Gardiner: J.S. Bach Was a Hooligan in his Youth

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - 03:00 PM

Johann Sebastian Bach may have been quite a brawler as a teenager. So writes John Eliot Gardiner, conductor and noted Bach interpreter, in a new book about the German baroque composer, published on Tuesday.

In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner suggests that Bach was no choirboy when it came to his behavior at school as a young child. "The facts are that Bach played truant at school," Gardiner tells host Jeff Spurgeon. "He was absent a heck of a lot of the time."

But the composer's troubles went beyond playing hooky. Gardiner notes that Bach's elementary school in Eisenach was not a model of German efficiency. "There was a shortage of textbooks, overcrowding, nowhere to let off steam in the playground as it were," said Gardiner. This spawned a culture of proto-hooliganism, with "guys lobbying bricks through windows, chasing the girls, coming to school with daggers, with swords."

Bach evidently saw his share of street brawls. School choirs of the day earned their schooling by busking on the streets. Things became pretty territorial, spawning a kind of gang warfare, with the choirs carving up different areas of town, not unlike the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. "It was pretty severe," said Gardiner. "They had to call in the army at one point to sort them out. Bach was subject to this tension."

Gardiner notes that Bach's teachers didn't always provide the best role models. There was a particularly sadistic cantor who was eventually got outed and fired from the school in Eisenach. This set a pattern for disgruntlement all through Bach's life. In his first job as the organist at St Boniface's Church in Arnstadt, the composer got in a sword fight with a younger bassoonist and shredded his clothing.

Gardiner notes that Bach also had an enormously collegial and nurturing side, but 20th century biographers have skirted these coarser details, perhaps out of a sense of reverence towards the composer. The conductor also admits that much of the evidence is circumstantial. "I can't say that Bach was bullied, violated or abused," he said. "But you can say that the conditions pertaining to education were nothing like you’d expect to have produced the greatest musician of his day or of any day."

Listen to the full interview above and tell us in the comments below: do these details change your view of Bach and his music? Please share your comments below.

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Jeff Spurgeon

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Comments [4]

Eileen from NEw York

Sounds like a rebel to me! You go Johann!!! :)

Oct. 31 2013 11:36 AM
concetta nardone

I was surprised to learn that he composed a coffee cantata. Wow, he could not have been all that bad. I was enjoying my cup of espresso when I heard this tidbit.

Oct. 31 2013 11:30 AM
Alan from New York City

Since Bach was a truant, what was it like for the teacher, on the days he did decide to go to class?

Oct. 30 2013 07:13 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Your review made it sound as if Bach were a street child with no family support.
The facts are that he was born to a musical family, his father was director of the town musicians in Eisenach, his uncles were all professional musicians.
His father first taught him violin and harpsichord before he started formal musical studies.
It did not "take a village" to motivate him toward musical genius, it took the love of a close family.
Boys will be Boys, that is true, but Bach had family supervision and close mentoring as he was growing up, without which the world might not have his wonderful music to enjoy. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 30 2013 02:42 PM

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