Was Bach mentally ill?


A question most of us surely have is:
How broadly are the specialists in mental health
extending the definition of mental illness?
We see statistics claiming more and more of the population in general,
and young people in particular,
have some sort of problem that the specialists claim should be treated.
In most cases,
we either don’t understand
the detailed diagnosis the professional claims to have made,
or the specific behavior and actions the supposedly ill patient made
that caused the professional to make their judgment.

Well, a recent test case has come to my attention where
the label of “paranoid personality disorder” was assigned to
a person who has been thoroughly studied by many authors,
who indeed have written many books about the person,
and many of us are familiar with at least some of the work product of the person.
Based on our own knowledge,
we may well ask whether we would agree with that judgment.
Thus we may want to challenge either the criteria used
or whether the criteria fit the patient.

The person so labeled is one Johann Sebastian Bach,
born 1685 in Eisenach, Thuringia, died 1750 in Leipzig, Saxony.
His name is a fairly familiar one to most people interested in classical music.
Where was the assessment made, and by whom?
I became aware of it while watching the BBC documentary on the life of Bach
featuring the distinguished British conductor John Eliot Gardiner.

This links to the start of the video.
This links to the start of the dialogue below.
The viewscreen below will play the excerpt on this web page:

Here is a transcript of the relevant part of that documentary,
starting at 1:12:40 and ending about 1:14:22
(The two speakers are
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor and musicologist and
Tamar Pincus, Professor of Psychology)

Gardiner [speaking about a letter he displays]:
It’s the only truly personal letter we have of Bach’s,
in which he’s writing to his old pal Georg Erdmann
(he was the guy that Bach walked with from Ohrdruf to Lüneburg with
when they were both in their teens, early teens) and
Bach is just pouring out all his frustrations about
why the council had not responded to this entworf,
this statement of his intentions,
and Bach tells Erdmann
“My life is full of hindrance and vexation,
but I see no future for myself and my family here.”

One of the features that you might expect to see,
in this inflexible personae, if you like,
is that he would never be guilty.
No matter what happened,
it’s always somebody else’s fault.
Does that ring …

Yes it does, um…, because
he’s never to blame, he always has a reason,
And his motto, I don’t know if it’s a motto, but something...
it’s like a mantra,
something that comes up again and again, is that
“My life is lived always with vexation and hindrance.”

I have brought you something here,
which is a textbook definition,
and this is paranoid personality disorder,
and these are the characteristics:
  1. Pervasive suspicion of others, distrusting their motives.
  2. Others seen as deliberately demeaning or threatening.
  3. Constantly expect to be harmed or exploited.
  4. Very sensitive to perceived slights.
  5. Fear and avoidance of anything
    that could make them feel or seem weak.

That’s a perfect description.

The one thing that we do know is that
there is an association with bullying and abuse in childhood.

[At this point the dialogue between Gardiner and Pincus ends,
and an unseen narrator voices:]

“Thanks to the boneheadedness of the city fathers,
and the obvious flaws in Bach’s own character,
his output of religious music now began to dwindle away …”

The letter from Bach to Erdmann, and the surrounding situation,
has been covered in the various biographies of Bach.

The biography J.S. Bach: A Life in Music by Peter Williams
has about a page devoted specifically to the letter,
and a lengthy eleven-page section titled “Character, quarrels”,
which contains the following observation:
If Bach’s un-docile responses to criticism
and to the machinations of those around him
now appear aggressive, truculent or at the very least self-protective,
a positive interpretation would be that
however naturally irascible or simply impatient he was,
any problem he perceived got in the way of his musical priorities.
Whatever hindered his creative duty would not be tolerated.
Any apparent territoriality
and any questionable behavior around job-applications or money-matters
were not at all outside conventional practice,
though no doubt they are revealing.
For a young musician simple ambition,
as when he left Muhlhausen after only a year
and before seeing through the organ-project,
was not unreasonable,
and to counter the usual adulation of J. S. Bach today
by accusing him of an
‘unmistakable harsh edge .. famously confrontational …
a pervasive sense of persecution and an attitude of spiteful defiance’
(Robert L. Marshall, ‘Toward a twenty-first-century Bach biography’,
The Musical Quarterly 84 (Fall 2000), page 502),
would be an exaggeration in the other direction.
Rather, he could simply have found that,
unlike the Weimar duke or the Cothen prince,
his church and school superiors in Leipzig
stood in the way of his work as creative musician.

