Thursday, March 3, 2005

320 Years Ago Today

Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt Bach, the wife of Ambrosius Bach, the town piper and a musician in the ducal court of Saxe-Eisenach in north-central Germany, was 18 days away from giving birth to her eighth and youngest child. Elisabeth had married into a virtual family dynasty of musicians; did she have any inkling that her soon-to-be-born son, Sebastian, would not only survive to adulthood, but would become the greatest organist of his day, the most brilliant of the Baroque-era comosers, and among the most revered composers of all time? Unfortunately, Elisabeth not live to see her son achieve very much at all, as she died before his tenth birthday. Her husband, Ambrosius, remarried briefly but followed her to the grave less than a year later.

Elisabeth and Ambrosius had settled in Eisenach, Germany, where they already had four children (the other three had not survived infancy). Their youngest child would be baptized Johann Sebastian Bach on March 23, 1685, at St. Georg's Church. Would Elisabeth, the wife and mother of a Lutheran family living in Lutheran Germany, have ever guessed that her son would become a major figure of Lutheran music?

Interestingly, Martin Luther, the great religious thinker and Christian reformer of the Renaissance, was educated in Eisenach--the same town in which Bach spent his childhood. The child Sebastian would grow up in the shadow of Wartburg Castle, where Luther was housed in the 16th century while translating the New Testament into German. But Luther and Bach had more than just geography and religion in common.

A more-than-competent composer, Luther was a huge supporter of music in the church. Like Bach later on, Luther believed that music was a gift from God. He's quoted as saying that "the Devil hates music because he cannot stand gaiety," and that "Satan can smirk but he cannot laugh; he can sneer but he cannot sing." Luther penned a few dozen hymns, the most famous of which is "Ein feste burg ist unswer Gott" of 1529, better known to English speakers as "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."

One hundred and fifty years after Luther wrote immediately popular hymn, a very pregnant Elisabeth Bach was looking after four children and waiting for her final child to be born. Sebastian would later write the harmonization of Luther's tune that would be most remembered over the centuries--so much that Bach, rather than Luther, has often been given credit for it.

Could Elisabeth have imagined that her son was destined for great things? Were her hopes for Sebastian to merely become a well-compensated musician for the town, church or court, like his father and so many of his uncles and other relatives? Or were her dreams even less grand; in an age where only a handful of babies survived infancy, was her most fervent prayer simply for her child to live?

Whatever her hopes were, I imagine her in the town of Eisenach, her thoughts much more on the harsh realities of day-to-day life than on the potential for greatness that her young Sebastian would ultimately achieve. She didn't know what Sebastian’s future held—and neither would Sebastian. His life, too, would be largely dominated by immediate, day-to-day concerns: obtaining jobs, writing occasional music-on-demand, teaching students, playing the organ for services religious and civil, working with other musicians and singers, raising children, grieving the many deaths that his own family would suffer, and working his deadline-driven tail off for both his church and secular bosses. Bach himself knew that his music had an uncommon transcendence; but how could he imagine that, long after his death, we would know that as well?

Bach wrote more for occasions than for posterity, and much of his music was sadly lost following his death in 1750. Fortunately for us, much of it has survived, as well. (Thanks, Felix.)

And now for a sentence full of prepositional phrases: Here's a midi arrangement of Bach's harmonization of Luther's "Ein feste burg ist unswer Gott." And here are the words to the hymn's English translation (Hedge, 1853):

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow'r are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim -
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow'rs -
No thanks to them - abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him Who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever. Amen.

And that, friends, is today’s Bach post. Check back tomorrow for more on J.S. Bach, whose birthday is this month.


Malcolm said...

Thanks for the link to the Internet Piano Page, I'm enjoying Scarlatti sonatas as I write this.
When I lived in England I used to make harpsichords, mostly my own design specially for Scarlatti's music. What a pity this Scarlatti isn't played on a harpsichord. Anyway it's fun to listen to.


PS I enjoy the Blue Book of Chorales too

Waterfall said...

Malcolm: Yes, the internet piano page is great. I listen to it all the time at work.

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