The Third-Rate Keyboard Player Who Changed Music Forever

The Podcasting Store
4 min readJan 26, 2023

by Drew Holmes

The keyboard player was not their first choice. Nor was he their second choice. On the list for this gig, he was a solid third.

And with good reason. Twenty years earlier at age eighteen, he secured a full-time gig with a generous salary playing a state-of-the-art instrument, but his bandmates were not up to his exacting standards. Tensions built over the next few years, culminating in him calling a member of his band a “weenie”, with the offending musician responding by attacking him with a stick. When the keyboard player attempted to escalate the conflict by pulling a knife on his assailant, the encounter devolved into a wrestling match and onlookers eventually pulled them apart.

His employer sided with his attacker, reprimanding him to “take it easier” on the other musicians. Dissatisfied, the keyboard player did what any petulant artist would do: he asked for a month’s vacation. Though his request was granted, he proceeded to take a four-month road trip to attend some concerts by a performer he admired.

His employer was not happy and a change of position was imminent for the now twenty-two-year-old. He quickly found a better paying gig with better singers in a new city and found love as well, marrying just four months after arriving in town. And then, a year later, he moved again taking a job that not only utilized his keyboard skills but allowed him to write some tunes of his own. There he remained into his early thirties, started a family, and built up an impressive catalog of songs.

Things turned sour when he was passed over for promotion and the ensuing argument with his boss escalated to such proportions that he was thrown in jail for a few days to cool off. Defiantly, he chose to stay there for almost a month during which he began to write a series of tunes he had been meaning to commit to paper. After that his boss, predictably, fired him.

A wealthy fan quickly offered the keyboard player a job and paid him well to move his family and come work for him. This gig gave him the freedom to write the music he wanted, and he produced many songs (and more children) over the next six years.

Which brings us to the gig he did not want working for the people who did not want him. The vacancy had been caused by the death of the man who had the gig previously and both preferred candidates for the job had politely declined when offered, tacitly hinting they thought the job was cursed. Besides, prestige-wise this would be a lateral move at best. Why relocate again?

In the end, the allure of a bustling city with a university his sons could attend convinced him to take the audition. The employer, having been spurned multiple times now, went so far as to require the keyboard player to sign a document guaranteeing he would take the gig if offered to him.

At the audition, he performed two of his originals and impressed the audience so much that he was offered the job shortly thereafter. The now thirty-eight-year-old finally settled down in one place, where he stayed until his death twenty-seven years later.

During those decades he created hundreds of works, including many cantatas expounding on the Gospel readings for that week’s church service or feast day, as prescribed by the Lutheran liturgical calendar. He also wrote secular pieces exploring a recent innovation in keyboard tuning — even temperament. A prolific composer, his works are too numerous to name here, but they include everything from concertos to chorales, motets to masses, and of course fugues.

Like many artists, the keyboard player did not achieve widespread fame or renown during his lifetime, but years later sleepers awoke to his genius. Copies of his music found their way into the personal collection of Franz Joseph Haydn. Mozart transcribed some of his works and wrote compositions influenced by his contrapuntal style. Beethoven referred to him as the “Progenitor of Harmony” and was playing his works by age 11. The seeds of the keyboard player’s music found good soil in centuries of great composers where, no doubt, sheep may safely graze.

We can speculate what would have happened had one of the preferred candidates, George Telemann or Johann Freidrich Fausch, accepted the “cursed” position of Cantor at St. Thomas’ Church in Lepzig in 1723. Perhaps one of them would have been known as the greatest musician of the Baroque era, if not of all time, as some will claim of the keyboard player. What we do know is that, despite initial misgivings on both sides, the eventual appointee to the post was the right man for the job. A keyboard player named Johann Sebastian Bach.

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