Johann Sebastian Bach
Looking at it today, Bach's lifetime achievement seems even more incredible than it might have looked for earlier generations: it is so much music that we can hardly imagine that it is possible to even just copy it using only a quill and ink within his lifespan of 65 years, let alone compose it. And we must not forget that he was not only a composer, but also a performer (which even for someone like Bach requires practice and rehearsal, at least from time to time), a civil servant, teacher, father and husband. The complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach nowadays exceeds the duration of far more than 100 CDs, which places his oeuvre not only artistically beyond comprehension but also makes it only comparable to those of Michelangelo, William Shakespeare or Pablo Picasso.
Nevertheless almost every attempt to approach the private person Johann Sebastian Bach has failed, even if a number of biographers have tried to do so over the last centuries and, while doing so, have shown a remarkable courage for pure fiction. Aside from his countless musical manuscripts, there is only one single document in his own handwriting that we possess, this being the infamous letter to the authorities in Leipzig that made posterity assume that he Bach was a rebellious character. Marten t'Haart quite reasonably argues that this might also be proof of the exact opposite: During all those years as an employee of surely not only agreeable nobility and authorities, there was only one incident that made him rebel?
We know nothing. The true nature of the human being Johann Sebastian Bach, let's just be honest, does not matter for playing and listening to Bach's music, as this music is pure and absolute and, due to this pureness, rich in possible meanings: Every player and every listener reads, plays, hears and feels different and individual details. This music shows as many varieties as human nature itself and comes in all aspects of human intellect and soul, equal only to the way that nature makes humans different from and similar to each other at the same time.
It seems that we will not come much closer to a true biography of Johann Sebastian Bach than a list of places where Bach was at certain times in his life, and even that list has huge gaps in it for long periods of time. The only thing that we can and should try is to imagine the world that he entered when, between schoolteaching, children, copyists, musicians, servants and other domestic upheavals, he wrote works like the Goldberg Variations, the passions, the B Minor Mass, Violin and Cello Suites and, last but not least, for many years a cantata every week. He certainly had no time for self-indulgence.
St Thomas Church in Leipzig is the place where he is now buried, under a plate that simply reads "Bach", similar to the marriage certificate of Elizabeth II. that states as "Father's profession" simply: "King".
© Martin Rummel / paladino media