article 105: Ex-BWV 919

While preparing to record a piece in two voices by J. S. Bach, I recalled Wanda Landowska’s recording of another: BWV 919, a modest Fantasia in C-minor. I looked it up, and found it relegated to Appendix II of the new BWV index, the section devoted to doubtful works. The entry said: By J. B. Bach?

I knew of two Johann Bernhards. One (1676-1749) is a fairly well-known, same-generation second cousin of Sebastian, of the Erfurt branch of the family. He later worked in Eisenach, composed orchestra music for the court there, and was successor to Sebastian’s admired uncle Johann Christoph as organist of the main church. He and Sebastian were in close touch, exchanging honors as godfathers.

Then there is Johann Gottfried Bernard, the youngest of J. S. Bach’s sons by his first wife. He couldn’t hold a job, abandoning two different positions in murky circumstances. His troubles elicited one of Sebastian’s most touching and personal letters, addressed to the church council in Sangerhausen, which was asking him for payment of debts left by the vanished organist whom Bach called his “wayward son”.

But he of ex-BWV 919 was yet another Bach of that given name, whose existence, I confess, was news to me. There are so very many Bachs, don’t you see. This one was a nephew of Sebastian’s, a son of the older brother Johann Christoph who was Sebastian’s host in Ohrdruf for five years after he was orphaned at age 10.

This Johann Bernhard (1700-43) went to study with uncle Johann Sebastian in Weimar in 1715. He followed the move to Cöthen in 1717, worked there at times as a copyist while continuing his studies, and finally returned to Ohrdruf in 1719, where he succeeded his father as organist of St. Michael in 1721. A letter of his survives in a 19th-century copy (Bach Dokumente II, no. 277), a short autobiographical sketch written for the church authorities. Bernhard tells his employers that his father deemed his memory too weak for academic studies, and that he was therefore sent to study music with his uncle, “a very famous and strong Maître, in order to habilitiren myself in the art of music for which I had an innate love, and in which both in Clavier and composition I made good progress.” J. S. Bach’s 19th-century biographer Philipp Spitta reports the existence of a Suite in E-flat (which according to Spitta, plagiarized Sebastian’s Partitas “in almost comical fashion”) and a (“more independent”) Sonata in B-flat by Johann Bernhard in the collection of Wilhelm Rust (Vol. I, pp. 519-20), but these have not come down to us.

The manuscript that should have served the old Bach Gesellschaft as source for its publication of the Fantasia in C-minor was lost long before it appeared (Vol. 36,1890). It was first used in an 1843 edition by Friedrich Conrad Griepenkerl for Peters in Leipzig (Compositions pour le Piano-Forte...par Jean Sebastien Bach / Edition nouvelle). It thereafter disappeared, and three other publications, including that of the Bach Gesellschaft, were based on Peters, faute de mieux.

Then, in his Studien zur Bach-Überlieferung im 18. Jahrhundert (Leipzig, 1983), Hans Joachim Schulze* re-assessed a manuscript of the piece (now D-Bim Mus. ms. Joh. Bernh. Bach 1), copied around 1740 by J. G. Preller, an organist from Thuringia who wound up in Dortmund.** It had turned up at the beginning of the 20th century as part of the extensive Mempel-Preller collection, where it awaited inspection by Schulze in the Berlin Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung. The title inscription says: Praeludium in C mol di Bernhard Bach. Schulze thought it was by the elder Bernhard mentioned above, but says the possibility that it was by the younger Bernhard “should not be concealed [verschwiegen]”.

The piece is written in the manner of the “Two-Part Inventions”, as J. S. Bach’s Inventionen are always called in English. This is an awkward translation of a term (Inventio) from classical rhetoric, which refers to the seeking out of ideas or arguments for a public speech. The end of young Bernhard’s studies with his uncle was about the time that the Inventionen were being conceived for the Clavierbüchlein of Sebastian’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, dated 1720. “Praeambulum” was the title given there to each of the 15 pieces which, in a 1723 fair copy, became the Inventionen.*** I think it possible that that Bernhard’s Praeludium, a composition assignment in two-part counterpoint, was the spark that led to the idea of the cycle for Friedemann. The title and the structural similarity to those miniature masterpieces clinch Bernhard the Younger as composer of ex-BWV 919.

Bernhard starts off well, but he lacks the infallible structural tightness and contrapuntal mastery of his uncle. On the whole it is surprising that Griepenkerl should have believed the piece was by Sebastian, and puzzling that it is still in Appendix II, leaving the door to authorship by Sebastian open a crack. But weaker works have made it into the canon, sometimes only to be rejected, reaccepted, and rejected again. And as the apologetic entry in the comprehensive website Bach Digital states, “In this [lost Griepenkerl] source the work may well have been assigned to J. S. Bach.”

Incidentally, Fantasia – Griepenkerl’s title for ex-BWV 919 – was the original title of J. S. Bach’s gemlike “Three-Part Inventions”, which follow the Inventionen in the 1723 fair copy. They were never called any such thing by the composer. When revising the two sets – 15 pieces each in two and three parts – in 1723, probably with a publication in mind which never came about, he altered Fantasia to Sinfonia, at the same time as he altered Praeambulum to Inventio. It is curious that ex-BWV 919 comes down to us under the original titles of both sets in Friedemann’s Clavierbüchlein. The elder composer was clearly still grappling with nomenclature.

Below is a YouTube link to that Landowska recording; a prime example of her iron control. One also hears her pushing the pedals for dynamics. That reminded me of story told me by my Juilliard teacher, Albert Fuller. At a recital at Yale shortly before her death, Wanda went into one of her trances and began a fugue by J. C. F. Fischer with no registration at all; the music slowly appeared out of nothingness. Was she dreaming of the mists hovering over the Vistula in her native Warsaw?

August 8 2023

* Preller was at some point in his early life part of the circle around Johann Peter Kellner (1705-72), whose talents and influence as organist, teacher and composer were out of all proportion to his position in his native Thuringian village of Gräfenroda. J. P. Kirnberger, one of the most important theorists of 18th-century Germany, was a student of his. Kellner was one of the most important transmitters of J. S. Bach’s music, and has even been plausibly mooted as the actual composer of the most famous organ piece of all, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. This seems incredible, but the rather strong case should be an object lesson in credulousness, stubbornness of authorities, the difficulty of stylistic criticism, and fakes in the world of the arts.

**I met this great Bach scholar just once, about 25 years ago. He already seemed on the edge of the grave then, but I was happy to read just now that he is still among the living at age 88. This is proof that an active brain and a terrifying personality lead to longevity. I presented myself to him at the Bach Archiv in Leipzig to solicit his counsel regarding an article of mine on the Kunst der Fuge, later published in “Early Music”. I got my head snapped off, and if he read the article, he never informed me.

*** Its title page, called Aufrichtige Anleitung – honest or sincere instruction – carries a message from the greatest composer of all time, too often forgotten for as long as I can remember. After stating his reasons for composing these 30 works of instruction, “particularly for those avid of study”, Bach tells us he has done so, “Most of all, [that such persons may] achieve a singing manner of playing”. Singing obviously doesn’t mean melodies being chopped to bits (Gould and followers) or banged to smithereens (members of the Koopman school); but it also doesn’t mean a constant legato. Song, to Bach’s generation, was a texted subsection of the Klangrede – disquisition in sound, with all its articulations; the oldest and most important one, to be sure – to be imitated by all instruments, which were textually mute, but capable in other ways of articulating. “Do you not hear it speak?”, said Corelli (according to Roger North) to his violin students.

Johann Bernhard Bach’s signature on a petition to the Ohrdruf town council.

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