The Tale Of Bach And The Fistfight

“When one must fight, one had better do it without hesitation, according to his own nature.” —Fausto Cercignani

In A Nutshell

One of the best-known classical composers, Johann Sebastian Bach created some of the most beautiful pieces of music in history. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to imagine this guy rolling around in the dirt, exchanging blows with an irate musician. But that’s exactly what happened when Bach insulted a music student by the name of Johann Geyersbach, a bassoonist with an awful temper.

The Whole Bushel

When most of think of Johann Sebastian Bach, we picture a portly old man sporting a puffy wig and composing some of the most famous concertos of all time. But before he penned any of his iconic fugues or toccatas, Bach was a young keyboardist looking to make his way in the world of music. And just like anyone else, he needed a job.

Already a respected organist, Bach got his first gig at New Church in Arnstadt and was in charge of playing before, during, and after each service. It was a pretty good job and came with a lot of prestige . . . and one slight catch. Even though his contract didn’t mention anything about teaching, Bach was expected to instruct the student choir and orchestra. Not only did Bach hate teaching students, but he wasn’t even getting paid. Making things worse, the students didn’t respect their new teacher. That probably had something to do with Bach’s age.

When Bach took the job at New Church, he was only 20 years old, and as it turned out, most of the students were older than their teacher. Not surprisingly, they didn’t enjoy taking orders from Bach, and the young organist didn’t care for them either. The whole ordeal was a bit of a fiasco. Things got even worse when Bach insulted 23-year-old bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach.

Geyersbach wasn’t exactly the best player who ever put a reed between his lips. In fact, he was so bad that Bach publicly insulted him, dubbing him a “greenhorn bassoonist.” And back in the 1700s, those were fighting words. The match went down one evening when Bach and his cousin were strolling through town when they chanced upon Geyersbach and his five buddies. Nursing one heck of a grudge, the student picked up a stick, walked across the market square, and got right in his teacher’s face.

Not wanting to end up a percussion instrument, Bach claimed he’d never insulted Geyersbach. His angry pupil replied with, “You may not have insulted me, but you insulted my bassoon. Anybody who insults my bassoon insults me!” And that’s when all hell baroque loose. Gayersbach raised his stick and started raining blows down on Bach, but the composer was ready to rumble. Bach went for the knife he kept in his belt for just such an occasion, but Geyersbach saw the blade and tackled his teacher, taking Bach to the ground. Like 18th-century UFC fighters, the two started rolling through the dirt and throwing punches until Geyersbach’s friends pulled the two apart.

For all his musical skills, Bach was a lousy fighter. He’d lost big time, but if he couldn’t win in the streets, he’d take his case to court. Before the church leaders, Bach denounced his student and demanded swift justice. Shockingly, the officials disagreed. After all, Bach had insulted Geyersbach. In their eyes, he’d asked for a massive beatdown. The trial ended with the church leaders scolding Bach and asking him to be nicer to his pupils. So at the end of the day, Bach might’ve become one of the greatest classical composers, but he was a lousy teacher who never got the better of Johann Geyersbach.

Show Me The Proof

Bach Beat: Bach the Brawler?
Classic FM: When Back Took A Beating
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff