Bach: A Passionate Life (2013)

Johann Sebastian Bach is
the ultimate composer's composer,
influencing countless others
who followed him, from Mozart
to Mendelssohn, Beethoven to Brahms,
and not just in classical music.
From Duke Ellington, to the Beatles.
Musicians in jazz and pop
have also fallen under his spell
and learnt from his techniques.
Bach is still the benchmark,
a musical gold standard.
We know very little
about Bach's life.
There are only a few facts to go on,
and our image of him
is skewed by statues
and paintings of a stern,
forbidding figure
in a frock coat and a powdered wig.
But then there's the music.
# Herr
# Herr
# Herr... #
The music tells us something
completely different about him.
It's full of energy,
full of dance, full of life.
Over a lifetime of getting to know,
singing and conducting Bach's music,
I've formed a series of hunches
about his personality and character.
In this film, I want to test them
out with fellow Bach enthusiasts
and scholars, and performs some of
his most important works, to see
what they can tell us about the
extraordinary man who composed them.
He really throws everything at it.
You know, it's just such
an overwhelming exploration
of what is to be a human being.
I think he's a scientist at work,
and instead of using
the language of mathematics,
he's a scientist using music.
The level of inspiration
on which he works is, I think,
unparalleled in the rest of music.
Such splendour and wonderfulness,
that, on its own,
would convince me that there
was a God
if I felt inclined to take that
conclusion from it.
In this film, I want to build
a new statue of Bach, to see
if we can detect a beating heart
and a more approachable personality
underneath the wig.
My own engagement with Bach
began as a small child
growing up on a farm in Dorset.
Just before the war,
a refugee from Nazi Germany arrived
with a painting in his rucksack,
one that his great-grandfather
had bought in a junk shop.
He asked my father to look
after it for him.
It was one of only two portraits
painted of JS Bach in his lifetime.
So I passed it every day of my life,
until I was ten,
when the painting was sold
and moved to Princeton, New Jersey.
This is the first time I've seen
it since 1953.
What's so striking to me, seeing it
again, is the intensity of his gaze.
Those eyes. It's just extraordinary,
they're so penetrative.
I still feel there's
a division between the upper half
of his face and the bottom half.
The upper half is so intense,
it's got that beetle-browed,
slightly myopic look.
Below that, you see somebody
quite different,
somebody much more approachable,
somebody who enjoyed
the good things of life, a bon
viveur, who enjoyed his tobacco
and his wine and his beer,
and there's plenty of records of
what he drank.
And the father of 20 children
and two wives.
We know pitifully few
hard facts about Bach.
There's very little to go on, and
only a handful of personal letters.
But, as in any good detective story,
it's often the gaps,
the seeming
contradictions in the tale,
that are as suggestive
and intriguing
as the hard evidence available.
We do know that Johann Sebastian
was born on 21 March 1685,
in Eisenach, in the middle of
modern-day Germany.
This is the so-called Bachhaus,
now a museum devoted to him.
Until recently, it billed itself
as the house where Bach was born
and where he grew up. We now know
that's definitely not the case.
As with so much of his life,
exactly where Bach was born
remains a mystery.
Johann Sebastian was baptised here,
at two days old,
in St George's Church in Eisenach.
Later, he sang here in the choir.
As a child, he's said to have had
an unusually fine treble voice.
200 years before him, there was
another chorister
who stood in exactly the same place.
Now that was Martin Luther.
And Luther created a revolution
here in this part of Germany.
Bach's whole life was to be
profoundly influenced
by Luther's Reformation.
Luther set in train
a new way of worship.
It totally transformed the role
of language and music in church.
Bach's own music was filtered
through his strongly held
Lutheran beliefs and upbringing.
Luther preached his Reformation
here in the Georgenkirche in 1521.
Then he disappeared.
Actually, he hadn't gone far.
In fact, in the greatest of secrecy,
Luther was in hiding up here
in the Wartburg, the imposing castle
that looms above
the town of Eisenach.
His Reformation had made Luther
the most wanted man in Europe.
So, this is the little room
where Luther lived.
For ten months here he was holed up,
imprisoned, really,
for his own good,
because he was on the run from
the Pope, from the Emperor.
He was desperately constipated.
"The Lord has struck me
in the rear," he said.
And he thought that the devil
was pelting him
with walnuts from the ceiling.
Luther decided
that his best weapon
to use against the devil
was black ink.
And, in a matter of weeks,
he sat down at this desk
and he wrote a translation,
from the Greek,
of the New Testament.
And it wasn't just any old German,
he decided that he needed
to amalgamate 18 different dialects
and, in effect,
he established the roots of the
German language as we know it.
Not only did Luther want the Bible
to be in the language of the people,
he also wanted them to be
able to join in the music,
something that,
in the Catholic church,
was much more the province of
trained choirs.
Luther was convinced that music
added extra expression
and eloquence to the biblical text.
"The notes make the words
come alive," he wrote.
"In fact, without music,
man is little more than a stone."
So, the words appealed to
the intellect,
and the music appealed to
the passions.
And, besides, why should the devil
have all the good tunes?
Luther and his followers
made sure he didn't.
They choraled secular tunes
that everybody knew,
including quite earthy love songs,
and then set them to new words
so that the congregation
could belt them out in church.
Hymns, or chorales,
written by Luther
and his followers became absolutely
central to Protestant worship,
and of course to the music of Bach.
The impact of the reformer Luther
on the impressionable
young Bach was immeasurable.
It shaped his whole view
of the world,
it bolstered his sense of worth
as a craftsman musician,
and reinforced his service
to the Church.
It's such an announcement,
a proclamation of the arrival
on Earth of the Christ child.
Relish the words. Relish them.
So, "Brich an..."
Bach's destiny was to become
a musician.
Music was the family business.
