Don’t Stay Up Too Late, Johan!

How did Bach accumulate his staggering wealth of musical knowledge and daunting skill as a performer and composer? His supposed answer, related in 1802 by his first biographer J. N. Forkel, was proudly modest and deceptively straightforward: “I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” The surviving accounts of Bach’s life, especially the Obituary published in 1754, are full of references to Bach’s unflagging labor. He was a poster boy for the Protestant ethic. An “extraordinary eagerness” motivated his forbidden midnight copying of a manuscript while living in his brother’s house after the young Bach was orphaned at the age of ten. Again near the end of the Obituary we learn that the causes of Bach’s blindness in late lift lay in his unquenchable thirst for musical models, to learn from be inspired by, and, ultimately, to surpass: “His naturally somewhat weak eye sight, further weakened by his unheard-of-zeal in studying, which made him, particularly in his youth, sit at work the whole night through, led, in his last years, to an eye disease.”

There was no reason to doubt that Bach’s achievement involved not just immense native talent but unprecedented motivation and perseverance. Yet we had no direct proof of it, no residue of the desire to learn that kept him up nights squinting at musical leaves wreathed in moonlight and an aura of infinite possibility.

The mythical and anecdotal contours of this image were suddenly brought into sharp focus in 2006 with the discovery of what are now the earliest known Bach autographs, stemming from his teenage years. Indefatigable Bach researchers Michael Maul and Peter Wollny of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig unearthed the autographs through their own dedication, expertise and more than a little good fortune. These fascinating pages have now been made available in sumptuous facsimile by the venerable Bärenreiter publishing house.

It was Maul, who discovered an unknown Bach aria in 2005 in the holdings of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar. This lovely piece for the birthday of Bach’s princely employer turned up in material that had been fortuitously removed from Amalia’s wonderful 18th-century library in advance of the fire of September 2004 that laid waste to its holdings. Spurred by that discovery, Maul and Wollny began a search of the Duchess’s theological collection which were housed in the Weimar Palace, not her library. A box containing the Bach autographs had mistakenly been assigned to these non-musical items and was therefore similarly spared .In the box, amongst lesser works by Johann Pachelbel, were Bach’s copies of two of the greatest keyboard pieces from 17th-century northern Europe by two of its greatest musicians: a complete version of Johann Adam Reinken’s An Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Rivers of Babylon) and a single page of Nun freut auch lieben Christen g’mein (Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice) of Dieterich Buxtehude. Both are monumental chorale fantasias, a genre in which the phrases of well-known hymn tunes are treated in diverse and ingenious ways meant both to uplift and to impress.  In his copies Bach adopted the tablature notation used by Reinken and Buxtehude in which the pitch letters are written out in script rather than converted to notes on a staff.

The two autographs Maul and Wollny found are so moving not only for the graceful, if sometimes unsure, ductus of the young Bach’s calligraphy, but for the “extroardinary eagerness” and “the unheard-of-zeal” that these pages reflect. At more than 300 measures Reinken’s most famous piece is also one of the longest in the north German repertory. In Jean-Claude Zehnder’s 2007 recording of all five pieces found in that Weimar box (the Reinken and Buxtehude chorale fantasias, and three pieces by Pachelbel not transmitted in Bach’s hand) offers a rather deliberate reading of the Reinken that comes in at just over nineteen minutes. By any reckoning it’s a huge single movement piece.

Bach’s copy of this sprawling fantasia may be one of the last times a teenager, or indeed anyone, wrote out work of this scope in tablature. Not only is the manuscript a monument to teenage dedication, but also to a tradition that could have had few devotees in 1700, and none as enthusiastic and talented as Bach.

