Gateway to the Classics: Johann Sebastian Bach by George P. Upton
Johann Sebastian Bach by  George P. Upton

A Friend in Need

A T the close of a beautiful Summer day, in the year 1699, subdued and solemn strains of music from the little house of the organist of the market-town of Ohrdruff floated through its quiet streets. A boy sat crying upon the stone steps leading to the house-door. Now and then he lifted his head, looked into the hallway, and saying in a mournfully complaining tone, "False again," or, "The second violin plays most abominably," or making some similar protest of musical sensibility, bowed his head again in sorrow and tears.

As he sat thus, a quick step was heard coming up the street. A lad, somewhat older than the other, approached and said in a clear, cheerful voice: "Why are you crying, Bastian, and what means this funeral music?"

The one addressed raised his handsome eyes, red with weeping, bowed in a dejected manner to his questioner, and said in a low voice: "My brother is dead. Did you not know it?"

"I had not heard a word of it," he replied. "All last week I was at my cousin's in Eisenach, and I have but just returned. Is he dead? And so suddenly! Poor boy, I pity you from my heart. When did it happen?"

"Last evening just about this time. He had not been in his usual health for a week. He often complained of dizziness and difficulty in breathing, and yesterday while cleaning his old violin he suddenly fell and died."

Passionate sobs made his last words almost unintelligible, and the boy for a few seconds gave way to irrepressible grief.

His young friend regarded him in silence for a time, and when he had somewhat recovered from his passionate sobbing delicately sought to divert his attention from his troubles by asking, "Who are these playing so wretchedly? Friends of the deceased?"

"Three of them are. They have engaged the town clerk's assistant for second violin, and he plays badly enough to set one's teeth on edge. If my dead brother could hear him, he would jump out of his coffin and drive the bungler out of his house."

His friend smilingly nodded assent. "He is certainly a slovenly player, but it can't be helped now."

"That is true," sobbed the boy.

A brief pause in the conversation was filled with the tones of the funeral music, during which his friend's gaze rested thoughtfully and sympathetically upon the countenance of his mournful comrade, and his lips moved as if he were talking to himself. At last he resumed reluctantly, but with manifest cordiality and good-will: "Well, Bastian, what is to be done now that your brother, the organist, is dead?"

"The town will install a new organist, I suppose."

"Of course, but that is of little consequence; I mean what will become of you?"

"Of me?" replied Sebastian, thoughtfully. "Who can say? But with God's help I will become a skilful musician, like my good father, and as all the Bachs have been for a hundred years past."

"You mistake my question," said his friend. "I mean where will you live now that this house is henceforth to be closed? You are now a poor orphan. Do you expect that any of your relatives will take you in?"

Sebastian shook his head. "No, Erdmann, I do not. Who can do it? My only remaining brother, Johann Jakob, has left the country and gone into business in Sweden. Both my uncles, my father's brothers, have been dead for some years, and my cousins have trouble enough to get along upon their small chorister's allowance without being burdened with me. Again—"

"It must be very hard for you, my poor Bastian."

Sebastian for a moment regarded his sympathetic friend with moistened eyes, then cordially took his arm and went slowly down the street with him.

"I will tell you about this, Erdmann; they possibly may look at the matter differently. The relatives will come to the funeral ceremonies in the morning, and it may be perhaps that this or that one will take me in until something definite can be arranged; but I am not sure that I wish them to do so. How could I be happy? These poor people have no higher ambition than to get musical education enough to fit them for an ordinary organist's position and enable them to secure a place in some Thuringian country town, and, when they get it, to go on, day after day, practising noble music as if it were a trade, just as if they were cobblers or tailors. If I were to find a home with cousins Tobias Friedrich, Johann Bernhard, Johann Christoph, or Johann Heinrich, what would become of me? All my life I should hear only the music I made myself. I should make no progress, I should never penetrate the noble mysteries of our art; I should remain a town musician like a thousand others."

"But, Bastian, why should you trouble yourself about these matters? Why fix a goal for yourself now? You are still very young."

"I am old enough to know that I must escape from this narrow musical life. Even if my brother had lived, I should not have remained with him much longer."

"Why not? He was a skilful musician."

"Yes, but only for himself. He either could not or would not assist me to advance. I was disgusted with his dry and uninteresting exercises, and he refused to let me practise more useful and difficult ones. He had a manuscript volume of piano studies by famous masters, like Froberger, Fischer, Kerl, Pachelbel, Buxtehude, Bruhns, and Böhm—valuable works, I assure you. Do you suppose he allowed me to have them? When I begged for the volume, he refused me and locked it up."

"This is strange. Why should he have acted so? He could not possibly keep you from advancing in the art for which you have such decided talent."

"Certainly not. He could do well for himself, like all the old organists round here, but he had not the faculty of making others progress. There is something forbidding and mysterious in the attitude of these old musicians of this stamp, which makes it very difficult for beginners to acquire even the rudiments."

"That is curious; but did you at last secure those beautiful and difficult musical exercises?"

