performers of other men's work as artists.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp228

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If ever there was a family in which an extraordinary disposition for the same art seemed to be hereditary, it was certainly the family of Bach; through six successive generations ... The ancestor of this family which has become so remarkable in the history of music was Veit Bach - a baker at Pressburg, Hungary

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works' pp299

When Johann Sebastian was not quite 10 years of age, his father died; he had lost his mother earlier. Being thus left an orphan, he was obliged to have recourse to an elder brother, John Christopher, who was organist at Ordruff.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp301

In the eyes of the public and the critics of the end of the eighteenth century the great composer of the Bach family was Emmanuel. No one stood so much in the way of his father's fame as he... Emmanuel made merry over the composers who affected canons, and said "it was ever a certain proof to him of a total want of genius in any one that was fond of such wretched studies and unmeaning productions".

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp141

Those [compositions Bach left behind] in Friedemann's hands were soon dispersed. Emmanuel took more care of his... His unfortunate experience with the "Art of the Fugue" of which by the Autumn of 1756 only thirty copies were sold was not encouraging. So he confined himself to lending the scores of the cantatas to the few people who were interested in them, for inspection or for copying, for which they had to pay him a fee... But at the end of the eighteenth century it seemed, on the whole, as if Bach were for ever dead ... In 1802, Forkel's biography appeared; this marks the turning of the tide... If Forkel was the first Bach biographer, Rochlitz was the first Bach aesthetician.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp234-237

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The recognition that the world gave to the master of the organ and the clavier...he only took as a matter of course. He did not ask the world for the recognition of that part of his work that was not of his own age, and in which his deepest emotions found expression.... Bach did nothing to make his Cantatas and Passions known, and nothing to preserve them... Bach himself was not conscious of the extraordinary greatness of his work.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp165- 166

It would be a great mistake, however, to imagine that Bach was at that time regarded as one of the leading German composers. It was the organist who was famous; the theoretician of the fugue was admired; but the composer of the Passions and cantatas was only incidentally mentioned.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp227

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Johann Nicolaus Forkel (1749-1818) deserves a place of honour in the history of musical scholarship. ... the present essay on Bach, the first of its kind and particularly valuable since it contains a considerable amount of information gathered form Philipp Emmanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and not otherwise preserved. ... Forkel wrote at a time when the tide of nationalism was running high. It was thus natural for him to emphasize this aspect in presenting a newly discovered hero to the German people. then divided into many small states and held together only nominally by the dying Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works: Foreword

Beethoven had made the acquaintance of Bach through his Bonn teacher ... When still a boy he studied the Well tempered Clavichord, which in after years he used to call his musical Bible... When Mendelssohn was staying with him [Goethe] in May 1830, he had to play to Goethe a good deal of Bach ... Zelter allowed Mendelsshon to perform the St Matthew Passion in 1829. Mendelssohn, who was then just twenty years old, conducted the whole excellently.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp240

If it were left to the publishers alone the complete Bach would never appear, but that the work would have to be taken in hand by the community of Bach lovers... In 1837 Schumann, who had done so much for Bach with his pen [suggested] the publication of the complete works of Bach... In July 1850 the Bachgesellschaft came into being... To the very end the work had been carried on in the face of an apathetic public... Only a few artists realised the magnitude of the undertaking to the Bachgesellschaft. Among them was Brahms, who used to say that the two greatest events during his lifetime were the founding of the German Empire and the completion fo the Bach Edition... The undertaking of the Bachgesellschaft was supplemented by the work of one man, Spitta's 'Life of Bach', of which the first volume appeared in 1874.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp251,254

For the piano compositions Franz Liszt continued the work that Mendelssohn had begun, and, by brilliant transcriptions of the organ compositions...forced Bach as an organ composer on the public attention... It is well known that Wagner was an admirer of Bach. He regarded him as the great teacher of Beethoven...He has thus expressed in his essay "What is German?" the significance of Bach for German spiritual life... [Wagner wrote] "Look at this head, hidden in its absurd French full-bottomed wig, look at this master, a miserable cantor and organist in little Thüringian towns whose names we hardly know now, wearing himself out in poor situations, always so little considered that it needed a whole century after his death to rescue his works from oblivion"...

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp257

Since Mendelssohn, every composer af any significance has been to school to Bach, not as a pedantic teacher, but to one who impels them to strive after the truest and clearest expression, and to achieve impressiveness not by the wealth of the means but by the pregnancy of their themes.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp261

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Personality and Constitution

The great J.Seb.Bach used to say: "Everything must be possible" (es muss alles möglich zu machen sein)


...anyone, whether a foreigner or a native, could visit his house and be sure of meeting with a friendly reception....[which] caused his house to be very seldom without visitors... When he was sometimes asked how he had contrived to master the art to such a high degree, he generally answered: "I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well".

