Johann Sebastian Bach is arguably the greatest of all composers, with the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B Minor among the most sublime masterpieces in classical music. But biographers over the past half century have "sanitised" his life, in the belief that only a saintly man could have written such heavenly music, according to one of the world's leading conductors and foremost interpreters of Bach.Share
After years of research, Sir John Eliot Gardiner says biographers have been so "overawed" by the composer that they have presented a misleading image of the man. They have depicted him as a "paragon of rectitude, studious and dull, with the false assumption that music of such extraordinary and sublime quality must have come from somebody who was beyond criticism".
Gardiner added: "The reality seems very different … You'd expect a more accurate and less rosy-tinted version of him."
Archival sources, including school inspector reports, reveal that Bach's education was troubled by gang warfare and bullying, sadism and sodomy – as well as his own extensive truancy.
His first school, Eisenach Latin school in Thuringia, Germany, was largely attended by the children of bourgeois tradespeople. However, Gardiner said that documents damn the boys as "rowdy, subversive, thuggish, beer- and wine-loving, girl-chasing … breaking windows and brandishing their daggers". He added: "More disquieting were rumours of a 'brutalisation of the boys' and evidence that many parents kept their children at home – not because they were sick, but for fear of what went on in or outside school." For punishment, Bach's contemporaries endured beatings and the threat of "eternal damnation". Such experiences must have left "lasting scars" on him, Gardiner believes. (Read more.)