Leipzig 1723-1750

Part 3 (1740-1750)

Since 1733, the Dresden connection had become very important for Sebastian. In contrast with the stagnating Leipzig situation, Dresden had a very lively music scene, with lots of interesting musicians, like the violinist and Vivaldi promotor Pisendel, the French flute virtuoso Buffardin, and the director of church music at the Saxon court Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was a promotor of the Palestrina style. The opera was led by Bach's friend and prolific composer for the theater, Johann Adolf Hasse, who wrote more than 60 operas and who was married to the then famous star soprano Faustina Bordoni (picture on the left). All these people were admirers of Bach, which made it easier for Sebastian to maintain a regular personal contact with Dresden. The Dresden connection was in general very important for Bach's new style, which incorporated elements of both the new galant fashion and the stile antico (old fashioned strict contrapunt in the style of Palestrina). The Italian connections of the Dresden musicians were, presumably, instrumental in Bach's acquaintence with these new stylistic elements.

In the last decade of Bach's life, all these interests were deepened and extended under the influence of Sebastian's many theoretically gifted students and under the influence of Bach's growing connection with Berlin. Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel had become court musician there since 1738, and, obviously, Potsdam and Berlin were the future in the German speaking world, both in terms of power and in terms of culture.

The first time Bach had been in Berlin was in 1719, when he purchased the great Mietke harpsichord for the Koethen court. With Carl Philipp Emanuel in Berlin, Bach became a more or less regular visitor. He was in Berlin in 1741, when Anna Magdalena became seriously ill for a while, as we know from the correspondence of Bach's second-cousin Johann Elias Bach, who was part of the Bach household between 1737 and 1742, and who acted as Bach's secretary and musical tutor of the younger children. His letters form an important source of infromation about the Bach family in those years.

Presumably, Bach was also in Berlin in 1745, when Leipzig was temporarily sieged by Prussia during the second Silesian war between Austria and Prussia (Saxony was an ally of Austria). But the most famous visit to Berlin is the one which Sebastian undertook in May 1747 with his son Wilhelm Friedemann. He was received at the Stadtschloss (picture on the right, below) in Potsdam by Frederick II (king Frederick the Great of Prussia), who was an enthusiastic musical amateur and player of the flute. Bach tried all organs in Potsdam and the Silbermann fortepianos in the palace. The visit culminated in the famous theme given to Bach by the king with the request to elaborate on it. Bach improvised on the theme but promised the king that he would make something more sophisticated at home and have it engraved and printed. This resulted in the Musical Offering, BVW 1079, engraved by Bach's former pupil and engraver in Zella, Johann Georg Schübler. The dedication to the king was printed in Leipzig by Bernhard Christoph Breitkopf.

Note, incidentally, that Bach's flirtation with Frederick the Great of Prussia gives some food for thought, politically and morally. Bach was not an arbitrary citizen but the court Capellmeister and composer of the Elector of Saxony, who had just been defeated by Prussia in the Second Silesian War. One gets the impression that Bach had a keen eye for the direction that contemporary history had taken and where the future was in terms of power and influence. In a way, then, Bach's opportunistic visit to Potsdam in 1747 was the last major step in a career well-planned.

Some parts of the Musical Offering showed again a certain influence of the new galant style. According to Robert L. Marshall, in his article "Bach the Progressive", this influence is also visible in the Golberg Variations, that appeared in 1742 (as Clavier-Uebung IV) and were commisioned by Count Keyserlingk for his harpsichord player and former student of Bach and his son Friedemann, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Some characteristics of this new style are a less dense polyphonic structure and the emphasis on a main part (melody), a regular and rather fixed phrase structure (themes of 16 measures, divided in two parts of 8 measures, etc.), and a slower harmonic rhythm than was usual in the older baroque style. Furthermore, it is common in this style to use popular dance rhythms and folk songs, such as the quodlibet at the end of the Goldberg variations. Similar elements can be found in the Peasant Cantata (BWV 212) of 1742 and also the six Schübler chorales, BWV 645-650, show certain influences of the new style. These are just a few examples of the fact that Bach was well aware of new developments and that he didn't hesitate to incorporate them in his own compositions.

Bach was not only occupied with the style of the future but, as already mentioned, even more so with the stile antico, the strict counterpoint of composers like Palestrina. Bach's preoccupation with the stile antico is most obvious in his Mass in B Minor, BWV 232, but all other great "encyclopedic" compositions of his last period show a related preoccupation with strict counterpoint and the canon form. This is true for the Golberg Variations, but also for the canonic variations Vom Himmelhoch da komm' ich her, BWV 769, (1747 or 1748), and most prominently of all in the Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080), a work started around 1740 and not finished yet when Bach died in 1750 (it was published in 1751). Also the preludes and fugues collected as Das Wohltemperierte Clavier II (finished by the early 1740s) show a certain influence of the stile antico.

