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Bach's Health

Bach's ability to play keyboard during the last years of his life

Teri Noel Towe wrote (September 29, 2004):
< John Butt? Until anyone, including John Butt, gives evidence that "Bach was unable to play the Goldbergs during the last few years of his life," Butt's statement remains a degradation, a dishonoring of Bach's musical abilities. Such a remark is unworthy of anyone claiming to be a Bach scholar (or of those who deign to defend such a remark by pointing to other things that Butt has written.) >
As a part of my forensic iconographical work on the Bach portraits, real and unreal, I have spent a lot of time considering Bach's health and his physical problems. The documentary and philological evidence not only supports the belief that Bach was able to play at the keyboard, and play well, until well into 1749, but also provides compelling proof that, by the end of 1749, Bach was unable to use his right arm to any significant degree. The last documented example of his handwriting is a signature, if I recall correctly, on a document dated December 11, 1749.

A careful consideration of the documented events of the last 18 months of his life suggests that his health essentially was fine until he had the first of a series of strokes. (This first stroke was the catalyst for Count von Bruhl compelling the Leipzig Town Council to audition Gottlob Harrer.) It is my belief that Bach had at least two, and probably three, strokes prior to the ultimately fatal one.

Although Christoph Wolff does not draw the same conclusions that I do, he has set forth the sequence of events in poignant detail in his 2000 biography.

I, too, would like to see the basis for John Butt's statement. Except for the last months of his life, my analysis of the evidence indicates that Bach had no difficulty at the keyboard.

If Prof. Butt is contending that Bach couldn't play the Goldbergs because he was obese, such a contention would not be supported by collateral anecdotal evidence. Max Reger and Edwin Fischer, for instance, were bulky men, and both were virtuosos famous for both fine technique and superb dynamic control. Admittedly, I am not a keyboard player, but I fail to see why Bach would have been any different from Fischer and Reger.

Teri Noel Towe wrote (September 29, 2004):
Insomnia

< I'm occasionally afflicted by mild insomnia. Being the enlightened guy I am, I don't fight it; I read, or listen to the radio. >
Whether or not I am an enlightened guy, as a fellow insomniac, I wholeheartedly concur with your method.

As W. C. Fields observes in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break:"

There is only one cure for insomnia, and that's to get plenty of sleep.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 29, 2004):
[To Teri Noel Towe] Well reasoned, TNT, and thanks for providing this info about the strokes and disability. What do you think about the chapter on Bach's physiognomy in Yearsley's Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint?
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0521803462
That's an area of Bach that I haven't studied myself well enough yet....

=====

I took a look at that entry "Goldberg Variations" in the Oxford Composer Companion, written by Butt, this morning; I hadn't read it before. IMO it's overall a very fine three-page introduction to the piece, for a mostly unscholarly readership: i.e. a well-written article for the scope of that particular book. He's completed the writing assignment with his customary ability to draw together information and insights from all over the place, and to present it clearly and succinctly. Bravo!

But I too am troubled by this paragraph in it: "With declining health, it is unlikely that Bach himself could play the variations in the last few years of his life. Indeed, he had never composed such demanding music for keyboard and may have been influenced by the Essercizi (1739) of the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti, which likewise contain many hand-crossings and virtuoso figurations. The writing shows the greatest development in Bach's keyboard idiom since his transcription of Italian instrumental concertos for organ and harpsichord, nearly 30 years earlier."

Why am I puzzled? Several reasons:

- Butt himself is an expert in knowing what's difficult and what's not, in Bach's keyboard music. His dissertation was a comprehensive survey of articulation, working directly with the sources. And at age 24 he wrote a brilliant article with cogent inferences from Bach's surviving organ music, as to the nature of Bach's own keyboard techniques. (This article is in Williams' collection Bach, Händel, Scarlatti: Tercentenary Essays, 1985.) His more than 40 musical examples in there show that he understands performance problems in Bach's keyboard music very well; so do his own recordings demonstrate that he is on top of all this. So does his recent book surveying the philosophical and practical issues of historically informed performance.

