When Bach Took A Beating
Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t like students much. Unfortunately for him, the church in Arnstadt where he first worked had a student choir and orchestra. There was no mention of the ensemble in his contract, but it turned out he was expected to conduct them anyway.
He resented the job, partly because he wasn’t getting paid for it, but mostly because they weren’t very good. Discipline was another problem. Bach was only 20, and many of the students were older. Few were inclined to follow his orders, and so the relationship steadily grew worse.
One evening, Bach was returning home with his cousin Barbara Catharina. As they crossed the market square, they saw a group of students sitting in a corner. One of them ran to catch him up. Bach turned, and to his horror saw the man towering over him brandishing a large stick. The student’s name was Geyersbach. He was a bassoonist in the student orchestra and had a bone to pick.
"Why have you been making abusive remarks about me?" Geyersbach demanded. Bach, immediately on the defensive, replied that he had not, and even if he had, no one could prove anything.
"You may not have insulted me," Geyersbach fumed, "but you insulted my bassoon. Anybody who insults my bassoon insults me!"
Bach didn’t like the way this was going. His disgruntled student was getting more and more angry.
Finally Geyersbach yelled, "You dirty dog," and began hitting the composer with his stick.
Given Bach’s unpopularity with the students, he was quite used to verbal assaults. He had taken to carrying a dagger in his belt in case things got out of hand. He reached down for it, but Geyersbach saw what he was doing, dropped the stick and wrestled him to the ground.
The two rolled around the market place exchanging blows. Eventually, the other students caught them up and forcibly pulled them apart. Bach got to his feet and brushed himself down. When he had regained his composure, he and his cousin continued on their way. The students restrained Geyersbach until the composer was out of sight, for fear of a second attack.
Bach wasn’t going to let the matter rest. He appealed to the church court, demanding Geyersbach be disciplined. At the hearing, Bach’s cousin was able to confirm his version of the evening’s events. But when Geyersbach was called, it turned out the composer had indeed called him a "nanny-goat bassoonist" at a rehearsal, much to the amusement of the other performers. The council ruled that no punishment was necessary, and advised Bach to try harder to get on with his students.
The incident did little harm to Bach’s career, which eventually culminated in his appointment as Kapellmeister at Leipzig. His duties there included running the famous boys’ choir. Fortunately he was now better able to keep his young performers in line. Unlike his Arnstadt students, the boy choristers usually did as they were told, and none ever went so far as to attack him with a stick.