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History of the Bachs

Roots in the Reformation


title page of Bach's copy of the Calov Bible with translation by Luther & commentary by 17th-century theologian, Abraham Calov
In October of 1517 Martin Luther, hammer in hand and peeved at Pope Leo X whose envoys even now solicited his parishioners to buy indulgences (construction financing for St. Peter's in Rome), marched the streets of Wittenberg and nailed to its cathedral door 95 propositions disputing Church dogma. In 1517 Luther scoured the first furrow of the Protestant Reformation upon the landscape of European history. Into this furrow he planted the seeds of faith, doubt and discontent that would flower in the Thirty Years' War and fruit in the peopling of North America, the Age of Reason and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. By the end of the decade Luther's hammer had ignited the coals of a smoldering centenarian reform movement in the Holy Roman Empire whose white-hot flame would burn kings, popes, and heretics alike while consigning the commoner to a life of perpetual migration.

Great Great Grandfather, Veit

So it was with Veit Bach, Johann Sebastian's great great grandfather. Born in Hungary in the season after Luther made his move in Wittenberg, Veit was compelled during the Schmalkaldic War to flee his native land for the Saxon province of Thuringia, Protestant protectorate in the heart of Germany. Defended by Frederick, Elector of Saxony, whose Wartburg Castle had been safe haven to Luther for ten months after the Diet of Worms, Thuringia was also a Medieval center for the musical arts. Her Meistersingers of renown competed with those even of Nuremberg and Breslau. As a child Johann Sebastian recalled hearing his father recount with pride the accomplishments of his remote ancestor. Great great grandfather Veit, a baker by trade--so the story always went--loved to play his lute at the mill, and soon became assistant Stadtpfeifer in the town of Gotha.

Great Grandfather, Johannes

Before taking over his father's mill, Veit's son, Johannes, studied music with Matz Ziesecke, Gotha's head piper and often played in the bands of neighboring towns--Arnstadt, Eisenach, Erfurt, Schmalkalden and Suhl. Johannes's reputation as an amateur musician was sufficient for him to be identified in the register of his death as a "minstrel."

Grandfather, Christoph, and Father, Johann Ambrosius

Of the sons of Johannes, three of them, including Sebastian's grandfather, Christoph, would earn reputations far beyond the echelons of the amateur. Also a professional was Sebastian's father, Johann Ambrosius, who assumed the post of Hausmann for the town of Eisenach in 1672. At the various Easter festivities of that year Ambrosius not only sang but played the organ, violin, trumpet, and kettledrum--a feat of versatility that the town historian was careful to note had never been seen in Eisenach! Thus the Bach family resided in the towns of Arnstadt, Erfurt and Eisenach for one hundred years prior to the birth of Johann Sebastian. The reputation of the family was such that, in Erfurt, musicians were known as "the Bachs" for years after the Bach family had moved away from that town.

Justifiably Proud

During the last fifteen years of his life Johann Sebastian undertook two projects that indicate he wished to preserve for future Bachs not only his own legacy but the memory of all their honored ancestors. His pride of clan achieved the permanence of print in 1735 when he compiled a detailed genealogy entitled Ursprung der musicalisch-Bachischen Familie. During this same period Johann Sebastian also began the Alt-Bachisches Archiv, a catalog of choral compositions by members of his family as far back as great grandfather Johannes.

Famous Cousins

Among the musical Bachs whom Johann Sebastian was most eager to commemorate were Johann Christoph and Johann Michael, sons of his great uncle, Heinrich, and composers after the tradition of Pachelbel and Schütz. Both cousins died when Johann was in his teens. Cousin Johann Christoph, had two sons, Johann Nicolaus, himself an excellent composer, and Joh. Michael, who became the father of Sebastian's first wife, Maria Barbara. In 1726 Johann Sebastian copied and performed eighteen cantatas by third cousin Johann Ludwig, court Kapelldirektor in the town of Meiningen. Johann Bernhard, yet another second cousin, was a court musician and organist in Eisenach; Johann Sebastian performed Bernhard's instrumental works with the Leipzig Collegium Musicum.

Famous Sons

The fame of the Bachs did not fade in the generation following Sebastian and his cousins. Bernhard's son, Johann Ernst, was acclaimed in the region of Eisenach, while four of Sebastian's own sons were outstanding musicians in their own rights. Indeed, if one happened to mention the name "Bach" at the turn of the century, it would likely have been understood to mean Carl Philipp Emanuel, harpsichordist to Frederich the Great. Carl Philipp's elder brother, Wilhelm Friedemann, achieved renown as organist in Halle, a position that had been rejected by his father years earlier. Of Sebastian's four sons to scratch their marks in history, the elder--products of the union with Maria Barbara, herself a Bach--are more prominently remembered. But not forgotten are the progeny of Anna Magdalena: Johann Christian, music master to the Queen of England, Johann Christoph Friedrich, court chamber musician at Bückeburg, and grandson Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst, the last musician to have been furnished by the great family of Bachs.

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