Six particular moments of contention during his Leipzig years,
known from documents and quite possibly indicative of others not documented, deserve attention.
Some were more serious than others:
August 1730:
Reproached by the main town council
(under the two consuls and burgomaster)
for dismissing a chorister, being absent without leave, failing to teach
(i.e. in some or all of the seven hours musical instruction scheduled per week)
or supervise his substitute
(all this without offering an explanation),
failing to take a singing class,
showing little pleasure in work,
and generally being incorrigible.
[Emphasis in the original.]
Some payment to be withheld.
A few weeks later, but before writing to Erdmann
[see the section on that subject],
he was denied additional payment for temporary extra duties
but applied again the following year of so,
despite having had no known extra duties...
Williams goes on to discuss the mitigating circumstances in each of the six cases.

Another biography which discusses the Erdmann letter at length is
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician
by Christoph Wolff,
which discusses this letter and the surrounding situation
in the ten-page section titled “At a crossroads”
in the chapter dealing with Bach in the 1730s.

Here are extended extracts from that section:

[After discussing several perhaps positive developments
in Bach’s situation in early 1730,
Wolff writes the following:]
It aeems all the more puzzling then, that
despite these mostly favorable developments,
Bach seemed to find himself at a crossroads,
as he makes clear in a letter of October 28, 1730,
to his classmate from Latin school days, Georg Erdmann:
This post was described to me in such favorable terms that finally
(particularly since my sons seemed inclined
toward [university] studies)
I cast my lot, in the name of the Lord,
and made my journey to Leipzig, took my examination,
and then made the change of position
[from his previous position as Kapellmeister [Director of Music] at Köthen].
Here, by God’s will, I am still in service.
But since
(1) I find that the post is by no means so lucrative
as it was described to me;
(2) I have failed to obtain many of the fees pertaining to the office;
(3) the place is very expensive; and
(4) the authorities are odd and little interested in music,
so that I must live amid
almost constant vexation, envy, and persecution;
accordingly I shall be forced, with God’s help,
to seek my fortune elsewhere.
Should Your Honor know or find a suitable post in your city
for an old and faithful servant
[Bach was 45 at the time of writing],
I beg you most humbly to put in a most gracious word of recommendation for me—
I shall not fail to do my best to give satisfaction
and justify your most gracious intercession in my behalf.
My present post amounts to about 700 talers,
and when there are rather more funerals than usual,
the fees rise in proportion
but when a healthy wind blows, they fall accordingly,
as for example last year,
when I lost fees that would ordinarily come in from funerals
to an amount of more than 100 talers.
In Thuringia I could get along better on 400 talers
than here with twice that many,
because of the excessively high cost of living.

[from the New Bach Reader, no. 152]

This is a set of extraordinarily honest statements
made in a private letter by a frustrated man
who had never failed to do his best
but had waited in vain for official recognition of his accomplishments
over seven years as composer and performer of
an unparalleled repertoire of music for Leipzig’s main churches.
Bach now painfully realized that his regular income as cantor
depended in part on soft money
and that, for example, the “more than 100 talers” from funeral fees
could not be counted on.
In addition, he now understood much better
the cost of living in a large commercial city
ten times the size of a small princely residential town.
He also saw the discrepancy between a fixed salary of 400 talers
and the misleading—even outright false—
promises of “favorable terms” (1,000-1,200 talers)
described to him in 1723 when he applied for the cantorate.

Why did Bach reveal his dissatisfaction to Erdmann?
The two had last exchanged letters in 1726,
but it is clear from the opening of Bach’s 1730 letter
that he wanted to respond to a request from his old friend
to provide “some news of what had happened to [him].”
So writing the letter gave Bach, above all, an opportunity to let off steam.

The immediate context for the fourth point raised in the Erdmann letter—
“the authorities are odd and little interested in music”—
may be garnered from the memorandum Bach had sent two months earlier,
on August 23, 1730,
to the Leipzig city council
and to which he had not yet received a reply
(which never materialized; perhaps the Erdmann letter was even prompted by
a verbal notification that there would be no reply).
In this memorandum, which he titled
“Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music,”,
Bach outlined his concept for significant improvements
and demanded better pay for his instrumentalists,
who, for worry about bread, “cannot think of improving.”