In this part of Germany, in the
heart of the Thuringian forest,
the Bach family
were thick on the ground.
They provided a support system
to each other,
and they carved up the different
roles of organist and cantor,
and Hausmann - the head of the local
wind band - between them.
And, in fact, they became almost
so important here that the word
Bach and musician became synonymous.
MUSIC: "Quodlibet, BWV 524"
by JS Bach
The Bach clan knew how to
let their hair down,
and often got together for raucous
family celebrations.
Sebastian, the youngest of eight
brothers and sisters, was thus
surrounded by music at home,
in church and in school.
I have in my hands what was
probably the most precious book
of Bach's childhood.
It's certainly the one
he used every day of his life
until he left Eisenach.
It's the Eisenachisches Gesangbuch,
the songbook used in church
and used in school.
It has wonderful copper
engravings which show David
and Solomon in the Temple,
surrounded by
their temple musicians,
and the connections that Bach
must've made in his mind,
between his family
of the most famous
musicians in the area, with a long,
dynastic lineage going
all the way back to Solomon.
Because he wrote so many
masterpieces of sacred music,
in the 19th-century,
religiously-inclined writers
liked to
picture Bach as a saintly figure,
a kind of fifth Evangelist
to match the goody two-shoes
image of his childhood.
But, in recent years,
this picture has started to change.
This is a book
containing the records of Bach's
school performance,
and it gives us his syllabus
of classes that he attended,
and it also shows that, for example,
in the third year,
he came 46th out of 89 pupils,
and what's more, it tells us that
he missed 96 separate classes.
This is a fascinating document,
because it's somehow
slipped under the radar.
It's a report on school
conditions in the Latin school
where Bach was a pupil, and it shows
the lack of textbooks,
the overcrowding,
the cheeking of the masters,
the throwing of bricks through
the windows,
all sorts of proto-hooliganism
and it's been, kind of, neatly
ironed out of all the biographies,
so it's really interesting
to come to light now.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the reunification of Germany,
more documents have come to
light that greatly enhance
our knowledge of Bach.
In particular, the Bach Archives
in Leipzig have made huge strides
in discovering more about
the composer's working methods,
and, for the first time,
opened their doors to researchers.
All the significant documents
about Bach, many originals,
some copies, are here.
When Bach was 50, he suddenly got
a fascination for family roots
and family trees, genealogy,
so, he wanted to give himself
legitimacy in some way.
And here's an example,
and it shows the whole Bach family,
starting with the legendary
figure of Veit Bach,
who arrived from Hungary in the
middle of the 16th century,
and it goes all the way through to
Bach himself,
who's over here, and then his
children, and his grandchildren.
You'll notice every single
member of the Bach family is a man.
All blokes, not a single woman.
But mothers, sisters
and aunts must have participated
in the family music-making.
So, was it nature
or nurture that we have
to thank for the genius of Bach?
When he was 50, he did
a family tree and he also assembled
pieces of his ancestors' music,
and there was one person
that he singled out as being
a profound composer,
and another one who he singled out
as being an able composer,
but there obviously wasn't anybody
of enormous quality
until he came along,
and yet he was one of five brothers,
four brothers - how come, he,
and not the others,
popped up above the parapet?
He's such a good example,
because he really undermines
any simplistic explanation
of his genius, of genius.
I mean,
if you had a genetic explanation,
the genes would have gone throughout
the Bach family - in fact,
why did they take so long
to generate Bach,
you know, so many generations,
and I think all of these
more general explanations,
on the basis of genes, or even on
the basis of the musical culture
that surrounds him, do not deliver
the singular genius he was.
And it's a pity in a way,
we can't accept the singularity of
people who are manifestly unique.
We can't bear the idea that genius
is unexplained.
But that's not to say
Bach was self-taught.
His father's cousin,
Johann Christoph,
was the profound composer
he referred to.
His music,
only recently rediscovered,
is the link between Bach
and the earlier German tradition.
Johann Christoph may also have been
Sebastian's first teacher
at the organ,
an instrument he made his own.
But Johan Christoph's life
was a cautionary tale.
In a sense, the life
of Johann Christoph Bach
exemplifies the problems
that musicians had at the time.
They shuttled between the service
of the Church, or of the court,
or occasionally of the municipality,
and in Christoph's case,
he had all manner of domestic
problems - he was shunted,
also, from pillar
to post here in the town,
the town wouldn't give him
a proper dwelling,
he had illness in his family,
he was underpaid and he was
thoroughly querulous and miserable
about it, and died in penury.
But there is another side to it,
and this is one that Sebastian
may well have picked
up from his elder cousin.
Which is, that as a composer, you
can channel all that frustration,
and disappointment into music,
and the marvellous thing
is about Johann Christoph's music,
and Sebastian's music, is that
it has this wonderfully consoling
and uplifting quality to it.
Most of all, Bach's music offers us
balm and comfort in bereavement.
The subject of death appears again
and again in his music,
as it did in his own life.
This is the town cemetery,
and Eisenach's old city walls
are here on the right,
and just beyond it is the school
where Bach went,
the old Dominican cloister.
Somewhere here, in unmarked
graves, are those of his parents,
Elisabeth and Ambrosius.
Elisabeth died when Bach was
scarcely nine years old.
And then nine months later, his
father, Ambrosius, died, as well.
Bach, as the youngest son,
and member of the parish choir,
had to witness the whole event
and sing
while the ceremony was going on,
and the slow tolling of the bells,
and as the coffin was
lowered into the grave,
he and his fellow choristers
sang Luther's words,
"Mitten wir im Leben sind" -
"In the midst of life,
we're in death."
His whole world must have collapsed.
His first wife was to die
at the age of just 35.
Even in an age of high infant
mortality, of his 20 children,
only ten were to reach adulthood.
