John Sebastian Bach
THE CHILD MUSICIAN
Long ago, in a little German town, lived a jolly old miller. From
morning till night he sang about his work, for he loved music dearly. He
had learned to play upon the lute, which is an instrument with strings.
The miller used to take his lute with him to his work. He was fond of
playing while the merry clacking of the mill beat time for him.
This miller was the great-great-grandfather of John Sebastian Bach, who
said of the miller, "The grinding of the corn and the music of the lute
must have sounded merrily together."
John Sebastian Bach was born in Germany, as were most of our great
composers. His father was a musician. All his uncles and cousins were
musicians. His grandfather, too, was a musician. So it is not strange
that the child wished to become one also, for he grew up among people
who cared for little else besides music.
In his native village little John worked and played, went to school, and
studied music much as other German children did. Here, too, he marched
through the streets with his playmates, singing hymns. For centuries it
had been the custom for the school children to sing in the streets.
John was left an orphan at the age of ten, and went to live with his
eldest brother in a neighboring town. In his new home he continued his
studies. Besides his school work, his brother gave him lessons on the
piano. The brother, an organist, had a book in which he had copied many
fine compositions. He kept it on a high shelf in a bookcase.
Little John had learned so rapidly under his brother's instruction that
soon he could play almost as well as the organist himself. However, he
was eager to know more about music. He thought, "If only I could use my
brother's book, I could learn faster." But he was not allowed even to
touch it. He used to look at it and long for it as it lay upon the high
One night, when the house was dark and still, John arose from his bed
and crept softly downstairs. Standing tiptoe on a chair, he succeeded
in obtaining the treasure. How happy this made him!
He could scarcely keep from laughing aloud at his good fortune. Hugging
the book close in his arms, he scampered back to his room. He wished to
copy every note of the music, but he had neither lamp nor candle. He
could work only by the light of the moon, so it was six months before
his task was completed.
At school John studied arithmetic, grammar, Latin, and Greek. There,
too, several hours each week were spent in the study of music. The boy
had a sweet soprano voice and was always happy when the time for music
came. The school choir often sang at church services and weddings.
Clearer and sweeter than any other could be heard the voice of little
The lad learned something about organ playing during the next few years.
These were years filled with hard work; but they were happy years,
nevertheless. He no longer sang in the white-robed choir, but devoted
his time to the piano, violin, and organ.
In the olden days there stood in Hamburg a church, named for the good
St. Katherine. The organist of this church was a man of great skill,
whose fame had spread throughout the land. Even little John Sebastian
Bach had heard of him, and longed to hear him play the great organ at
One fine morning he started to make the long journey on foot. The lad
little knew how tired he would become before he reached Hamburg. Once
inside St. Katherine's, however, he forgot his weariness and his bruises
and the long miles of dusty road over which he had traveled. He thought
of nothing but the wonderful music.
John was not satisfied with hearing the great organist once. Several
times he went to Hamburg, walking all the way. Once, when returning from
a visit, he was walking along the highroad, and came to an inn. Being
very hungry, he put his hand into his pocket and drew forth one small
coin. That was not enough to buy him a dinner.
He seated himself outside the door to rest. The odors of the dinner
coming from the kitchen made him hungrier than ever. Some men at dinner
in the inn saw the forlorn little figure outside the door. They guessed
how tired and hungry the boy must be. "Poor little lad," they said to
one another, "let us give him a surprise."
Meanwhile, John Sebastian had made up his mind that he must go on. He
was just rising to his feet, when a window was thrown open and two
herrings' heads were tossed out. He ran to pick them up. Imagine his
surprise to find in each a shining piece of money.
BACH IN PUBLIC LIFE
At an early age, John Sebastian Bach began to earn his own living. He
had no thought of earning it by any other means than music. When he was
eighteen, he obtained a position where he played the violin in the
duke's band. He was greatly pleased with court life. His grandfather, a
musician, too, as you will remember, had once lived at the same court.
Young Bach did not remain a year in the service of the duke. At the end
of summer he accepted a position as organist in a small town. From 1703
until 1723 Bach went from place to place as organist and teacher.
Sometimes he was church organist; sometimes he was court musician for
some noble prince. At all times he was poorly paid. Bach often received
no more for a year's work than many men receive for a month's work.
