Johann Sebastian Bach is best pictured as the bewigged and corpulent gentleman in Haussmann’s (hopefully) unflattering portrait. Very little that we know of his life contradicts this image of a severe man with fleshy jowls who made mind-boggling complex and beautiful music (look at the way he holds the paper upside-down: it’s for you to look at and admire, not for him–he wrote the damn thing, he knows it’s awesome) (also note how he doesn’t make it easy for you to read, because you are probably too stupid to really get it anyway).

Someone once asked him how he got be so good at music. His answer, in short, was, “I worked hard. If you worked hard you could do it, too.” Which is a bit badass but also a little snobby and probably not meant to be helpful.

Still, every giant was a little guy at least once, and Sebastian was no exception. In his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner paints a vivid picture of what a young Bach may have been like (may have been, because most of the details have been lost to history).

He tells the sweetly touching story of ten-year-old Sebastian crawling inside the church organ to watch the pieces move. It is something like magic to reconcile the enormity of the man in the painting with the slightness of an insubstantial little boy sitting inside a musical instrument and marveling at the mystery and possibility of it all.

More fun, though, is when Gardiner suggests that Bach may have belonged to a street gang. Not just any kind of street gang: a musical street gang. Gardiner likens them to the Jets and Sharks; myself, I think of the doo-wop toughs of the Bronx in the early 60s. Neither comparison really does it justice, though, because these seventeenth-century ruffians sang soprano (puberty hit much later back then, I’m told).

I’m sure it all made sense at the time, but in the 1600s in the city of Lüneburg there were two big boys’ choirs, one attached to St. Michael’s Church, and the other to St. John’s, and members of the choirs were both encouraged and expected to go out into the city streets and sing for money.

And fight for turf. They carved the city up amongst themselves, and sang until someone either paid them or beat them up. They were usually armed and often drunk.

At one point the government even considered calling in the army to subdue the singing maniacs.

We’ll never know if young Sebastian was one of the hoodlums or one of the kids just trying to get through his song without getting stabbed. Gardiner really wants to believe that he was a juvenile delinquent who happened to possess one of the finest musical minds in human history, and offers up all manner of circumstantial evidence to back him up.

Germany in the seventeenth century was no joke–the incomprehensible devastation of the Thirty Years’ War still left fresh scars, and no doubt the teenage violence was a byproduct of the battered psyches that had survived and struggled to rebuild. (Maybe not so far from West Side Story and the Bronx in the 60s after all, I guess).

I find it a bit amusing, though. Maybe classical music would attract younger audiences if there was an outside chance that the performers would start fighting onstage.

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8 thoughts on “J.S. Bach was in a teenage street gang

  1. Thanks for sharing this theory. It certainly gives a different view of Bach. Times must have been tough if choirboys were expected to sing for money on the street. Sounds like a precarious existence that Bach was lucky to survive, delinquent or not.

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    1. The story of his childhood is horrifying pretty much from start to finish, especially when you consider that he had it good, relatively speaking. There were abusive teachers, dead parents, etc, but at least he had relatives who cared for him, and his incredible abilities. What that time period must have been for an orphan without his talents and family connections, though!

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