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

In the World

T HE funeral of the organist and music master, Johann Christoph Bach, was marked by all the ceremony becoming the burial of an excellent man, a faithful servant of the church and school, and an accomplished musician. The mourners returned from the churchyard, speaking with subdued voices. They were plain, earnest men, clad in simple black coats, long-skirted waistcoats over short knee-breeches and stockings, and buckled shoes. They also wore the three-pointed hat over a small periwig.

Arrived at the house, those not belonging to the family took their departure after a few words of condolence, but the relatives entered and assembled in the sitting-room of the deceased around the old black family-table, which had been made ready for such business as it might be necessary for them to settle before they separated. This did not take long. The joint bequest, very moderate in amount, fell to the five sons of the deceased, to be divided at a fitting time. The principal difficulty was to decide as to the further care and education of the little Johann Sebastian; but they were spared any trouble on his account, for they had hardly begun to consider the question when Sebastian, who had been sitting in the window looking at the funeral hymn, arose, and decorously advanced to the table.

"Dear cousins," he boldly began, looking round the circle with large, bright eyes, "do not trouble yourselves about me. I am in my fourteenth year and am old enough to take care of myself hereafter. I thank my dead brother for all the love and kindness which he bestowed upon me to the very end, but I am not willing longer to be a burden to anyone; I shall leave this good home as early as possible to-morrow to seek my fortunes elsewhere. I beg you to give me the organ compositions which Johann Christoph took away from me, likewise the old box with my christening-money, together with your blessing, and let me go in peace."

All present were greatly astonished at the boy's bold little speech, and there was silence in the room for a time. It was broken by the most prominent one in the circle, Johann Valentin, eldest son of George Christoph, cantor at Schweinfurt, who said: "Your statement greatly astonishes us, dear Johann Sebastian; you are not yet of age nor able to earn a living by the practice of our beloved music. Tell us what your plans are and how you expect to support yourself. Your little christening-money will not go far."

"My first move will be to the city of Lüneburg," said the boy, with confidence, "where I hope to take lessons from the great organist, Böhm. My friend Erdmann, who has a kind uncle living there, goes to him to-morrow, and will take me with him and introduce me to him. I have a good singing voice and an excellent method, so I expect I shall easily secure a position as chorister and thus provide for the ordinary expenses of life. In case of extreme need, my friend Erdmann has promised me his uncle's assistance."

Johann Valentin replied: "Our family, honorably known as the Bachs, are of a contented spirit by nature, and have always been so well satisfied with their fatherland and their circumstances that, with the exception of your brother, Johann Jakob, none of them until now has desired to seek service and fortune outside of Thuringia. The Bachs until now have considered the approbation of their superiors and of their native places as more desirable than the quest for fame at great trouble and expense among jealous strangers. Are you now to be an exception, dear Johann Sebastian? Do you not believe one can become a good organist here, one well pleasing to God and man, and live here contented with his position? Your good father, Johann Ambrosius, I think, set you a commendable example. How is it then that you alone have this restlessness and this inordinate desire to associate with so-called 'great musicians'? Oh, my dear Johann Sebastian, music is not a mere matter of show and glory; it is a solemn reality. It is of little consequence whether the world hears of us, so that we strive with all our might that God may hear us and recognize our simple art."

"What you say, cousin," replied Sebastian, with an earnestness not often found in one so young, "is as true as gold, and yet I cannot longer remain satisfied with what our family has thus far accomplished. What I mean is, that the Bachs should not continuously learn only from the Bachs. They must go out into the world. Every master craftsman lets his son go among strangers so that he may learn some other master's style and ways, and thus improve, or, as it were, bring fresh blood into his workmanship. Painters and sculptors go to Italy, where there are good masters and teachers, and infuse new life into their artistic work at home; while musicians alone sit immovable in their little organ-lofts and hear no one but themselves. There is no progress in that. And it is because I believe all this that I am determined to travel and try to study in other places and among other people, to hear good musicians, and to learn from them what I need to learn."

The boy's eyes glistened and his cheeks reddened as he spoke. He grew more and more excited as he proceeded, until at last he was well-nigh breathless. Finally, he ceased and looked around the circle, awaiting a gracious answer. But the cousins were also silent, and looked at each other as if paralyzed by the boy's passionate utterances, until at last Johann Ernst, Johann Christoph's eldest son, expressed the sentiment of the family, and said, in a tone of the deepest conviction, "It is only pride and the craving for empty honors that have induced you to leave here."

"That is not so," replied Sebastian, excitedly. "I am striving for the same ends as you, only in my own way. If I master my art, I will elevate and improve sacred music in a worthy and judicious manner; I will play for the praise of the Lord. I will walk honestly, as did my blessed father. If I seek other ends than these may someone shatter my instrument, for I shall no longer be worthy to touch the consecrated keys."

It was no longer a boy who spoke, but a young man, who had seriously considered his art and who was determined nothing should turn him from the right way to the highest achievements.

As such a youth the Bachs at last recognized him. After a whispered consultation the eldest voiced the final decision: "We have agreed, dear Johann Sebastian, to let you go the way you have chosen, hoping and praying it may end well; we have the utmost confidence in the sincerity of your purpose, and as for the rest we leave you in the Almighty's hands. Forget not, among strangers, who you are and where you belong. We, the elders, will remain here, and when you return to the dear Thuringian land, come as a true Bach, as an able and pious musician, as a worthy son of your brave, faithful father."

