Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Boreham on Johann Sebastian Bach

IF ever a massive and mountainous personality bestrode this narrow world like a colossus, his name was Sebastian Bach. Few could resist his magnetism. Those who met him on the street instinctively turned to enjoy a second and more leisurely glance. Wherever he came, he conquered. Frederick the Great collected celebrities and notabilities as some men collect birds' eggs, sea-shells and postage stamps. In 1747, he commanded the composer to visit him at Potsdam. Bach, who was sixty-two, regarded the invitation as the climax of his renown. `Here comes old Bach!' exclaimed the king, under his breath, as the gallant figure was being ushered into his presence. But a day or two later, having cultivated his guest's acquaintance and been held spellbound by his artistry, he shouted amidst his applause: `There is only one Bach! There is only one Bach!' The episode is typical of the impression that the eminent organist invariably created.


The most colourful and satisfying portrait of Bach has been given us by Esther Meyncll in her Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach. Mrs. Meynell confesses that, in her vivid and convincing delineation of her hero, she has occasionally given rein to her imagination. But anybody familiar with the life of Bach will find it difficult to place his finger on any passage in her attractive chronicle that cannot be substantiated by a reference to the more sombre and pretentious biographies.

The fictional lapses can only consist of splashes of colour introduced to give to the total impression its just and realistic effect. Macaulay argues that Sir Walter Scott's novels are better entitled to be regarded as history than many of the forbidding volumes that consist of continents of facts and oceans of figures. `The perfect historian,' he maintains, `is he in whose work the character and spirit of an age is exhibited in miniature.' That being so, Mrs. Meynell deserves to be saluted as a queen of biographers. Her flesh-and-blood chronicle has certainly endeared Sebastian Bach to readers who, to their own sorrow, have little or no ear for his music.

Bach was a gigantic human. He loved life; he loved men and women; he loved boys and girls; he loved congenial company, convivial conversation, hearty laughter, woodland scenery, fragrant gardens, and he dearly loved a good square meal. It goes without saying that he loved music. He was drenched in it. Coming of a long line of musicians, sweet sounds were to him the light of his eyes and the breath of his nostrils. He thought musically; he talked musically; he walked through this world to the music of some world unseen.

He was essentially a home-bird. Twice married, he had seven children by his first wife and thirteen by the second. As was usual in those days of prodigious families, many of the youngsters died; but their father dearly loved and cherished the survivors. One or two of them involved him in heartache and heart-break; but his affection never wavered. His golden hours were the hours in which he sat with them at meals: chatted with them by the fireside; played and sang with them in their domestic concerts; or picnicked with them in the woods.
Although the image of gravity and even severity on serious occasions, he secretly overflowed with fun. When he married Magdalena, his second wife, she begged him to teach her music, that her life might be more perfectly attuned to his. 'My dear,' he replied, 'there's nothing to learn. You merely strike the right note in the right way at the right time and the organ does the rest.'

Sometimes his sense of humour invaded his art, as in the Coffee Cantata. It is based on the story of a girl who was so addicted to coffee that her father swore that he would never consent to her marriage till she gave it up, a threat to which the daughter replied by saying that she would never accept a proposal unless her lover promised that she should still have her coffee. And, in the home, Sebastian composed all sorts of quodlibets, gay little minuets and catchy snatches of nonsense-songs for the delectation of the bairns.

As a teacher, he was a benevolent tyrant. He knew how to be stern. A student rejected his advice. `I think it sounds better this way,' the youth explained. `Sir,' Bach replied, 'thou art too advanced for my teaching: we must part. And they did. But he also knew how to be gentle. If he found a student doing his best, but doing it badly, he would say: `My son, suppose you were to try it this way!' And he would play it himself with the air of a fellow-learner who was making a modest suggestion. Is it any wonder that his students worshipped him? `Master,' burst out one of them, when I hear you play, I feel that I cannot do anything wrong for at least a week!'


An intensely devout man, his great religious masterpieces were the natural outpourings of his inmost soul. `Deep down in his great heart,' we read in the Little Chronicle, 'he always carried his Lord Crucified, and his noblest music is his secret cry for a dearer vision of the risen Christ. In his lullaby in the Christmas Cantata he could write music tender enough for the Babe of Bethlehem; in the Crucifixion of his Great Mass he could find strains grand enough for the Saviour of Calvary. At the end of his earlier scores he always inscribed the letters S.D.G.-To God be the glory!' It mirrored the motive of the man.

One of the most fascinating realms of biographical conjecture is presented by the speculation as to what would have happened if Bach and Handel had met and formed each other's friendship. Born within a month of one another, their lives ran along parallel lines. They were moved by the same lofty ideals; each admired the other's work; both became blind and both were operated upon by the same surgeon.

Bach did even more than Handel to lay the foundations on which much of our modern music securely rests. Masters like Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner and Brahms have gratefully acknowledged the incalculable debt that they owed to that lovable creator of a million harmonics who, amidst the tears of his admiring contemporaries, died suddenly of apoplexy two hundred years ago.

F W Boreham, ‘The Music Master’, Dreams at Sunset (London: The Epworth Press, 1954), 85-88.

Image: Johann Sebastian Bach.