Music all too easily disarms our critical faculties. Composers need protection from those grovelling adorers who refuse to distinguish good from bad in their idol’s oeuvre or even to acknowledge his occasional lapses into doodling and bombast. The fawning which began during Wagner’s lifetime for example, scarcely discouraged by the cult object himself, has since become a veritable psychosis, divorced from any worthwhile musical or aesthetic criteria. Schubert has likewise suffered from the dim religious light cast over his achievement by drooling worshippers, too ready to ignore the inconsistencies of his wayward talent or its periodic lapses into twaddling prolixity.
The most eminent casualty of this unhealthy obsession with turning classical masters into plaster saints is Johann Sebastian Bach. In the introduction to his excellent new biography of the composer, Julian Shuckburgh quotes John Eliot Gardiner’s judgment that
Bach is probably the only composer whose musical output is so rich, so challenging to the performer and so spiritually uplifting to performer and listener alike that one would gladly spend a year in his exclusive company.
This is the view of an experienced professional musician in the 21st century. Earlier admirers have been a good deal less rational, especially in Germany, where the beatification of Johann Sebastian was not uninfluenced by the rise of nationalism. It was easy enough to make a Teutonic hero from such a paragon of industry and domestic virtue, husband of two wives and father of 20 children. Unshakeable in his Lutheran piety and obsessively dedicated to his divine calling, he seems the more virtuous for the fact that during his lifetime his genius was known only to a handful of discerning compatriots.
Shuckburgh’s aim in Harmony & Discord has been to unearth the complex and not always especially attractive character behind the music and to link individual compositions to significant phases in the composer’s life. A notable omission from his bibliography is Christoph Wolff’s Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (2000) widely celebrated as the definitive single-volume account of its subject’s career. Rightly, I think, Shuckburgh questions Wolff’s reluctance, in the presence of such ineffable artistic sublimity, to engage with anything so banal as a narrative life record for the creator of the St Matthew Passion and the Goldberg Variations. Level-headed and well-researched, the present book now supplies this, uncovering in the process a figure much more closely involved with the hard graft and hackwork of the musical profession during the Baroque era than many of his idolators would care to imagine.
To such readers the frequent references to money will inevitably seem distasteful. Orphaned at nine years old, the boy Bach — ‘Sebastian’ as Shuckburgh calls him throughout — quickly learned how to use his gifts to make ends meet with the help of a Protestant work ethic. Job security as Kapellmeister at several German ducal courts, or even as organist and choir- master of St Thomas’s church in Leipzig, where the composer spent his mature years, was never copper-bottomed. Whatever his creative or technical prowess, he fell an occasional victim to the crotchets of aristocratic employers. The Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels vetoed his nomination, at the age of 17, to a comfortable organ bench in the Thuringian town of Sangerhausen; in Weimar the Duke awarded him a month in gaol for seeking employment from a neighbouring ruler, and a penny-pinching princess put an end to those years at Cöthen during which most of his finest instrumental works were written.
Even in the freer air of Leipzig, Bach’s life was not a simple affair of bringing up sons as musically gifted as Carl Philipp Emmanuel or Wilhelm Friedemann while trotting out the latest in his magnificent church cantata sequence. He complained — about low pay, local living costs and the town council’s insensitivity to music — while others found him quarrelsome, manipulative and dishonest. Here as elsewhere Shuckburgh convincingly relates the works to their context amid Bach’s experience of contention, disappointment or family deaths. Not everything in the book is as well balanced as we might wish. More needed saying, for instance, about the St John Passion and about the circumstances surrounding the Brandenburg concertos, that compositional dog’s dinner scrambled together by a gourmet chef, but the author’s attitude to the composer’s output is always judicious. Ready to call the St Matthew Passion ‘perhaps the greatest composition in the whole of human history’, he is quite prepared to find some truth in the opinion of one of Bach’s pupils that his genius was frequently clouded by ‘a bombastic and confused style’ and ‘an excess of artifice’.
There is no confusion or excess in this biography. It reminds us that our business when confronting artists and their achievement is not to fall to the ground in abject prostration, but to look them squarely in the face. As with any other composer, Bach’s ultimate greatness, measured by the humanity he shares with us, lies in what his music can tell us about ourselves.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 31, 2009