Were you aware that scholars believe half of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has been lost to the world due to the carelessness of his relatives?
I was unaware of that sad fact until recently.
J.S. Bach was the preeminent prodigy of a gifted musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the leader of the musicians in their German city. All of his uncles were professional musicians. Two of Bach’s sons also became noteworthy composers.
Bach (1685-1750) held a number of important posts. These included serving the courts of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen and Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
It is not uncommon for gifted men and women to remain unrecognized during their lifetimes. In such cases, it is not surprising that many of their works would be lost.
Bach, on the other hand, was appreciated during his own lifetime. Despite that fact, many of his creations would pass into oblivion. Why?
Amazing, only a single early cantata was published during his lifetime.
Upon his death, all of his precious musical manuscripts—chorales, motets, arias, sonatas, suites, fugues, concertos, canons and more—were divided among his family. Some of the manuscripts were sold, and others presumably were saved and eventually lost to time. Perhaps someday more pieces will be rediscovered, but that remains to be seen.
Bach was a devout Christian (of Lutheran persuasion). While the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he wrote more than 300 cantatas inspired by the Gospel readings for Sundays and church festivals. One hundred of these musical gems have not survived.
C.S. Lewis enjoyed Bach. In An Experiment in Criticism, he uses the composer’s music as an example of something so profound that it continues to satisfy.
Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently.
In his Diary, Lewis’ brother Warnie describes the inauguration of a new record player in 1933. “This after my long expected new gramophone arrived . . . I am delighted with it . . . After supper Jack, Minto and I sat cozily in the study and I played them the Pastoral Symphony and a sonata of Bach.”
In our modern world, the increase in leisure time has allowed many people to pursue their creative dreams. Some write, others paint, and a smaller number compose music.
Bach’s tale makes one wonder what will happen to their labors of love once they are gone. Will our family or friends divide them among themselves? Will they ever be read?
Rather than be depressed by these questions, let me encourage you to share your work with others now. Perhaps a blog would be a suitable avenue for publishing your thoughts? There are also a number of options for publishing ebooks, including some that do so at no cost.
Of course, not everything we write merits publication. We should strive to write something worthwhile, and edit it to the point where we can be suitably “proud” of our literary offspring. No doubt Bach spent many hours revising his compositions until they sounded perfect to his own ear.
And, for those of us who share the faith of Bach, it is worth noting the words he wrote at the close of each of his religious works (and many of his secular pieces): Soli Deo Gloria . . . Glory to God Alone.