In the past, Bachs oeuvre was often seen as the the culmination point of a development of centuries, as the terminal point of the polyphonic period in the history of music. Modern Bach scholarship, however, also tends to stress the pre-classic, "progressive" elements in Bach's late works and even his preoccupation with the stile antico can be seen as an element that points to the future rather than to the past. Bach's new historical dimension grew in connection with his large circle of theoretically gifted and historically-minded students such as Lorenz Mizler, the founder of the Societaet der musicalischen Wissenschaften and the translator of Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum (1725) (Bach owned the original Latin version), a work that analyses the old Palestrina counterpoint style in depth. It had something to do with the growing enthusiasm in this period about antiquity and even about things "gothic" as cultivated in the coming Romantic era. In 1747, Bach became member 14 of Mizler's society, for which he had to submit a composition (the aforementioned canonical variations BWV 769). Each member also had to submit a portrait. The portrait that Bach used for the occasion is the famous Haussmann portrait of 1746.

Bach finished his great B Minor Mass in 1749. Probably, he was not active in his function as cantor anymore because the Leipzig authorities started the process of attracting a new cantor (Gottlob Harrer). Bach was practically blind due to cataracts at the end of his life. Early in 1750, he was unsuccessfully treated for that by the British oculist Taylor and later that year he was hit by a stroke. He died on July 28, 1750. According to recent medical interpretations of Bach's symptoms in the last period of his life, he probably suffered and died from diabetes mellitus. Traditionally, it was assumed that just before he died Bach dictated a setting of the chorale Wenn wir in hoechsten Noten sein (For deinen Thron tret ich hiermit) to his son-in-law Altnickol. This has always sounded too virtuous and pious to be true, and indeed, modern Bach scholarship has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that this was a myth all along. Bach was not very much of a religiously inspired composer anyway during the last two decades of his life.

Bach's estate and legacy was divided among his wife and children, not without difficulties, because for some reason Sebastian had failed to make a will. The sons of Bach's first marriage didn't do very much for their stepmother Anna Magdalena afterwards (her own sons were still too young). Nobody knows the reason for this curious neglect. She died on February 27, 1760 and was given a pauper's funeral.

Wilhelm Friedemann (born in 1710, picture on the right) was organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden till 1746, when he became organist and cantor at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle, where he had to write cantatas like his father. He was involved in conflicts there and resigned in 1764, without finding other employment. In 1770, he went to Brunswick and four years later to Berlin. He tried to make himself a living as a travelling organ virtuoso but didn't succeed to build up a stable and successful existence. He survived in Berlin thanks to financial support from his student Sara Itzig Levi, who was the daughter of Frederick the Great's Minister of Finance and a great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn's. He was very famous as an organist and not entirely unsuccessful as a composer, although he often failed to write out and publish his brilliant improvisations. He died in pitiful circumstances in 1784.

Carl Philipp Emanuel (born in 1714) had the most stable career. he remained at the Potsdam court till 1766, when he succeeded Telemann as music director of Hamburg. Like his older brother, he was a keyboard virtuoso who had to write cantatas now. often with some help from the works of father Sebastian or Telemann. He was rather succesful as a composer, worked under more civilized and understanding authorities than his father, and died in Hamburg in 1788.

Two sons of Anna Magdalena were successful musicians and composers as well. Johann Christoph Friedrich (born in 1732) became chamber musician to count von Schaumburg-Lippe at the Bueckeburg court, where he stayed till his death in 1795.

Johann Christian (Bach's youngest son, born in 1735; picture on the left) became quite famous. He went to Italy thanks to a love affair with an Italian singer. As Giovanni Bach, he met the inevitable padre Martini in Bologna (known from Mozart's biography) and became organist of the dom at Milan. After a brief and successful stay as opera composer in Naples, he went back to Milan. His next station was London, where he was very successful as a composer of operas and chamber music. In 1764 he came in touch with the visiting Mozart and had a direct and lasting influence on the young genius. In spite of these early successes, his music went out of fashion, he tended towards alcoholism, built up considerable debts and died at age 46 (in 1782), earlier than his older brothers Friedemann and Emanuel.

Of Bach's four remaining daughters, Elisabeth Juliane Friederica ("Liesgen") was married to Bach's student Johann Christoph Altnickol in 1749. The other three daughters neither found a husband nor had received the education to support themselves in a financially satisfactory way.

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