Although Bach played well on the violin and piano, he was most skillful
as an organist. Indeed, his fame was spreading throughout all Germany.
He often went on journeys to try new organs. On those trips he sometimes
played for kings and nobles.
Once he played an organ solo for the crown prince. The crown prince was
greatly pleased with Bach's pedal solo. Would it not seem strange to
hear music and to see the hands of the musician at rest? That was what
the prince heard and saw. When the beautiful music had died away, he
drew from his finger a ring set with precious stones. He gave it to the
musician, saying, "Never before have I listened to such a wonderful
In 1717 a noted French organist came to Germany. In his own land, people
thought there was no better organist than he. The Frenchman traveled
through Italy, and found no one there to equal him. When he arrived in
Germany, he played for the king and was highly praised. The proud
Frenchman then thought that no one else in the world could play so well
Now it happened that Bach had a friend at court, who had heard the
French organist play. He said to himself: "Bah! our own German organist
can do much better than that. I will invite him to come to Dresden and
we will have a contest."
So he wrote to Bach, who at once set out for Dresden. Soon after his
arrival, a royal contest was held. The musician from France played
first, and, to speak truly, he played well. Then Bach came forward. When
he had finished, the applause was great, and all his friends felt sure
that he would win.
It was decided to continue the contest the next day; so the king named
the time and place. Promptly at the appointed hour, Bach appeared. The
large audience waited impatiently for the Frenchman. At last they sent a
messenger for him; but he could not be found. He had left Dresden early
The people said to one another, "Surely, the Frenchman is afraid to meet
our great Bach." "France has no musicians to equal those of our own
land." Bach played so wonderfully that morning that the king afterward
sent him a hundred pieces of gold.
Before Bach's time, pianists and organists used only the three middle
fingers in playing. Bach taught all his pupils to use the thumb and
little finger as well. Some of the music books that he wrote for his
pupils are still in use.
It was the custom, long ago, for organists to write the music which was
sung in their churches. For this reason, many of Bach's compositions are
When Bach was thirty-eight years old, he and his family moved to
Leipzig. Here he had a position as choir master of the Thomas School.
The salary was very small, and the work was hard. It was Bach's duty to
teach music to all the boys who attended the school.
Part of his work in that city was to direct the music in four churches.
He trained the boys of the Thomas School to sing sacred music. Every
Sunday they were divided into four choirs, one choir singing in each
Once upon a time Bach paid a visit to King Frederick the Great. It
happened in this way. Bach's son had for seven years been in the service
of the king as a musician. The king was very fond of music and played
well upon the flute. He had often said to young Bach, "How much I should
like to know your good father!"
The son always repeated the king's words to his father, saying, "Father,
will you not come to the palace and pay me a visit?" "Some day I will
go," was the reply. And one day the great organist kept his promise.
Every evening before supper the king had music in his rooms. At these
concerts the king himself played the flute. One evening the musicians
were all in place, ready to begin. An officer came in. He handed the
king a list of the strangers who had arrived that day. Holding the flute
in his hand, Frederick the Great glanced hastily over the names. Halfway
down the list he stopped, for he saw the name Bach. Without reading
further, he turned quickly to his orchestra, saying, "Gentlemen, old
Bach has come."
Bach, who had gone to his son's rooms, was summoned to the castle. He
had not time even to change his traveling clothes for a court dress.
What a strange appearance he made as he came among the gentlemen of the
Frederick the Great received the master musician with much kindness, and
led him through all the rooms of the castle. The king asked him to play
the piano. The court musicians followed them from room to room. Whenever
Bach played, the king stood behind his chair, exclaiming, "Only one
Bach! Only one Bach!"
When the great musician returned to Leipzig, he composed some music in
honor of his royal friend.
On the 30th of July, 1750, at the age of sixty-five, the "Father of
Music" passed away. Very little notice was taken of his death. No choir
sang hymns at his funeral; no cross ever marked the spot where he was
Almost a hundred years after Bach's death, Felix Mendelssohn began to
play his music. Then people began to appreciate and love the old master.
They were sorry that so little had been done for him. Through the
efforts of Mendelssohn, a monument was erected in Leipzig to Bach's
Even if no monument had been erected, we should honor his name. His
works are his best monument and will last as long as people love music.