After his parents died,
Sebastian and his elder brother
Jakob went to live with a sibling
they hardly knew, Johann Christoph,
14 years older than Sebastian.
He was a church organist at Ohrdruf,
only 30 miles up the road,
but it could have been a world away.
I have come across documents
in the local archives that show that
conditions in Sebastian's school
in Ohrdruf were
every bit as deplorable as in the
one he had left behind in Eisenach.
Roughianism and loutish behaviour
were rife here, too,
and there was a sadistic teacher.
But, curiously,
Bach's grades improved.
Bach was the youngest
son of quite a big family,
and then suddenly he lost both
parents before his tenth birthday.
He then went to live
with his elder brother.
How much of a trauma
can it have been?
What you're describing is
a triple bereavement.
There is losing the parents,
losing the home, new town,
new place, I would say that is
pretty difficult for any child.
We do have a lot of research
showing that this kind of
early bereavement and uprooting
can scar people for life.
Do you think his school grades
are relevant and interesting here,
because, when he was in Eisenach,
when he was still with his parents,
he played truant an awful lot.
After he moves into his elder
brother's house,
his school grades rocket,
they go way up,
so there's a big change there,
do think that's to do with
the orphanhood?
Again, I'm speculating. But what
I'm hearing here is that there was
a horrible, horrible
environment in the school,
but maybe there was a little
protection from the home.
Then he loses the home.
So now the whole world
is a dog-eat-dog situation.
There's only one person
he can rely on, and that's himself.
Which would explain why he has to
be good at school now, doesn't he?
He has to, because, basically,
if you show weakness,
if you are weak,
you suffer and you go under.
At the age of 15, Bach was awarded
a singing scholarship
at a school in Luneburg,
230 miles to the north.
He walked the whole way with
a schoolfriend, Georg Erdmann,
who would re-enter
the Bach story 30 years later.
Bach spent three years in Luneburg,
from the age of 15 to 18.
His voice would have broken
almost as soon as he got there,
so what was he doing
in the meantime?
This is one of the great puzzles
of Bach's life.
One thing we do know is that,
while he was at Luneburg,
Bach was acquainted with one of
Germany's leading musical figures,
Georg Bohm, a composer
and renowned organist,
also born in Thuringia,
like Bach himself.
This is a letter
Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote
to Bach's first biographer,
Johann Nikolaus Forkel,
telling him all the bits and pieces
he could remember about his father.
The particularly interesting thing
is when he refers to
his former teacher,
Georg Bohm, he crosses it out.
Why, having written that Bohm
was his father's teacher,
did Emanuel think better of it
and erase the reference?
In 2005, a suggestive
new clue came to light.
Some leaves of organ tablature,
for many years wrongly catalogued
in a German library,
were rediscovered by Leipzig Bach
archivist Michael Maul.
When I read the Latin phrase
at the end of the manuscript,
"Copied after a manuscript of Georg
Bohm in the year 1700 in Luneburg."
I know one person
who was in 1700 in Luneburg
and was very interested
in very good organ music.
And that's the young JS Bach.
After comparing the manuscript
with the other examples,
we can be absolutely sure that
no-one else than Bach
is the writer of these manuscripts.
This is the missing
piece in the puzzle, isn't it?
It says that he wrote this on paper
belonging to Georg Bohm.
He went and maybe became a student
or an apprentice to Georg Bohm.
Yes. After his supervision, he wrote
out this very difficult piece,
which proves that he played this
music. So he was already a virtuoso.
Did Emanuel suddenly remember
that his father, for some reason,
didn't wish his relationship
with Georg Bohm to be known?
Did he acknowledge that he
learnt from other people?
Did he acknowledge their greatness?
This is fascinating,
because when he made remarks
about possible teachers, his son,
Emanuel, just erased them.
So Bach didn't want
that to be known.
He wanted everybody to know that
he'd done it entirely on his own,
off his own back.
If he had this assumption that
you have got to have power
and you should never show weakness,
he would be very poor
in acknowledging those sources.
At the age of 18, Bach, as well
as being a virtuoso organist,
was a competent violinist.
In 1703, he left Luneburg to return
to the family stamping ground.
In Arnstadt, only 30 miles
from where Sebastian was born,
the city fathers
had put a tax on beer,
to pay for a brand-new organ
for the Neukirchen.
Bach was hired to test the new organ
and to play it in audition in front
of the thirsty citizens.
He landed the job on more money
than his father had ever earned.
But there was a catch - the council
insisted he provide new music.
All he had at his disposal
was a rag, tag and bobtail band
made up of mature students.
Thus, Bach began his career
as a composer,
but not in exactly
auspicious circumstances.
He wrote a cantata, his first,
in which there's a very important
bassoon obbligato,
a solo for the bassoon,
in three of the movements.
It was a banana skin.
The bassoon part
starts innocuously enough,
honking away at a steady old lick.
But then comes
a bassoonist's worst nightmare.
In the space of about two-and-a-half
bars, he sends the bassoon
through a whole list
of different keys,
involving very,
very complicated fingerings.
Deliberately or not, Bach had set
a trap for his resident bassoonist.
He was writing for a fellow
called Geyersbach
who, in rehearsal,
made a complete hash of it.
And Bach was exasperated
to the point where he called him
a "Zippelfagottist",
which can be translated variously
as a nanny goat bassoon
or a greenhorn bassoon.
But, in reality,
Bach was calling him a prick.
Yet another translation is
"Bassoonist breaking wind
after eating a green onion."
However Geyersbach
understood the term,
he didn't like what he was hearing.
The insult clearly rankled,
and Geyersbach plotted his revenge.
He and his cronies, well-oiled
after a party at a christening,
sat in wait for Bach,
here in the town square.
Bach was making his way back
from playing music at the castle,
Neideck Castle, and was taken
completely by surprise.
