SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about a visit to the Bach museum in Leipzig
So, while I was in Leipzig, Germany, I had the opportunity to visit the Bach museum. It was both a moving and educational experience. First the moving portion. While there, we had the chance to see an organ that Bach had played. It has been completely restored, and was absolutely amazing. But the part that was so moving was when we walked into a musical instrument room, and as soon as we came into the room we were staring at a nearly 300 year old double base.
To imagine the loving care that the instrument maker had put into making such a remarkable device was mind boggling. This was all make by hand, there were no electric planners and joiners, no noisy band saws, only the whispered sounds of metal blade sliding across fine grained wood.
One of the things that is very hard to imagine is that while Bach hand wrote his compositions, there was no lined music paper. In fact, paper itself was made from old cotton cloth that was recycled. It was cleaned, boiled, and broken down into fibers. Next it was hand formed into molds that gave the paper it’s rectangular shape. Once dried, it was hand burnished by workers. It was therefore very expensive to make and to purchase. In fact, each paper maker had a water mark that was set into the molds to identify it by maker. One was in the shape of a half moon.
So, where did the treble and bass clefs come from? There was a real cool tool that had the ten little arrows on it. Think of a ten fountain pens hooked together (only much smaller and more compact) and you have the very idea. Of course, that also meant you needed to be able to draw a straight line.
So, here is Bach by candle light, using his clef tool to draw the lines on really, really expensive hand made paper. He has to wait for the ink to dry. Now, he dips his fountain pen and begins to write music after hammering it out on his organ. Now, of course, he was very good, but he was not perfect. Therefore, he would make corrections to his paper as he went along.
Now, it needs to make parts for all of the other instruments. He had copyists for those jobs – one was a trusted student of his, another was his wife who was a very talented singer. Now, are these copyists perfect? Nope, they are not.
But what about rehearsal at the St. Thomas cathedral, where Bach was the concert meister. Guaranteed, even after Bach had visualized the music, once he heard the flutist, or the oboe or bassoon player, he had extra changes. The musicians themselves, probably just added them to their copy. Maybe Bach kept up with them in his copy, or in his head.
So which is the original music? The music Bach wrote in his study, the music copied by the copyists, the musicians copies, the musicians copies with notes, or Bach’s performance copy? It all goes back to intent. What did Bach intend this piece to sound like.
Oh, by the way, during his first 40 weeks at St. Thomas, he wrote a new cantata each week. I always pictured them as a bunch of old foggies playing classical music, but Bach was cutting edge. He was friends with an instrument maker, and he always had access to the latest and greatest stuff. Way cool stuff…