An arch smile lit up Sebastian's countenance, immediately followed by an indignant expression: "It is a sad story, Erdmann, and it makes me feel angry whenever I think of it. But listen. My brother had locked up the manuscript in a cabinet which did not shut very closely. I determined to get it, for otherwise I should remain an ignorant scholar and make no advance. One night, when my brother was asleep, I squeezed my hands—they are so little—between the wires of the cabinet and pulled the roll out, not, however, without rubbing the skin off my hands pretty badly, and carried my treasure safely away to my little chamber, where, as I had no candle, I copied the whole book by moonlight."

"Why, you little sinner," said Erdmann, laughing and amazed, "I call that perseverance. How long did it take you to copy it?"

"Fully six months, and my eyes are weak in consequence. And after this what do you suppose happened? One day my brother came in, unawares, when I had the exercises, and without saying by your leave carried off my precious treasure. He never brought it back, notwithstanding all my tearful entreaties."

"Dreadful!" exclaimed Erdmann. "Worse than dreadful! How could he do it? I should have hated him."

"No! He is still my brother. He has done me many kindnesses, and I am greatly distressed," his voice trembled again, "greatly distressed at his death, and just as he was cleaning the old violin! He believed it was a genuine Amati and insisted that Antonio Amati's name and symbols were pasted on it in my grandfather's time, but I do not believe it. The tone is much too hard and rasping. I think it is an old Tyrolean country violin."

"So? Will he be buried to-morrow?"


"And then your fate must be decided?"

"Certainly it must. The cousins then must give me my copy of the book."

"They ought to do that at least. But tell me, what else must they give you?"

"I shall only claim what belongs to me. On an upper shelf in the cabinet there is a tin box with my christening-money, two medals inherited from my great-uncle, Heinrich, and a little money left me by my good father, which they must give me, must they not, Erdmann?"

"I suppose so. You are certainly very young yet, Bastian."

"Young!" replied the latter, indignantly. "I am thirteen—almost fourteen years old. It is high time I was learning something useful, hearing good music, becoming acquainted with great compositions, and I cannot do that here or elsewhere in Thuringia. I must go to some great city where the musical life is intense, where famous organists delight congregations on Sunday, and public libraries lend their best books. It is for such reasons as these I cannot stay with my cousins, even if they should cordially invite me. Now, do you understand, Erdmann?"

During this statement his friend had been thoughtfully regarding the little Sebastian—he was very small for his age—and at last tenderly said: "I believe you are right, Sebastian. Were you to remain here you would be in wretched circumstances like all the other Bachs, although they have musical talent by nature. You must get away, and I will make you this proposition: Day after to-morrow I am going to see my mother's brother at Lüneburg. Go with me. Lüneburg is not a great city, but it is a much more important place than Ohrdruff, Arnstadt, or Eisenach. It was for long the residence of the Grand Duke of Brunswick, and it still has many of the advantages of a capital. There is a magnificent organ in the old Gothic Church of St. John, and every Sunday you can hear the best of music there. You would enjoy that, I fancy."

Sebastian stood for a moment with glistening eyes, overcome with joy. "Lüneburg!" he replied with trembling voice, "St. John's Church organ! Oh, Erdmann, the great organist Böhm, whose majestic chorales I copied by moonlight, is the leading player there. Oh, to hear him, to hear him, I would go barefoot to Lüneburg!"

"Yes," said Erdmann, pleased with the acceptance of his proposal, "that will be nice for you, and a few miles from there is Hamburg."

"Where the famous Reinken, Johann Adam Reinken, plays splendidly at St. Katherine's Church," interposed Sebastian, with enthusiasm. "Erdmann, my dear Erdmann, I must go; and if you will take me with you I will thank you all my life long."

"If your relatives consent, I shall not fail to do so," said his friend. "And once you are in Lüneburg, my uncle, if I ask him, will gladly help you to go farther."

"Really?" said Sebastian, overcome with delight. "Oh, dear friend, how fortunate I am to have met you! I am determined to go with you whether my cousins consent or not."

His more considerate friend advised him to keep on good terms with his relatives. "I will come in the morning and inquire," said he. "Only be very judicious, so that they may have confidence in your good judgment and give their consent to your plans."

"Yes, I will. But come, be sure to come," implored Sebastian, in a beseeching tone, as he pressed his friend's hand. "And not too late. The funeral takes place immediately after the noon service, and promptly afterward everything necessary must be done, for most of the guests will wish to leave before evening, so that they may be punctual at their posts on Monday morning. There will not be much time to spare."

"You are right. The procession passes our house and I can then fix the time. Leave it all to me."

"Yes, I will do so, dear Erdmann, and already I give you a thousand thanks. It seems as if a new life were opening for me. Oh! Oh! to hear Böhm play, and perhaps even Reinken, and to hear their works and play them! Could anything be finer?"

"Well," replied his friend, endeavoring to moderate his enthusiasm, "the world has much besides this that is worth living for. But it is nice that you are pleased with your prospects. Doing things by halves will not accomplish much of any value."

"That shall never be said of me," interposed Sebastian, with flashing eyes. "I feel that I can accomplish something of value, but I must do it in the right way and in the right place—in Lüneburg. Lüneburg is now my watchword. I shall not shut my eyes this night. Would it were morning!"

"Have patience. The morning will not fail you. So now, auf wiedersehen."

"I can scarcely wait."

"But you must. Good-bye."

"Good-bye. I will hurry home to pack my things."

Thus the friends separated in the twilight, in the narrow streets of Ohrdruff.

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