"I promise you all solemnly to do so," said Sebastian, with deep emotion, as he extended his hand to each cousin, beginning with Valentin. They shook it warmly and firmly, as a mark of conciliation, and then Johann Valentin took a gulden from his little purse, as did all the others, and handed the modest sum to the blushing boy as his travel-money. They also gave him the tin savings-box with the christening-money, and beside this his well-earned manuscript, an autograph motet of his dead brother's ("Lord, if I have only Thee") for five voices, with the fundamental bass, and finally added to his brother's bequest a violin (not the supposed Amati), as well as the bow and case, so that the little traveller "may have the opportunity further to perfect himself on this instrument."

Then they dismissed the boy, who was overcome with joy and gratitude, to give him time to make his simple plans for the journey. He rushed out as if beside himself with happiness, which was still further intensified by the appearance of his true friend Erdmann at the door, whom he embraced without any regard to the parcels in his arms.

"Erdmann, dearest Erdmann," he shouted, scarcely lowering his voice, "I am free! I am going with you, God be praised!"

"Have they really let you go, and with their free consent?" said the astonished Erdmann.

"With their free consent," replied Sebastian. "At first they hesitated. They thought it improper for a Bach to go among strangers and to wish to study with other masters, but I argued so stoutly against that view, and defended my plans so earnestly, that at last they trusted me and gave their consent with many good wishes. They also contributed an ample sum of travel-money, and gave me this violin and a composition as a remembrance of my dead brother,—but, oh, I could have remembered him without that." And the great spiritual eyes of the boy glistened with rising emotion.

"Now all goes well," said Erdmann. "Your cousins have taken the right view of the case. You are free, and nothing can prevent you from becoming a great musician—greater than all the Bachs, big and little, before you."

"Yes, yes," cried Sebastian, trembling with joy; "but when shall we start?"

"The first thing in the morning. We have a good conveyance to Gotha and day after to-morrow to Mühlhausen. Bring your baggage this evening to the Black Bear and be there yourself to-morrow morning at sunrise."

"Hurrah!" shouted Sebastian, excitedly. His outcry rang so loudly through the house that one of the Bach cousins opened the door and reproved him: "Johann Sebastian, we are still in the house of death."

"Forgive me," said the really contrite lad, turning crimson, as he started up to his little chamber, while Erdmann, taking some of the reproof to himself, quietly withdrew.

Thus the memorable day came to an end crowning Sebastian's dearest wishes. His joy could hardly have been greater had he been vouchsafed a glance into the future and realized he was taking the first step upon the road leading him to the supreme heights of his art.

With eager hands he joyfully packed the little bag left him by his devoted father with his scanty stock of clothes and the necessary books and papers, and took it in the darkness of the evening to the Black Bear, where the old and well-known house-servant took care of it. Then he hastened back to the organist's house, bade a cordial farewell to his relatives, ate a little soup in the kitchen, made for him by the old housemaid, took a big slice of bread, and hurried up to his chamber so that he might have a good night's rest and be ready for his early start.

There was not much sleep for him, however, that night. He lay upon his bed with wide-open eyes looking out into the serene moonlight. Like the light clouds which floated across the moon, memories and hopes swept over his young soul. Gentle, beautiful melodies entranced him and made his heart beat exultantly. Half waking, half dreaming, he raised his hands as though they touched the keys of a celestial instrument and his lips murmured disconnected words.

Thus the night hours passed between waking and sleeping. Toward morning he sank into the deep, sound sleep of youth, and notwithstanding his longings and his impatience for the journey would have slept beyond the appointed hour had not his trusty friend, the old housemaid, awakened him and reminded him of his purpose, at the first glow of dawn. It was a joyful call. Thankfully he threw his arms about her neck and drew her old head down to his. Then he dismissed her, arose and dressed, bathed his flushed face in cold water, and repaired to the kitchen, where he sat by the maidservant a few minutes while he ate his morning soup.

At last he was through. He bade farewell to his tearful friend and was about to leave the house, when a room door opened and the plain, honest face of Johann Valentin appeared.

"Johann Sebastian."

"Dear cousin."

"Come in."

As the boy stood before him, he placed both hands upon his shoulders and looked into his clear blue eyes.

"My dear Johann Sebastian," he said with deep emotion, "my heart bids me say a word to you before you leave your home. Some voice clearly tells me that great achievements and fame are in store for you. But whatever may be the outcome of the course you take this day, contrary to the usages and habits of our family, the greatest human fame is as nothing in God's eyes if it is not humbly received by a pure and pious heart, which ascribes the honor to Him. Remember this, dear Johann Sebastian, and take from me, the eldest of the family, in place of your dear father, my heartiest wishes and blessings."

He placed his hand upon the boy's head, whispered a prayer, kissed him lightly upon the forehead, and softly said, "Now go in peace."

"You shall not be disappointed in me, dear cousin," said the boy with emotion, as he reverently kissed the hand of his well-wisher. "I shall never forget your words, never, and never shall I cease to be grateful for your fatherly kindness. Farewell."

"God's angels guide and guard you."

The next moment he had left the organist's house and with weeping eyes was hastening down the deserted street.

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