Before J.S. Bach, From the Family Archives — Oct 2011

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Program Notes

Every genius stands on others’ shoulders, often the broad shoulders of unsung heroes. Johann Sebastian Bach stood on not just one pair of broad shoulders, but on a small village’s worth. Music was a craft, and it was the Bach family business from at least as early as the mid-sixteenth century. The Bach family tree includes no fewer than 77 names of men who made music their livelihood, from Veit Bach (died before 1578) to the generation of J.S. Bach’s grandchildren (such as his grandson Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst, who died in 1845), from fiddlers to chapel masters, from town and court musicians to church organists. Two of the Bachs on today’s program, Johann Michael and his older brother Johann Christoph, were cousins to J.S. Bach’s father. Johann Nikolaus was Johann Christoph’s son (and J.S. Bach’s second cousin). Johann Michael’s youngest daughter Maria Barbara became J.S. Bach’s first wife in 1707. Johann Ludwig, Johann Bernard, and Johann Nikolaus were his second cousins once removed. The elder Johann was J.S. Bach’s grandfather’s brother, and therefore great-uncle to Johann Sebastian.

The Bach family lived and worked in a small region of central Germany for several generations. The many talented musicians in the family have been a perennial subject of study and speculation, not only by musicologists and historians, but also by people wondering whether talent is hereditary. J.S. Bach himself was interested in his genealogy and around 1735 drew up a family tree back to Veit. This remains the most reliable document on the Bach family musicians. Johann Sebastian also collected and performed pieces by family predecessors, thus preserving many works that would otherwise have been lost. In this family, music was a trade to be learned, and men, whether talented or not, were often destined to this career from childhood. The region’s dense population and the cultural sophistication centered in local churches, courts, and towns with musical ambitions contributed to a certain widespread musical aptitude. The family apprentices always received a superlative training. Typically, fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers were all teachers to the youngsters.

Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703) may have been the most important Bach before Johann Sebastian. At the age of 21, he was appointed organist of the Arnstadt castle chapel. Two years later he was appointed organist at St. Georg in Eisenach, as well as harpsichordist in the court Kapelle of the Duke of Eisenach. He retained both positions until his death. J.S. Bach, in his genealogy of the family, called his cousin a “profound” (profond) composer. His music, in the style of the time, was polyphonic, complex, full-textured, emotional, and singable. Surprisingly for a keyboard player, he composed few works for keyboard. His vocal compositions are many and varied. His concerti (for voices and instruments) are particularly attractive, with elaborate and technically demanding instrumental parts. (Originally, concerto meant a concertato piece with voices and instruments.) His 22-part concerto for Michaelmas, Es erhub sich ein Streit, for example, is one of the great vocal works of the time. More often, his writing for voices was less intricate, as the pieces were intended for school choirs. Both his works and those by his brother J. Michael show a predominance of the then older style of vocal writing, where sections of homophony (with voice parts moving in chords) alternate with sections of imitation. The motet for five parts and organ “Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt” is a perfect example of both the older homophonic style and of Johann Christoph Bach’s splendidly expressive harmony. It also shows the typical alternation of short sections with differing tempo and meter to create variety: a second section faster than the first, though also in duple meter, is followed by an Adagio of majestic chords introducing a lilting triple meter section, repeated twice. “Sei getreu bis in den Tod” is also for five parts. This motet has an initial lively portion followed by a section, called “aria,” of several verses. The alto solo “Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte” is a vocal concerto for alto, violin, three violas and basso continuo, labeled in the original a lament. The remaining pieces on today’s program, “Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren,” and “Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf,” are motets for two four-part choirs. Each features the typical antiphonal homophonic writing of Venetian-style polychoral writing, but without the refrain structure so often associated with, for example, the music of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. The first is the simplest. The second, “Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf,” is more complex, with many moments of imitation, genuine eight-part writing, an extended passage in triple meter in the middle, and a fugue.

