J. S. Bach - Years of Growth (1702-1706)

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J. S. Bach playing organ

By Easter 1702 Sebastian had finished his studies at Michaelisschule and was ready for a University. Attending any worthwhile university without funds would have been quite a challenge for most young men, but not too much of a problem for such a determined youth as Sebastian. But he did not seriously consider studying at a University. He was most eager to begin musical work in earnest and felt ready for any position that might come his way. Later in life he might have regretted this decision, as in 18th century Germany attendance at a University made a tremendous difference in a musician's standing both socially and economically. It was for this reason that he would later insist that his sons attend a University, even though he was confident they would choose a musical career themselves.

But as a youth of 17 years old, Sebastian was not quite so farsighted. And there was no one in his life at the time to give him any such advice. Where to look for suitable employment was the main focus that arose at this point in his life. Significantly, he did not consider staying in Northern Germany. Advancing his career would have been much more expedient had he done so, as he had developed may contacts in this area. Any of these contacts would have surely granted him at least an appointment. For purposes of study and artistic improvement this part of Germany had been wonderfully suited.

But when it came to settling down he decided to travel all of the 200 miles back to Thuringia, where his family had tended musical soil for the past two centuries. This he did out of great love for his family's musical tradition, and out of longing for time together with them. This longing was especially strong in young Bach, who since the age of 10 had missed normal family ties. Apart from this, there were practical reasons for returning to Thuringia as well. The very name of Bach would warrant much respect and would be enough to secure the beginner a position. The family would also help Sebastian as much as they could, just as he would do again and again for the other musicians of his family.

A search for a beginning

In 1703 Sebastian applied for a vacant organist position at the Jakobikirche at Sangerhausen. We know this from a letter he wrote to the counsel some 30 year later. All of the votes had been cast in favor of granting him the job, and the position had been promised to him. Then the Lord of the town, a Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, had interceded, as he wanted the position to be filled by a more mature musician. Sebastian had to content himself to being promised a favor by the counsel in the future. A favor he would redeem successfully for one of his sons years later.

At Eisenach too, the town's organist position became available. It is not clear weather he applied to this position or not. But Sebastian must have been greatly interested as this was his home town. Nevertheless the post was given to a family member, Johann Bernhard Bach.

A brief stay at Weimar

A more promising opportunity seemed to be developing in another Bach center, Arnstadt. There the old church of St. Boniface, which had been destroyed by fire in 1581, had been rebuilt some hundred years later and was now once more under the name of Neue Kirche. At first there was no organ at all, but eventually enough money was collected to begin construction on a new instrument, for which an organist would be needed before long. In early 1703 the work was nearly completed. Naturally such endeavors could not be rushed. And in the meantime Sebastian had to earn his way somehow. Therefore he took the first opportunity that presented itself, entering as a 'lackey and violinist' at the small chamber orchestra of Johann Ernst, a younger brother of the reining Duke of Weimar. In the meantime he tried to play the organ as much as possible, filling in for the aging court organist. This was not only a valuable experience for young Bach, but it helped immensely in his negotiations with Arnstadt. Indeed, when he was invited to test the new organ there, the receipt drawn up upon payment for Sebastian's expenses gives the youth the exaggerated title of 'Princely Saxonian Court Organist at Weimar,' which was stretching the truth to say the least.

Testing and playing the new organ, young Sebastian had a chance of revealing his incredible mastery to the Arnstadt citizens. There is not doubt that they were swept off their feet. Hardly a month after his appearance did he receive a contract granting him a yearly salary of 50 fl., plus 40 fl. for board and lodging. This was an excellent income for an organist in those days. Not to mention how incredible a position this was for a young man of only 18 years old.

On August 14, 1703, the new organist began his duties at Arnstadt. These were not extensive. He was to play every Sunday from 8-10 am, every Monday at an intercessory service, and every Thursday from 7-9 am. Since his church had not engaged a Cantor, he was supposed to train a small choir formed of pupils from the Latin school for performances during the Sunday service, although his contract did not require him to do so.

It seems an ideal position for a young musician for a young musician who needed much time for his own improvement and creative work. Arnstadt, a town of 3800 people, was also a seemingly pleasant place to live. Its many linden trees had earned it the name of Linden-town. The gardens surrounding its castle, with their many fountains and flower beds were considered outstanding in Germany. And the renaissance town hall is considered and architectural gem.