- Yes, the Goldbergs show a great development in Bach's keyboard idiom, at least in the direction of bravura stuff (which is what most casual readers of the Oxford Composer Companion would probably take as a summit of difficulty; flashy virtuosity tends to impress people who don't play the music themselves). Fine. But the "English Suites", Art of Fugue, and the 6-voiced ricercar of the MO are all technically more difficult to play than the Goldberg Variations are (in my experience of playing all this); so are some of the bravura pieces written much earlier than the GV. It all depends what sorts of difficulties one is looking for, as to the physical motions and preparation required at the keyboard. Granted, Butt's readership for this particular book would probably go along with the assessment that the GV are difficult, but the phrase "he had never composed such demanding music for keyboard" is questionable. The GV are not that difficult.

- If we must guess at the reasoning behind the "declining health" assertion, I would think it has more to do with eyesight issues than either corpulence or lack of agility. The GV become more difficult in the dark, while the other pieces I've mentioned here do not become more difficult to that same extent. To say that more directly: it's much more necessary to glance at the keyboards during performance of the GV than in his other pieces. In the GV it is easy to get disoriented without looking. In the other pieces the difficulties are more in the areas of flexible independent fingering, style, relaxation, and ability to hold together longer passages of music (no opportunity to rest the arms or mind at any double bars!).

And I certainly wouldn't go as far as someone else here has proposed, which is to boycott learning anything from John Butt's work until he issues some public apology to the deceased Bach. That just looks to me like a petty excuse to continue being unscholarly, abusive, and closed-minded; an ad hominem bash against John Butt, a convenient (but faulty) dismissal that says more about the dismisser's personal priorities than about Dr Butt. Disagree with one sentence, and therefore throw the man and all his work out the window as not even worth looking at?! Offer moral judgments against Butt? AND turn the abuse further against those of us who take the work seriously? C'mon, get a grip. I know some eight-year-olds who have healthier attitudes toward scholarship than that, AND who are better placed to make demands about other people's apologies, since such eight-year-olds are at least able to admit when they themselves make errors of judgment, and apologize for them.

One can learn a lot more by grappling with puzzling statements from a brilliant scholar (by becoming better informed oneself through the exercise), and studying the broad range of his scholarly work, than by sticking one's head into the...um, sand...and refusing to learn anything from either the music or its brightest living commentators.

Teri Noel Towe wrote (September 30, 2004):
"eyesight is" and "declining health"

< - If we must guess at the reasoning behind the "declining health" assertion, I would think it has more to do with eyesight issues than either corpulence or lack of agility. The GV become more difficult in the dark, while the other pieces I've mentioned here do not become more difficult to that same extent. To say that more directly: it's much more necessary to glance at the keyboards during performance of the GV than in his other pieces. In the GV it is easy to get disoriented without looking. In the other pieces the difficulties are more in the areas of flexible independent fingering, style, relaxation, and ability to hold together longer passages of music (no opportunity to rest the arms or mind at any double bars!). >
The surviving documentary evidence does not support a diagnosis of total blindness, as is often assumed. If memory serves me correctly, the last documented example of JSB's musical hand date from the summer of 1749 ("Et incarnatus est" in the "B Minor Mass (BWV 232)"). There also are the performance indications that Bach added around that time, or perhaps even some time later, to the performance materials for the Motet "Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf!) by Johann Christoph Bach (1642 -1703).

Bach's vision never appears to have disappeared completely. He simply had advanced cataracts, like Händel.

While vision problems may have hampered JSB at the keyboard, they clearly did not stop him.

Please also remember that even in the last months of his life, Bach had non-family, paying pupils in the household, most notably Kittel.

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 30, 2004):
Teri Noel Towe wrote:
>>The surviving documentary evidence does not support a diagnosis of total blindness, as is often assumed. If memory serves me correctly, the last documented example of JSB's musical hand date from the summer of 1749 ("Et incarnatus est" in the "B Minor Mass (
BWV 232)"). There also are the performance indications that Bach added around that time, or perhaps even some time later, to the performance materials for the Motet "Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf!) by Johann Christoph Bach (1642 -1703).<<
According to Yoshitake Kobayashi in the NBA IX/2 (Bärenreiter, 1989), these autographs or partial autographs are verifiably in Bach's own handwriting:

BWV 16 1749 Revision of the viola part
BWV 29 1749 Revision of bc part
BWV 182 1749? Revision of the soprano part
BWV 195 1749 Title page partial revisions of the parts
BWV 201 1749 Revision of the text
BWV 232 1748/1749 Parts II-IV
BWV 245 1749 4th revision
BWV 249 1749 "Revision in Prinzipal"
BWV 1080 1748/1749 Beilage 3

Teri Noel Towe wrote (September 30, 2004):
Let's notdemonize John Butt!

[To Braley Lehman] I agree wholeheartedly with Brad.

While I personally disagree with Prof. Butt's statement, I disagree with it not because it is disrespectful to JSB but because it is, in my considered opinion, not supported by the available evidence, both documentary and philological.

John Butt is a fine musician and a fine scholar. As such, he is qualified to make mistakes, and he is qualified to revise and refine his opinions and conclusions and to admit when he has made a boo-boo. While his path and mine have not crossed in 8 years, since we both participated in the American Bach Society bi-ennial meeting at Berkeley, I recall that he was a colleague in the best sense of the word. I also am confident that his statement about Bach's alleged inability to play the Goldbergs himself in his last years was based on what he felt -- and may still feel -- is good evidence and sound analysis.

Personally, I fail to understand why it is that some feel that a composer is in some way lacking in integrity if he writes a piece for his chosen instrument that he himself can't play. By his own admission, Ravel was not a good pianist, and it is acknowledged and documented fact that Robert Casadesus ghosted the majority of Ravel's piano rolls and that he did so at Ravel's request.

I am not suggesting that I doubt that Bach could play the Goldbergs himself. What I am saying is that, to me, it is immaterial. In fact, let us assume for the sake of the argument that Prof. Butt is right and Bach couldn't play the Goldbergs. He still had the skill, the genius, and the knowledge to compose a masterpiece that, while demanding, is not awkward or impossible to play idiomatically.

Doug Cowling wrote (September 30, 2004):
Composers as performers

Teri Noel Towe wrote: < Personally, I fail to understand why it is that some feel that a composer is in some way lacking in integrity if he writes a piece for his chosen instrument that he himself can't play. By his own admission, Ravel was not a good pianist, and it is acknowledged and documented fact that Robert Casadesus ghosted the majority of Ravel's piano rolls and that he did so at Ravel's request. >
It is a Romantic view of composers that they are all virtuosos in addition to being composers. Wagner was a competent pianist but certainly not of recital quality. There is a famous story of him sitting down after dinner to play a Beethoven Sonata. After a few bars, Liszt pushed him off the bench, saying, "I can play it better than that!".

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 30, 2004):
Composers not playing their own pieces

Teri Noel Towe wrote: < Personally, I fail to understand why it is that some feel that a composer is in some way lacking in integrity if he writes a piece for his chosen instrument that he himself can't play. By his own admission, Ravel was not a good pianist, and it is acknowledged and documented fact that Robert Casadesus ghosted the majority of Ravel's piano rolls and that he did so at Ravel's request.
I am not suggesting that I doubt that Bach could play the Goldbergs himself. What I am saying is that, to me, it is immaterial. In fact, let us assume for the sake of the argument that Prof. Butt is right and Bach couldn't play the Goldbergs. He still had the skill, the genius, and the knowledge to compose a masterpiece that, while demanding, is not awkward or impossible to play idiomatically. >
Well spoken, counselor!

Additional examples would include Bach's flute and cello music, Mozart's clarinet concerto, Brahms' violin concerto, Bartok's string quartets, so much more.....

A related but opposite charge has been leveled at Brahms' piano music: the problem there being that he was such a good pianist that the physical difficulties he wrote into the music (irrelevant to his own technique) flummox other people.

p.s. How are Paul Wittgenstein's recording(s) of the Ravel LH concerto? I haven't heard them yet, but I read somewhere recently that it was something of a mess. That would be a case where the composer and the dedicatee were both unable to do the piece justice as players, yet the masterpiece still came into existence....