Geyersbach came up to him
and demanded an apology,
and then took his cudgel
and hit Bach, smack across the face.
Bach, in self defence,
drew his rapier
and there was a scuffle,
a major scuffle.
It was only the other students who
eventually stopped the whole thing.
No doubt to Bach's fury, the Church
council sided with Geyersbach,
according to the records.
And that was far from the last
of the problems.
Bach was accused of introducing
strange harmonies
into his organ music which upset
the old dears of the parish.
He played either far too long
or not long enough,
and he slipped off down to the pub.
Once, he smuggled a strange girl
into his organ loft to make music.
The final straw came
when he asked for four weeks' leave
to visit the renowned organist
Buxtehude, walking
the whole 260 miles up to Lubeck.
In fact, he was away four months,
not four weeks,
and was airily dismissive when
he was asked to explain himself.
What we now see is patterns
of behaviour that had their origins
in the unhealthy environment
of his early schooling,
first in Eisenach
and then in Ohrdruf.
Patterns of anger,
patterns of dealing with authority
in a very surly
and uncompromising way,
impatience, and a kind of
that was bound to rub people up
the wrong way.
# Gott!
# Gott!
# Gott ist mein Koenig. #
Bach is commemorated in Arnstadt
by this curious recent statue
in "Jack the Lad" pose,
perhaps in a nod to his feisty
and fractious stay here.
His time in Arnstadt came to
an end when, in 1707,
he was offered a new post 50 miles
up the road in Muhlhausen.
The city had been thriving
but it was Bach's bad luck
to arrive just after a disastrous
fire had wreaked havoc in the city.
Caught up in a local dispute
between the clergy,
Bach moved on in less than a year,
but two significant things happened.
First, aged 22, he married
his cousin, Maria Barbara.
And then, he wrote one of the most
important documents we have.
Here's a letter that Bach wrote to
the Muhlhausen town council
explaining the reasons why
he handed in his resignation,
and the interesting thing from our
point of view is that he defines
his "Endzweck" as he called it, his
final ambition, his goal in life.
The key phrase is "a well-regulated
church music to the glory of God".
Germany was on the brink
of the Enlightenment.
The Scientific Revolution
had been in full swing
for over a century,
but superstition was still rife.
Here, as late as the 1730s, witches
were being burned at the stake.
The Thirty Years' War had ended
in 1648, and in its wake
came a strong revival
of Lutheranism.
Bach took it upon himself
to lay down
the New and the Old Testament
Commandments with renewed force.
In 1708, Bach left Muhlhausen
for the elegant Court of Weimar.
This was a real turning point.
For the first time in his life,
he was able to call on
good quality musicians.
But as so often in his career,
there was a snag.
In fact, there were two of them.
Weimar was ruled by a pair of dukes,
an uncle and nephew team.
It was a recipe for disaster.
The musicians were employed by both,
but the uncle made it known
to the musicians that
if they played for his nephew,
they would be liable to be flogged,
dismissed out of hand.
In fact, there was one poor
horn player who was
dismissed on the spot,
flogged, and then eventually
hung as an example -
terrible example -
to all the other musicians,
what would happen if they
stepped out of line.
One might imagine that in such
a fraught, tense situation,
nothing creative could've come
out of Bach's time in Weimar,
but of course, the opposite is true.
It was a hugely stimulating
time for him.
His first encounter with the Italian
music of Vivaldi
and of Corelli and so on. And from
Bach's own compositional activity,
it was an enormously important time.
We got the beginnings of his really,
really important keyboard works,
and not only that, his cantatas -
amazing cantatas -
that he started to write for Weimar,
for the Capella and performed up
in the Himmelsburg.
Originally, a cantata was a small,
intimate Italian piece
for a solo voice
and a couple of instruments.
But soon, it was taken over
by German composers in the century
before Bach and was associated
with the Lutheran liturgy.
But by the time Bach came along,
it had grown into something
almost gargantuan.
His 200 pieces last anything from 25
to 30 minutes each,
occupied a place somewhere
between the reading of the lesson
and the sermon, and they reflected
the theme of the day, as it were.
You pity the unfortunate preacher
who had to follow music
as eloquent as this.
Bach demonstrates his
fantastic ability to set a scene.
In this case, Jesus knocking
at the door of the human heart.
Bach wrote more
than 20 cantatas in Weimar,
but having proved his early mastery
of the form, he suddenly stopped.
The court's musical director
had died,
and when the resulting vacancy
was filled by his son,
a musical nullity, and not by Bach,
his reaction was to down tools.
He simply stopped composing.
It went from bad to worse.
When Bach asked to leave his employ,
the fiery Wilhelm Ernst
had him thrown into jail.
Bach thus became one of the few
composers in history
to do hard time.
Some of his music, technically
the property of his employer,
may have stayed on at Weimar.
70 years later, the Himmelsburg
burned to the ground
and Bach's music was lost for ever.
After a month in prison,
Bach headed off to the job
he'd been hankering after all along,
that of Kapellmeister.
He joined a music-loving prince,
Leopold, at the castle in Kothen,
not far from Weimar,
as his music director.
And it was the beginning of a
wonderful, new phase in his life.
Five-and-a-half years of relative
trouble-free composition.
The first time in his life
where he's away from the Church,
he's in a secular environment
because he doesn't have to
write church music,
Prince Leopold is a Calvinist,
there's no requirements of
Lutheran Church music at his court.
Bach is settled with his family
and he has a sympathetic
and extremely music-conscious
and music-enthusiastic boss.
Bach completed the famous
Brandenburg Concertos at Kothen,
as well as a set of solo cello
suites which are today
amongst his most popular works.
Just as Bach was for once happy
and settled, tragedy struck.
While he was on a trip to Bohemia
with the Prince,
the only time Bach ever left
his wife Maria Barbara died
and was buried before he returned
and could be told of her death.
