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August 17, 2005
Vol. V, No. 17

"Jailbirds of a Feather"
"On Nov 6 the quondam concertmeister and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge's place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal, and finally on Dec 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge." - Court Secretary's Report, Weimar, 1717.

"Bach's job in Weimar ended in a rather dramatic way. Since he was close to the co-regent Ernst August, the other duke, Wilhelm Ernst, forbade Johann Sebastian any musical service to his rival. Stubbornly, Bach refused to comply and was passed by for the function of Capellmeister when the old one, Johann Samuel Drese, died in 1716. Drese was succeeded by his insignificant son Johann Wilhelm and the great Bach was not even short-listed. Bach was offended and abruptly stopped his production of cantatas that year (1716), which casts some doubt on the idea that Bach produced his church music only to the honor of God. Fortunately, Bach made a great impression on Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen with his wedding music for Leopold's sister, when she got married to Ernst August. Bach received a job offer (this time as Capellmeister) from Leopold, but Wilhelm Ernst refused to let Johann Sebastian go to the brother in law of his rival Ernst August. Bach was even arrested and imprisoned for a month (November 6 - December 2) before he was dismissed "without honor". Bach could move to Köthen now. This is the incredible conclusion of one of the most creative episodes in the history of western music."

That last line refers to the fact that Bach wrote a most of his major organ compositions in Weimar. When he moved on to Cöthen, his focus would be more on secular music.

I have to hand it to old Bach. Actually, he was rather young (age 32) when he went up the river. But how brave he was to stand up to the Duke, the law of the land, knowing he had six mouths to feed, at least. In retrospect we know that he was jailed for less than a month but at the time he had no way of knowing how long he would be behind bars. It was sort of like being jailed for contempt of court but Bach obviously never intended to apologize or beg for his freedom. How long would he have stayed in there?

I'll bet Bach never imagined he'd find himself in jail. Knowing what we do about his temperament, he must have been furious. After calming down, the assumption is that he got around to composing. It's a natural assumption. After all, he's Bach. What else would he do with all that free time? He was a very industrious person. (I'm trying to force an image out of my mind of Bach playing harmonica and singing a blues tune.)

If he did indeed compose while "on vacation," the speculation is that Bach worked on parts of the Well-Tempered Clavier. That he would continue working and creating in spite of his surroundings, with lives at stake, and his situation grim, brought to mind another artist, a writer, who also served time for defying the law of the land.

Henry David Thoreau, at some point, spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax. In his essay "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau describes the uselessness of imprisioning an artist as it only restricts the body and not the mind, where the true "danger" resides. Of course, he says this in a much more poetic way:

"I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and _they_ were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it."

While Bach and Thoreau were jailed for very different reasons, basically they were both free spirits who were resisting a greater authority, asserting their belief in the power of the individual. Thoreau has such an inspiring way of putting things that I think I'll give him the last word on the subject:

"There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen."

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Susan Burkhalter
July 19, 2005. In next month's BLOG, I could relate anecdotes of funny things that happened to organists at weddings. E-mail me,
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Vic Kovacs
"Long Time No See" - I apologize dearly for the long time since I have said anything in this BLOG. I have been unusually busy, and am involved in a new job as well. In addition to being a church organist, I am also a security...
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Updated Pages
Organ Links:
Added is the Wolff organ at Christ Church Cathedral in, Victoria, British Columbia, CA. Also added is the Rulli organ at St. David's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Davidsville, Pennsylvania.

Composition Free Exchange:
More FREE music! community member Bill Kistler has contributed his Postlude on Sine Nomine as well as his Toccata on "Ode to Joy." Enjoy!

Featured Links:
Added is "The Goldberg Variations," a website dedicated to J.S. Bach, including articles, images, music and more.

RAMPAGE FLASHBACK (It was four years ago today, about)
"What's Your Favorite Organ?" - August 1, 2001
"The Organ Links page today welcomes the John Brombaugh & Associates Opus 35. Completed in June, this truly gorgeous instrument is installed at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois, USA. John Brombaugh has been kind enough to provide a series of photos and captions describing the organ in various stages of assembly." Click the following link for more:

WHAT I'M READING..."Dungeon, Fire, & Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades" by John J. Robinson. More than simply a history of the Templars, this book puts the Knights as well as the Crusades into their proper historical context. In other words, this book provides a solid history of civilization in general. Well, worth the effort and full of surprises. I was especially interested to learn the origins of the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Also unexpected was learning that, as far as the Middle East is concerned, not much has changed in the relationship between Christians and Muslims since the Crusades. Click the link below for more information on this book:
Click this link to see all selections in Dan's Book Club:

Have a great week!

Dan Long

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