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 30, 2004):
[The following is my paraphrase of an earlier message by TNT]

Johann Nikolaus Forkel is a fine musician and a fine scholar. As such, he is qualified to make mistakes, and he is qualified to revise and refine his opinions and conclusions and to admit when he has made a boo-boo. I also am confident that his statements about Bach's Goldbergs were based on what he felt was good evidence and sound analysis.

Personally, I fail to understand why it is that some feel that a musicologist such as Forkel is in some way lacking in integrity if he adds aesthetical and analytical comments to what would otherwise simply be another rather dry biography of Bach.

I am not suggesting that I doubt that Forkel got his information right when he listened to the accounts by W.F. and C.P.E. Bach. What I am saying isthat, to me, it is immaterial. In fact, let us assume for the sake of the argument that Forkel is right and Bach did originally compose the Goldbergs clearly with the objective in mind to aid the count in falling asleep. Bach still had the skill, the genius, and the knowledge to compose a masterpiece that went far beyond its original intentions.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 30, 2004):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < [The following is my paraphrase of an earlier message by TNT] (...) >
Esquire Towe has a brilliant career as both an attorney and a producer of historic classical recordings (reissues)...especially in the music of Händel. What is the motivation here to mock his work?

Thomas Braatz wrote (September 30, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.

[particularly when it helps to point things out to others, such as the questioner, who might easily overlook certain key issues]

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 30, 2004):
Bob van A

Donald Satz wrote: < There seems to be no limit to the matters you folks will argue about. Bach's playing ability at different stages of his life? Ever heard him play? If not, just move on to more important things like the intent to make the Count fall asleep. >
Johann Scheibe's diatribes against Bach probably put the Count to sleep. I can imagine why.

Party on. Time to go for a drive in the car, taking along Bob van Asperen's fine recording of the Bach hpsi concertos. Recommended!

 

Bach's taste for pork or canary

Continue of discussion from: The Passion according to Judas [General Topics]

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 20, 2006):
Koel Figen wrote:
< Now, I wouldn't mind a little discussion of bach's religion, if we also gave similar attention to other aspects of his life. I've rarely seen a word herein about his dietary preferences, his politics, his health, his family life, the colors he chose to surround himself with, what sort of mental operations he employed while composing, how much coffee he drank, and so on and on. >
In this excellent book by David Yearsley, "Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint":
http://www.music.qub.ac.uk/tomita/bachbib/review/bb-review_Yearsley-BMCpt.html
...there is a chapter entitled "Bach's taste for pork or canary". That chapter is actually mostly about the Scheibe/Birnbaum debates, Mattheson, and other related bits of aesthetic criticism, with Bach's responses within contrapuntal compositions to show those guys the what-for. There are some funny barnyard bits in this chapter as well.

The New Bach Reader relates the apocryphal anecdote where Bach is walking along, hungry, and fetches a couple of freshly-discarded fish heads from the rubbish bin behind a pub. Lo and behold, when he opens them up, there's money inside! So he goes in and buys a proper meal.

I often wonder how Bach ever got any sleep, in his busy household where there were always small children. Or, ever any quality time out on a date with the Mrs.

Health? It's generally understood that Bach suffered from adult-onset diabetes, correct?

Anybody here have a reaction to Peter Williams's 2004 book, The Life of Bach? Williams's structure is to go through the Obituary one or two sentences at a time, and contribute pages of tangential essay about each point...raising zillions of rhetorical questions and "perhaps" conjectures along the way, drawing in a broad range of other material.

Interesting photo on page 119 of the executioner's sword from the occasions where Bach and his singers had to go out and supply music for public-spectacle executions. This fits also into Williams's article in the Fall 2004 issue of "Bach Notes" here: http://www.americanbachsociety.org/bachnotes.html

Ludwig wrote (April 21, 2006):
[To Bradley Lehman] First of all it is not assumed by everyone that Bach had diabetes type II. However, looking at his profile in the paintings we have of him; the eye problems he had and other physical ailments it is very reasonable to assume(especially by those of us who are or have been medically trained/professionals) that this is true but it is just a hypothesis. However, it can not be true without the physical corpse in the flesh of Bach present or we dig up his bones(if the person really is Bach in that particular grave.

