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Sebastian Bach

The name of Bach would have been famous in musical history without Johann Sebastian, but with his name added it becomes the most illustrious that the world has ever known. Bach had many pupils, but none surpassed his own sons, six of whom became great musicians, but with these the musical faculty died.

--Sir Hubert Parry


The art of today is imitative. Once men had convictions, but we have only opinions, and these are usually borrowed. The artificiality of life, and the rush and the worry afford no time for great desires to possess our souls.

We average well, but no Colossus looms large above the crowd and goes his solitary way unmindful of the throng: we look alike, act alike, think alike, and in order that the likeness may be complete, we dress alike.

To wear a hat of your own selection or voice thoughts of your own thinking is to invite unseemly mirth, and finally scorn and contumely.

The great creators were solitary, rural in their instincts, ignorant and heedless of what the world was saying and doing. They were men of deep convictions and enthusiasms, unmindful of laughter or ridicule, caring little even for approbation.

No "boom town" can possibly produce a genius: it only fosters sundry small Napoleons of finance. America is a nation of boomers--financial, political, social and theological.

We have sarcasm and cynicism, and we possess much that is clever, all produced by snatches of success, well mixed with disappointment and the bitterness which much contact with the world is sure to evolve. Our age that goes everywhere, knows everybody's business, and religiously reads only "the last edition," produces a Bill Nye, a Sam Jones, a Teddy Roosevelt, a DeWitt Talmage, a Hopkinson Smith, a Sam Walter Foss, a Victor Herbert; but it is not at all likely to produce a Praxiteles, a Michelangelo, a Rembrandt, an Immanuel Kant or a Johann Sebastian Bach.

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What Shakespeare is to literature, Michelangelo to sculpture, and Rembrandt to portrait-painting, Johann Sebastian Bach is to organ-music. He was the greatest organist of his time, and his equal has not yet been produced, though nearly three hundred years have passed since his death. "The organ reached perfection at the hands of Bach," says Haweis. As a composer for the organ, Bach stands secure--his position is at the head, and is absolutely unassailable.

In point of temperament and disposition Bach bears a closer resemblance to Michelangelo than to either of the others whose names I have mentioned. He was stern, strong, self-contained, and so deeply religious that he was not only a Christian but a good deal of a pagan as well. A homely man was Bach--quiet, simple in tastes and blunt in speech.

The earnest way in which this plain, unpretentious man focused upon his life-work and raised organ-music to the highest point of art must command the sincere admiration of every lover of honest endeavor.

Bach was so great that he had no artistic jealousy, no whim, and when harshly and unjustly criticized he did not concern himself enough with the quibblers to reply. He made neither apologies nor explanations. The man who thus allows his life to justify itself, and lets his work speak, and who, when reviled, reviles not again, must be a very great and lofty soul.

Bach was a villager and a rustic, and, like Jean Francois Millet, used to hoe in his garden, trim the vines, play with his children, putting them to bed at night, or in the day cease from his work to cut slices of brown bread which he spread with honey for the heedless little importuner, who had interrupted him in the making of a chorale that was to charm the centuries. At times he would leave his composing to help his wife with her household duties--to wash dishes, sweep the room or care for a peevish, fretful child. After the evening prayer, like Millet, again, when his household were all abed, he would often walk out into the night alone, and traverse his solitary way along a wintry road, through the woods or by the winding river, a dim, misty, shadowy figure, spectral as the "Sower," lonely as the "Fagot-Gatherer," talking to himself, mayhap, and communing with his Maker.

In his later years, when he traveled from one village or city to another to attend musical gatherings, he was always accompanied by one or more of his sons. His ambition was centered on his children, and his hope was in them. Yet nothing has been added to either organ-building, organ-playing or composition for the organ since his time.

He never knew, any more than Shakespeare knew, that he had set a pace that would never be equaled. He would have stood aghast with incredulity had he been told that centuries would come and go and his name be acclaimed as Master.

Such was Sebastian Bach--simple, polite, modest, unaffected, generous, almost shy--doing his work and doing it as well as he could, living one day at a time, loving his friends, forgetting his enemies. His heart was filled with such melodies that their echo is a blessing and a benediction to us yet. Art lives!