Their marriage seems to have
been a happy one
and this sudden bereavement was
another crushing blow for Bach.
No-one knew better than he
how terrifyingly unpredictable
an assignation with death could be.
A year-and-a-half
after his first wife died,
Bach married Anna Magdalena,
a professional singer at the
Koten court, 16 years his junior.
She was to bear him
another 13 children,
seven of whom died in infancy.
For his new wife,
and at her request,
Bach gathered together the music
of the Anna Magdalena notebooks.
Also at Koten,
he began the 48 preludes
and fugues of the
Well Tempered Clavier.
It's typical of Bach that to test
out a new tuning system,
he wrote two pieces for each key,
major and minor.
For me, the driving thing for Bach
must have been this obsessive rigour.
This is someone who, I think,
in writing a collection
of keyboard works in every key,
I think it's not
just that that's available to him.
I think he couldn't possibly
have done it any other way.
He would have had to explore every
single key and done it again twice.
Bach's inventiveness is proved
by a puzzle contained in the music
he's showing us
in the famous portrait
I passed every day as a child.
On the face of it,
the piece is straightforward enough.
It's incredibly simple, it sounds
almost like a nursery rhyme.
But that's the version that we see
as he shows it to us in the portrait.
But from his perspective,
what do we see?
Well, if you turned the music up
the other way round,
and read it backwards,
what you get is this.
In other words, what's in my head
and what you see
and what you hear
are two different things?
Yeah, I think he's got
it like a secret smile.
He's not quite looking at it, is he?
He knows something that we don't.
I love the fact it took 100 years
for people to start working it out.
The clue is in the title.
It's a piece not for three,
but for six voices.
If you move the reverse
version by a bar,
you get this incredible six parts,
bit of pop music, really.
It's so simple, it's so complex.
Do you subscribe to the view
that a lot of his music
is numerological,
that it is reflecting
not simply just his own name,
but actually that he
as a starting mechanism
would rule the paper
and measure out the number of bars
he was actually going to use?
Or is that just baloney?
I think it was a hugely creative,
structural mechanism for him.
But that was an intuition
that he had around numbers
and the appeal of numbers for him.
And I think he had an almost
obsessive enjoyment of pattern,
which for me
is the mark of a scientist as well.
Scientists look for
and respond to pattern in nature.
When they find it,
they try and categorise it
and put walls around it, and then
they try and break the rules.
That's the fun bit, playing with
the pattern that they find.
I think it's an intuition that he
has, not as a mathematician as such,
but more broadly as a scientist.
In his own lifetime, Bach was far
more famous as a performer
than as a composer.
He wrote many pieces for the organ,
an instrument on which he was
renowned as an improviser of genius.
He also stretched the boundaries of
another instrument he performed on,
writing a series
of solo dance suites for the violin.
They are light years
ahead of anything that was written
for the solo violin ever before.
He just takes the violin into
a completely different realm.
And asks from the violin to
do very "un-violinistic" things.
Like triple stops, quadruple stops,
um, polyphonic writing, fugues.
You know, fugues were written for
and for organs and orchestras,
but not for one solo violin.
That is storytelling too.
It's a story, if you like, about
four notes, D, C, B flat and A.
But it's also a soliloquy.
It's a very dramatic argument,
in a similar way to Hamlet's
To Be Or Not To Be,
where you've got a voice
arguing with itself
and listening to the
counter arguments
and arguing with
the counter arguments
and speaking against the counter
arguments and so on.
There's the continual wonder
that he brings it about
in the way that he does,
which seems to me
an absolute miracle.
A piece of such splendour
and wonderfulness
that it on its own would convince me
that there was a God
if I felt inclined
to take that conclusion from it.
Aged 38, Bach was now
at the very peak of his powers.
But his lifetime's goal,
his Endzweck,
of writing a well-regulated
church music to the glory of God,
had been on hold
for the past six years.
The opportunities for writing
church music to a high standard
only came to Bach
very, very rarely in his life.
It didn't come in Arnstadt,
it didn't come in Muhlhausen,
it came for a while in Weimar,
but not at all in Kothen,
because in Kothen he was working
in a Calvinistic court,
and then he had his big break.
Suddenly he saw an opportunity to
put his life's ambition into effect.
In 1723, there was a vacancy
in Leipzig,
one of the most important
cultural centres in Germany
and a thriving cosmopolitan city.
Kantor of the Thomasschule,
one of the oldest and most
prestigious choir schools in Europe,
founded in 1212.
This was a full-on boys choir,
the younger ones singing treble
and alto,
the older ones tenor and bass,
and playing instruments.
It was a great opportunity,
but there were problems in plenty
awaiting him.
Besides music, Bach's duties
would also include teaching
the boys other school subjects.
But he drew the line
at teaching them Latin.
What's more, only a thin party wall
would separate the boys'
dormitories and classrooms
from Bach's own
private living quarters.
Bach's determination to
see his church music project through
eventually overcame
his reservations.
In April 1723, he showed up
at the Leipzig City Hall
to be interviewed,
and offered a job.
So despite all his misgivings,
Bach decided to throw in his lot
and to accept the title of
and Director Of The City Music
here in Leipzig.
So he signed his contract and he
swore fealty on the Holy Bible.
One of the councillors is on record
as saying,
"Since the best man
couldn't be obtained,
"mediocre ones would have
to be accepted."
The truth is that neither party
to this contract could have guessed
what they were
letting themselves in for.
In Bach's own words,
"hindrance and vexation".
From the moment
he set foot in Leipzig,
Bach found himself caught in
the political crossfire
between different factions
on the city council.
Music, since it carried with it
an element of cultural prestige,
formed a part of those
political tensions.
On the one hand, on the city council
were those loyal to the elector,
who wanted a modern Kapellmeister,
one who could bring real
international prestige to the city.
