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The Domestic Life of Bach

By Arthur Elson

With the advent of Bach, music was no longer the dry mathematical study that it had been during the later middle ages, for in his hands it became imbued with true feeling. Descended from a famous family of musicians, he was born at the little German town of Eisenach, in 1685. Receiving his early education at Ohrdruf, he showed himself endowed with unusual genius.

Forced to make his way when fifteen years old, he supported himself in the Convent School of St. Michael's, at Luneburg, by means of his musical talents. After a short term as court musician at Weimar, he became organist of the New Church at Arnstadt, and here he met the woman who was to be his first wife. Almost the earliest mention of her is made in a report of the consistory, criticizing the young organist for certain breaches of discipline. From this report, it appears that he had asked for four weeks' leave for study, and had stayed away four months; he had played interludes that the reverend board considered too long and too intricate; and, on being reproved, he had made them too short; and once, during the sermon, he had gone forth and spent these stolen moments in a wine-cellar. The final charge asks by what authority he has latterly allowed a strange maiden to appear, and to make music in the choir. This "strange maiden," who made music with Bach in the solitude of the empty church, was none other than his cousin, Maria Barbara. A year later (1707) he married her, and took her to Mühlhausen, where he had found a less troublesome post as organist in the Church of St. Blasius.

The domestic life of Bach and his wife was a pattern for married couples of all time. All his friends unite in calling him an especially excellent "Haus-Vater," a term of commendation applied to those men who remember their duty to their own families, and do not sacrifice domestic happiness to fame and fortune. Personally he was pleasant to every one, mere acquaintances as well as intimate friends, and his house was always the centre of a lively gathering. With his wife, he took sedulous care of the education of his children, of whom there were no less than six at her early death in 1720.

Bach was not the man to remain long a widower, and in the next year the bereaved composer's fancy lightly turned to thoughts of a second marriage. His choice fell upon Anna Magdalena Wulken, a Cöthen court singer of twenty-one years, and the happy consummation occurred on December 3d. She was a good musician, and did much to enliven the domestic circle by her beautiful soprano voice. Not content with merely taking part in her husband's works, she learned from him to play the clavier and read figured bass, and rendered him valuable aid by copying music for him.

Soon after the marriage, Bach and his wife started a manuscript music book, entitled "Clavier Büchlein von Anna Magdalena Bach, Anno 1720." On the first page was written a playful denunciation of the melancholy and hostility to art that were so often inculcated by the Calvinism of that time. This book and another of the kind, which followed it five years later, are both preserved in the Royal Berlin Library. In them are a series of clavier pieces, by Bach, Gerhard, and others; a number of hymns and sacred songs; one of several humourous song's, describing the reflections of a smoker; and still others, apparently addressed to his wife, and giving fresh proofs of his devotion to her. Her portrait was painted by Cristofori, but disappeared after being in the possession of one of the sons.

As a result of his second marriage, Bach was blessed with thirteen more children, six sons and seven daughters. All his children loved him, and his kindness and sincerity enabled him to retain their respect as well as their affection. In all his activity he was never too busy to save some time for the family circle, where, in later life, he would take the viola part in the concerted music that cheered his domestic hearth. It is sad to think of the poor wife's fate in contrast with so much family happiness. After Bach's death, in 1750, she struggled bravely to support her children, but became gradually poorer, and was forced to end her days in an almshouse, and be buried in a pauper's grave.

None of the sons of Bach inherited the commanding genius of their father, although four of them showed talent above the average of musicians of their day, and one of them distinguished himself and exercised an important influence upon the subsequent course of pianoforte music.

The most gifted of Bach's sons was Wilhelm Friedmann, the eldest (1710-1784), who was especially educated by his father for a musician. He turned out badly, however, his enormous talents not being able to save him from the natural consequences of a dissolute life. He died in Berlin in the greatest degradation and want. This Bach wrote comparatively few compositions, owing to his invincible repugnance to the labor of putting them upon paper; he was famous as an improviser, and certain pieces of his in the Berlin library are considered to manifest musical gifts of a high order.

Johann Christian (1735-1782), the eleventh son, known as the Milanese or London Bach, devoted himself to the lighter forms of music, and after having served some years as organist of the cathedral at Milan, and having distinguished himself by certain operas successfully produced in Italy, he removed to London, where he led an easy and enjoyable life. He was an elegant and fluent writer for the pianoforte.

The one son of Bach who is commonly regarded as having left a mark upon the later course of music was Carl Philip Emanuel (1714-1788), the third son, commonly known as the Berlin or Hamburg Bach. His father intended him for a philosopher, and had him educated accordingly in the Leipsic and Frankfort universities, but his love for music and the thorough grounding in it he had at home eventually determined him in this direction. While in the Frankfort University he conducted a singing society, which naturally led to his exercising himself in composition. H
e gave up law for music, and going to Berlin he obtained an appointment as "Kammer-musiker" to Frederick the Great, his especial business being that of accompanying the king in his flute concertos. The seven years' war having put an end to these duties, he migrated to Hamburg, where he held honorable appointments as organist and conductor until his death. He wrote in a tasteful and free, but somewhat superficial, style; and while his compositions bear favorable comparison with those of other musicians of his time, they are by no means of a commanding nature like those of his father. [W. S. B. Mathews]