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp334

In the conflicts that agitated his life and embittered his soul, Bach does not always appear in a sympathetic light. His irritability and his stubborn belief that he was always in the right can neither be excused not glozed over... Such was Bach in his relations with people whom he suspected of a desire to encroach upon his freedom. The real Bach however, was quite another being; all testimonies agree that in ordinary intercourse he was the most amiable and modest of men ... His impartiality was well known... Bach was more than impartial: he was benevolent... The petitions he addressed to his sovereign are couched in the submissive formulae of the epoch; but behind these formulae, a resolute pride is evident.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp151-153

...This letter is at the same time a testimony to Bach's sense of economy in household affairs, that is so strongly noticable in other things. He was very particular in money matters.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp157

Bach's views were strictly Lutherian... In the last resort, however, Bach's real religion was not orthodox Lutheranism, but mysticism... His whole thought was transfigured by a wonderful, serene longing for death... This is Bach's religion as it appears in the cantatas. It transfigured his life. The existence that, considered from the outside, seems all conflict and struggle and bitterness, was in truth tranquil and serene.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp170

He appears to have passed his last days wholly in a darkened room. When he felt death drawing nigh, he dictated to Altnikol a chorale fantasia on the melody "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sind".

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp224

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If you could see him, I say, ... singing with one voice and playing his own parts, but watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat, out of thirty or even forty musicians, the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to one from the top of his voice, to another from the bottom, and a third from the middle of it - all alone, in the midst of the greatest din made by all the participants, and, although he is executing the most difficult parts himself, noticing at once whenever and wherever a mistake occurs, holding everyone together, taking precautions everywhere and repairing any unsteadiness, full of rhythm in every part of his body - this one man taking in all these harmonies with his keen ear and emitting with his voice alone the tone of all the voices. Favorer as I am of antiquity, the accomplishments of our Bach, and of any others that there maybe like him, appear to me to effect what not many Orpheuses, nor twenty Arions, could achieve.

From Johann Matthias Gesner To Marcus Fabius Quintilianus in 1738.

The able man whom I have mentioned usually has to play something from the page which is inferior to his own ideas, And yet his superior ideas are the consequences of those inferior ones.

T.L.Pitschel [The Bach reader pp290]

...The moment the latter became aware of the presence of the great master he sprang up and left off with a dissonant chord. Bach, who heard it, was so offended by this musical unpleasantness that he passed right by his host, who was coming to meet him, rushed to the harpsichord, resolved the dissonant chord, and made and appropriate cadence. Only then did he approach his host and make him his bow of greeting.

J.F.Reichardt [The Bach reader pp291]

What astonished his hearers, besides the plasticity and clearness of his playing, was his calmness during performance.... In conducting, he was very accurate, and extremely sure in the tempo, which he generally took very briskly.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp208,210

One of his most capable pupils always had to accompany on the harpsichord. It will easily be guessed that no one dared to put forward a meager thorough-bass accompaniment. Nevertheless, one always had to be prepared to have Bach's hands and fingers intervene among the hands and fingers of the player, and, without getting in the way of the latter, furnish the accompaniment with masses of harmonies which made an even greater impression than the unsuspected close proximity of the teacher.

Johann Christian Kittel 1808

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But particularly the art of organ playing, which had to a great extent been learned from the Netherlanders, was already at this time in a high state of advancement ... finally the admirable Johann Sebastian Bach brought it to its greatest perfection in recent times.

Johann Joachim Quantz 1752

To all this was added the peculiar manner in which he combined the different stops of the organ with each other, or his mode of registration. It was so uncommon that many organ builders and organists were frightened when they saw him draw the stops.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp314

The first thing he did in trying out an organ was to draw out all the stops and to play with the full organ. He used to say in jest that he must first of all know whether the instrument had good lungs.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp316

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My late father told me about having heard great men in his youth who did not use the thumb except when it was necessary for large stretches.

C.P.E.Bach 1753

According to Sebastian Bach's manner of placing the hand on the keys, the five fingers are bent so that their points come into a straight line, and so fit the keys, which lie in a plane surface under them, that no single finger has to be drawn nearer when it is wanted, but every one is ready over the key which it may have to press down.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp307

...They can therefore by only "finger composers" (or "clavier hussars", as Bach, in his riper years, used to call them).

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp317

An innovation that Bach introduced in fingering was of permanent value... he desired an absolute and delicate legato style. Such a method of playing, however, was impossible without a reform of technique. At that time everyone placed his fingers just as it occurred to him to do; the thumb was not used at all, or only in cases of necessity... Thus of the old fingering he retained the simple passing of one finger over another, while adopting the new method of employing the thumb... Strongly incurved and loose fingers and loose wrists were also part of Bach's method of playing. The fingers rested directly on the keys. He himself played with so slight and easy a motion of the fingers that one could hardly notice it. Only the front joints of the fingers were in motion... the fingers were only slightly raised above the keys.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp206-207

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... And this astonishing facility, this fingering never used before him, he owed to his own works; for often, he said, he had found himself compelled to make use of the night in order to be able to bring to realization whate he had written during the day. This is all the easier to believe since it was never his habit in composing to ask advice of his clavier. Thus according to a certain tradition he wrote his Tempered Clavier in a place where ennui, boredom, and the absence of any kind of musical instrument forced him to resort to his pastime.

