Johann Sebastian Bach

“Johann Sebastian Bach,” Friend, Mar. 1985, 42

Heroes and Heroines:

Johann Sebastian Bach

The choirmaster of St. Michael’s Church looked up in surprise at the two travel-stained young boys the doorkeeper had just brought into the room. “What’s that you say?” he asked, turning to the youngsters. “You want to sing in my choir?”

“Oh, yes, sir. Please take us into your choir and school,” both boys answered at once, their eyes lighting up and brightening their faces in spite of their tired, dusty appearance.

“You must be able to sing well to join the choir of St. Michael’s,” the choirmaster said. “But first, tell me about yourselves. What are your names, and where are you from?”

“My name is Sebastian Bach,” the younger of the two boys said. “This is my Georg Erdmann. We have come from Ohrdruf.”

“Bach. Ah, yes,” the choirmaster said. The musical Bach family, he mused. How well they are known throughout the countryside. “But tell me,” he said, turning to the boys and staring into their dusty faces, “Ohrdruf is two hundred miles away. Surely you did not walk all the way here to Lüneburg.”

“Yes, sir, we did,” Sebastian answered.

“Except when a kindly old man gave us a ride in his oxcart,” Georg added.

“Sir,” Sebastian said. “We have a letter for you from our choirmaster in Ohrdruf. He told us to come here.”

“He said that to sing in your choir would pay for our tuition and lodging at St. Michael’s,” Georg added.

“Yes, that is so,” the choirmaster said, “and you must sing well, or Elias Herda would not have recommended you. But now you must have food and rest. Tomorrow we shall hear you sing.”

Sebastian and Georg ate heartily the soup and bread that were placed before them. When they finished, they sat wrapped in blankets before a warm fire. Soon they were sound asleep.

The next morning, when the choirmaster saw how easily they could read music and heard what clear, beautiful tones they sang with, he was delighted. “Yes, indeed,” he said, nodding his approval. “We certainly have a place for such fine voices in our choir.” Turning to Sebastian, he said, “Even for a Bach, your musical training has been superior.”

“My brother Christoph taught me a lot the last five years,” Sebastian told him. “When my parents died, I went to live with him in Ohrdruf.”

Sebastian’s home had been in Eisenach, Germany. Like almost all the other male Bachs, his first name was Johann. His family was very musical, and there was always much singing and music-making in their home. In fact, once a year all the Bach relatives gathered together for a three-day music fest.

When Sebastian went to live with his brother, Christoph taught him to play the clavier, which was a forerunner of the piano. Christoph taught him to play other musical instruments, too, and it was the organ that thrilled Sebastian the most. He loved to sit in church and listen to the music flowing from the mighty instrument. It was the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Now that I am in the choir school, I want to learn to play the organ better, he thought.

Sebastian eagerly began his new life at St. Michael’s. There were other lessons to study, but he was happiest when it was time for music. When his voice changed and he could no longer sing in his fine soprano tones, he played the violin and other instruments in the church orchestra. He spent countless hours practicing the music of the great masters and learning from them. Many, many years later Johann Sebastian Bach would be considered one of the greatest masters of music, but today he was just a young boy eagerly learning all he could from the opportunities he found before him.

One of those opportunities was that of studying the organ with the accomplished Georg Böhm, organist of St. John’s Church in Lüneburg. Sebastian loved to send the music echoing through the church, sometimes softly, sometimes loudly. Melodies began to flow through his mind, and he wrote them down.

During his lifetime Sebastian became famous as an organist. Most of the music he wrote was played or sung in churches. But although he wrote a vast amount of music, very little of his work was published in his lifetime. It was not until Mozart, and later Beethoven, heard the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and taught it to their students and presented it to the world that people realized what a great genius Bach was. March 21, 1985, will be the three hundredth anniversary of his birth. Today, Johann Sebastian Bach is still bringing joy to those who listen to his beautiful music.