Young Bach finds Love

In addition to the advantage of a good position and beautiful surroundings, there was the pleasure of renewing contacts with members of his family. Of his own age group there was Johann Ernst, with whom he shared many unforgettable adventures with in Hamburg. And there was Maria Barbara, youngest daughter of the late organist of Gehren, Johann Michael Bach. Both the girl's parents has passed away by 1704. She lived with her aunt and uncle in the 'House of the Golden Crown,' where Sebastian has himself also lived for several years. Sebastian and Barbara were about the same age, both had been raised in homes where music was of much importance. And both were orphans drifting along without strong personal ties. Each could listen to the other's solitude and provide in each other's lives the anchorage they both so much needed. It is no wonder that the two were drawn so much to each other. An idyllic love affair began. The blood relationship was considered too remote to be any issue since they were second cousins, their grandfathers having been brothers. Sebastian and Barbara planned to get married as soon as his position at Arnstadt was secure enough to enable them to set up a home of their own. Several years were to pass, however, before this plan could materialize. Years which were not too easy for either of them.

A good old fashioned street brawl

Their were certain difficulties in Sebastian's work. His choir was not of the highest caliber, as his church was new, and therefore not the most important one in town. The good singers inevitably were employed at the other two churches in town. Records show that the choir was quite an unruly bunch.

After two years of struggle, things escalated in a street brawl between Bach and a particularly offensive man by the name of Geyersbach, 3 years Bach's senior. The two happened to meet on a dark night when Geyersbach attacked with a stick, calling him a 'dirty dog' because Bach had made fun of him as a 'nanny-goat bassoonist.' Bach drew his sword, a fight began, and blood would have been shed had not the spectators intervened after quite a few holes had been pierced in Geyersbach's camisole. The incident made Bach even more disgusted with the choir, and gradually he stopped working with it. Various unpleasant cross-examinations by the Consistory followed (of which the files have been preserved). Again and again his superiors urged him to accept the imperfect conditions, which they readily admitted. Bach stubbornly persisted in the point that his contract did not require any such work of him.

Time in Lübeck

Young Bach asked for 4 weeks off in order to visit the famous organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, in Lübeck. The 'New Church' understood their gifted young organist's desire to improve his art and gave him permission to take the trip. He made the 230 mile trip in time to see famous 'Evening Musicals' which were performed at St. Mary's on five Sundays around Advent. The performances were on such a scale (with 40 instruments in addition to a choir) that they exceeded his expectations in such a way he had never seen before at this time in his life.

While Bach was away, Barbara remained at Arnstadt. She grew increasingly worried about his standing with his superiors. Troubling still was the fact that he was so engrossed with such tremendous musical experiences that he did not write to her even once. But he did remain faithful. For when it was hinted to him that he might become Buxtehude's successor, providing he married according to custom, the master's daughter Anne Margreta (then 30 years old), he declined. Although the position at St. Mary's must have seemed most attractive the the organist of such a small church as Arnstadt.

A rocky return to Arnstadt

It was after an absence of 4 months instead of 4 weeks that Sebastian returned to Arnstadt. Soon the congregation noticed a change in their organist's playing. Encouraged by what he heard at Lübeck and overflowing with new ideas, Sebastian became rather unconventional in his accompaniments of the hymns, and his improvisations between the verses seemed to never come to an end. The congregation was amazed, bewildered, outraged and at times unable to stumble through the chorals. He was soon called before his superiors. After scolding for his long absence, he was given strict orders that if he were to use a tonus peregrinus' (a strange key), to do so quickly.

Though furious as these instructions were, Bach had no choice but to obey them, and all the joy went out of his work. If his superiors wanted a dull organist, no doubt he could satisfy them, he thought. Thus, where he had previously done too much, now he did far too little. Now he was criticized because his preludes were too short. And so it went on like this through the year 1706.

Arnstadt, it had turned out, was not offering the stability needed for Sebastian and Barbara to form a stable life together. And finally Barbara herself was the cause of yet another disagreement with the church. Bach asked her to come to the organ gallery when the church was empty, and sing to his accompaniment. This she did, and their music making must have delighted them both and further strengthened the bond between them. But the aftermath was not quite as pleasant. In Arnstadt things did not stay secrets for very long. Someone had heard Barbara singing, people began talking, and soon young Bach found himself infront of the church Consistory yet again to explain the presence of this 'strange maiden' in the organ gallery.

By this time it had become clear that the organist must look for a position at another church.

bach_places_of_significance Places of significance in the life of J. S. Bach. Photo credit: The Bach Family by Karl Geiringer.

Other Classic History articles on the life of J. S. Bach include:
  J. S. Bach - His early life
  Bach Family Tree


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J. S. Bach – Years of Growth (1702-1706)

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