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Heredity is that law of our being which provides that a man shall resemble his grandfather--or not. The Bach family has supplied the believers in heredity more good raw material in way of argument than any dozen other families known to history, combined.

The Herschels with three eminent astronomers to their credit, or the Beechers with half a dozen great preachers, are scarcely worth mentioning when we remember the Bachs, who for two hundred fifty years sounded the "A" for nearly all Germany.

The earliest known member of this musical family was Vert Bach, who was born about Fifteen Hundred Fifty. He was a miller and baker by trade, but devoted so much time to playing at dances, rehearsing at church festivals, and attending gipsy musical performances, that in his milling business he never prospered and nobody called him "Pillsbury."

This man had a son by the name of Hans, a weaver and a right merry wight, who traveled over the country attending weddings, christenings and such like festivals, playing upon a fiddle of his own construction. So famous was Hans Bach that his name lives in legend and folklore, wherein it is related that often betimes when he arrived at a village, the word would be passed and the whole population would quit work and caper on the green. So luring was his fiddle, and so potent his voice in song and story, that in a few instances preachers with long faces warned their flocks against him; and once we find a country Dogberry had his minions lay the innocent Hans by the heels and give him a taste of the stocks, simply because he seduced a party of haymakers into following him off to a dance at a tavern, and in the meantime a storm coming up, the hay got wet. Poor Hans protested that he had nothing to do with the storm, but his excuses were construed as proof of guilt and went for naught.

At last in his wanderings, Hans found a buxom lass who was willing to take him for better or worse.

And they were married and lived happily ever after, or fairly so.

This marriage quite sobered the fun-loving fiddler, so that he settled down and worked at his weaving; and at odd hours made himself a bass viol that looked to be father of all the fiddles. In Eisenach I was told that this viol was ten feet high. Hans used to play this instrument at the village church, and his playing drew such crowds that the preacher had just cause for jealousy, and improved the opportunity, yet stifling his rage he ordered the verger to lock the doors and allow no one to depart until after the sermon and collection.

A goodly family was born to Hans and his worthy wife, and all were trained in music, so that an orchestra was formed, made up of the father, mother, and boys and girls. All the instruments used were made by Hans, and these included marvelous fiddles, some with one string and others with twenty; wooden wind-instruments like flutes, and drums to match the players, some of whom were wee toddlers. It is said that the music this orchestra made was more or less unique.

The best part of all this musical exploitation of Hans was that one of his boys, Heinrich by name, applied himself so diligently to the art that he became the organist in the village church, and then he was called to play the great organ at Arnstadt. Heinrich was not a roisterer like his father: he was a man of education and dignity. He composed many pieces, and trained his choruses so well that his fame went abroad as the chief musician of all Thuringia. He held his position at Arnstadt for fifty years, and died in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-two, at which time Johann Sebastian Bach, his nephew, was seven years old.

In his day Heinrich Bach was known as the "Great Bach," and he had two sons who were nearly as famous as himself, and would have been quite so, were it not for the fact that they had a cousin by the name of Johann Sebastian.

Johann Sebastian was a son of Johann Ambrosius, a brother of Heinrich, and Johann Ambrosius, of course, a son of the merry Hans. Johann Ambrosius was a musician, too, but did not distinguish himself especially in this line. His distinction lies in the fact that he was the father of Johann Sebastian, and this is quite enough for any one man, even if Gail Hamilton did once protest that the office of male parent was insignificant and devoid of honor.

Johann Ambrosius was a shiftless kind of fellow who drank much beer out of an earthen pot, and whittled out fiddles, sitting on a bench in the sun. He sort of let his family shift for themselves. Heinrich Bach, his brother, used to speak of him as one of his "poor relations," but at the annual Bach family festival, when a full hundred Bachs gathered to sing and play, Johann Ambrosius would attend and play on a flute or fiddle and prove that he was worthy of the name.

On one such annual reunion he took his little boy, Johann Sebastian, eight years old. The boy's mother had died a year or so before, and after the mother's death the father seemed to think more of his children than ever before--which is often the case, I'm told.

They walked the distance, about forty miles, in two days, to where the festival occurred. It was one of the white milestones in the boy's life--that trip with its revelation of sleeping in barns, singing, and playing on many instruments, dining by the wayside, all winding up with a solemn service at a great stone church, where the preacher gave them his benediction, and the great company separated with handshakings, embracings and tears, to meet again in a year. Johann Ambrosius did not attend the next reunion. Before the Spring had come and birds sang blithely, a band composed of twenty-five played funeral-dirges at his grave--and little Johann Sebastian was an orphan.

