All About Bach: Part 2 (Umlauts and Ill-Tempered Claviers)
The continuing story of everyone's favorite musical wig wearer.

Dan Van Oss Biographies, Complete Columns, History, Musicians, Authors & Artists 0 Comments

PART TWO OF A SERIES (SEE PART ONE)

In January of 1703, just after graduating from St. Michael’s, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann “Wayne” Ernst III in Weimar (Official Motto: “Pronounce The ‘W’ Like a ‘V’ You Stupid American”). While there, his reputation as a keyboardist began to spread, and he became the organist at St. Boniface’s in Arnstadt, his only request being that he never have to play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. St. Boniface boasted a new organ that used the “modern tempered” system which allowed a wide range of keys to be used, some of them even in tune. However, things became tense between Bach and his employer, as Bach complained about the quality of singers in his choir (some were actually mannikins from the local wedding dress shop) and his employer was upset that Bach took two months off to visit renowned organist Dietrich “Big Fingers” Buxtehude in Lübeck, a city known mostly for its cool umlaut. In 1706 Bach took another organist job at St. Blasius (Patron Saint of Apathy) church in Mühlhausen (Official Motto: “Lübeck Stole Our Umlaut Idea”). This job offered him better pay, improved conditions, a padded organ bench, a mannikin-less choir, and a bunch of surly teenagers to pump the organ. It was during his stay at Mulhausen that Bach married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach, a crafty move by her, in that it kept her from not having to change her last name on her driver’s license. They had seven children, who were also conveniently named Bach, some of whom also became important composers, but we can’t talk about them, because we have to keep this under 700 words.

Fist fights and ill-tempered claviers

Bach left Mülhausen in 1708, as the city was running out of teenagers with strong legs, and returned to Weimar, where he took a job again with the Third Duke Johann Ernst, this time as organist as well as Konzertmeister (“Master of the Konzerts”). During this time he composed mostly keyboard and orchestral works, being particularly attracted to the Italian style, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement, and then join together at the end for a massive, on-stage fist fight. It was here that he began to assemble the preludes and fugues that would become one of his signature works. He called it “The Well-Tempered Clavier“, because the ill-tempered claviers were just too hard to train, and would tend to bite during long movements. There were two volumes; each contained a prelude and a fugue in every major and minor key, and few other keys only dogs can hear. Eventually, Bach fell out of favor at Weimar, and was dismissed, even being jailed for a period, possibly for harboring a distempered clavier.

Suites and dances

From here, Bach accepted a job as Kapellmeister in Köthen (Official Motto: “The H May Be Silent But We Got Us An Umlaut”) for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. Most of his work here was secular and included orchestral suites, cello suites, toot suites, and suites with a pull out sofa. This was also where he composed the famous “Brandenburg Concertos“, so named because “Köthen Concertos” was too hard to spell on typewriters without umlaut keys. Bach also began to embrace dance music, composing such hits as “Get Off Your Corset And Dance”, “Fräulein’s Be All Up In My Wig” (Feat. Fourth Duke Archibald of Baden-Baden) and “My Umlaut Can Take Ü There, Liebchen” (Feat. “Bourgeois Breeches”).

But although Bach may have been king of the dance floor, tragedy and some new Johann’s were looming in his future.

NEXT TIME: Leipzig (Official Motto: “Cool! We Have ‘Zig’ In Our Name!”)

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