By Linda de Vries
On this date in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany.
This birth gives us our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach’s Birthday.
He was born into a family of musicians. His great-grandfather Hans was a piper, the first professional musician in the family. His grandfather Christoph was town musician in Erfurt and Arnstadt. His father Ambrosius was town and court musician in Eisenach. The list continues—uncles, great-uncles, cousins, second cousins, and cousins once or twice removed.
Sebastian’s mother was Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt, the 24-year-old daughter of a wealthy furrier and town council member in Erfurt. Elisabeth’s older stepsister Hedwig had already married a Bach and borne three musical sons. Yet another link in the chain was forged between the Erfurt burgers and the Bachs when Sebastian’s older sister married papa Lämmerhirt’s business partner, allowing the Bach family a comfortable musical monopoly in Erfurt.
The chain lengthened when the town musician of Eisenach, Christoph Schmidt, whose two daughters had married Bachs, died. Sebastian’s father Ambrosius was immediately hired as his replacement.
Although not all the Bachs fared as well, Ambrosius and his family lived quite comfortably on funds provided by Maria Elisabeth’s mother after her widowhood. The Eisenach in which they lived was not, however, as fortunate. Although situated at a major European trading intersection, its population of about 6.000 had suffered badly during the Thirty Years’ War that devastated so much of Thuringia.
The four institutions that were the foundation of culture in 1685—town, church, court, and school—were less than a quarter of a mile apart. Each of these four would play its part in forming the young Sebastian, and would be his world throughout his life.
He was born on the Saturday before Oculi Sunday and baptized on Monday, March 23. The baptism took place in St. George’s Church, the main church of Eisenach. Built in 1182 and substantially rebuilt in 1515, this was the church in which Martin Luther preached in 1521 on his way to and from the Diet of Worms.
As we have seen, the Bachs tended to repeat names for their children. Ambrosius was, however, an exception, as would be his son. Sebastian’s two godfathers were Johann Georg Koch, forester to the Duke, and Sebastian Nagel, town piper of Gotha. From the musician came Sebastian’s distinctive name.
Only two others were named Sebastian—Sebastian’s elder brother, Johann Christoph, gave the name to one of his children, but the child died at two months. C.P.E. named his firstborn after his father, but this child became not a musician, but a gifted draftsman and admired painter of landscapes who died in Rome at the age of 29.
Sebastian’s mother may have helped choose his godfathers and thus his name but she was not present at his baptism. According to the strict customs prescribed by the Hebrew Bible and upheld by Lutherans at the time, a woman was not permitted to enter the church until she had undergone a religious purification rite six weeks after childbirth.
What about this child? Much has been speculated and written about Sebastian’s “secret.” What allowed him to create such powerful and moving music? Was it simply the Bach gene? Was it in his stars? Was it a mathematical formula? Sebastian himself said that his achievements were simply the result of hard work and that anyone was capable of the same.
Some believe he had an obsession with numerology, specifically, the number 14, and so they find this, his 329th birthday, highly significant: 14 years into the 21st century; a surname with the numeric value of 14 (2+1+3+8); and 3, 2, and 9 add up to 14.
At the Bach Museum in Eisenach from March 21st through November 9th, the display will include a 1746 portrait of him wearing a waistcoat with 14 buttons, a drinking cup with a 14-point monogram, and an annotated score for 14 canons based on the Goldberg Variations discovered in Strasbourg in 1974. A series of films and interactive displays will examine some of the most common of the numerological theories.
Did he share with other Baroque artists’ a passion for gematria, a system of assigning numerical values to words or phrases? Lars von Trier’s new film, Nymphomaniac features a series of conversations bout Fibonacci numbers and Bach’s polyphonic theory. One might also note Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 Pulitzer-prize winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.
Still others feel there is a special Bach “secret.” From the Bach Cantatas Website come:
Robert Peters: “What is the mysterious X which makes Bach’s music so touching that even an agnostic guy like me feels like a Christian when listening to the St. Matthew Passion?
Yoel L. Arbeitman: “As a Jewish atheist I find Bach’s two passions the most incredible works of music ever. I still see the plenitude of Judenhass which informs the Johannes Passion. But, for all that, this music has always overwhelmed me in a way that no other music ever will. I must believe that Bach was infused with your ‘X.’”
Glenn Miller: “I saw on TV an interview with Stephen Gould, the paleontologist who passed away not long ago, and was an atheist I recall, [who] said he thought the Mass in B Minor was the greatest piece of music ever written.”
And from two well-known musicians:
Cellist Pablo Casals:
“For the past 80 years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine, but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. . . .
The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle.”
Pianist Glenn Gould:
“I think that if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would almost certainly be Bach. I really can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that—its humanity.”