Back to Press Room

Articles & Interviews

J.S. Bach, Working Man

May 1, 2017

“You should never marry a musician,” a housewife in our neighborhood proclaimed sometime in the 1960s, within range of my adolescent ears. “You’ll only ever see the back of his head going out the door.” The husband under discussion filled his days as a piano tuner and his nights playing in some sort of lounge combo. It was a worthwhile insight, I suppose. But looking back, I can’t help thinking how lucky she was that her husband wasn’t a composer, an occupation that tends to be so poorly compensated that it simply adds to the workload without allowing anything else to be dropped. If our neighbor had been a composer in addition to a piano tuner and a band sideman, his wife might not have even seen the back of his head.

When most of us think about the working lives of composers we probably are thinking of the composer-as-artist—the concept that a composer’s career is somehow crafted to support the demands of creative inspiration. This is an inherently Romantic notion. Whether it was inspired by the fact that many famous composers of the Romantic era—early-to-mid-nineteenth century—forged careers that gave such an appearance, or whether composers actually forged such careers because of the idea, I cannot say. In actuality, composers’ careers were rarely simple, at least outside the world of opera (the economics of which, for nineteenth-century composers, resembled today’s Broadway rather than today’s opera community). Most composers eked out their sometimes precarious existences through work other than composing: through conducting, performing as soloists or in ensembles, teaching, editing, making commercial arrangements of music, writing music criticism, and so on. So far as composing was concerned, they were all freelancers, doling out work-for-profit wherever payment could be found. Their careers were inherently different from those of earlier composers, to whom the idea of “freelance composer” would have seemed not just curious but untenable. For centuries, musical composition had been considered not an extraordinary luxury that could be tapped from a universal temp agency, but rather a staff function within the essential machinery of social organizations that pretended to a certain level of attainment, whether courtly, ecclesiastical, or municipal. That was the social order into which Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685, and his career therefore unrolled rather differently from those who followed in later centuries.

This month SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik is leader and soloist in J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (May 31 and June 1). Let us take a look at Bach’s professional career, the more to marvel at the legacy left by a composer who, when all is said and done, lived his life basically as a working stiff.

Bach’s career was far from spectacular, but it was solid. He never tasted abject poverty and he never was bothered by the accoutrements of wealth. He led his life ensconced in the middle class, and he managed to support a family that included two wives and twenty children—a progeny that is hardly less breathtaking when we consider that only half of them survived childhood. Family was important to Bach. When he was nine he had lost, in less than a year, both his mother and his father (a court trumpeter in the Thuringian town of Eisenach), after which he was raised in the home of his eldest brother, who worked as an organist in Ohrdruf, some twenty-five miles distant. Many members of the Bach clan were musicians in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists about eighty Bachs, spread over ten generations, who held musical positions in central Germany—including six sons and one grandson of Johann Sebastian. If the once-common music-appreciation claim that “every town had its Bach” has proved to be an exaggeration, the fact remains that the family was plugged in to the musical professions and that the requisite skills were handed down from one generation to the next as a matter of practicality.

Bach left Ohrdruf at the age of fifteen, when his orphan’s scholarship to the lyceum there ran out, and went off to Lüneberg (far to the north, near Hamburg), where he became a pupil in the choir school and quite likely advanced his performing skills under Georg Böhm, the organist at a leading church in town. What’s more, he availed himself of opportunities to travel to the nearby cities of Hamburg, a relatively cosmopolitan musical capital, and Celle, where the local duke kept an orchestra of French musicians to support his taste for all things Gallic. Already at this point Bach was displaying a propensity that would prove central to his career: an eagerness to expand his horizons by traveling to where the action was rather than just staying at home and making the most of local opportunities. If a famous musician or a notable organ was to be found within a few days’ walk of wherever Bach happened to be, he would start walking.

You might say that he walked his way into his career, except that his first professional engagement was not as an organist but rather as a violinist, in the Court of Weimar in the first half of 1703. That summer, Bach accepted a job that was more up his alley, the post of organist at the New Church in Arnstadt, which took him back to his ancestral roots in central-German Thuringia. He was eighteen years old and he already had enough of a reputation to command a very respectable salary, which was higher than what his predecessor had received and higher than what his successor would accept. In fact, he was earning more than his father ever had in Eisenach or than his brother did in Ohrdruf.

