Bach Seated at the Organ, 1725. Print
With the most recognizable name in baroque-era classical music, or perhaps music in general, Johann Sebastian Bach was indeed defined by his art. In 1705, when he was 20 years old, he walked 280 miles to attend a concert by the famous composer and organist, Dieterich Buxtehude. Bach stayed on for four months afterward to study with Buxtehude, hoping to succeed him as organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but upon learning that a requirement for that position was marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters, Bach walked the 280 miles home instead.
He would eventually marry and have 20 children with two wives, losing 12 in infancy. Three of his surviving children would become composers themselves. But he was not yet ready to start that family when Buxtehude's daughters were presented to him.
Destined for music from the beginning, Johann was born into a family of musicians and composers in 1685, in Germany. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a seventh-generation professional musician, and he taught Johann how to play the violin. Of his five brothers (all named Johann as well), three became composers. Orphaned at age 10, Bach moved in with his brother, Johann Christoph Bach, who taught him to play the clavichord.
Johann Christoph became a renowned music teacher. He advised his brother to pursue composing, and put him to work transcribing musical manuscripts, but was displeased when he caught Johann Sebastion secretly copying a forbidden manuscript.
Johann Christoph immediately confiscated the illicit copy, and punished his brother, though whatever that punishment may have been did not interfere with Johann Sebastian's pursuit of keyboard music, especially organ music. The organ would dramatically build his reputation; Bach would become known as an unsurpassed performer. He was given a diamond ring in 1714 by Crown Prince Frederick of Sweden, who was astonished at Bach's keyboard skills. In the early 1700s, one Constantin Bellermann described Bach at the organ keyboard: "His feet seemed to fly across the pedals as if they were winged, and mighty sounds filled the church."
Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach | Reproduction of painting by Elias Gottlieb Haussmann in Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, Leipzig
Best known for his instrumental pieces, such as the Art of Fugue and the Brandenburg Concertos, he was unlimited, also composing vocal music, including a cappella compositions.
Some don't know that Bach was not only an unequalled composer and musician, but a brawler. Among his first jobs was that of a church organist in Arnstadt. What he didn't know when he accepted the position was that he'd be required to teach students both choir and orchestra, and he loathed teaching. Johann Geyersbach, a bassoonist, particularly irritated Bach with multiple playing errors one day, and Bach called him a zippelfagottist, which translates as a "nanny-goat bassoonist."
Musicians took insults seriously, evidently, because Geyersbach later attacked Bach on the street with a walking stick. Bach pulled a knife (as composers do; they're rowdy folk) and the two had to be pulled away from each other before one or both were killed.
Bach pressed charges, but it came to nothing. However, he himself spent a month in jail, not because of that fight, but because as a chamber musician at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar he was passed up for promotion, and he resigned in a fury. The duke jailed him as retribution. Bach spent a month in jail for the crime of quitting his job.
He was confident in his abilities. In Dresden, he agreed to a contest of keyboards with the famed organist, Louis Marchand. However, when it was time for the musical duel, it was discovered that Marchand had taken a fast coach out of town, leaving Bach to perform solo for an admiring crowd.
At another post, Bach was reprimanded by the church council. He was accused of "entertaining a strange damsel" in the organ loft of the church. It is generally thought that the damsel in question was his cousin and future wife, Maria Barbara.
Like many great artists, Bach did not find true success until after his death. His music was considered somewhat old fashioned by audiences of the day and was truly appreciated only by educated listeners who understood his subtle shifts in underlying harmony as the breakthrough they were. His compositions were not what built his reputation during his lifetime, however. It was his performance skills on the organ that he was most known for. Evidently, he was an astoundingly talented organist.
Bach, a soprano, was also known for the clarity and quality of his singing voice. He earned a scholarship in 1700, when he was 15, from St. Michael's School in Luneburg, because of his singing skills.
Morning Hymn at Sebastian Bachs' by Toby Edward Rosenthal, 1870
A deeply religious man, even in his secular music, Bach would include the initials "I.N.J." on his manuscripts, short for the Latin phrase, In Nomine Jesu, meaning "in the name of Jesus."
It was 60 years after Bach's death that Felix Mendelssohn reprised Bach's "Passion According to St. Matthew" in Germany, composed 100 years before, igniting a re-evaluation of Bach's composing skills and catapulting him into popularity and a world-wide appreciation for his brilliance. It didn't hurt that such respected composers as Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven considered him a genius.
Our interest, though, is in Bach's pipesmoking. Sadly, we know little. He didn't smoke briars, because briar had not yet been discovered for pipemaking. We know his pipes were clay, because most were, yes, but there's a poem or song that he wrote about his love for pipes, from the notebook he gave to his second wife:
Each time I take my pipe'n tobacco
With goodly wad filled to the brim
For fun and passing time with pleasure,
It brings to me a thought so grim —
And adds as well this doctrine fair:
That I'm to it quite similar.
The pipe is born of clay terrestrial,
Of this I am as well conceived.
Ah, one day I'll become earth also —
It falls and breaks, before ye know't,
And often cracks within my hand:
My destiny is much the same.
The pipe our wont is not to color,
It's always white. And thus I think
That I as well one day while dying
In flesh at least shall grow as pale.
But in the tomb my body will
Be black like it when used at length.
When now the pipe is lit and burning,
We witness how within a trice
The smoke into thin air doth vanish,
Nought but the ashes then are left.
And thus is mankind's fame consumed,
Its body, too, in dust assumed.
How oft it happens when we're smoking
That, when the tamper's not at hand,
We use our finger for this service.
Me thinks, then, when I have been burned:
Oh, if these cinders cause such pain,
How hot indeed will hell yet be?
I can amidst such formulations
With my tobacco ev'rytime
Such practical ideas ponder.
I'll smoke therefore contentedly
On land, at sea and in my house
My little pipe adoringly.
That is one translation, and you can find others if you look online. It's safe to suspect that it loses something in translation. Bach smoked a clay, and he loved smoking. It's especially interesting to see his comments when he uses a finger to tamp the tobacco when a tamper is not about. Typical pipesmoker problem. It makes him one of us. Note too that the pipe Bach writes about is a clay, not only named as such, but described as a true smoker would describe it, not coloring and remaining always white — and the inevitable sadness that these pipes break so easily.
A man whose enormous talent for musical composition went mostly unnoticed in his own lifetime, Bach lived the life of an undiscovered genius. While most of his contemporaries would say he was a skilled musician, few recognized the enormous creative talent behind his compositions. Only in later years was he awarded an admiration and respect equal to his genius.
The last page, unfinished, of the manuscript of the Fuga a 3 soggetti, from The Art of Fugue
Bach struggled with blindness, and a botched surgery on his eyes may have contributed to his death, caused by a stroke when he was 65. While we know little of his pipe smoking, we do know he enjoyed his pipe often, perhaps even continuously. An unsubstantiated story still circulates of his arriving home one day without his ever-present pipe in his mouth. Because of that omission, one of his children burst into tears from failure to recognize him, thinking a stranger had invaded the home. It seems he was unrecognizable as Johann Sebastian Bach without his pipe.