And they were Bach's natural allies.
But opposed to them
were the estates party,
who wanted a traditional Kantor,
tied into the school system
with all its regulations,
and all its teaching duties.
And that throttled
Bach's room for manoeuvre.
Before these problems boiled to
the surface, Bach set to work.
It used to be thought
that his cantatas,
well over 200 of them,
and the two great passions
were composed over the whole
27 years he spent in Leipzig.
But in the 1950s,
an astonishing discovery was made.
By a careful examination
of the watermarks on the original
scores and parts,
scholars discovered that the greater
part of the cantatas and passions
were actually produced
in a white-hot frenzy
of just three years.
How he kept up that rhythm,
how he managed to sustain
that level of intensity
and creativity
is just beyond belief.
Particularly when you consider
Bach's living conditions.
This is a model
of the Thomas School.
The original building
was torn down in 1902.
Here, Bach and his family
lived right next to the schoolboys.
There wasn't enough room
for all the kids
and they slept two to a bed.
There must have been
a heck of a lot of background noise.
And he had to concentrate to produce
these phenomenal pieces,
and then to supervise their
copying his own room?
I think so.
You wonder how he could ever have
had any sort of private life
in this sort of outfit,
the conditions being so cramped,
and the noise!
And the descriptions
of mice and rats
running up and down the staircases
as well.
Yeah, they probably had a different
concept of private life back then.
Must have done!
Bach didn't just have to write
25 minutes of new music each week.
He also had to get it copied into
individual parts for the musicians
to sing and play from.
His already cramped lodgings
now had to accommodate
not just his large family,
but also cousins
and live-in apprentices to help with
the never-ending copying out.
In the pressure cooker
atmosphere of the Thomasschule,
and this devastating pace
Bach had set himself,
things started to go wrong.
If you look at this, you'll see
there's a frenzy in the writing.
It's almost as though he hardly has
time to actually put the beams
of the semiquavers and
demisemiquavers into the page.
They look like bamboos
in a hurricane.
And here's something interesting.
Because this is
one of his favourite copyists,
and Bach leaning over
to see what he has copied
notices that his name
has been misspelt. B-A-C-C-H.
He gives him a hell of a cuff
across the earholes,
and the ink flies across the page.
And here's another example -
a cousin, Johann Heinrich,
came to Leipzig,
and Bach put him to work immediately
in the sweatshop of copying.
He's made a complete hash of it.
He's written out the chorale in the
wrong clef and mis-transposed it.
So he has to cross it all out,
and Bach himself has to leap in
and write out the chorale
neatly at the end.
I mean, what a plonker!
Here, you can see Bach painstakingly
trying to repair the damage,
against the clock, to make sure
that there weren't terrible errors
on the music stands
when it came to their
one and only rehearsal
before the cantata was performed.
Bach had constantly
to adjust his music to the talents
and skills of his available
But also he had to
lure in university students
in exchange for
private music lessons.
There's something about Bach's
orthography, his handwriting,
which suggest already the gesture,
the direction of a phrase.
In some cases, Bach was forced to
pay for extra musicians from
his supplementary earnings,
made from playing at weddings
and funerals.
At the end of each frantic week,
Bach unveiled his latest cantata.
What the Leipzig congregation
made of these towering works,
frustratingly, we simply don't know.
All we do know is that plenty
of people would have heard them.
Leipzig was known as
"the city of churches".
It's been estimated
that on a normal Sunday,
of a population of 30,000,
9,000 parishioners
and members of society were
crammed into these two churches.
The Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche,
and bulging from the seams
of the other churches in the town.
Thus, every week,
Bach had an audience
10 or a dozen times bigger
than in any opera house.
Unfortunately, people at the
main churches tended to behave
as if they were in an opera house,
much to the fury of the clergy.
The preachers often think
they don't listen carefully
to the sermons, that's for sure.
You get all kinds of complaints
about people flirting in church,
people sleeping in church, people
throwing paper aeroplanes in church.
Yes. Taking snuff in church.
Dogs coming into church. Absolutely.
And some churches employed special
dog whippers to get the dogs out.
Really? And earlier on
you had complaints about people
taking pigs through church
because it's the quickest way
from where the pig was to market,
and so on.
So I think our sense of proper
behaviour in a church is different.
So, there must have been
a huge amount of noise,
and one of the problems -
that's one of the few things
we really do know -
is that people drifted in and out,
before the sermon,
after the sermon, during the music.
It must have been chaos.
Everything was very, very
stratified here socially,
so the ladies were seated
down here, below,
the men were in the two galleries,
both sides,
and the hoi polloi were at
the back with the riff raff.
And the music, of course,
came from the back of the Church,
up in the organ gallery.
And it was raining
down on the congregation,
but exactly at the moment where the
ladies made their grand entrance.
And given the fact this is Germany,
there was a huge
amount of social greetings...
Wie geht es Ihnen, gnaedige Frau?
That sort of thing.
..while the ladies took their
seats and then gazed up
adoringly at the preacher
about to give his sermon.
And the hubbub during Bach's
music must have been excruciating.
Poor man.
This, then, is the congregation
who first heard the masterpiece
Bach presented at the
Nikolaikirche on Good Friday 1724.
It was his first passion oratorio,
the central jewel of his
necklace of cantatas, a musical
retelling of the story of Jesus'
arrest, trial and crucifixion.
There had been passions before,
but nothing so radical,
so complex or as ambitious as
Bach's John Passion.
He ingeniously blends
orchestral and choral writing
into a thrilling amalgam of
storytelling, meditation and drama.
Can I just have the cello
and bass, please?
Violas start. Bar one.
That's OK. Now, can we
just add the violins, please?
Good, that's it. Right, thank you.
And just flutes and oboes,
please. And one...
It's like nails being
driven into bare flesh.
That's it. That's it.