Johann Sebastian's elder brother, Christoph, who had married a few years before and moved away, attended the funeral, and when he went back home he took little Johann Sebastian with him--there was no other place to go. The lad was allowed to take one thing with him as a remembrance of the home that he was now leaving forever--his father's violin in a green bag, with a leathern drawstring. On the bag were his father's initials, woven into the cloth by the boy's mother--a present from sweetheart to lover before their marriage.

Christoph was a musician, too, and a prosperous fellow--quite the antithesis of his father. It takes a lot of love to bring up a child, and the miracle of mother-love is a constant wonder to every thinking person. Without mother-love how would the cross-grained, perverse little tyrant ever survive the buffets which the world is sure to give? It is love that makes existence possible.

Christoph wished to be kind to his little brother, but it was a kindness of the head and not of the heart. Only an hour a day was allowed the boy for playing on the violin he had brought in the green bag, because Christoph and his wife "did not want to hear the noise." Then when the boy stole off to the forest and played there, he was waylaid on the way home and well cuffed for disobeying orders. All this seems very much like the Goneril and Cordelia business, or the history of Cinderella, but as Johann Sebastian told it himself in the after-years, we have reason to believe it was not fiction.

Little Johann Sebastian had been his father's favorite, and this fact perhaps made Christoph fear the boy was going to tread in his father's lazy footsteps. So he set about to discipline the lad.

It must be admitted that Johann Ambrosius Bach, who whittled out fiddles in the sun, and who drank much beer out of an earthen pot, was shiftless, but it further seems that he was tender-hearted and kind and took much interest in teaching Sebastian to play the violin, even while the child wore dresses. And sometimes I think it is really better, if you have to choose, to drink beer out of an earthen pot and be kind and gentle, than to have a sharp nose for other folks' faults and be continually trying to pinch and prod the old world into the straight and narrow path of virtue. Yet there is wisdom in all folly, and I can see that the prohibition concerning little Sebastian's playing the violin only an hour a day--mind you! was not without its benefits. Surely it would often be a wise bit of diplomacy on the part of the teacher to order the pupil not to study his arithmetic lesson but an hour a day, on penalty. Of course it might happen occasionally that the pupil in an earnest desire to please, might not study at all, yet there are exceptions to all rules, and we must remember that when Tom Sawyer forbade the boys using his whitewash-brush, the scheme worked well.

One instance, however, might be cited where the law of compensation seems really to have stood no chance. Christoph had a goodly musical library and a collection of the best organ-music that had been produced up to that time. He kept this music in a case, and carried the key to the case in his pocket. On rare occasions he had shown bits of this music to Sebastian, who read music like print when it is easy. The boy devoured all the music he could lay his hands on, and hummed it over to himself until every note and accent was fixed in his memory. He dearly wanted to examine that music in the locked-up case, but his brother declared his ambition nonsense--he was too young. But the boy contrived a way to pick the lock--for a music-lover laughs at locksmiths--and at night when all the household were safely in bed, he would steal downstairs in his bare feet and get a sheet of the music and copy it off by moonlight, sitting in the deep ledge of the window. Thus did he work for six months, whenever the moon shone bright enough to read the lines and signs and marks. But alas! one day the elder brother was rummaging around the boy's room in search of things contraband and he pounced upon the portfolio of copied music. He summoned the offender into his presence. The facts were admitted, and Johann Sebastian had his bare legs well tingled with an apple-sprout. Then the portfolio was confiscated and carried away, despite pleadings, promises and tears. And the question still remains whether "discipline" is not a matter of gratification to the person in power rather than a sincere and honest attempt to benefit the person disciplined.

Nevertheless, Johann Sebastian Bach was working out his own education: he belonged to the boys' chorus at Ohrdruf, as all boys in the vicinity did. Music in every German village was an important item, and the best singers and best behaved members of the village choir were set apart as a sort of select choir--a choir within a choir--and were often gathered together to sing on special occasions at weddings and festivals. Johann Sebastian had a sweet, well-modulated voice, and whenever he was to sing, he carried his violin in the green bag, so he could play, too, if needed. Thus he played and sang at serenades, just as did Martin Luther, many years before, in Johann Sebastian's own native town of Eisenach.