From Bach’s perspective, it was indeed an odd government
that expected him to bring luster to the city by mounting regular performances
of the finest conceivable church music
with essentially the same setting and budget
that [his predecessor] Kuhnau had had at his disposal.
How could they expect him to attract and inspire the university students
with stipends that “should have been increased rather than diminished”?
The authorities were indeed showing little interest in music
if they would not even agree with his concept, let alone meet his demands.
From their own penny-pinching perspective, however,
it was hard to understand why the cantor needed more money.
To their ears, the performances went well,
and they were surely impressed with
a work of such unprecedented proportions and size of performing forces
as the St. Matthew Passion.
They thought the cantor was doing very well,
raising funds for his projects by selling text booklets and by other means,
and even enlarging his pool of musicians
by drawing the Collegium Musicum from the New Church
into the musical establishment at St. Thomas’s and St. Nicholas’s.
If he was able to attract the best musicians in town, why spend more money?
But the authorities did not understand how much Bach struggled;
they did not see that he was weary of
asking his musicians to play for very little or nothing,
and that these musicians were forced by circumstances
to accept money-making engagements for weddings and other private events
rather than take the time to practice and rehearse Bach’s challenging works.
Most of the city fathers thus failed to understand Bach’s primary concern, namely
“that the state of music is quite different from what it was,
since our artistry has increased very much,
and [as] the taste has changed astonishingly,
and accordingly the former style of music
no longer seems to please our ears,
considerable help is therefore all the more needed
to choose and appoint such musicians
as will satisfy the present musical taste,
master the new kinds of music,
and thus be in a position to do justice to the composer and his work.”
The intent of Bach’s memorandum could not have been more to the point, but

the council apparently lacked the political will to respond positively;
the long-standing skepticism
about the ambitious capellmeister-cantor
among councilors who wanted to see
more of a modest schoolmaster-cantor

did not help.

[In other words,
while Bach may be writing the greatest music the world has ever known,
he was also a money sink,
and all that great music may be of interest to future generations,
but it wasn't helping the current residents of Leipzig that much.]


Back to comments by the author of this blog.
I have included these somewhat lengthy excerpts in this post
to show that Bach was having
very real and quite understandable conflicts with his authorities
at the time he wrote his letter to Erdmann.
Yes, Bach had tunnel vision, was focused on the success of his music program,
and also on his compensation and thus the place in the larger society
his superiors granted him.
On the other hand,
his superiors had many other needs and demands to juggle
besides those Bach was asserting.
Conflicts such as this are routine in all societies, in all eras.
Bach, in complaining about “vexations and hindrances” from the authorities,
was not exhibiting paranoia, but rather an accurate description
of the conflicts he was having.
It would seem fair to describe him as grandiose and temperamental,
but not paranoid.

Thus it seems unreasonable to me that
the expert on Bach (Gardiner) should so emphatically assert that
the “textbook definition” of “paranoid personality disorder”
was “a perfect description” for Bach,
and that the psychology professor
(who one would think had familiarized herself with Bach
at least to the level of reading
the well-known and highly-regarded biography by Wolff
quoted from above before appearing on the program)
would allow Gardiner to apply her “textbook definition” to Herr Bach.
But maybe such harsh judgments on the giants of the past
improve the ratings and the “buzz” for the program.

The following is here temporarily, until I make a better place for it:

The following is from pages 170–172 in the chapter ‘The Incorrigible Cantor’ in John Eliot Gardiner’s 2013 book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.

Replacing [the cruel Johann Heinrich] Arnold as cantor [of the Michaeliskirch, where Bach sang as a chorister, and his form master in the tertia phase of his schooling] was the 23-year-old Elias Herda.
Herda (1674–1728), a farrier’s son from near Gotha where he went to school, went on to spend two years in northern Germany as one of those Thuringian boys much sought after ‘for their musical skills’ and recruited for the Mettenchor of the Michaeliskirch in Lüneburg.
He subsequently trained for the priesthood at the University of Jena and was about to be ordained in Gotha when the call came for him in Jan. 1698 to audition for the cantor’s job in Ohrdruf in succession to the disgraced Arnold.]

