Johann Sebastian Bach

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

German composer (b. 31 March 1685 in Eisenach; d. 28 July 1750 in Leipzig).

Tchaikovsky and Bach

Until he started taking harmony lessons with Nikolay Zaremba in the autumn of 1861, as part of the newly established classes of the Russian Musical Society, Tchaikovsky had had no idea about Bach. Indeed, his musical horizons had been very narrow until then, being confined mainly to a passion for Italian opera (see his Autobiography of 1889), so that he knew very few works even by such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, who would eventually come to mean so much to him. Tchaikovsky never really warmed to Bach's music in later years either, but it is interesting that after starting to attend Zaremba's lessons he would frequently play fugues by Bach on the piano at home, as his brother Modest would later recall [1].

Herman Laroche, in his various reminiscences of Tchaikovsky, lamented somewhat that his late friend had been so indifferent to Bach. Thus, in his 1893 obituary of the composer he observed that during their years at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory (1862–65) Tchaikovsky had not only showed no interest in the 16th- and 17th-century Belgian and Italian contrapuntists, whose works Laroche was then studying assiduously, but he "did not even like Bach" [2]. Tchaikovsky's teacher in the theory classes, Anton Rubinstein, arranged for his gifted student to have organ lessons with the famous German organist Heinrich Stiehl (1829–1886), who was based in Saint Petersburg at the time. Laroche gives an interesting account of these lessons, in which Bach of course figured prominently: "Pyotr Ilyich's poetic and impressionable soul could not fail to be struck by the majestic sound of the instrument, the inexhaustible variety of its resources, and indeed the very atmosphere in which the lessons were conducted, namely in the deserted and mysteriously dark SS. Peter and Paul Lutheran Church. However, this effect was but fleeting: his imagination drew him into another world, and amongst all the musical realms that of Bach was one of the most alien to him. It is significant that later on, too, when he played Bach for his own pleasure, he would choose exclusively his piano pieces and none of his organ works, although he could easily have got hold of transcriptions of the latter" [3].

In Letter 1554 to Sergey Taneyev of 1/13 August 1880, Tchaikovsky jestingly called his former student "a Bach from the neighbourhood of the Fire Station" (Taneyev was then living near the main fire station on Prechistenka Street in Moscow), alluding to Taneyev's diligent study of counterpoint, fugues, and canons, which he wanted to apply to Russian folk-song in order to create solid foundations for Russian music in the future. In November 1884, Tchaikovsky received a letter from the French musicologist Henry Expert (1863–1952) asking him if he would support the "J. S. Bach Society" which Expert was hoping to set up in Paris in order to promote concerts featuring early music works (from the 13th century up to Bach and his contemporaries). Expert explained that he had decided to address such a request to Tchaikovsky "knowing your great erudition in a field of music, which at present has fallen into oblivion, though this does not make its beauty any less immortal." It seems that Tchaikovsky gladly offered his encouragement for this project [4]. From the composer's diary we also know that while staying in Maydanovo in March 1887 he played through a mass by Bach [5]. Generally, though, Tchaikovsky does not seem to have had a very high opinion of Bach's sacred music (see the reference below to an article he wrote in 1872 — TH 268). Perhaps hearing the Leipzig Thomanerchor in January 1888 as they performed some choral works by their illustrious former Cantor may have won him over slightly to Bach as a religious composer (see Tchaikovsky's account of this concert in Chapter VI of TH 316).

Nevertheless, to cite Laroche again, there seems to be no doubt that "Tchaikovsky did not show the slightest interest in the early music movement which emerged in the 1850s and has been gaining in strength ever since, leading to a revival of the works of Bach and Handel. For although (as he told me himself) he would every now and then play piano fugues by Bach when he was alone, he always felt that the latter's cantatas and major vocal works were "real classical bores" [6].

General Reflections on Bach

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 268 — Tchaikovsky contrasts unfavourably the "classical dryness" of Bach's sacred music with Liszt's "profoundly moving" oratorios.
  • TH 270 — lists Bach together with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Glinka, as examples of the "hard-working artist" who concentrated on his music rather than trying, as Wagner did, to draw attention to himself by espousing some 'progressive' theory or cause.
  • TH 288 — with regard to the Chromatic Fantasy, Tchaikovsky notes how in this work Bach's "exuberant imagination" struggled in vain against the conventions of his time.
  • TH 312 — discusses briefly the influence of Bach on Saint-Saëns' music.

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Diary entry for 20 September/2 October 1886, in which Tchaikovsky reflects mainly on his contrasting feelings for Mozart and Beethoven:
As for the predecessors of these two, what I would say is that I like playing Bach because it is entertaining to play a good fugue, but I do not acknowledge in him (as others do) a great genius... [7].

On Specific Works by Bach

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, for piano solo, BWV 903 (1720s) — TH 288

External Links

Notes and References

  1. See the excerpts from Modest Tchaikovsky's as yet unpublished "Autobiography" in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1979), p. 41; English translation in David Brown, Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 17.
  2. Herman Laroche, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 44.
  3. Herman Laroche, Из моих воспоминаний. Чайковский в консерваторий [Tchaikovsky at the Petersburg Conservatory] (1897), in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 47–60 (54). The section about Tchaikovsky's organ lessons is also included in: David Brown, Tchaikovsky remembered (1883), p. 20–21.
  4. Two letters from Henry Expert to Tchaikovsky (dated 6 November and 25 November 1884 [N.S.] respectively) are included in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 174–175. The notes there explain that it is not clear whether Expert's plan for setting up a J. S. Bach Society in Paris was actually realised. Tchaikovsky wrote one letter to Expert (Letter 2589a). Henry Expert was a specialist in French music of the 15th and 16th centuries and would later become a librarian at the Paris Conservatory.
  5. See Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 408.
  6. From Herman Laroche's foreword (Предисловие) to his 1898 edition of Tchaikovsky's music review articles, which is reprinted (in German translation) in P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), xxix.
  7. Quoted here from Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 385.