Johann Sebastian's fame grew until it reached to Luneburg, twelve miles away, and he was invited there to sing in the choir of Saint Michael's. The pay he received was very slight, but that was not to be considered. An occasional bowl of soup and piece of rye-bread, and the privilege of sleeping in the organ-loft, all combined with freedom, made his paradise complete. He played on the harpsichord in the pastor's study sometimes; and occasionally the organist, who could not help loving such a music-loving boy, would allow him to try the big organ, and at every service he was present to play his violin, or if any of the other players were absent he would just fill in and play any instrument desired.

Then we hear of him trudging off to Hamburg, a hundred miles away, with only a few coppers in his pocket, to hear the great organist Reinke. He slept in cattle-sheds by the way, played his violin at taverns for something to eat, or plainly stated his case to sympathetic cooks at backdoors. One instance he has recorded when all the world seemed to frown. He had trudged all day, with nothing to eat, and at evening had sat down near the open window of an inn, from which came savory smells of supper. As he sat there, suddenly there were thrown out a couple of small dried herrings. The hungry boy eagerly seized upon them, just as a dog would. But what was his surprise to find, as he gnawed, in the mouth of each fish a piece of silver! Some one had read the story of Saint Peter to a purpose. Young Bach looked in vain for a person to thank, but perceiving no one he took it as the act of God and an omen that his pilgrimage to hear the great organist should not be in vain.

The wonders of Reinke's playing and the marvel of the mighty music filled his soul with awe, and fired his ambition to do a like performance.

Did the great Reinke know as he played that bright Sabbath morning, filling the cathedral with thunders of echoing bass, or sounds of sweet, subtle melody--did he know that away back in the throng stood a dusty, tawny-haired boy who had tramped a hundred miles just for this event? And did the organist guess as he played that he was inspiring a human soul to do a grand and wondrous work, and live a life whose influence should be deathless? Probably not--few men indeed know when virtue has gone out of them.

Perhaps Reinke was playing just to suit himself, and had purposely put the unappreciative, lazy, sleepy occupants of the pews out of his thought, all unmindful that there was one among a thousand, back behind a pillar, dusty and worn, but now unconsciously refreshed and oblivious to all save the playing of the great organ. There stood the boy bathed in sweet sounds, with streaming eyes and responsive heart.

His inward emotions supplemented the outward melody, for music demands a listener, and at the last is a matter of soul, not sound: its appeal being a harmony that dwells within. So played Reinke, and back by the door, peering from behind a pillar, stood the boy.

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Sebastian Bach was such a useful member of the choir at Luneburg that the town musician from Weimar, who happened to be going that way, induced him to go home with him as assistant organist.

This was a definite move in the direction of fame and fortune. Men who can make themselves useful are needed--there is ever a search for such. They wanted Bach at Weimar. Johann Sebastian Bach, aged eighteen, was wanted because he did his work well.

After three or four months at Weimar he made a visit to Arnstadt, where his uncle had so long been organist. His name at Arnstadt was a name to conjure with, and in fact throughout all that part of the country, whenever a man proved to be a musician of worth and power the people out of compliment called him a "Bach."

Johann Sebastian was invited to play for the people, and all were so delighted that they insisted he should come and fill the place made vacant by the death of the "Great Bach."

So he came and was duly installed.

And the young man drilled his chorus, wrote cantatas, and arranged chants and hymns. But he was far from contented. He was being pushed on by a noble unrest. It was not so very long before we find him packing off to Denmark, with little ceremony, to listen to the playing of Buxtehude, the greatest player of his age.

Bach had been quite content to tiptoe into the church when Reinke played, grateful for the privilege of listening, half-expecting to be thrust out as an interloper. He had gained confidence since then, and now introduced himself to Buxtehude and was greeted by the octogenarian as a brother and an equal, although sixty years divided them. His visit extended itself from one week to two, and then to a month or more, and a message came from his employers that if he expected to hold his place he had better return.

