Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life In Pictures And Documents
by Hans Conrad Fischer
Augsburg Fortress Publishers (book & CD edition), 2005
(191 pages, $25.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Robert Hart
The popular notion of the artist and genius is a romantic one: A mixture of the eccentric and Bohemian, given to uncontrollable flights of inspiration, he is above morality, good manners, and humility. We must suffer him, as Wagner’s contemporaries suffered him, for the sake of his gift, a mark of divinity that exudes its own grace, however ungraciously.
People taken in by this notion dismiss the true creative genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, and speak of him as a mathematician. Bach would agree quickly with those who do not call him a genius. An egotist, a Bohemian, a man possessed, none of these is the reputation that Bach the Christian—above all the Christian—would have desired.
Bach’s works, declares Hans Conrad Fischer, a biographer and filmmaker known for his award-winning films and books about Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner and others, “mark the peak of an era that considered an artist to be a craftsman who used his mind. The term ‘genius’ as it was used in the nineteenth century did not yet exist.”
Fischer works to dispel romantic tales, especially those that have portrayed the great composer as a man always at emotive odds with authority and given to a short temper. Such images of Bach give way to a picture of this man who lived in the ordinary world of his time, unaware of his own greatness and of the effect he would have on the development of music for future generations.
Not that Fischer denies those records that show tension (especially with the town authorities in Leipzig in the latter part of Bach’s life), but rather that he places the stories in their true light as disagreements and disputes about both practical and artistic matters. In his work, Bach emerges as a very practical man living with ordinary people who could not always appreciate his intricate art, and at the same time living with the constant energy of his own creativity.
The book also dispels the romantic image of the Bach family living in poverty and squalor. Bach argued a great deal about economic matters, but, as Fischer shows, he seems to have argued more from principle than from need, and often on behalf of other musicians as much as himself.
In Johann Sebastian Bach, the author gives us something like a documentary. With the aid of many paintings in full color and other pictures from the times and places of Bach’s life (such as portraits and illustrations from city maps), we are taken into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century world of Bach and the German city-states of his pilgrimage.
At times the reading is tedious, as Fischer covers many details by reciting a list of chronological facts. But the book works very well as a reference that exactly reproduces many original documents, and that is filled with pictures of the places and people who are part of the story of Bach’s life. Included with the book is a CD filled with a very wide sampling of Bach’s compositions, demonstrating clearly the diversity of forms the great composer mastered, and doing so strictly on instruments authentic to his time.
The Christian Worker
The Bach we read of comes across convincingly, as the real man in his own time. We see Bach the family man as we rarely can. We see him as a hard worker, industrious in his musical output, mostly as part of the duties of his employment.
[Of] his sons . . . only Carl Philipp Emmanuel seems to have had any idea of his father’s greatness. But how could his contemporaries be expected to understand his genius, if he himself did not have the least idea of the importance he would attain in later years? Neither did he have any time for ideas like that. “I had to work hard: those who work as hard as I did will achieve the same,” he is said to have said.
Fischer does not dwell on musical details, but gives us the circumstances under which Bach wrote his works, often giving us a glimpse of his motivation. Fischer speaks, as did Leonard Berstein, of Bach as a mystic, and of how his mysticism drove his compositions. “The richness of his musical forms cannot ultimately be analyzed with the intellect alone. For the mystic, spirit and form were a unit. It is possible to admire and interpret Bach’s works from a musical, aesthetic point of view. But then only part of his music is touched.”
Contrasting Bach’s humility and faith with the materialism so pervasive in our own day, and perhaps against the egotistical Bohemian-mad-genius image of the artist as well, Fischer writes:
Faithful humility creates its own form, just as atheistic arrogance perverts and destroys it. Throughout the history of civilization, faith in God [has] united with a longing for form, harmony and aesthetics, if it did not degenerate and become heretical. . . . [Bach’s] music reached far beyond his time, as did the great cathedrals of the past. It reveals a balance of emotion and spirit that no other master of the art of music has achieved before or since. In its elemental nature, this music tells of a humane world with faith in God. “Soli Deo Gloria.”
A man dedicated to honest endeavors as a servant, mostly God’s servant, Bach would prove true a verse of Scripture: “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men” (Prov. 22:29). His work fairly often brought him before princes and kings, and placed him in royal favor. Even now, we can well imagine that he is a prominent musician among the saints in glory, continuing to give glory in the most Royal of all courts.
For the reviewer’s own explanation of how Bach’s music expressed his faith, see his “Three-Fold Chords” in the October 2004 issue.
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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