The Bach family, rooted in Thuringia, Germany, produced generations of musicians, some competent, others less so. After many such generations the old tree gathered together its resources and produced a flower of surpassing beauty -- Johann Sebastian, born March 21, 1685 at Eisenach, now in East Germany. The year 1985 -- the tercentenary of his birth -- has paid him honor in many ways, with tributes to his genius and special performances of his compositions.
Bach's music slid into limbo even before his death in Leipzig on July 28, 1750: those referring to his passing thought he was honored through the work of his three sons who had become fashionable musicians and composers. The irony that Father Time metes out is shown by the fact that most likely even the work of his son Karl Philipp Emanuel would scarcely be remembered but for the luster shed on the Bach name by the reborn fame of Johann Sebastian.
Last century there was a revival of interest in his music, and this attracted the attention of Felix Mendelssohn who launched a campaign to win a larger audience for his predecessor's works. To Mendelssohn has been credited the large-scale rediscovery of a wealth of truly beautiful as well as profound compositions, among them cantatas, unaccompanied suites or sonatas for violin and 'cello, orchestral works such as the Brandenburg Concertos, the Musical Offering, and the Art of Fugue. The list could be extended much further.
Generally speaking, emphasis has been placed upon Bach's mastery of the technicalities of his craft, so that the brilliance of his counterpoint has blinded many to the musicality of his compositions. Even in recent times the study of Bach has focused more on the girders and skeletal supports of his creations than on their beauty. Yet this remarkable man's works abound in melodies of the utmost felicity and enchantment, as for example his chorales, and the unaccompanied suites for 'cello rendered by the hands and heart of a Pablo Casals.
Whereas many who have acclaimed him in recent times have been full of praise for the excellence of his craftsmanship, few have recognized that the deeply moving quality that so stirs them stems from his mysticism. He was strongly influenced by the Rhineland mystic and preacher, Johann Tauler, a Dominican, pupil and collaborator of Meister Eckhart. This kind of spirituality differed notably from the strictly orthodox Lutheran and Calvinist beliefs and practices of his day.
The basis for understanding Bach's wholehearted religious fervor is to be sought there among these Rhineland mystics: Bach felt his music as a mission; through it pour the theosophic overtones of Eckhart who drew a distinction between a personal God and the Infinite Intelligence or "ultimate Reality." This sustaining Energy/Intelligence was the universal "ground" for all beings and is the influence permeating Bach's chorales, oratorios, the monumental Mass in B Minor, and other compositions. The main source we have for Eckhart's teachings is to be found in Tauler's sermons on a copy of which Bach made marginal comments.
If one looks carefully at the chorales, for instance, what becomes apparent is a concept of the soul as being one in essence with the Godhead, a spark of Divinity. Surely this was what Bach meant when he alluded to the "ground" of man's being as the Divinity that not only created but also sustains the world and all its inhabitants. The yearning towards the Intelligence that is the driving energy behind all manifestation runs through much of his music, even the compositions known as the Secular Cantatas and the Inventions, the preludes and fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier, and the Chaconne for unaccompanied violin: all are imbued with a spiritual component that can be felt but never described. The suggestion that Bach's melodies are as full of beauty as his constructions are masterly is substantiated by Gounod's recognition of the C major Prelude of the Well-tempered Clavier which he used for his Ave Maria.
Esther Meynell, a noted English writer, in her The Little Chonicle of Magdalena Bach (the name of his second wife), gives a warm account of life in the Bach household. Alluding to the Easter-week music written to the Gospel narratives of Jesus' Passion, Meynell ascribes to Magdalena this comment: "Sebastian felt in his own soul all that anguish and that beauty before he wrote a note of that music" (p. 22). It is this feeling of deep devotion in Johann Sebastian's music that is lacking in the more ephemeral and "dated" compositions of his three sons, and the earlier members of his family.
A personal reaction to Bach's music is a refreshment of the heart, a devotional gravity that is not heavy or somber; nor is humor lacking, as evidenced by his quodlibets: when he took two or more tunes and harmonized them into one. Bach's sense of mission to stimulate in others a spiritual exaltation is perhaps seen most clearly in his last great work, Art of Fugue, which was not completed at the time of his death. Until the 1930s, when Sir Donald Tovey proved the contrary, it was thought to be too abstract and utterly unplayable, a sort of text in musical score to demonstrate the ultimate ingenuity of fugue-writing. But when it was arranged for stringed instruments (with a conjectured completion by Sir Donald Tovey), the recording revealed a music full of life, imbued with tenderness and the quality of a song. This must be accounted a creation of pure and even transcendent emotion.
There has been much speculation as to the conclusion of this masterpiece, which Bach himself engraved on copperplate just before the onset of his last illness. He had not quite finished this when he embarked upon another fugue on three themes, of which the third spelled the letters of his own name: B (i.e. B flat), A, C, H (German notation for B natural). He had reached the entry point of the third theme when, almost totally blind and nearing his end, he dictated to his son-in-law Christoff Altnikol a final chorale arrangement. The divided opinion relates to whether this last fugue and the chorale, either or both, were indeed intended as the end-piece of the Art of Fugue. (The name itself was not his, but given to it by one of his sons.) Sir Donald Tovey felt that the engraved portion in Bach's own hand seems to be leading to the last three subjects using the keys of his name. Many years ago, when I first heard the recorded performance with Tovey's conclusion, I felt the whole composition to be a fitting climax to Bach's career, the inversion in the work suggesting the withdrawal of the soul from its earthly dwelling and return to its primal source.
Some few have seen in Bach a peerless poet who expressed his art in music rather than words. If we abstain from the glib definitions sometimes applied to the Baroque period of European music and allow ourselves to feel the warmth of genius flowing from a full-hearted man imbued with love for family and friends, and a humorous tolerance of the foibles of others, we may come nearer to an understanding of what stirred the depths within Johann Sebastian Bach.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1985/January 1986; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)