He would stay for four years, although “stay” is perhaps not quite the right word, given Bach’s predisposition to travel. It was during this period that Bach made his famous 250-mile trek, beginning in autumn of 1705, to the northern city of Lübeck to study with the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. The Arnstadt Consistory, the church administration to which Bach reported, had granted him a leave of four weeks for this trip, a block of time that would have been pretty much consumed by the round-trip walk. Bach, however, did not return until three or four months later. He had arranged for a cousin to fill in for him throughout his absence, but his employers in Arnstadt were understandably upset all the same. In fact, the leave of absence seems to have been granted as a cooling-off period following a bad experience Bach had encountered trying to organize an unruly group of Arnstadt’s juvenile delinquents into a chorus. And then there was the matter of the “stranger maiden” (as the Consistory put it) whom Bach had invited to make music in the organ loft. When he decided to leave, in the summer of 1707, the Arnstadt officials were happy to let him go—which is a good thing, since in that time and place an employee did not generally have the right to terminate his own employment. The cousin who had filled in during Bach’s extended absence was tapped to succeed him at considerably less expense to the Consistory, and Bach continued his climb.

In general, Bach’s Arnstadt years encapsulated the most salient aspects of characteristics that would inform his future career. His professional skills were respected and they were rewarded with a solid salary; on the other hand, Bach was not beyond testing the bounds of his position, and every so often he would get slapped with a disciplinary citation relating to his professional behavior. But Arnstadt also marked a critical step for Bach because, to all appearances, it was there that he began to compose. Bach was no Mozart or Mendelssohn, both of whom let loose with original compositions when they still needed to sit on unabridged dictionaries just to reach the keyboard. No, Bach was something of a late bloomer when it came to composition—or at least when it came to writing down his music, since improvisation was part and parcel of the organist’s art.

Bach’s four-year stint in Arnstadt was neither his shortest nor his longest appointment. His next job, as a church organist in nearby Mühlhausen, marked a step up. The contract he signed with the Town Council there in June 1707 represented a slight raise in salary, to 85 florins ($5,355), plus fifty-four bushels of grain, two cords of firewood, and lots of kindling (these to some extent replacing the room-and-board allowance he had enjoyed in Arnstadt; and, as had occurred in Arnstadt, Bach was paid more than either his predecessor or his successor. Only twenty-two years old, he was a hot property in Thuringia. Admittedly, that is rather like saying he was world-famous in Petaluma; but within his region he did command great respect. Even at this early phase of his career, Bach was therefore able to develop a professional sideline as a consultant specializing in organ building. Churches or municipalities would tap him to review and amend plans for new instruments or to test the effectiveness of organs once they were built or renovated (and before they were completely paid for).

One of the organs Bach tested was in Weimar. The Duke who ruled there jumped to name him Court Organist upon the retirement of the elderly gentleman who had held the job for eons; and, given Bach’s wide-ranging talents, the Duke added the title of Chamber Musician to Bach’s appointment. Bach was glad to leave Mühlhausen; in his year there he had been caught up in fractious disputes between Pietistic and Orthodox strains in the Lutheran establishment. During that year he had also gotten married to his distant cousin Maria Barbara, and she was expecting their first child when he assumed his new post (with moving expenses graciously paid by the Weimar Court).

Perhaps his evolving family circumstances accounted for Bach’s new seriousness about this job, which he would hold for nearly a decade. Again, his beginning salary represented a premium over what the Duke had previously budgeted for the position—150 florins ($9,450) plus eighteen bushels of wheat, twelve of barley, four cords of firewood, and thirty pails of beer. And then Bach received substantial raises in 1711, 1713, and 1714, the last of which brought him to a earning level of 250 florins ($15,750). He was promoted to the position of Capellmeister with the last of these, probably as a quid pro quo for turning down a job offer to be organist in Handel’s hometown of Halle. It’s a good thing his earnings were increasing, as six children were born to the Bachs in Weimar. Bach kept up his organ consulting, too, including work on the organ at Mühlhausen, where he had been careful to burn as few bridges as possible when he left; and he picked up further income through harpsichord maintenance. But by 1717 Court politics were getting out of hand. Two feuding half-brother Dukes were angling for the loyalty of Court employees, and then Bach learned that one had put out feelers to the famous Georg Phillip Telemann (godfather of Bach’s second son, Carl Phillip Emanuel) about becoming the Court’s new Capellmeister. Telemann wasn’t interested, but Bach wisely brought his résumé up to date and secured an offer from the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen—again with a raise attached. This time the employer did not want to let go of his employee. When Bach persisted in quite defiant terms, the Duke went so far as to throw him in prison for a nearly a month before firing him.

