Bach: Not So Well-Tempered

by Prof. Robert Greenberg

Johann Sebastian Bach had a heck-of-a-temper, though I must be allowed to qualify that statement.

Unlike the second of the so-called “three “B’s” (a.k.a. the “killer B’s” or “the best dead Germans who ever lived”) -- Ludwig van Beethoven -- Bach did not have anger management issues.Unlike the third of the three B’s -- Johannes Brahms -- Bach was not existentially hostile and prone to anti-social behavior.

However, Bach was a perfectionist: a high-maintenance, stubborn, unyielding, easily irritated man who liked his food, drink (beer and brandy), and tobacco; a control freak who suffered fools and lesser talents poorly.

For example, at the age of 20 he was playing the organ and conducting the student orchestra at the New Church in Arnstadt, Germany.In early August of 1705, Bach – thoroughly frustrated with a bassoonist named Johann Heinrich Geyersbach -- called him a Zippel Fagottist: a “greenhorn” bassoonist; a “beginner bassoonist.” For Geyersbach, who at 23 was three years older than Bach, these were fightin’ words.So one evening, as Bach was crossing the market square in Arnstdt, Geyersbach went after Bach with a club.Bach tried to pull out his dagger, but before he could:

“Geyersbach had fallen into his arms, and the two of them tumbled about until they were separated.”

Now, admittedly, this isn’t quite as bad as being charged with assault for throwing a telephone at a hotel concierge; or threatening to kill a movie producer during a late night phone call, or repeatedly getting into drunken bar brawls (all actions attributable to the cantankerous Russell Crowe).Nevertheless, teachers are well-advised to refrain from insulting their students in front of their peers.

Bach’s seemingly endless run-ins with authority are the stuff of legend.And neither was he an easy man to work for.An early biographer of Bach named C. L. Hilgenfeldt tells this story, dating to the mid-1720’s:

“The organist of the Thomas-Church [where Bach was the Music Director], who was in general a worthy artist, once so enraged him by a mistake on the organ during a rehearsal of a cantata that he [Bach] tore the wig from his head, and with the thundering exclamation ‘You ought to have been a cobbler!’ threw it at the organist’s head.”

Running the risk of (admittedly) oversimplifying things, I would suggest that two conflicting and ultimately irresolvable issues powered Bach’s temper and, by extension, his relationship with the outside world.

Issue number one.In his lifetime, Bach was the most musically talented man on the planet, which was something he most certainly understood. Issue number two - he lived at a time and place where professional musicians were lackeys of the church and state, working-class craftspeople one rung above brick layers and about a gazillion social rungs below the people they worked for.Such a situation was not conducive to peaceful co-existence, which forced Bach to literally fight for respect and his professional life on numerous occasions.Which is why Bach’s boss, Wilhelm Ernst, Prince of Weimar, tossed Bach into jail in 1717.For the entire skinny on that tawdry episode, tune into “Bach the Jailbird” on “Scandalous Overtures” on Ora TV. 

**Photo courtesy of Getty Images (Johann Sebastian Bach, oil-on-canvas by Haussman, 1764)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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