Getting wind of Bach’s plans to move to Lüneburg in 1700 and having spent his own teens at the Michaelisschule,
Herda could (and perhaps should) have warned him that membership of the Mettenchor there included more than just daily choir practice and the liturgical singing of an exciting new repertoire in a protected environment: that as likely as not it entailed street-singing or busking that often led to fisticuffs.
The larger twenty-strong chorus symphoniacus was one of only two Lüneburg choirs (the other being attached to the Johannesschule) which took part in frequent street-singing in front of well-to-do burghers’ houses, hopeful of charity—or, if we are to believe one commentator,
‘thriving on chance charity passed from the windows to put an end to what was frequently an irritating noise’.
Busking in Lüneburg was initially popular—obviously with the choristers as a desirable perk—in fact it was one of the best sources of supplementary income, though Bach himself started in May 1700 in ninth place with a mere twelve groschen.
Initially the citizens welcomed it, too.
But what began as harmless rivalry between the two Currende choirs soon acquired a nasty competitive edge as they fought over turf, each seeking out the wealthier streets and the most lucrative front doors, reserving the best times of day and squabbling over the distribution of rewards….]

During the last third of the seventeenth century, street brawls between the two choir schools in Lüneburg had developed unchecked while the burghers stood by, impotently wringing their hands.
It seems the choir prefects planned the pitched battles, dictating the no-go areas and the territorial division of the town between these embryonic Jets and Sharks or Mods and Rockers.
The town council passed innumerable protocols and by-laws in its attempt to bring some sort of order into what eventually erupted into gang warfare, an eight-year Sängerkrieg (1655–63).
At one point [the endnote references a letter dated 1660] they even contemplated bringing in the army to sort things out.
No doubt Herda stressed the standard virtues of boy choristers—modestia, pietas et diligentia—and advised Bach to keep out of trouble and set a good example.

But, as already suggested, there are no grounds for supposing that Bach was such a model boy at any stage during his school years—nor for assuming the same of his mentor Elias Herda.
In the Lüneburg town archives there is a document labeled ‘The Investigation and Punishment of the Schoolboy Herda’ based on the sworn testimony of a respectable citizen.
Sometime around 1692 [when Herda was 18] Herda had been spotted with an accomplice [!!] in a local hostelry looking for trouble [!!] — ‘undoubtedly [!!] with the intention of starting a brawl, as they were thoroughly drunk and had [placed] their daggers on the table, and were arguing about nothing other than slashing and stabbing with [their] dirks and hunting knives’.
[Gardiner assumes that blustery talk would lead to action.]
The plaintiff, who had known Herda for the past three years and previously thought well of him, was incensed by his anti-social behavior.
That evening, making his way home, he was accosted by Herda, who called him a ‘rogue, thief, and swine’ —a felony which in parts of Germany incurred the legal requirement to make a public apology and a six-week gaol sentence.
The citizen now wanted satisfaction and proper assurances from the school authorities that Herda would be suitable punished for ‘such grievous and bare-faced insults’.
The incident reveals a different side to the character of someone who has previously been portrayed as Bach’s erstwhile savior and unofficial godfather, whose motto seems to have been:
‘Do as I say, not as I do.’
[Gardiner might have noted that a cantor of age 23 might have matured from when was a student of age 18.]
With the example of a former gang-leader-turned-respectable before his eyes,
Bach may have followed a similar path.
[I do not know what other facts Gardiner may have in mind, but based on those he has just set forth in the above passage, that seems a grossly unfair description of Herda.
In the first place, recall how Gardiner introduced the phrase “gang warfare”:
“gang warfare, an eight-year Sängerkrieg (1655–63).”
Herda was not born until 1674, eleven years after the “gang warfare” described by Gardiner ended.
Was there additional “gang warfare” during Herda’s time at Lüneburg?
None that Gardiner has bothered to document in his book.
Gardiner does document rowdy behavior by Herda with one of his peers, and insulting a “respectable citizen”.
But that hardly qualifies as gang activity, at least in my view, let alone making Herda a “gang leader”.]

There is certainly sufficient circumstantial evidence here to dent the traditional image of Bach as an exemplary youth, on his way to becoming ‘the learned musician’, surviving unscathed the sinister goings-on in the schools he attended.
It is just as credible that the bewigged cantor-to-be was the third in a line of delinquent school prefects—a reformed teenage thug.

[This is manifest guilt by association.
Whatever mistakes Herda may have made in his earlier years cast light on Herda’s character, not Bach’s.
Why on earth should Bach be tarnished by the earlier mistakes of one of his teachers?
And as to what Herda really did, as Gardiner has described it, it never reached the level of actual physical violence, but just talk.]

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