Portrait of J.S. Bach goes 'home' to Leipzig's Bach Archive

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:53pm
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"Bach is Coming Home!" For once a press release gets it pretty well bang-on: the single greatest image of Bach in existence (and there are only two - possibly three) is to return to its rightful place in the Bach Archive in Leipzig, taking pride of place in the German city in which Bach spent his most important years.

The portrait of the composer, aged about 60, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, has been in the private collection of American philanthropist William H. Scheide for more than 60 years - it hung in his living room - but, on his death last year, he bequeathed it to the Bach Archive.

Almost as fascinating as the painting's subject is its own history. It is one of two portraits of the composer painted by Haussmann. The first, badly damaged partly due to poor restorations, is still in Leipzig, in the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum; this 1748 image was part of Bach's second-eldest son Carl Philipp Emanuel's inheritance.

A 1790 catalogue of the estate of the "Hamburg Bach" shows it still in his family's possession. In the early 19th century the painting was bought in a curiosity shop by the Jenke family from Breslau (now Wroclaw). Several generations later, Walter Jenke fled Germany for England in the 1930s, and, to protect his family's painting from air raids, he kept it at the country home of his friends, the Gardiners, in Dorset.

And it's one of those astonishing flukes of music history that this very image was the painting that arguably the greatest-living Bachian, John Eliot Gardiner, grew up with at his childhood home in Dorset.

After the war, Jenke sold the portrait at auction in 1952, when it was bought by the Bach scholar William Scheide, in whose care it was until April 29, when - in a private ceremony at the Scheide's home - it was officially donated to the Leipzig Bach Archive.

In his dazzling book, Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, Gardiner (also president of the Leipzig Bach Archive) frames the narrative with reflections on this likeness of the composer. He writes of his memory of the sternness he remembered as a child in the forbidding gaze of the Cantor of Leipzig, but when he encounters the image again in Princeton, where Scheide had the portrait, he is struck by the combination of "the serious and the sensual" in Hausmann's painting.

This is a portrait of not just Bach, but his music. In his right hand, Bach is offering us a complete compositional kit, a musical riddle that's called "Canon triplex à 6 voc", a six-voice perpetual canon, which loops back on itself, again and again. The riddle takes some solving, as Gardiner does in his book. To generate the six voices, you have to read the three parts in the clefs that Bach is presenting, but then you need to read backwards from his perspective in different clefs, and there is even a "double mirror canon" there, too, "if we reflect the notes along the middle line of each stave", as Gardiner says.

Bach wrote this canon as one of 14 that he transcribed on the back of his copy of the Goldberg Variations, Gardiner also tells us, and in his submission for admission to Mizler's Society of Musical Sciences in 1747, the work was included along with the first Hausmann portrait (the musical riddle is in that picture, too), as well as his Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch".

Bach became the 14th member of Mizler's society, and those 14s are significant: if you add up the letters of B-a-c-h numerologically, you get 14 (2+1+3+8), a numerological quirk that Bach was fond of, especially since if you add up J-S-B-a-c-h, you get 41, or 14 backwards.

All of which is to say this portrait isn't just the best likeness we will ever have of Bach the man, it's also a picture of who he was and who he is to us today, as a musician.

That quizzical, challenging stare is really saying: solve this, if you can. It's an invitation to join Bach in his world of musical thinking, to enter his world of sophisticated imagination, contrapuntal daring, and quasi-scientific rationalisation.

It's right that the portrait should return to Leipzig, but its lessons and its revelations about Bach and his work will still belong to all of us - even if we didn't grow up, like Gardiner, with this image on our first-floor landing.

The Guardian