THE GRAND OLD MEN OF BACH BIOGRAPHY:
FORKEL, SPITTA, SCHWEITZER
Johann Nikolaus Forkel publishes the first book on Johann Sebastian Bach in 1802, an eighty-two-page work entitled On Johann Sebastian Bach’s Life, Art, and Work: For Patriotic Admirers of True Musical Art. The author was born in 1749, while Bach was still alive, in a village near Coburg, and in 1779 became Göttingen University’s director of music. For years he maintained lively contact with Bach’s sons and benefited from their direct, though far from complete, knowledge of their father. On one occasion, Forkel sends Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, presumably his most generous informant, several mettwursts to show his gratitude for notes the younger Bach turned over to him.1 Yet his sketch of Bach’s life is supplemented with all sorts of anecdotal material. Although Forkel made a name for himself with a General History of Music, he seems less interested in determining Bach’s place in music history than in paying tribute to him as a national hero.
Forkel writes his book at a time when the Germans are resisting the ideas of the French Enlightenment and Napoleon’s push for political hegemony, striving instead to establish the concept of a German nation. They find a guiding principle in the notion of cultural unity—Germany as the nation of poets and thinkers. They assert that what distinguishes the Germans from other peoples is their penchant for thoroughness, profundity of thought, moral earnestness, and passion for ideals. Thus Bach is the right man to become a musical national hero in this period.
When Forkel characterizes his hero as “the greatest master of musical expressiveness who ever existed,” as a composer whose works are “full of character and feeling” in spite of all their complexity and intricacy, he is drawing on his understanding of music as a rhetorical art form, yet at the same time he is introducing the possibility of viewing Bach from other perspectives: not exclusively as the great organ virtuoso, teacher, and master of the fugue, the splendid contrapuntalist and powerful harmonist but also as an artist whose “musical poetic spirit” never lacked for “adequate expressive means for portraying his emotions.”2
According to Forkel, Bach’s genius and originality tower over the artistic spirit of the present. Because of its exemplary nature, Forkel calls the music of “the first classic composer” a “priceless national heritage, the equal of which no other people can claim.” Bach’s works are intended not merely to delight for the moment; they are directed toward all that is “great and noble” and constitute, “one and all, true ideals and immortal exemplars of art.” The “incomparable wealth of ideas gathered therein” will allow future generations to continue discovering something new, even after thousands of encounters.3 Forkel does not confine himself to general observations, however; he also provides concrete information. He reports respectfully on six generations of musical Bachs; sketches Johann Sebastian’s life and character, primarily on the basis of the 1754 obituary, supplemented with information provided by the sons; and offers an assessment of him as an astounding pianist, organist, and teacher. He goes on to formulate thoughts on Bach’s compositional style and his tendency to continue altering and improving his compositions throughout his life, thoughts still worth reading today. While Forkel’s survey of Bach’s oeuvre is cursory and devotes too much space to the keyboard works, it displays an admirable desire for accuracy.
Although it may seem somewhat unfair to call Forkel’s small book “more a manifesto than a biography,” as does the Bach scholar Friedrich Blume,4 the work certainly appears rudimentary when compared with the two-volume biography published in 1865 by Carl Heinrich Bitter, a Prussian government official and later minister of finance. For its use of sources and the breadth of its evaluation of Bach’s music this book is a significant scholarly achievement. Yet, for all its inadequacies, the work of this “dilettante,” who was nonetheless well versed in music history, did not receive the recognition it merited. It was overshadowed by another biography, almost two thousand pages in length, that followed on its heels: the Spitta, as it is still respectfully called today. This work, published in two volumes in 1873 and 1880 by Breitkopf and Härtel, is one of a number of great musical biographies in multiple volumes that appeared in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—one thinks of Friedrich Chrysander’s Handel, Ferdinand Pohl’s Haydn, Otto Jahn’s Mozart, Carl Friedrich Glasenapp’s Wagner, Max Kalbeck’s Brahms, and Alexander Wheelock Thayer and Hermann Deiter’s Beethoven. Within this company, Philipp Spitta sets a new standard for the biography of an artist—with respect not to length but to thoroughness. He aims to be as comprehensive as possible; in the era of the Monumenta Germaniae historica, he sees it as a matter of honor to document and analyze Bach’s life and works exhaustively, in the spirit of modern scholarship; to capture them for posterity; and, wherever possible, to reconstruct them, as components of a “grand” German history. If Spitta shows less interest in satisfying his contemporaries’ desire to know something about Bach than in doing justice to Bach, whom he wants to rescue once and for all from oblivion, he nonetheless speaks in the spirit of his age and to his age when it comes to aesthetics. Here he takes the same approach as Forkel, viewing Bach’s art as the epitome of what art should be.
Born in 1841 in Hoya, in the marches of the Weser, as the son of a poetry-writing pastor known for his collection of hymns Psalter and Harp, Spitta began his career in Reval, where he taught Greek and Latin at a gymnasium. He had written his doctoral dissertation on sentence structure in Tacitus, but from early on music was his real love. As a student in Göttingen he had made the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, eight years his senior. It was the beginning of a friendship that endured over many years. Despite “some disappointment” with certain works by Brahms and certain features of his compositions, Spitta embraced Brahms’s ideal of music, in which north German reserve mingled with features of classicism and Romanticism.5 Brahms, himself an ardent admirer of the older German tradition represented by Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Sebastian Bach, in later years informed his learned correspondent half playfully, half seriously, that he would love to undertake musical research himself, if only he were as clever as Spitta and capable of more than composing.6 In Sondershausen, where Spitta lives after leaving Reval, he completes the first volume of his Bach. In 1875, after a brief interval at a gymnasium in Leipzig, he becomesan adjunct professor of music history and secretary to the Royal Academy of the Arts in Berlin. Now he has the leisure not only to undertake the research for the second volume of his Bach biography but also to edit the complete works of Schütz and a selection from the compositions of Frederick the Great. Together with Friedrich Chrysander and Guido Adler, he edits the Vierteljahrsschrift für Musikwissenschaft (Musicological Quarterly), and he publishes articles on music history.
When it comes to philological analysis, Spitta has a more difficult time of it with Bach than his colleagues have writing on Handel, Mozart, or Beethoven. The biographical material is sparse, and the surviving works provide little evidence of the original dimensions of Bach’s oeuvre. Thus Spitta can feel triumphant when, with the help of a friend from Reval, he manages to track down the famous Erdmann letter of 1730, the most significant document of Bach’s private life, in the state archives in Moscow. He undertakes an intensive correspondence to obtain necessary source materials from pastors, cantors, archivists, music researchers, Bach lovers, and others. His posthumous papers include 296 letters from informants who between 1867 and 1873 provided him with material for the first volume of his biography.7
At least Spitta has access to the beginnings of serious research on Bach sources. In the anniversary year of 1850, the Leipzig Bach Society is established and launches an edition of Bach’s collected works, produced according to scholarly editorial standards. Spitta is able to make use of the first volumes of the series, which will continue to appear until 1900. He can also draw on the extensive corpus of Bach manuscripts under the care of the music librarians in Berlin. Even with these advantages, he deserves credit for his essentially pioneering achievements.
Excerpted from Johann Sebastian Bach by Geck, Martin Copyright © 2006 by Geck, Martin. Excerpted by permission.
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