Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Ludwig van Beethoven and the Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach

The only undisputed image of Johann Sebastian Bach
The only undisputed image of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is that painted and repainted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann between 1746 and 1748; the painting above is Haussmann’s second version of his original, 1746 canvas, in which Bach is seen holding a copy of his six-part canon BWV 1076

We mark the birth on March 21, 1685, of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Thuringian town of Eisenach, in what today is central Germany.  He died 65 years later, on July 28, 1750, in the Saxon city of Leipzig.

I can hear the howling now, “Dr. B, hello, Bach was born on March 31, 1685, not March 21; March 31: it says so on Wikipedia!

Chill out and unknot those jockeys; let’s talk.  

Wikipedia and various other sources do indeed indicate, not incorrectly, that Bach was born on March 31.  But according to the irrefutable and unassailable Bach scholar Christoff Wolff writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sebastian Bach was born on March 21.  And in fact Bach celebrated his birthday on March 21.  So what gives?

A Brief Contemplation of Dates (by which we do not refer to one’s social life but the calendar)

Old style and new style; in style and out-of-style.  It is a question of almost Talmudic complexity.  

We’re talking about calendars and the confusion wrought by changing calendars.

The famed Tusculum bust of Gaius Julius Caesar
The famed Tusculum bust of Gaius Julius Caesar (100 BCE-44 BCE), purportedly the only surviving portrait made in his lifetime

In 46 BCE (two years before his conversion into a human pincushion), Julius Caesar proposed replacing what was the 10-month Roman Calendar with a 12-month calendar.  Appropriately called the “Julian” Calendar, it went into effect by edict on January 1, 45 BCE.  The Julian Calendar divided the year into 12 months and 365.25 days and stayed in effect for 1627 years: until 1582.  

By 1582, a tiny but not insignificant flaw in the Julian Calendar had become glaringly apparent: over the 1627 years it had been in use, the Julian Calendar had drifted away from the solar year (meaning that the sun was no longer in the same position in the sky on the same date every year!).  

Pope Gregory XIII
Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585)

It was in 1582 then, that during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII (born Ugo Boncompagni,

1502-1585), that a slight but significant change was made to the calendar: instead of dividing the year into 365.25 days, the so-called “Gregorian” Calendar divided the year more accurately into 365.2425 days.

In order to institute the Gregorian Calendar and correct for the solar drift that had taken place under the Julian Calendar, dates had to be adjusted.  Protestant Germany didn’t adopt the Gregorian Calendar until 1700, at which time the calendar had to be adjusted by 10 days.  Thus, based on the position of the sun, Bach’s birthday – March 21, 1685, O.S. (“Old Style”, meaning the Julian Calendar) – became March 31 N.S. (“New Style”, in the Gregorian Calendar).

Like everyone else who lived through the date change, Sebastian Bach had a choice: did he want to celebrate his birthday based on a date or based on the position of the sun? He chose the date, and we can name his birthday as being either March 21st or the 31st , provided an explanation is given.

Here’s another reason for us to choose the March 21st date.…

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