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

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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.