Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sacred Tradition - Bach God's bellow-pumper

Tuesday 1st May 1990

Dave Massey looks at one of classical music's giants, JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

Nobody ever remembers the bellow-pumpers. In the days in which Bach lived, the prince of musical instruments, the organ, was powered by one or maybe two puffing, perspiring choristers hidden behind the pipes and most probably deafened by the roar of his Baroque Rasta-blaster.

Johann expected a lot from his bellow-pumpers too, especially when testing his P.A. system before a gig. His son Philip Emanuel writes:

"His first act in testing an organ was to say, 'I must know if the organ has good lungs . . .' to determine the answer he drew every speaking stop and made the greatest possible effort to play full organ - at this point the organ builders would often become pale with fright." ... and presumably the bellow pumpers expired at this point as well!

Whatever happened though, the organist took all the credit.
If you were to ask Johann Sebastian Bach how he viewed himself, his answer might well have been, "As God's bellow-pumper!" And his music?:- "As is the case of all music .. It should exist only for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit." J. S. B

Bach lived in an age when there was much rivalry among musicians, it was the age of the musical joust or shoot out. A contest was set up between Bach and a French musician, Marchand. A case of "Get off of your stool and go for your harpsichord!" But Marchand, recognising Bach's superiority, chickened out.

There was a sharply defined hierarchy among musicians too and, according to Johann Mattheson (boyhood friend of Handel), the kapelmeister was top of the tree. "A learned officer of the court and composer of the highest rank".

Next was the cantor a church musician who was a "musically highly trained servant". Last, and definitely least were the organists and musicians (plebs!) As an old proverb says 'Organists are poor Christians.' This saying was known in Bach's time.

By the age of 43 J.S.B. had reached the top of his profession, Kapelmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt at Cothen, a post that he held for around five years. A close equivalent to being lead guitarist to Michael Jackson. All the time though Bach, felt that the whole purpose and aim of his ability was: "To provide church music to the glory of God."

This was a major factor in his decision to make a backward career move and become cantor at St Thomas Leipzig.

Music and faith were closely linked in Bach's mind - in line with his Lutheran upbringing. It was a creation of God and both instrumental and vocal music had a part to play in worship. He could be innovative too.

Next time your worship leader introduces something that goes against the grain bear this criticism of J.S.B. in mind, made after a screaming lead solo on the organ.

"He has made many strange variations in playing of the Chorale and mingled it with foreign and improper tones so that the congregation has become confused."
(Baroque "Flawed Pearl" music was full of embellishments.)

And in the era in which women have finally started to find a place in church leadership, spare a thought for J.S.B. Contrary to the injunction that women should keep silent in church, he sneaked his future wife into the choir loft and let her sing in church at Amstadt. The authorities were not pleased!

On a more personal note, A charming insight into J.S.B.'s own meditations is provided by this poem attributed to him. By the way, smoking can seriously damage your health!

Showing page 1 of 3

1 2 3

Be the first to comment on this article

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.


Connect with Cross Rhythms by signing up to our email mailing list

Press Forward, Now!
Cross Rhythms Media Training Centre
Artists & DJs A-Z
# A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #
Or keyword search


Dedication Room
Live on the edge and shout what you believe in our Dedication Room