By Linda de Vries
On this date in 2000, Oxford University Press published Christoph Wolff’s Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. This biographical study was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.
This publication provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Final Composition.
In his book, Wolff talks extensively about a discovery he made in 1999 in a Bach family archive in the State Museum in Kiev, Ukraine. It is a previously unknown arrangement written by Sebastian for his own funeral. It is the last piece of music in his own hand, believed to have been written some time in 1749. How did it get to Kiev?
Professor Wolff and the team of researchers studying them expected to find only works by Bach’s two eldest sons, C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann, but they identified this piece by the handwriting. Wolff writes: “The manuscript is the work of an old man who had trouble forming his letters. The writing is uneven, stiff, and disproportionately large.”
The work is not original, however, but based on a 1672 motet by Johann Christoph Bach, titled Lieber Herr Gott, Wecke Uns Auf (Dear Lord God, Awaken Us). There is a recording of the piece credited to Christoph: Motets of the Bach Family, Columns Classics #B55015, sung by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Timothy Brown, Conductor. Other recordings are also extant.
Sebastian had two relatives named Johann Christoph—his elder brother with whom he went to live after his parents died, and his first cousin once removed. Sebastian also had a son similarly named—Johann Christoph Friedrich. It is, however, his cousin who is the composer of this motet.
Christoph (1642-1703) was born in Arnstadt, but became organist at St. George’s and a member of the court orchestra in Eisenach, the town in which Sebastian was born. Christoph was also the uncle of Maria Barbara, Sebastian’s first wife.
During his lifetime Christoph had an excellent reputation as a composer, equaled only by that of Sebastian himself. His influence on his younger cousin was, therefore, profound, and he was the obvious choice to take the orphaned Sebastian into his home as apprentice. Despite his excellence as a musician, however, Christoph fell deeply into debt, and scholars speculate that for this reason he did not become Sebastian’s guardian.
This recently discovered motet is only one of the works that have been identified as written by Christoph. It is reputed to have been sung at Sebastian’s funeral at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig on July 31, 1750. Professor Wolff notes that prior to this we knew little about his funeral, only that he was put in an oak casket and given a free hearse. This music deserves appropriate consideration as we draw near the end of this series on his birth month.