Thread: The Occult Bach
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Old 04-01-2021, 05:23 PM   #11 (permalink)
Indrid Cold
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Earlier, I mentioned a Bach advocate named J. A. Birnbaum. What do I mean that he was a Bach advocate? What did Bach need an advocate for? To answer that, we must return to Johann Mattheson and his attempts to update and demystify music. Mattheson wanted to take music away from the musicians and composers and give it to the listener, primarily those who attend opera, but any listener of note. Bach’s friend, Johann Heinichen, took Mattheson’s side. He felt the composer “consists once and for all in the art of making his music, as a matter of course, popular and pleasing to the reasonable world.” Mattheson was even more forthcoming: “Really we should not follow our own inclinations, but those of the listener. I have often composed something that seemed to me trifling, but unexpectedly attained great favor. I made a mental note of this, and wrote more the same, although it had little merit when judged according to its artistry.” What Mattheson appeared to be getting at is that the time for music as theoretical exercise and meditation was over and now the time had come for music purely as entertainment. To put it more succinctly, the Mattheson camp was advocating for popular music. They wanted to discard esoterica in favor of pop. So this post-baroque period or what we call the galant or rococo period was the beginning of the concept of pop music and easy listening. Don't challenge the ear--please it! Most people don't want their tastes challenged and hence the music won't sell. Want to sell music and make a comfortable living? Give 'em what they want to hear no matter how puerile it is.

Here, in a nutshell, is the dilemma in Bach had inadvertently landed—that of the idea that the composer should no longer be judged by his peers but by his audience, by how popular he was. In 1738, up rose a former student of Bach, Johann Adolph Scheibe, who took it upon himself to criticize his former-teacher as ignorant of philosophical knowledge and critical skills. Scheibe wrote that Bach “has not studied the science/humanities which actually are required of a learned composer.” Bach’s works were flawed because, Scheibe wrote, “How can a man who has not studied philosophy and is incapable of investigating and recognizing the forces of nature and reason be without fault in his musical work?” Scheibe was not merely criticizing Bach, he was attacking his character and talent and making no secret of it. Bach, Scheibe went on to say, was a dull man of questionable taste due to his lazy nature in failing to observe and to investigate (presumably the new music). As a result, Bach’s works had neither movement nor expression. Scheibe, at the apparent urging of Mattheson, also attacked canon and counterpoint which he alleged to be the result of “disheartened diligence, of worthless toil, and of a pedantic spirit.”

So, up from Leipzig University jumped a teacher and amateur musician named Johann Abraham Birnbaum to Bach’s defense. Bach was hesitant to engage Scheibe publicly. This kind of sparring was not something in which he was skilled at much less inclined to engage in. Private correspondence perhaps but not in an arena where the public had front row seats. Scheibe also did not hesitate to take advantage of Bach’s unwillingness to confront him and very rudely mocked the man by referring to him as a musikant—essentially, a musical moron— not educated enough to write books nor engage in philosophical investigations and who scarcely deserved the title of Leipzig’s Musical Director and Saxon Court Composer.

Bach, it is true, did not have a university education. He was teaching at Leipzig University--true enough--but he never got a degree himself. He was largely self-taught when it came to furthering what he had learned from his relatives when he was a boy and all the royal patrons he had worked for over the years. But, in addition to German, Bach spoke excellent Latin and French. His Italian, however, appeared to be lacking or at least Bach seemed to feel that way. Bach was afraid that, at some point, Scheibe might cross him up on some academic point or other and humiliate him publicly so Bach decided it was better to get a university representative to speak publicly in his stead. Scheibe knew about Bach’s educational deficiencies and sought to draw him out publicly with insults but Bach was too wary to fall for it and, despite his quick temper, wisely held his tongue.

Clearly, Scheibe was doing everything he could to provoke a response from Bach even, apparently, risking his own reputation to do so. Birnbaum, however, was not defending an indifferent or diffident Bach. The evidence indicates that Bach was quite engaged with Birnbaum and furnishing him with the necessary material to fire back at Scheibe. In Birnbaum’s responses to the jabs of Scheibe, he makes references to obscure works that Bach was known to be studying but which Birnbaum himself would have known nothing. There is little doubt that Bach was employing Birnbaum as a surrogate, a mouthpiece, almost as an attorney.

The public war between Scheibe and Birnbaum was closely followed by virtually all professional musicians and composers as well as the general public. Scheibe was not without his detractors and a great many of them. It is difficult to say what was motivating Scheibe in his attacks on Bach. The inflammatory articles were published in Scheibe’s periodical, Critischer Musikus and some wondered if Scheibe was simply attacking Bach in order to increase readership. But to go after his old instructor was seen by a great many as bad form. Whatever, the cause of the drama instituted by Scheibe, Bach had a great many defenders. Scheibe’s nastiness was alienating even those who essentially agreed with his views about the new music. They felt he was coming on far too strong and damaging their position rather than helping it. Still others supported Scheibe in everything he wrote because Bach represented everything they hated about musical academia, especially considering that Bach did not have a degree, and we must conclude that Scheibe himself had come around to that view. Through it all, Bach never actually waded into the debate himself—never wrote a letter, never publicly complained of his ill treatment, never signed his name to any document concerning this squabble.
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