Bach's visit to Buxtehude formed another white milestone in his career. He came back filled with enthusiasm and overflowing with ideas and plans that a single lifetime could not materialize. Those who have analyzed the work of Buxtehude and Bach tell us that there is a richness of counterpoint, a vigor of style, a fulness of harmony, and a strong, glowing, daring quality that in some pieces is identical with both composers. In other words, Bach admired Buxtehude so much that for a time he wrote and played just like him, very much as Turner began by painting as near like Claude Lorraine as he possibly could. Genius has its prototype, and in all art there is to be found this apostolic succession. Bach first built on Reinke; next he transferred his allegiance to Buxtehude; from this he gradually developed courage and self-reliance until he fearlessly trusted himself in deep water, heedless of danger. And it is this fearless, self-reliant and self-sufficient quality that marks the work of every exceptional man in every line of art. "Here's to the man who dares," said Disraeli. All strong men begin by worshiping at a shrine, and if they continue to grow they shift their allegiance until they know only one altar and that is the Ideal which dwells in their own heart.

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And now behold how Heinrich Bach had educated his people into the belief that there was only one way to play, and that was as he did it. It is not at all probable that Heinrich put forward any claims of perfection, but the people regarded his playing as high-water mark, and any variation from his standards was considered fantastic and absurd.

In all of the old German Protestant churches are records kept giving the exact history of the church. You can tell for two hundred years back just when an organist was hired or dismissed; when a preacher came and when he went away, with minute mention as to reasons.

And so we find in the records of the Church at Arnstadt that the organist, Johann Sebastian Bach, took a vacation without leave in the year Seventeen Hundred Five, and further, when he returned his playing was "fantastical."

With the young man's compositions the Consistory expressed echoing groans of dissatisfaction. A list of charges was drawn up against him, one of which runs as follows: "We charge him with a habit of making surprising variations in the chorales, and intermixing divers strange sounds, so that thereby the congregation was confounded."

Bach's answers are filed with the original charges, and are all very brief and submissive. In some instances he pleads guilty, not thinking it worth his while, strong man that he was, to either apologize or explain.

But the most damning count brought against him was this: "We further charge him with introducing into the choir-loft a Stranger Maiden, who made music." To this, young Bach makes no reply. Brave boy!

The sequel is shown that in a few weeks he was married to this "Stranger Maiden," who was his cousin. She was a Bach, too, a descendant of the merry Hans, and she, also, played the organ. But great was the horror of the Arnstadites that a woman should play a church organ. Mein Gott im Himmel--a woman might be occupying the pulpit next!

Johann Sebastian's indifference to criticism is partially explained by the fact that he was in correspondence with the Consistory at Mulhausen, and also with the Duke Wilhelm Ernest, of Saxe-Weimar. Both Mulhausen and Weimar wanted his services. Under such conditions men have ever been known to invite a rupture--let us hope that Johann Sebastian Bach was not quite so human.

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Michelangelo never married, but Bach held the average good by marrying twice.

He was the father of just twenty children. His first wife was a woman with well-defined musical tastes, as was meet in one with such an illustrious musical pedigree. It wasn't fashion then to educate women, and one biographer expresses a doubt as to whether Bach's first wife was able to read and write. To read and write are rather cheap accomplishments, though. Last year I met several excellent specimens of manhood in the Tennessee Mountains who could do neither, yet these men had a goodly hold on the eternal verities.

We know that Bach's wife had a thorough sympathy with his work, and that he used to sing or play his compositions to her, and when the children got big enough, they tried the new-made hymn tunes, too. These children sang before they could talk plain, and the result was that the two elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Phillip Emmanuel, became musicians of marked ability. Half a dozen other sons became musicians also, but the two named above made some valuable additions to the music fund of the world. Haydn has paid personal tribute to Emmanuel Bach, acknowledging his obligation, and expressing to him the belief that he was a greater man than his father.

The nine years Bach spent at Weimar, under the patronage of the Duke Wilhelm Ernest, were years rich in results. His office was that of Concert Master, and Leader of the Choir at Ducal Chapel. The duties not being very exacting, he had plenty of time to foster his bent. Freed from all apprehension along the line of the bread-and-butter question he devoted himself untiringly to his work. It was here he developed that style of fingering that was to be followed by the players on the harpsichord, and which further serves as the basis for our present manner of piano-playing. Bach was the first man to make use of the thumb in organ-playing, and I believe it was James Huneker who once said that "Bach discovered the human hand."

