Bach to the future

By Colin Blakely

Andrew Gant is well-known to classical music devotees as a renowned music history expert. As well as having been an organist, choirmaster and composer, he is now a lecturer at St Peter’s College in the University of Oxford.

But one classical music figure has always intrigued him, and he has now published the fruits of his research in Johan Sebastian Bach: A very brief history.

He told me:“Like all musicians I have loved his music and been fascinated by it, but he has been a shadowy character. That has always fascinated me.”

Although there is only one known portrait of JS Bach, that‘shadowy’ nature remark refers largely to his personality. “We know a lot about the external details, but those were not that interesting. His working life was fairly provincial and very ordinary, like many others.

“There is masses of stuff about his contracts and employment but not much about his character,” he says. “This included a lack of personal letters or his own opinions, as we have in the case of Handel.”

In his private life, Bach was orphaned when he was 9, widowed when he was 35, and the father to 20 children. However, as Gant points out: “Half of these died in infancy, although that was pretty good going by the standards of the period.”

Bach was not only a composer, he was a teacher, player, composer and instrument-builder, who composed every day and often into the night. He designed, built, strung, tuned and fixed his own instruments because no one else could do it ‘to his satisfaction’.

He was as famous as a player (of the keyboard, violin and viola) as he was as a composer.

But when did he first realise he had a musical gift?“I think he knew all along. There are insights into his character and behaviour that don’t always put him in a good light.

“Liturgy was key to his working life.”

“Sometimes people don’t live up to the image. As a young man he was quite arrogant: here was someone who really knew what he was capable of and not willing to let people stand in his way.”

Like many geniuses he could be demanding. “But he didn’t feel it was necessary to travel and make a name for himself. He enjoyed being a family man and that suited him.”

Looking over his contracts, many of these were with churches, but how important was his faith to him?

“First of all, not all of his jobs were specifically in churches. In Weimar he was employed by the Duke and later by the Prince. In Leipzig he was employed by the school. But Church music occupied him.

“Bach was Lutheran, born and brought up in that tradition. Indeed, Luther was from just down the road. They went to the same school, but 200 years apart.”

Gant writes that Bach owned a ‘significant’ theological library, including Luther’s works. “Liturgy was key to his working life.”

He also research the various annotations in Bach’s Bible. “They are very interesting. He took great care in his choice of texts.”

However, many artists and composers used religious themes, perhaps because of the dominance of the church at that point in their lives, but was it of more importance than that to Bach?

“There is a slight oddity towards the end of his life when he wrote the B minor Mass in Latin, which could never be performed in a Lutheran context. It remains a bit of a mystery. Some have suggested that he was moving in a direction towards Catholicism or ecumenism, but it has to be conjecture.

“However, his important works have a spiritual context and meaning.”

But there was another technical point that fascinated the author.

“There is an interesting point. Towards the end of his life he wrote these instrumental pieces, contrapuntal, working out what you could do with it. He didn’t dive further into liturgical or sacred music, he explored the science of his art.”

Luther famously described music as the handmaid to theology. Did Bach agree with him?

“I think so: the evidence of his music supports that absolutely. The school was attached to the church in Leipzig, that was what he did and his music is theology in notes, even the organ preludes on a chorale, and the organist would embellish it.”

Even back then there were debates about the role of music in church.

“The Calvinists didn’t have any formal church music, just psalm singing. My impression was that the debate was quite settled by then. Bach moved from a Calvinist employer to a Lutheran one without any difficulty. There were, however, active debates.”

During his lifetime, Bach’s reputation was very high. Gant observes: “Handel, his contemporary and neighbour, knew and admired his music. But at the same time, there is a strong sense that his style was regarded as rather old-fashioned. He was coming to be regarded as master of a previous age. The style had moved on and his music was regarded by some as difficult.”

Bach also knew exactly what he liked in terms of that music.

“He didn’t like the piano, or opera, but it is never quite that simple. He never wrote an opera but then he was never employed to do one. He could have, and certainly went to the opera in Dresden with his son.”

But he found some interesting insights in his research about Bach’s attitude to opera. “There are some anecdotes, and a comment about going to ‘hear the pretty tunes’. Was that a disparaging remark? Maybe, but maybe it was just a throwaway remark.”

The legacy of Bach, who lived from 1685-1750, has changed dramatically over the years since his death. At first his music was revered but little played, largely because of changing styles.

“In the 19th century Mendelssohn was key to revising the interest in his work. Cantatas weren’t heard then, at least not until the middle of the 19thcentury. It was only in the 20th century that we began to see his entire achievement, perhaps going back the last 50 years.”

And Bach’s influence has extended beyond the religious setting of many of his works. In his book, Gant outlines how he has even influenced the world of pop, with perhaps the best example being Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale.

A legacy that is sure to continue with successive generations of music lovers.

Johann Sebastian Bach: A very brief history by Andrew Gant is published by SPCK, £12.99, pb