By Linda de Vries
A bagatelle is “a thing of little importance, a very easy task.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bagatelle in music as “a short unpretentious instrumental composition,” usually of a light, mellow character and usually written for the piano. The earliest use of the term was by François Couperin in his tenth harpsichord ordre (1717) in which he titles a rondeau “Les bagatelles.” The best-known bagatelle is probably Beethoven’s Für Elise.
Each of these daily bagatelles will offer an event that occurred on that date in the life or subsequent history of Johann Sebastian Bach. Each event will provide the springboard for a brief discussion of some aspect of Bach’s biography, music, or influence. This series will post every day from now until the Bach Festival concludes on Sunday, April 6, 2014.
These in no way constitute a biography or chronology nor, though accurate, are they a substitute for more serious scholarly research. For this I refer you to noted Bach scholars, one of whom—Raymond Erickson—is performing in the Whittier College Bach Festival this year.
Rather, this series of 37 tidbits is designed to explore the scope of Bach’s influence and delight you with unusual connections between his world and ours.
As John Eliot Gardiner has noted, we know less about Bach’s private life than about that of any other major composer of the last 400 years, and Bach’s works have not been categorized chronologically. So, ramble back and forth among these bagatelles. I invite you to respond in writing.
If you want to dig more deeply, today’s scholars are poised to undertake a profound reexamination of Bach and his work, seeing him, says Gardiner, not as a “bewigged, jowly, old German Capellmeister” but as a rebel “who undermined widely acclaimed principles and closely guarded assumptions about music.” A new look made possible since 1990 and the end of Soviet domination of northeastern Germany.
Remember, “date” is a variable. In Bach’s time the western world was shifting from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Bach’s Germany was later than some other European countries to make the change, so the events given here in the 17th and 18th centuries generally reflect the Julian calendar. In the Gregorian calendar each date would be ten days later. For example, Bach was born on March 21, 1685, but using the Gregorian calendar, that date would be March 31st. Events of subsequent centuries use the Gregorian calendar.
Before we Begin, a Brief Biography
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German musician and composer. He was born in Eisenach in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750.
Five generations of the Bach family (the name means “Brook” in German) lived from the early 16th century in the Thuringian duchies of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and Saxe-Meiningen and the principality of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt. The family profession was music. Records indicate that 53 Bachs held posts as organists, cantors, or town musicians for over 300 years.
J.S. Bach (hereafter referred to as “Sebastian” to distinguish him from his many relatives) is the most famous of this illustrious family, was church organist at Arnstadt (1703-07), Mühlhausen (1707-08), court organist at Weimar (1708-14), concert master at Weimar (1714-17), court music director at Cöthen (1717-23), music director of St. Thomas School in Leipzig (1723-50), where he also provided Sunday service and Christian holiday music for the four churches in the city—St. Thomas Church, St. Nicholas Church, St. Peter Church, and the New Church. From 1729 until his death he was also director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. He composed over 1,100 known pieces of music and was renowned as an organist.