In this opening chorus, he does
something which none of
the other people had done, which is
to set up a huge dynamic tension
between this turbulence
in the orchestra going on
and this tremendous acclamation
of Christ in majesty.
Bach was not trying to write
an opera.
Bach's purpose was to draw
the listener in. To recreate
in front of their ears and eyes
the drama of Christ's crucifixion.
And his St John Passion is an
extraordinary amalgam of theology
and music, religion
and politics, drama
and wonderful presentation
of storytelling.
So we sense the tension that is
already in St John's gospel,
that between the light and darkness,
between sin and good work
and faith and doubt.
John is particularly remarkable
because you could say
that in his account of the Passion,
everybody else suffers
and is perplexed and agonised,
and Jesus is utterly stable.
I mean, he's not suffering,
he's not under things,
he sort of stands there
over and above them.
Zen-like. He's extremely enigmatic.
I mean, in the middle you have
Christ's sacrifice,
in which he takes upon himself human
sin and gives people back grace.
That's in the middle.
And then, on one side of that, there
are the individuals in the text,
particularly Pilate.
Then, on either
side of that, there is community,
there's the mad community...
The mob. ..of the chorus. The mob.
Hysterical, paranoid,
and utterly deranged, really.
On the other side is the present
community, which is in order
and sings these sculptural,
monumental chorales.
So there you have...
As you say, he ticks all the boxes,
he includes the whole thing,
the whole human thing,
individual, social.
And it's a reflection of Lutheran...
ordered society? It is.
Today the St John Passion
is accepted as a masterpiece,
but at its first performance it
didn't please the Leipzig clergy,
ever suspicious
and alert to the danger of music
stealing their thunder.
Bach was forced to revise it
radically over the next year,
and only towards the end of his life
was it once again performed
in a version close to its original.
Without so much as a break, Bach
began another round of cantatas.
This time the cycle
was based on iconic chorales,
and Bach
had to write a new work each week.
The cycle is breathtaking
in the variety of its moods,
intensely serious at one moment,
cheeky at the next.
Measure him
against any of his contemporaries,
and there's one thing that makes
Bach stick out from all the rest.
He didn't write an opera,
not a single opera.
And yet, at the time,
opera was really the gold currency,
it was the thing that
established careers.
It brought with it fame,
it brought with it success,
it brought with it a lot of money,
and Bach would have none of that.
In fact, he talked rather
disparagingly of those
little ditties that you could hear
at the Dresden Opera.
And yet his music is intrinsically
as dramatic, if not more dramatic,
than that of any of
the opera composers of the day.
Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Telemann, none
could match Bach in this respect.
Only Handel came close.
Everything Bach had learned up
to now, dramatic scene-setting
to underpin the Gospel narration,
and subtle musical power to convey
contrition and remorse,
was poured into his
St Matthew Passion,
first performed at the Thomaskirche
Leipzig on Good Friday 1727.
The St Matthew Passion is even more
atmospheric than the St John.
Lasting around two-and-a-half hours,
it's even more monumental in scale,
with a double choir
and a double orchestra.
He speaks with the voice of someone
whose belief is absolutely
rock solid.
Goes right to the roots of his being.
He believes every word of this, it is
true, that it is completely true.
And...there's a solidity,
a firmness to what comes through
in the Passions that I have
seen very rarely anywhere else.
You wonder, well, where is there
room for Bach's own voice?
It's difficult to answer,
but I feel there are moments,
chinks in the drama, where you
feel that Bach himself
is very much present
and very much making the decisions.
So you've got a, er, crotchet,
to turn round completely,
180 degrees, from being an
absolutely foulmouthed mob
into being contrite
and responsible and tender.
And bewildered - who's hit you?
We don't understand. Go.
The choir have to switch into being
the community, the believers.
And it's in that moment that I feel
Bach is saying,
"This suffering is unbearable.
We have to stop it.
"We have to show our sense
of moral outrage."
The emotional centre of the
Matthew Passion is Erbarme Dich,
Peter's plea for forgiveness,
having denied his Christ.
In comes the violin,
announcing, "Erbarme dich,"
and the violin with no words at all
can convey, in a way that
the human voice could not convey,
this concentration of lamentation,
of grief, of contrition,
of utter abject horror, in a way,
and yet taking on to
a spiritual level,
because the voice line of the violin
becomes an agency of...
of compassion and forgiveness,
and that's before the singer's
sung a note.
Three years after
the St Matthew Passion,
Bach's relationship with his
masters began to fall apart.
In 1730, he wrote what he called
an "Entwurf,"
a memorandum to the Leipzig council,
complaining bitterly that he could
no longer operate.
He hadn't sufficient musicians,
and too few of quality
to perform his work.
Several months later,
Bach took up his pen again.
And this is the most poignant
document of all for me.
It's the only truly personal letter
we have of Bach's,
in which he's writing
to his old pal, Georg Erdmann.
He was the guy that Bach walked
from Ohrdruf to Lueneburg with
when they were both
in their early teens.
And Bach is just pouring out
all his frustration about why
the council had not responded to
this Entwurf,
this statement of his intentions.
And Bach tells Erdmann,
"My life is full of hindrance
and vexation and I see no future
for myself and my family here."
One of the features that you might
expect to see in this
inflexible persona, if you like,
is that he would never be guilty.
No matter what happened,
it's always somebody else's fault.
Does that ring? Yes, it does.
Because he's never to blame.
He always has a reason.
And his motto...
I don't know whether it's his motto
but something that's like a mantra
that comes up and up and again,
is that "My life is lived always
with fixation and hindrance."
I have brought you something here,
which is a textbook definition,
and this is paranoid personality
and these are the characteristics.
"Pervasive suspicion of others,
distrusting their motives.