Ernst Ludwig Gerber 1791

"Figured bass", he says in the rules and principles of accompaniment that he gave his pupils [preserved in a copy dating from 17238, see Spitta III, 317], "is the most perfect foundation of music. It is executed with both hands in such a manner that the left hand plays the notes that are written, while the right adds consonances and disosonances thereto..." [self: note the similarity with today's Jazz comping technique]

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp167

Everything points to the fact that Bach did not invent easily, but slowly and with difficulty ... [otherwise] it would be incomprehensible how they [his compositions] all come to be so extraordinarily rich and characteristic... Bach thus worked like a mathematician, who sees the whole of a problem at once, and has only to realise it in definite values... It was characteristic of his method of creation that he generally wrote in quick succession a string of works of the same kind ... Perhaps we can still better characterise Bach's mind as architectonic.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp211-213

Bach, however, in spite of the ample piety that is evident in his works, is not a church composer, since his imagination always runs away with him, his art is incomprehensible by the multitude, and he aims at being dramatic.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp248

...for 6 solos for the violin and six others for the violoncello which absolutely admit of no second singable part set to them. By particular turns in the melody, he has so combined in a single part all the notes required to make the modulation complete as a second part is neither necessary nor possible.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works: pp323

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At the first lesson he set his Inventions before him. When he had studied these through to Bach's satisfaction, there followed a series of suites, then the Well-Tempered Clavier. This latter work Bach played altogether three times through for him with his unmatchable art, and my father counted these among his happiest hours, when Bach, under the pretext of not feeling in the mood to teach, sat himself at one of his fine instruments and thus turned these hours into minutes. The conclusion of the instruction was thorough bass, for which Bach chose the Albinoni violin solos.

Ernst Ludwig Gerber 1791ds

The first thing he did was to teach his scholars his peculiar mode of touching the instrument. For this purpose, he made them practice, for months together, nothing but isolated exercises for all the fingers of both hands, with constant regard to this clear and clean touch.
...he first played to them the whole piece, which they were to study, saying, "so it must sound".

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp328

[In teaching composition] He proceeded at once to the pure thorough bass in four parts ... He then proceeded to the chorales ...Then, when the above-mentioned preparations in harmony were ended, he took up the doctrine of fugues... In all these, and other exercises in composition, he rigorously kept his pupils (1)To compose entirely of the mind, without an instrument. (2)To pay constant attention to the consistency of each single part, in and for itself, as well as to its relation to the parts connected and concurrent with it.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp329

That he did not achieve anything with the pupils at St Thomas's was due ... to his own inablity to preserve discipline. The member of the Council who declared, at the sitting after his death, that "Herr Bach was certainly a great musician, but no schoolmaster", was quite right.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp214

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Bach was self-taught, and as such had an aversion to all learned theories. Clavier-playing, organ-playing, harmony, composition, - he had learnt them all by himself; his sole teachers had been untiring work and incessant experiment... many theories that were interesting or new for others were a matter of indifferenence, for he had been to the root of things... "Our Bach", says the Necrology, "did not engage at all in deep theoretical considerations of music, but was all the stronger in the practice of it".

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp188-189

To avoid a succession of fifths or octaves, it is an old rule that the hands must always go against each other... Every piece is a converation between the separate voices, that represent the characters. If one of them has nothing pertinent to say it may keep silence for a while, until it can again enter quiter naturally into the conversation.

'Rules and principles for the four-part playing of thorough bass' manuscript [see Spitta III, 347]

However desires to become acquainted with Bach's method of teaching composition in its whole extent finds it sufficiently explained in Kirnberger's "Art of Pure Composition" (Kunst des reinen Satzen).

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp330

Kirnberger... attempted to form a system out of Bach's teachings. In this he was handicapped by his own innate pedantry.

David Hans Theodore and Arthur Mendel: The Bach Reader pp270

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Instruments and Tuning

...he took pleasure in playing the viola. With this instrument, he was, as it were, in the middle of the harmony, wence he could best hear and enjoy it, on both sides.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp334

Mr Kirnberger has more than once told me as well as others, about how the famous Joh. Seb. Bach ...expressly required of him (his pupil) that he tune all the thirds sharp.

Friedrich Wilhelm Marpug 1776

He liked best to play upon the clavichord; the harpsichord, though certainly susceptible of a very great variery of expression, had not soul enough for him; and the piano was in his lifetime too much in its infancy and still much too course to satisfy him.

Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works pp311

The self-releasing hammer, by which the hammer-clavier first became possible, was invented about the same time in Italy by the Florentine instrument-maker Cristofori (before 1711), and in Germany by Gottlieb Schroter in 1717... Gottfried Silbermann, the Freiberg organ builder, tried to improve upon the invention and to interest his friend Bach in it... Bach had praised the tone of it, indeed wondered at it, but had objected that it was too weak in the upper part, and that it was much too hard to play.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp202

...at the time the hairs of the violin bow were fastened without screws to the wood, and were stretched by the thumb of the right hand tighter or looser as one wanted.

Schweitzer: J.S.Bach pp209

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  • Forkel: On Bach's Life and Works
  • Albert Schweitzer: J.S.Bach [2 volumes]
  • David Hans theodore & Arthur Mendel: The Bach Reader

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