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When asked to name their ideal dinner party guests, who would really say JS Bach? Sure, he was a musical genius (Beethoven reportedly called him ‘the immortal god of harmony’), but his work is hellishly complicated. Even his biographer, John Eliot Gardiner, describes it as ‘so complex that it leaves us completely mystified.’ It is almost impossible to imagine him as a light-hearted or fun guy. How could the composer of such difficult, serious work be anything other than a difficult, serious man? Indeed, the scant first-hand evidence which does exist seems to indicate that he was just that – dour at best and violent at worst.
For one thing, there are numerous accounts of petty arguments between Bach and his employers (one of these even resulting in his imprisonment). He was also known to occasionally react with physical violence – in one famous outburst, he actually pulled a knife on a bassoonist (although he himself claimed that it was self-defence and the bassoonist had attacked him after Bach compared his playing to the sound of a female goat). On another occasion, he reportedly became so infuriated by one of his musicians that he pulled off his own wig and threw it at the man. Clearly, Bach was not someone who suffered fools gladly.
But that was only one side of his personality. We all love a good story about a tormented artistic genius, and perhaps that’s why these stories about his tempestuousness abound. However, there was a lot more to him than that. As well as being a brilliant musician, he was also a devoted family man who welcomed all visiting musicians. He worked hard, as both a musician and in administrative positions. He adored his children and took pains to help them with their careers, though many of them were lost to childhood illnesses.
His family appears to have been at the centre of his life, and was very much caught up in his music. After the tragic death of his first wife, Bach married the soprano Anna Magdalena Wülcken, with whom he had 13 children. Many of his most inspired arias were written for her voice and certainly she was a great influence on his composition (enter the conspiracy theorists).
Many of his children were also successful musicians – Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach from his first marriage, and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Johann Christian Bach from his second. Their success was a source of great pride for Bach, and he believed them to be superior even to himself. He commented that ‘the art has advanced to great heights: the old style of music no longer pleases our modern ears.’ Indeed, he was quite humble about his own musical talents: ‘I had to work hard. Anyone who works as hard will get just as far.’
For all his hard work though, he also had a sense of humour. Take, for example, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, better known as the Coffee Cantata, is a miniature comic opera describing an addiction to coffee. The libretto contains the line, “If I couldn’t, three times a day, be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee, in my anguish I would turn into a shrivelled-up roast goat”. Clearly, Bach had a playful streak.
All in all, it would be a mistake to think of Bach as miserable man. While he may have had his diva moments, it is important to remember that he was also a living, loving person, with depth, character and a dry wit. The seriousness with which we take Bach is tinged with irony when we remember that he never actually took himself that seriously. ‘There’s nothing remarkable about it,’ he wrote, ‘All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.’