While Bach held the position of director of the chapel of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, which he assumed about the year 1720, he went to Hamburg on a pilgrimage to see old Reinke, then nearly a centenarian, whose fame as an organist was national, and had long been the object of Bach’s enthusiasm. The aged man listened while his youthful rival improvised on the old choral, “Upon the Rivers of Babylon.” He shed tears of joy while he tenderly embraced Bach, and said: “I did think that this art would die with me; but I see that you will keep it alive.”
Our musician rapidly became known far and wide throughout the musical centres of Germany as a learned and recondite composer, as a brilliant improviser, and as an organist beyond rivalry. Yet it was in these last two capacities that his reputation among his contemporaries was the most marked. It was left to a succeeding generation to fully enlighten the world in regard to his creative powers as a musical thinker.
Though Bach’s life was mostly spent at Weimar and Leipsic, he was at successive periods chapel-master and concert-director at several of the German courts, which aspired to shape public taste in matters of musical culture and enthusiasm. But he was by nature singularly retiring and unobtrusive, and he recoiled from several brilliant offers which would have brought him too much in contact with the gay world of fashion, apparently dreading any diversion from a severe and exclusive art-life; for within these limits all his hopes, energies, and wishes were focalized. Yet he was not without that keen spirit of rivalry, that love of combat, which seems to be native to spirits of the more robust and energetic type.
In the days of the old Minnesingers, tournaments of music shared the public taste with tournaments of arms. In Bach’s time these public competitions were still in vogue. One of these was held by Augustus II., Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, one of the most munificent art-patrons of Europe, but best known to fame from his intimate part in the wars of Charles XII. of Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia. Here Bach’s principal rival was a French virtuoso, Marchand, who, an exile from Paris, had delighted the king by the lightness and brilliancy of his execution. They were both to improvise on the same theme. Marchand heard Bach’s performance, and signalized his own inferiority by declining to play, and secretly leaving the city of Dresden. Augustus sent Bach a hundred louis d’or, but this splendid douceur never reached him, as it was appropriated by one of the court officials.
In Bach’s half-century of a studious musical life there is but little of stirring incident to record. The significance of his career was interior, not exterior. Twice married, and the father of twenty children, his income was always small even for that age. Yet, by frugality, the simple wants of himself and his family never overstepped the limit of supply; for he seems to have been happily mated with wives who sympathized with his exclusive devotion to art, and united with this the virtues of old-fashioned German thrift.