Bach made a complete study of the mechanism of the organ, invented various arrangements for the better use of the pedals, and gave his ideas without stint to the makers, who, it seems, were glad to profit by them. Even then Weimar was a place of pilgrimage, although Goethe had not yet come to illumine it with his presence. But the traditions of Weimar have been musical and artistic for four hundred years, and this had its weight with Goethe when he decided to make it his home.

In Bach's day, pilgrims from afar used to come to attend the musical festivals given by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar; and these pilgrims would go home and spread the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. Many invitations used to come for him to go and play at the installation of a new organ, or to superintend the construction of an organ, or to lead a chorus. Gradually his fame grew, and although he might have lived his life and ended his days there in the rural and peaceful quiet of Weimar, yet he harkened to the voice and arose and went forth with his family into a place that afforded a wider scope for his powers.

As Kapellmeister to the Court at Kothen he had the direction of a large orchestra, and it seems also supervised a school of music.

When the Court moved about from place to place it was the custom to take the orchestra, too, in order to reveal to the natives along the way what good music really was. This was all quite on the order of the Duke of Mantua, who used to travel with a retinue of two hundred servants and attendants.

On one such occasion the Kothen Court went to Carlsbad. The visit extended itself to six months, when Bach became impatient to return to his family, and was allowed to go in advance of the rest of the company. On reaching home he found his wife had died and been buried several weeks before.

It was a severe shock to the poor man, but fortunately there was more philosophy to his nature than romance, which is a marked trait in the German character. All this is plainly evidenced by the fact that in many German churches when a good wife dies, the pastor, at the funeral, as the best friend of the stricken husband, casts his eyes over the congregation for a suitable successor to the deceased. And very often the funeral baked meats do coldly furnish forth the marriage feast. Man is made to mourn, but most widowers say but a year.

The prompt second marriage of Bach was certainly a compliment to the memory of his first wife, who was a most amiable helpmeet and friend. No soft sentiment disturbed the deep immersement of this man in his work. He was as businesslike a man as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who arranged his second marriage by correspondence, and then drove over in a buggy one afternoon to bring home the promised bride, making notes by the way on the Over-Soul and man's place in the Universal Cosmos.

Events proved the wisdom of Johann Sebastian Bach's choice. His first wife filled his heart, but this one was not only to do as much, but often to guide his hand and brain. He was thirty-eight with a brood of nine. Anna Magdalena was twenty-three, strong, fancy-free, and by a dozen, lacking one, was to increase the limit.

As the years went by, Bach occasionally would arise in public places, and with uncovered head thank God for the blessings He had bestowed upon him, especially in sending him such a wife.

Anna Magdalena Wulken was a singer of merit, a player on the harp, and a person of education. She certainly had no seraglio notions of wanting to be petted and pampered and taken care of, or she would not have assumed the office of stepmother to that big family and married a poor man. Bach never had time to make money. Very soon after their marriage Bach began to dictate music to his wife. A great many pieces can be seen in Leipzig and Berlin copied out in her fine, painstaking hand, with an occasional interlining by the Master. Other pieces written by him are amended by her, showing plainly that they worked together.

As proof that this was no honeymoon whim, the collaboration continued for over a score of years, in spite of increasing domestic responsibilities.

From Kothen, Bach was called to Leipzig and elected by the municipal authorities the Musical Director and Cantor of the Thomas School. For twenty-seven years he labored here, doing the work he liked best, and doing it in his own way. He escaped the pitfalls of petty jealousies, into which most men of artistic natures fall, by rising above them all. He accepted no insults; he had no grievances against either man or fate; earnest, religious, simple--he filled the days with useful effort.

He was so well poised that when summoned by Frederick the Great to come and play before him, he took a year to finish certain work he had on hand before he went. Then he would have forgotten the engagement, had not his son, who was Chamber Musician to the King, insisted that he come. In the presence of Frederick it was the King who was abashed, not he. He knew his kinship to Divinity so well that he did not even think to assert it. And surely he was one fit to stand in the presence of kings. For number, variety and excellence, only two men can be named as his competitors: these are Mozart and Handel. But in point of performance, simplicity and sterling manhood, Bach stands alone.


Elbert Hubbard

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