Johann Sebastian Bach was a brilliant composer from Germany. He was the youngest son of John Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabetha Lammerhirt Bach. He was born in Eisenach on the twenty-first of March 1685. His musical prowess was what maybe considered as one that runs in the blood. From his father, brother, uncles, and even the sons he had, they had talents who made a name in the German music scene in their own right (Wolff 2-3). Because of the great skill of Bach, many writers during his time rose as either his supporter or detractor.
Most of these writers based their articles on what the people surrounding the subject had to say. Some are also based on actual encounters and personal associations. As such, differences on how the subject and his works are perceived are apparent in their writings.
The composer-historian Charles Burney referred to Bach as a great organist, composer, and father who successfully transferred his skills and knowledge to his four sons. William, the eldest son, became the greatest organ-player who used pedals in Germany. Carl Philip, on the other hand, has been known in all of Europe as the greatest composer and performer on keyed-instruments. Moreover, John Christopher was a concert-master at Buckerberg and also a renowned composer and keyed-instrument player. John Christian, became a distinguished opera composer and symphonist throughout Europe (Burney 594-95).
Burney concluded that the Bachs’ art, that of Sebastian and Emanuel, were greatly influenced by their professions. He made mention that the bulk of their compositions were too intricate and may not be grasped easily by an audience such as the stage and public of great musical capitals of that time. He ended saying that the fame of both the father and the son would have been longer had their compositions been “generally intelligible and pleasing” (Burney 594-95).
From the earlier part of the article it may be said that the author had personal relations with the subject of his writing. There may have been an occurrence of a one-to-one conversation. The account about the family was written in a positive manner stating but the good and what may be relevant to the history of music. Only the children who made good impressions about the musical heritage of the family were enumerated. There was not a mention of another organist son, Johann Gottfried Bernhard. Unlike the other four musician sons of S. Bach, Gottfried, had financial difficulties and was only bailed out by his father. S. Bach unfortunately outlived this son of his (Wallenchinsky & Wallace n.p).
There had not been the smallest hint of criticism on the paragraph that referred to the members of the family and their skills in music. However, the criticisms on the latter paragraph made amends with the lack of it on the earlier statement. Burney found the composition style of both S. Bach and Emanuel too complicated for the popular audience. In this part, the personal connection between the subject and the writer seem to have diminished, although it was still done in subtlety.
The author seem to have began shedding his personal connections by inserting a commendation with a slightly negative criticism by the end of the initial paragraph and putting in a professional comment based on the taste of the general public during that time. It was pointed that in the capitals where music was flourishing and where musicians may make names and performances that will endure the time, the compositions of Sebastian and Emmanuel Bach may not find a place.
A quote that compared S. Bach to Handel tells of the simplicity that the larger and more common audience requires of composers. Thus, S. Bach, being a notable court composer may not have been able to qualify to the audience that Handel may have mesmerized. This was said to be the same case with Emmanuel. Both the father and the son served as royal composers and seemed to have been confined to the tastes of Germany. Thus, their style was considered old-fashioned and unpopular to the general public.
While Charles Burney’s account on Johann Sebastian Bach may be considered as more vivid and unlike other available information, John Hawkins’ account spoke of Bach in a more non-personal manner. It also tackled the common information about the organist-composer, as well as elaborated on the career path that Bach took.
The account began with the subject’s basic biographical information. Bach’s parents, the date and place of birth, as well as the person who gave Bach the push that led him to become a great organist and composer of what is considered to be a musical canon, his eldest brother, John Christopher Bach. Gradually Hawkins moved to discuss the steps that Bach took in his career (Hawkins 852-853).
Hawkins mentioned that Bach started as an appointed first organist of the New Church of Arnstadt. After quitting this position, he became organist of the church of St. Blasé at Muhlhausen. As he transferred to Weimar, Bach quitted from the St. Blasé position and became the chamber musician and court-organist to the duke. Later when the duke became prince, Bach was appointed as concert-master. Following this appointment were a number of promotions. First, as chapel-master to the prince of Anhalt Cothen, then as music-director at Leipzig at the same time as chapel-master to the duke of Weissenfells (Hawkins 852-853).
Hawkins also accounted the great skill of Bach through comparison with Handel and a story that Bach’s son told. It was about the defeat of the famed French organist, Merchand, who was known to be of superior talent than the best organists of France and Italy. Through the unanimous judgment of the audience, Bach proved to be a better organist in the challenged that was raised by Merchand himself (Hawkins 852-853).
As the author began with the birth of the subject, the article was ended with his death stating that it happened in 1749 and that among the 20 sons he begot, only four lived to continue his legacy. As Burney did, Hawkins also enumerated the names of these children, as well as the achievements that they have made for themselves in the history of music (Hawkins 852-853).
Analyzed closely, it may be noticed that Hawkins commentary on Bach included information that other biographies contain. This may point that the author has little association with the subject of his article. There is limited information on the family, yet a lot on the musical path that Bach took.
Hawkins also slowly moved from the biographical information of Bach to the opinions he has on the organist-composer’s style. Although there may be little hint of personal relations, there is still the recognition of the undeniable talent of the subject. There are only positive criticisms in this account as the audience from the time this was written differed from the audience of Burney’s time.
During Burney’s time, the audience did not appreciate the exquisiteness of the complexity of Bach’s sound. The audience failed to recognize the beauty that the audience in Hawkins’ time appreciated. Music that was considered as old-fashioned in Burney’s time was considered a musical canon by Hawkins’ audience. Bach’s music was remarkable and his genius may never be equaled.
In the comparison made by Hawkins, Bach was a better organist, especially with the pedals, as compared to Handel. He was also a better player than Merchand, who played in France and Italy. In this we may see how Hawkins’ account oppose that of Burney’s and the factor that distinguishes it was the audience or the hearers of the music.
It may be remembered that Burney claimed that if Sebastian and Emmanuel played their compositions in the musical capitals like France and Italy, the complexity of their art may not be appreciated. On the other hand, Hawkins’ account on how audiences received Bach’s piece against that of Merchand’s proved it otherwise.
Given that, it may be said that accounts or information on Johann Sebastian Bach varies because of the relationship of the writer to the subject. This relationship may allow for extensive or more common and limited knowledge. In the cases of the above given writers the other who lived at an earlier time was able to acquire first hand information from the subject himself, while the other born in later time made use of what is available.
In addition, the perception on the musical style of the subject is affected by this relation as well. However, it is further based on the audience’s reception of the style and as the two writers had different audiences, the outcome of their criticism differed from one another. One is more positive as the hearers are more receptive of the compositions, while the other is negative as the receivers of the music failed to appreciate the genius in the complexity of the composition.
Burney, Charles. A General History of Music 4. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1789.
Hawkins, John Sir, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music. NY: Dover, 1963.
Wallace, Irving & Wallenchinsky, David. The People’s Almanac. NY: Doubleday Publishing, 1975.
Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. UK: Oxford University Press, 2002.
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