"Others seen as deliberately
demeaning or threatening,
"constantly expect to be harmed
or exploited,
"very sensitive
to perceived slights,
"fear and avoidance of anything that
could make them feel or seem weak."
That's a perfect description.
The one thing that we do know
is that there is an association with
bullying and abuse in childhood.
Thanks to the bone-headedness
of the city fathers
and the obvious flaws in Bach's
own character,
his output of religious music
now began to dwindle away.
St Thomas's Church
didn't deserve those cantatas.
Nobody deserved those cantatas,
but least of all St Thomas's Church.
That's the striking thing
about a great artist,
is they deliver absurdly
over contract -
heartbreakingly over contract -
and that is the thing that
I think is most impressive
and very deeply moving about him.
There he is,
worrying about his children,
who are popping off
one after the other,
worrying about their education,
trying to keep the town councillors
less irritated,
and so on and so forth, and at
the same time, he just delivered...
this work that, 250, 260 years
later, is supreme in the canon.
Bach now gravitated towards the
other main centre of music-making
in Leipzig, the thriving
coffeehouse scene.
Here was a different audience,
a more relaxed ambience in which
to make music with better musicians
from the university,
eager to learn from the master.
But Bach didn't completely give up
on sacred music.
Indeed, his new secular style
found its way into religious pieces
of unbuttoned high spirits.
Throughout his life,
Bach had much more than
his fair share of heartbreak.
That direct experience of personal
grief comes over in his music,
but never in a saccharine
or morbid way,
but as consoling, soothing,
In many ways, you can imagine
he's creating a lullaby for himself,
which, again, becomes
a lullaby for all of us.
A profound lullaby which comforts
him and through him, comforts us.
The thing that to me is so touching
and powerful in the expression
of the music is the way that
Bach seems to focus
all that distress
and private grief in his own life,
the loss of parents, the loss of
children, the loss of a wife,
always the difficulties
that he was experiencing,
and yet, the music that comes out
of it is so ineffably consoling
And nowadays, we look at the texts,
and with this constant
longing for death,
this anticipation with joy of one's
final demise, it seems bizarre to us
and yet it's with, as you say,
Bach's private grief,
it was commonplace.
grief. Absolutely.
Everybody was losing their families,
their babies, their wives.
And, you know, this is surely
the prime purpose of religion
at that time,
was to give a consolation in the face
of this baffling reality.
With his disagreements with
the council dragging on and on,
Bach now had a new
power struggle.
This time, with the headmaster
of the Thomas School who was
bitterly opposed to all
the emphasis on music in school.
In Bach's desire to put an end
to his woes in Leipzig,
we find the origins of one
late religious masterpiece,
the B minor Mass.
Just try and think how different
this is from Messiah.
Messiah, you've got the angels
wafting in on a cloud
and they come in and they sing
and then disappear, all very gently.
Here, it's a stomp. It's much more
kind of Bruegel than Botticelli,
it's not wiffy-waffy at all.
OK, off we go. Yep?
Bach was angling for a new job,
or at the very least
an honorary title,
at the court in Dresden,
which was Catholic,
so despite his unwavering
commitment to Lutheranism,
Bach, ever practical, saw there
was an opportunity for composing
a Latin Mass on a grand scale.
Bach didn't get his hoped-for
move to Dresden,
although he did get
the honorary title,
and for the next 15 years, we lose
all trace of the B minor Mass.
And then suddenly,
we have a Missa Tota,
a complete Catholic Mass with the
magnificent Credo and the wonderful
Agnus Dei and the touching way
it ends with the Dona Nobis Pacem.
This was Bach's compendium
of all the style
since he was a young composer
up to the most recent music
that he composed. It was his version
of Ars Perfecta, of art perfected.
This is Bach at his most playful,
most jazzy
and most exotic, and it's ebullient,
and that's what we need to feel
because there's something
really folky about this music.
Let's see if we can get that
A question that can never be solved
is what Bach himself
thought of his work, but we do have
one clue that suggests
he saw himself and his music
as inextricably linked.
He loves inscribing his own name -
B-A-C-H, the family name -
into his music
in all sorts of contexts.
And you can only do that in German
because H doesn't exist in English,
it's not a note on the piano, but
in German, B is B flat, isn't it?
A, C, B natural, which is H.
So that's the little kind
of family motto that's in there.
# B, A, C, H. #
One of Bach's most famous
last works,
The Art Of Fugue, breaks off
in mid-flow.
The reasons why this happened
have long been debated.
I thought what we'd do is actually
go just from where he inscribes
his own name, B-A-C-H,
because that's what's
so extraordinary about this piece,
is that he finds a way halfway
through this whole composition
to put his name in and then to
develop it, so we've got two fugues
going on and then suddenly,
it comes to an abrupt halt.
And according to Carl Philipp
Emanuel, he stopped then
because he died, that was it.
It's just chilling.
Let's try it.
My fantasy is that it's completely...
Deliberate. ..deliberate.
And that actually,
it's that unfinished business.
That, "I've written my music
for the future
"and someone else is going
to carry on now."
Bach died aged 65 in Leipzig in the
Thomasschule on 28th July, 1750.
Two successive eye operations
performed by an English quack doctor
seemed to have finished him off.
After his death, his works fell out
of favour, though not with everyone.
His music was passed from hand
to hand and Haydn, Mozart
and Beethoven all marvelled at it.
Only in 1829
when Mendelssohn performed a devoted
but stylistically mangled version
of the Matthew Passion
did Bach begin to regain
the public's affection.
Bach's legacy is assured.
If Monteverdi was the first
composer to find musical expression
for human passion, and Beethoven,
what a terrible struggle it is
to be human and to aspire to be
godlike, Mozart, the kind of music
we'd hope to hear in heaven,
Bach is the one who bridges the gap.
He helps us to hear the voice
of God but in human form, ironing
out the imperfections of humanity
in the perfection of his music.