Johann Michael Bach (1648–1694) was Johann Christoph’s younger brother, and was also trained mostly by his father Heinrich and by the Kantor of Arnstadt. When his brother accepted the job at St. Georg, Johann Michael succeeded him as organist in the Arnstadt castle chapel. In 1673 he became town organist in nearby Gehren, where he also worked as an instrument maker as well as town clerk. According to J.S. Bach’s genealogy, Johann Michael was a skillful composer. Others report that he was quiet and reserved. As a composer he was particularly interested in the genre of chorale motets, i.e. sacred polyphonic vocal pieces based on a chorale, or Lutheran hymn. He also composed works with voices and instruments. His music is marked by a varied yet natural and convincing treatment of vocal declamation. His motets, like those of Johann Christoph, abound in homophonic passages. The motet “Sei lieber Tag willcommen,” for six voices, is ostensibly for a six-part choir, but it treats the two upper parts as solos, both with and set against the lower four parts. This work is unusual also in the number of florid passages in the more modern style of the time. Of the other two pieces on the program, both for two four-part choirs, “Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil” is definitely by Johann Michael, while “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe” is attributed to him with less certainty. The latter opens in the homophonic choral style of antiphonal singing, and concludes with the two choirs merged into one, the upper part declaiming a chorale in long notes against the polyphonic intricacies of the lower three parts. “Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil” starts in a simpler manner, with the two choirs taking turns; the interplay between the choirs increases as the piece progresses.

Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731) is of a younger generation. In 1699 he entered the court at Meiningen as a musician, becoming Kantor in 1703 and Kapellmeister in 1711. His output is largely vocal—though his instrumental output, probably considerable, is largely lost. J.S. Bach performed 18 of his cantatas and his two known masses, copying the scores and thus preserving them. These cantatas, in an older style than those of J.S. Bach, influenced the great master’s early work, as well as his passions. Today’s program includes four of Johann Ludwig’s multiple-choir motets. All of them feature alternating homophonic and imitative sections, as well as sections with differing tempos and meters. The alternation and coordination of the choirs lends interest and variety to the texture. The composer indulges in occasional word painting, and otherwise suggests various moods and feelings. The motet “Das ist meine Freude” (SATB SATB and basso continuo) plays with the triple utterance of “Das” (“that”) reiterated many times both in the initial duple meter section and in the swinging second section in compound meter (6/8), where it alternates with the new material. The concluding section is a joyous romp for all parts. The motet “Unsere Trübsal” for six parts (SSATT B) is a dark piece, somber and meditative, with a middle section in triple meter in a contrasting lively mood. Notice the undulating motive that pervades this section, set against sustained notes in other parts.

Johann Nicolaus Bach (1669–1753) was Johann Christoph’s son. In his family history, J.S. Bach, his junior by 15 years, called him the “present senior of all the Bachs still living.” Like most Bach children, Johann Nicolaus was trained first in the family. At 21, he enrolled at the university of Jena to study with the son of the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, J.N. Knüpfer, the organist of the Jena town church. In 1694, following an extended stay in Italy, Johann Nicolaus succeeded his master. In 1719, after prolonged political battles over the position, he was appointed university organist. In addition to being a good organist he was a composer—though few of his works survive—and an instrument maker. He is credited with inventing the Lautenklavier (lute-harpsichord, a gut-string harpsichord designed to imitate the sound of the lute). “In Jena geht es wunderlich” is a concertato piece that concludes the cantata Der Jenaische Wein- und Bierrufer (“Jena Wine and Beer Herald”). It is scored for two violins, alto, tenor, bass, and basso continuo, with the instruments playing brief ritornelli (refrains) between the vocal sections.

Like so many Bach offspring, Johann Bernhard Bach (1676–1749) was trained by his father at home, until he was hired, at 19, as organist of the Kaufmannskirche in Erfurt. He held posts in Magdeburg and eventually took over the post held by Johann Christoph in Eisenach, which Johann Nicolaus, Johann Christoph’s son, had declined in order to remain in Jena. Johann Bernhard was greatly esteemed and was a worthy and prized colleague of Telemann, the director of the court chapel between 1708 and 1712. There are no extant vocal works by Johann Bernhard, only instrumental works, some of which survive because Johann Sebastian copied them for his Collegium Musicum chorus in Leipzig. We know from J.S. Bach’s obituary that Johann Bernhard’s instrumental overtures, of which the one in D is on today’s program, were regarded as beautiful, and “in the manner of Telemann,” which probably refers to both the instruments employed and the sequence of dance movements with programmatic titles in the French tradition.

Our concert program thus showcases works of the Bach family before J.S. Bach, all of these Johanns preceding the Bach Choir’s namesake Johann. The variety of musical languages, gestures, moods, and techniques should not surprise, despite the relative insularity of the Bach family. Music traveled with musicians, and it was a habit of performers to borrow and copy one another’s music (in longhand, often by candlelight, sometimes hiding copies from family members, as did J.S., whose older brother objected to him borrowing music). We are confident you will enjoy the variety of this music of the Bach family, as well as its mostly festive exuberance. These unjustly unknown pieces are worthy of more attention. Share with us the pleasure of rediscovering them.

—© 2011 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.