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On Becoming Blind

Omar Chowdhury
28 March, 2005

Among the prominent blind persons in history, two literary names come to mind: Homer and Milton. The latter celebrated his blindness in a famous poem. Perhaps not many lovers of music know how Johann Sebastian Bach eventually went blind.

When he was a lad of fifteen, Sebastian began to wonder about the magic of music. The began his astonishing career as musician, composer, and family man. Prolific as a composer, he was equally prolific as a progenitor.

Bach, who was born on the 21st of March, 1685, had been left an orphan, and was ill-equipped to face the world. Yet he allowed nothing to stand in the way of his ambitions.

Sebastian’s elder brother, Johann Christopher, took Sebastian under his protection. He taugh him the principles of music, but had little sympathy with Sebastian’s aspirations. He would not allow the boy to consult his musical books. But there was one book which Sebastian was determined to study at any cost. It contained compositions by all the best composers of the time. Obtaining the book by stealth, Sebastian copied the pieces, but as he was obliged to do it in a clandestine manner, he worked by moonlight. It is astounding to contemplate how far an artist can go to achieve his objective! It took him six months to complete his task. And what was the price he paid? Sight was permanently impaired.

The death of his brother Christopher left young Sebastian destitute. Notwithstanding this adversity, he went with a school-fellow on a 200-mile journey on foot, which took him to Luneburg, where he obtained an engagement as treble singer in the choir of St. Michael’s Church. He remained there until his voice broke.

At the age of 18 he was engaged to play the violin in the chamber orchestra of the Duke of Weimar.

Of all the musical instruments of an orchestra which he was acquainted with, his preference, almost passion, was for the organ.

In 1708 he returned to Weimar, no longer a fiddler in the orchestra, but as organist. His reputation as a performer and composer spread all over Germany.

His favourite instrument, apart from his organ, was the clavichord, the forerunner of the pianoforte, on which his playing was notable for lightness of touch.

An enormous number of church compositions came from his pen at this time, including most of his motets and church cantatas.

Having lost his first wife, he took a second, by whom he had thirteen children, making a family of twenty in all, eleven sons and nine daughters.

His career leapt from success to success. He composed magnificent music for the church, chamber and full orchestra. He performed on the organ and clavichord, and became a teacher.

In 1747 Bach visited Potsdam at the invitation of Frederick the Great. The evening concert was about to begin, and Frederick was ready with his flute when an officer gave the King a list of new arrivals in the town. In the list was the name of Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Gentlemen,” said the musical King, “Old Bach has come!” the composer arrived at Sans Souci in his traveling clothes, having been given no time to change into proper court attire.

Bach remained in Potsdam for some tine, as Frederick found him an entertaining companion. One thinks of another genius who took Frederick’s fancy, namely Voltaire. What a comparison between composer and satirist!

In 1750, Bach returned to leipzig, and there he became totally blind, and died six months later.

Like Bethoven’s deafness, Bach’s blindness could not in any way prevent him from achieving all that the wanted for the perfection of his art.

5 July, 1991.

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