With his first wife Maria Barbara, his soul mate as history tells us, Sebastian Bach fathered seven children. The first child was a daughter, Catharina. Following her, a pair of twins died within days. The final son died within a year. Months later, Maria Barbara succumbed to disease.
Bach was then thirty-five and engaged in the full awakening of his genius. His workload was Herculean and mounting, and now there were five children at home without a mother, the oldest being twelve. Staggered by grief, Bach soldiered on. Hear the Old Master speak: “I was obliged to work hard; whoever works equally hard will succeed equally well.”
I am hardly alone in observing that in ways indescribable, this forward-moving stoicism exists in Bach’s music. To cite only one of countless examples, the strength of one instrument standing alone in the Cello Suites is daunting.
He would not marry again for nearly two years. Anna Magdalena was much younger, and a capable musician. During the next two decades she gave birth to thirteen of Bach’s children, six of whom survived childhood. The Old Master taught each child music, except one. “Just practice diligently,” he used to say, “and it will go very well. You have five fingers on each hand just as healthy as mine.” But learning by rote was not Bach’s idea of learning at all. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel reported that as a teacher his father “required the invention of ideas from the very beginning.”
Anna Magdalena Bach
The one child not taught was Gottfried Heinrich, the first son of Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena, following a daughter who died at three. Heinrich was said to have possessed musical instincts worthy even of his father, but was also, as best determined, severely autistic. The story goes that Bach used to take Heinrich with him to Sunday services at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. As his father carried out the music, Heinrich would rock in the pew.
Bach was no brooding, solitary genius, but a man buoyant in the tide of society. In one day he might teach Latin to schoolboys, compose several pages of a sacred cantata, conduct music at a funeral, teach organ to a private pupil, play violin with his ensemble at a coffeehouse, and end the evening with his wife and children and a glass of wine, Rhenish was a favorite. Still, the volume of work that Bach turned out is regarded as a tremendous achievement to rival Shakespeare’s, though one-third of it was lost.
Johann Sebastian Bach
What is so profoundly wonderful about Bach’s music? For one thing, it is of the people, maybe for its thorough grounding in humanity. There are no stupendous leaps, no miracle transformations. Instead, it is all so human, painstakingly hammered into place. It is of the highest art, yet seems almost within our grasp, if only we strive. Ask a Bach-loving musician and you will hear that the Old Master carries through on his promise. Hard work and diligence pay off.
It is no coincidence that Bach-lovers often work in the arenas of mathematics, engineering and aerospace, for Bach’s famed “symmetry of gesture” is often said to mirror the kind of thought required in such disciplines.
Then isn’t it fitting and right that the first music launched into space, when Voyager 2 carried a gold-plated 90-minute record on its exploration mission to Pluto, should be the Old Master’s music, including a movement from Partita No.3 for Solo Violin, known among Bach lovers as a luminous work of relaxation and pleasure following the completion by this most humane man of superhuman ventures. Hear the Old Master speaking from the early 18th century: “Everything has to be possible.”