The diet of the average German during Bach's day was heavy on fats, meats(and game)and potatoes with some cabbage and perhaps other vegetables thrown in. Fruits were available when in season, usually apples,grapes, raisins and pears and maybe Oranges from Spain. The diet was balanced with Wine and beer in helping reducing cholesterol levels. During the spring and summer--the diet was somewhat wider. It is safe to assume that Bach's diet was not that different but with Coffee,perhaps milk and chocolate as one of the newer things added to the diet of the European. He would have never eaten tomatoes because they were regarded as poisonous although seeds had been brought over from Central America. This sort of diet was the chief diet in Britan until recently. After seeing the preposterous comedy in which an American becomes the King of England ---I tried some of these foods---such as spotted dick--it was so greasy and fat I just could not go it and the same with many other foods of that time.

It may be doubtful that Bach ever tasted Chocolate because it was very expensive unless he tasted it at a Royal residence. For most people today; the diet of the time of Bach might be rather upsetting to the tummy and regarded as .

As far as Bach's religion; we know that he was a very devout Lutheran who perhaps thanks to Luther's ravings was prejustice against Jews. He possess several Bibles---only Sir Issac Newton possessed more. We probally can see his religious views in his Cantatas.

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 21, 2006):
[To Bradley Lehman]I think it's difficult for people of today that possess some level of education and interest in what goes on around them (there must be a couple of three dozen of such souls in North America alone) to appreciate how little we know about the "nitty gritty" of almost any figure prior to industrialization. I know in my own field that there is an absolute flood of letters, diaries etc written by the common soldiers that fought in the American Civil War. There's even a pretty good selection of letters and memoirs from the Napoleonic period. (Wellington's soldiers seemed to have been an unusually chatty lot.) Before that era, the pickings get really slim. Why the big change? Kinda hard to say really. Literacy went up, but maybe not by much. More people lived in towns and had relatives in the countryside - a reason to write. (Writing home for a soldier is natural and essential for morale as any modern army knows.) Paper got a lot cheaper too, a fact I wouldn't discount. But this fact has plagued biographers. With a very few exceptions, anyone reading a biography of someone living prior to the late 18th century is wise to view the work with a bit of distance. Scholars can certainly write fine history on the preindustrial world, but it inevitably lacks much of the individual detail that we all like.

So the lack of material on Bach is not the exception by any means, rather it's the rule for someone living in the 18th century, and not a person of obvious historic importance at the time. (Surprisingly being famous in past would not mean historians have much of a clue as to how the individual lived his life day by day, regardless of how many documents concerning state business we might possess.) So Wolff is right: we can study Bach's music, but we remain in the dark concerning most facets of his personality. If we didn't have a pretty good idea of what his library looked like, we would really be at sea concerning Bach's religious ideas. When musicologists first determined that the Leipzig cantatas were composed in a very short period (I do hope some bored grad student periodically reexamines that notion. "Selevident truth" has been proven wrong more than once in almost every field of study), East German musicologists (no doubt following implied instructions from the Stassi) were quick to use the evidence to prove that Bach's religiosity was professionally motivated and that he was best viewed as a man of the Enlightenment: ie Bach was a diest, doubter or some other secular hero. I don't think this argument was convincing when it was made, but the fact that it was taken seriously at all illustrates my point. And one doesn't have to be anti-clerical to wonder whether Bach was in agreement with all of the things expressed in his librettos. Maybe he was - but we don't know.

But he must have lucky. I've cleaned a lot of fish over the years and not once did I discover a coin inside one. Never heard a fisherman claim to have done so either, and fishermen certainly consider "truth" a relative term. Never heard one claim to have eaten a canary either.

Teddy Kaufman wrote (April 21, 2006):
Ludwig wrote:
"...The diet of the average German during Bach's day was heavy on fats, meats(and game)and potatoes with some cabbage and perhaps other vegetables thrown in...."
---------------
"A dietician was once addressing a large audience in Chicago. "The material we put into our stomachs is enough to have killed most of us sitting here, years ago. Red meat is awful. Vegetables can be disastrous, and none of us realizes the germs in our drinking water. But there is one thing that is the most dangerous of all and we all of us eat it.

