The probably most famous classical music composer has spurred numerous biographies and has many fans around the world. Yet little is known about Johann Sebastian Bach as a person.
Since Johann Sebastian Bach's death on July 28, 1750 in Leipzig, his work has been extensively researched and documented. While Bach's professional career is well documented, interestingly, relatively little is known about his personality or even what he looked like.
The baroque composer was born in Eisenach in 1685. He was a concertmaster in Weimar, a Kappelmeister (orchestra director) in Köthen, and in Leipzig he earned his living for the rest of his life as Thomaskantor, the Cantor of St. Thomas' Church.
Whether Bach's earthly remains really lie under the altar space in St. Thomas' Church is anything but certain
Every year, thousands of Bach fans visit the places where Bach lived and worked to get a feel for his life. In his hometown of Eisenach, visitors reverently touch the baptismal font in St. George's Church. At St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig, they stand devoutly before Bach's supposed grave.
"Whether Bach really lies beneath the gravestone with the inscription Johann Sebastian Bach in St. Thomas' Church remains the mystery of the century," said Jörg Hansen, director of the Bachhaus in Eisenach in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
Transporting Bach to the present day
The first museum dedicated to Bach was founded in Eisenach in 1907. In addition to his private library and the largest collection of Bach representations, the museum also houses numerous historical instruments from the composer's time, which musicians play frequently for the public.
Director Jörg Hansen considers it important to convey how complex Bach's polyphonic compositions are structured and why he is considered the master of the fugue:
"People should see the influence that Bach had, especially in keyboard music" he says, this being "perhaps the main reason why we still listen to Bach today."
Musicians who play the old baroque instruments in the museum seek to recreate their original sound. "For me, modern historical performance practice is an attempt to free oneself from that overburdened monument of Bach as a supposed national composer," said Hansen. Historical performance practice is, he adds, a "defense against that ideological exaggeration."
Put on a pedestal by biographers
After Johann Sebastian Bach's death in 1750, his vocal works were largely forgotten. That is, until the composer was rediscovered in the early 19th century and fashioned into a national hero.
Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote the first Bach biography in 1802. According to Michael Maul, director of the Leipzig Bach Festival, the biographer "paints the picture of a keyboard virtuoso who became a genius through German virtues such as seriousness and diligence."
The composer Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered Bach's sacred music in 1829, including his cantatas, oratorios and passions. When Mendelssohn performed a shortened version of the St. Matthew Passion, it provided the impetus to a Bach renaissance.
Bach as a product of German cultural history
In 1872, Philipp Spitta wrote one of the most extensive Bach biographies to date, published one year after the foundation of the German Reich. Spitta also emphasized the patriotic element and regarded Bach as a product of German cultural history. Nonetheless, he approached the subject with plenty of research. "Despite having few sources, he has basically created a truly pioneering work for music biographies," says Maul.
Albert Schweitzer, the famous doctor, philosopher, theologian and musicologist, wrote a major Bach monograph in 1902. In it, he elaborates the theological messages in Bach's music and gives interpreters advice on how the message of the texts should be interpreted in music and song.
In the 1930s, the Nazis continued to venerate Bach as a national composer. "Bach was considered the archetype of the German Aryan composer," explains Bachhaus director Jörg Hansen. Oratorio texts that did not fit into the picture were simply rewritten or replaced.
"In the march and songbook of the Hitler Youth, a corresponding song is rewritten to a melody from Bach's Well-Tempered Keyboard, says Hansen.
The new objectivity surrounding Bach
In his 2002 biography, musicologist Christoph Wolff stuck to the facts. From 1950 to 2007, the Bach Institute in Göttingen and the Bach Archive Leipzig compiled a new annotated complete edition of Bach's works, using many original sources. The documentary material filled three volumes, which Wolff was able to draw from.
In 2008, new research methods enabled Caroline Wilkinson to reconstruct what Johann Sebastian Bach might have looked like. In the background is the only portrait verified to have been made of Bach in his lifetime
However, even he could not fill in the gaps when it came to Bach's personality. Although the obituary stated that he was "pleasant to everyone" and received many visitors, historical records also show that Bach was often in conflict with his employers and was considered stubborn.
"With Wolff, you get the image of a person who had a career amidst very difficult conditions," says Bachfest director Michael Maul. "He is portrayed as a human being with all his strengths and weaknesses."
Maul himself has been working for four years on a book that shows 150 stations of Bach's life in pictures and accompanying texts. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, its publication had to be postponed.
For Maul, Bach is also a tragic figure. "It hurts when I see how, if Bach wanted to achieve good working conditions, he behaved like a bull in a china shop," says Maul. "It is all the more touching or astonishing that he composed such masterpieces, sometimes under untoward circumstances."
Why Bach is still intriguing today
It seems that Johann Sebastian Bach's music has lost none of its allure after so many years. The Bach Archive Leipzig has identified over 300 Bach choirs and societies around the world. Bach's music inspires people across all geographical, religious and cultural boundaries.
Michael Maul is fascinated by the timeless melodies of the baroque composer: "They are incredibly strong in substance, so much so that many jazz and well-known rock musicians would also say that the most important composer in music history is Bach."
This was confirmed to him personally by a well-known pop musician: "Sting told me that every other day when he gets up, he picks up his guitar and plays a cello suite by Bach, to bring himself down to earth."
Jörg Hansen of the Bach Museum in Eisenach appreciates the composer's inventiveness, wit and humor. At times his music may not be as serious as one might imagine. One example is at the end of Bach's famous "Goldberg Variations" for piano. "Some people write that this is like passion music, incredibly sad and touching." But in the last canon, Bach used popular tune from Thuringia. "The whole thing is simply fun. That's what's so fascinating about Bach."