Sunday, December 13, 2015

Genius, Insanity and Johann Sebastian Bach by J. Nisbet 1912

Genius, Insanity and Johann Sebastian Bach by John Ferguson Nisbet 1912

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Pathologically speaking, music is as fatal a gift to its possessor as the faculty for poetry or letters; the biographies of all the greatest musicians being a miserable chronicle of the ravages of nerve-disorder, extending, like the Mosaic curse, to the third and fourth generation. The genealogy of the Bach family has been traced for a period BACH of over 200 years. The founder of the family was a baker named Veit Bach, who, in the sixteenth century, settled in Saxe-Gotha. He played the guitar, and taught music to his two sons. Prom these sprang numerous descendants, who not only cultivated music, but made it their means of livelihood, filling a number of official posts as organists or town musicians in Germany. Many of them, of course, were mediocrities, but one or two Bachs in every generation gained at least some local distinction. At first sight the growth of this highly musical family, which numbered at one time about 200 members, might be taken to prove the feasibility of producing by means of heredity a specially gifted race of men. If they did not marry in and in, the male Bachs, in many cases, chose musical wives, and music seemed with them to run in the blood. On a closer examination of the family history, however, the prospects of a successful breeding of musical geninses on the system adopted with Derby winners and prize oxen, not only diminish, but become reduced to the vanishing point. Of the great majority of the Bachs little or nothing is known beyond the dates of their births and deaths. Yet the meagreness of the record does not disguise the growing ravages of nerve-disorder in their midst, the evil culminating at the point where the musical genius of the family is at its greatest, namely in the person of Sebastian Bach.

One of the grandsons of old Veit Bach was blind, as well as eccentric enough to be the subject of many strange stories; other Bachs appear to have been addicted to drunkenness, and Spitta, the historian of the family, makes a regretful allusion to the sickness and general misery with which the several generations of Bachs had to contend. Christopher Bach, grandfather of Sebastian, died at forty-eight; he was a court musician, and his wife, herself the daughter of a musician, died the same year. Of his three sons, two were twins, John Ambrosius and John Christopher, born evidently of the same ovum, seeing that they had exactly the same temperament, suffered from the same disorders, and were so remarkably alike that even their wives could not distinguish them except by their clothes. Moreover, they died within two years of each other, and about the same early age as their father, whose feeble constitution they no doubt inherited. A sister of theirs, the aunt consequently of Sebastian, was an idiot. John Christopher had a sickly family, some of whom suffered from weakness of the eyes. It was John Ambrosius, however, who became the father of the most illustrious member of the family in whom, observes Spitta, 'the genius of the Bachs, after having diffused itself more or less widely through whole generations, culminated and exhausted itself.'

In Sebastian Bach the fatal inheritance of nerve-disorder first betrayed itself by short-sightedness in his youth. At sixty-five he became totally blind; a year later he was stricken with apoplexy, from which he died. Strange to say, ten days before his death, his sight was suddenly restored, from which it may be concluded that his blindness arose, not from a defect of the retina or a decay of the optic nerves, but from some disturbance of the visual centre of the brain, which the apoplexy temporarily corrected. Sebastian Bach was twice married, and had no fewer than twenty children. One of these was an idiot boy, who was thought for a time to have 'great genius.' Four other sons were musically gifted. With the whole family nerve-disorder played havoc. The eldest and most gifted son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was a man of obstinate and sombre disposition-more than half insane. He was said to be 'unable to adapt his style to circumstances.' During many years he depended for existence on the bounty of his friends, and died in extreme misery. Only a few of Bach's twenty children survived him, most of them indeed dying in childhood. One alone left issue, and with the death of Sebastian's solitary grandson, Wilhelm, court musician at Berlin, in 1846, the family of the great composer became extinct-a melancholy example of the unfitness of genius to perpetuate itself, or even to hold its own in the battle of life.

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