Can anyone here tell me what lethal product I'm referring to? You, sir, in the first row, please give us your idea."
The man lowered his head and said, "Wedding cake." (http://www.jokejam.com/food_jokes.htm)

Probably, it was not applicable to Bach in spite of his most damaging diet.

Rick Canyon wrote (April 21, 2006):
Ludwig wrote:
< The diet of the average German during Bach's day was heavy on fats, meats(and game)and potatoes with some cabbage and perhaps other vegetables thrown in. Fruits were available when in season, usually apples,grapes, raisins and pears and maybe Oranges from Spain. The diet was balanced with Wine and beerin helping reducing cholesterol levels. >
The general choice of diet, however, may provide a clue regarding the physical sizes of those in Bach's Thomanerchor. Most seem to stress the idea that compared to today's youth, these kids would seem far smaller in stature. However, I was researching the food question on a food site (the URL of which I neglected to keep handy) and I found that the Italians and French of the time considered the Germans to be big and husky (the word 'brute' seems to come to mind). The site said this was proly literally true as German children had a diet greater in protein than those of some neighboring countries.


Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Now, I wouldn't mind a little discussion of bach's religion, if we also gave similar attention to other aspects of his life. I've rarely seen a word herein about his dietary preferences, his politics, his health, his family life, the colors he chose to surround himself with, what sort of mental operations he employed while composing, how much coffee he drank, and so on >
While this might not answer specific questions about Bach's daily life, would anyone know if it is possible to obtain a copy of the Thomasschule "Ordnung"? (for example, who fed the students? That would seem to be a function of the school, would it not?) The engraving from the cover is often reproduced, but I've found little from the inside. I noted that Andrew Parrott's bibliography lists it, edited by H-J Schulze (Leipzig, 1987). I checked both Amazon.US and de. but could not find it. Does anyone know if this can still be had? or, even better, if there is an English translation?

A. Sparschuh wrote (April 21, 2006):
Bach's taste for rhine-wine, (was: pork or canary) instead coffee

< Wolff is right: we can study Bach's music, but we remain in the dark Now, I wouldn't mind a little discussion of bach's religion, if we also gave similar attention to other aspects of his life. I've rarely seen a word herein about his dietary preferences, his politics, his health, his family life, the colors he chose to surround himself with, what sort of mental operations he employed while composing, how much coffee he drank, and so on and on......... >
The Bach-Dokumente report about that preference in Vol. 2 #16, p.20, Actum Arnstadt 21.Feb.1706
"Verweißen ihn daß er letztwichenen Sonntags unter der Predigt in Weinkeller gegangen"
translation: "Admonish/censure him because he went last sunday while sermon in wine-cellar"
But how can a thirsty cantor intone an choral well, if his throat feels to much dry for singing in a clear voice?

or
consider bills about "Weinkauf" bying-wine in Cöthen 1721/1722 Dok. Vol.2 #111, p.83
"Rhein-wein...32 Maaß an den Capell-Mstr. Bach a 9 thlr. verkauft... rhine wine ... sold to the chapel master Bach ~32 liters each 9$.... (Thalers~=~Dollars)

or Dok. Vol.4 #851, p.342 Leipzig 6.9.1781 "...Doppel Flasche Wein... " ...double bottle wine...

Even the evangelists wrote in the bible about Jesus that he loved to drink wine together with his friends, but none such report exist about coffee consumption.

p.s:
Der größte Feind des Menschen wohl
ist der Alkohol?
Aber in der Bibel steht geschrieben
Du sollst deine Feinde lieben!

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (April 21, 2006):
[To Teddy Kaufman] Thanks I enjoyed the humor.

On the other hand some 50 years after Bach had passed. Thomas Jefferson dined mostly on vegetables using meat something as an after thought. I often wondered just how true this was considering his love of things French and his introduction to Americans what has become our current love of pasta---macaroni.

 

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Last update: June 5, 2006 12:21:54