The Obituary tells us that Bach now and again made the trip from Lüneburg to nearby Hamburg to hear Reinken play on the famous organ in St. Catherine’s Church. We now know that Bach was not only listening to the master improvise, but was studying his style in a way only painstaking copying can provide.  The discovery of Bach’s youthful copy of Reinken’s  An Wasserflüssen Babylon also adds profoundly to the significance of one of the set-pieces of Bach biography. In 1720 Bach applied for an organist position in Hamburg. During his stay there Bach played a two-hour-long concert at Reinken’s church “before the Magistrate and many other distinguished person of the town, to their general astonishment.” The ninety-nine-year-old Reinken was perhaps the most distinguished of them all. The crowning glory of that concert was Bach’s extemporaneous treatment of Reinken’s trademark chorale, An Wassflüssen Babylon. Like Reinken’s fantasia on this melody, Bach’s extended to “almost half an hour.”  As if in apostolic succession, Reinken annointed Bach the successor of the tradition he had represented: “I thought that this art was,” said the ancient man to the much younger one, “But I see that in you it still lives.”   That the thirty-five-year-old Bach had copied Reinken’s towering chorale fantasia two decades earlier, shows how hard Bach had worked to master this complex and glorious style.  Bach’s historic half-hour chorale fantasia heard in Hamburg was not the product of pure inspiration: the upward climbing path to his apotheosis was paved by long hours and years of labor.

In their excellent preface to the facsimile edition (which includes the editors’ transcription of the autographs into modern notation), Maul and Wollny provide Bach scholarship with a number of new findings and illuminating suggestions. These manuscripts are rich not only in music but in their implications for Bach biography—the artistic imperatives that drove him, the educational and career options that he decided to pursue at this critical juncture in his life.

Long after his teenage years, Bach kept these and presumably many of other now lost (or still lost?) tablature copies with him, providing his own family and students access to them. Maul and Wollny suggest these earliest autographs remained in Weimar when he moved on to take up his next musical post in nearby Cöthen. Often rather conservative in their theorizing, the editors offer an uncharacteristically whimsical hypothesis as to how these autographs actually left Bach’s possession. When  Bach was discharged from his Weimar position “with all due disgrace” in December of 1717 after his arrest and incarceration the previous month, he would not have been allowed to return to the organ in the Weimar palace church he had played on for nearly a decade. Maul and Wollny claim that “any sheet music lying on the organ’s music stand at this point thus would have been beyond his reach.”  The Buxtehude and Reinken manuscripts copied years earlier stand silent at the organ console as Bach scuttles out of town. The manuscripts themselves then embark on nearly three-hundred journey through obscurity and around flames, before emerging again into the light!

What did Bach with this knowledge born of all this assiduous copying and studying? In March of 2008 his previously unknown chorale fantasia on Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (Where the Lord God does not stand with us) turned up in a Leipzig auction. It is a youthful piece, likely composed not so many years after Bach made the recently unearthed copies. A modern edition and recent recording based on it expand the Bach catalog number 1128.

Not as ambitious as the chorale fantasias of Buxtehude and Reinken that Bach copied, Wo Gott der Herr is nonetheless a piece inspired by them.  Bach’s fantasia is less adventurous in textural and metrical variety, but it is nonetheless full of ambition and experiment. The piece’s brooding exaggerations might be best described as mannerist: angular, often insistent elaborations of the chorale melody; a rhetorical approach that alternates fragmentary utterance with rhapsodic outpourings, some of which traverse the entire compass of the keyboard; unexpected eruptions of pedal virtuosity; interlocking echoes that exploit the architectural expanse of northern organs; and a final cadence of high pathos, its keening swoop of descending scales followed by craggy upward leaps grasping to recover lost heights. The tense drama of what seems to be a closing gesture spawns a serpentine peroration before the arrival on the home key motivates another northern flourish of antic triplets, the first in the entire piece. The restive quality of the piece’s last moments suggest that the ending’s ultimate repose is itself fleeting: the last chord marks only a temporary cessation of Bach’s explorations.

What this most recent addition to Bach’s oeuvre works also shows is that hard work is not an end itself but provided the springboard for the boundless trajectories of a singular imagination, nourished by the past but constantly pushing towards the future.

The facsimile of the earliest Bach autographs.

For Jean-Claude Zehnder’s recording of the autographs:

For the only commercially available recording of the newly discovered Bach chorale fantasia

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at