So it was with relief that Bach arrived in Cöthen in the last week of 1717 to begin a five-and-a-half-year tenure, during which he was in charge of secular music. The money was again very good—456 florins ($28,728, signifying nearly 23,000 quarts of milk, and with all those children Bach may actually have been thinking in such terms) plus a subsidy for rent and firewood; and the Prince even paid Bach what we might today consider a sign-on bonus in the form of the cash he would have earned during the four months the Duke had refused to let him leave. It seems to have been a relatively happy time at first, but then Bach’s wife died in July 1720. That left him as a single working parent with five children (a pair of twins having died)—a desperate situation that Bach rectified a year and a half later when he married a singer, Anna Magdalena Wilcke. (She apparently saw more than just the back of Bach’s head going out the door, since she soon embarked on producing thirteen more little Bachs.) The Prince, with whom Bach apparently had a good relationship, married at about the same time, and the new Princess did not care for music, leaving Bach’s standing at Court altered for the worse. Bach collected six concertos into a group and sent them to the Margrave of Brandenburg as a kind of job application; and when that came to nothing, he applied to become Cantor of the Saint Thomas School in Leipzig and “Director Musices” of that city.

Leipzig’s Town Council considered six candidates for the post, which was a high-pressure combination of prep-school teacher of music and Latin, musical director of Leipzig University, and overseer of musical activities for the city and its four principal churches. Teaching Latin was a stumbling block that one candidate (Telemann) refused to do and another found so unappealing that he removed himself from the running. Nonetheless, Telemann was offered the job; but when his current employer in Hamburg refused to release him, he withdrew his application. Christoph Graupner, a good composer and himself a Saint Thomas School graduate, was the second choice; but he ended up taking a better-paying job elsewhere. The council finally settled on Bach, who (although he had attended Latin School as a lad in Eisenach) agreed to hire someone out of his own pocket to teach Latin in his place. And so it was that Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723, in what would be the last move of his career.

It’s poignant to contemplate the pass at which Bach had arrived. He was now thirty-eight years old, entering middle age, and no longer the up-and-comer who once was able to practically write his own ticket. Now he was third choice for a job he wasn’t sure he particularly wanted and that, for the first time in his career, did not mark an increase in his income. But there would be many opportunities in Leipzig to increase that sum considerably through freelance projects, and in a good year he figured he should actually be able to bring in more than he had in Cöthen. There was no getting around the fact that his professional situation was dicey in Cöthen, and Bach had a large and growing family to support. Then, too, Bach would be affiliated with Leipzig University. His oldest son was about to become a teenager, and it was a good time to start thinking about the opportunities for advanced education that might await the kids.

Bach worked hard in Leipzig. His top priority early on was liturgical music, and between 1723 and 1729 he composed five annual cycles of church cantatas, each consisting of about sixty works. In his first two years he composed a cantata-plus per week—quite apart from his other school, civic, and performing responsibilities and his ongoing organ consulting. When not writing cantatas, he was squeezing in other pieces—his Passions, for instance, and reams of organ and harpsichord music. Bureaucratic annoyances impinged on his time, and the Bach biographies nearly burst with documents that reveal his testy wrangling with the Town Council over what was and what was not his professional responsibility. One senses Bach anxiously trying to keep his job duties from crowding out his creative space entirely. In 1729 he actually increased his workload by accepting the directorship of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a semi-professional musical assemblage, which at least must have provided welcome diversion from the constant squabbling and poor morale he encountered in his other work. It was precisely the sort of major freelance obligation he needed to eke out a good living. In 1736 Bach was named Court Composer to the King of Poland and the Elector of Saxony, an honorific position which may have boosted his ego and, to a limited extent, his reputation in Leipzig, though it did little to solve the ongoing bureaucratic hassles that continued to whittle away at his time until he was forced by poor health to give up his post. Or so we may deduce from the Town Council’s insensitively worded resolution, in the summer of 1749, to hold auditions “for a future Cantor of St. Thomas’, in case the Capellmeister and Cantor Herr Johann Sebastian Bach should die”—which is what he did, of a stroke, on the evening of July 28, 1750, already rendered blind in recent months by the failure of two eye operations.

Bach’s career was specific to its time, to be sure—to an era in which dukes and princes could imprison employees who wanted to leave, in which municipalities actually employed music directors. Yet we moderns are bound to find surprisingly contemporary points of contact with his professional trajectory, far more than we are likely to find, say, in the more freewheeling artist-geniuses of the nineteenth century. Bach’s career, like most of ours, was based on practicality, and after making a few irresponsible missteps early on, he maneuvered within the system to create a professional path that effectively answered to the changing needs of his life, at first moving fleetly to take advantage of “careerist” opportunities, eventually settling in to a long but not particularly happy tenure when his family demanded stability.

What we are not likely to relate to—unquestionably—is carrying out such a career while producing musical compositions of the quality of Bach’s. Bach was not really in the business of creating masterpieces. Bach was in the business of holding jobs, and he must have been perpetually heading out the door to fulfill the exorbitant demands of his working life. The masterpieces, thank heavens, were fortunate by-products.

— James M. Keller

To request permission to republish or e-publish content from sfsymphony.org, contact messages@sfsymphony.org. Articles cannot be published in any form without the written consent of the San Francisco Symphony.