Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (21 March 1685 - 28 July 1750)

Born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, Germany in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach was the youngest of eight children. He came from a family of musicians in which all of his uncles played professionally and his father was a director of the town’s musicians. Although he learned the violin and harpsichord from his father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, it was his uncle Johann Christoph Bach who taught him to play the organ, the instrument for which he would be most revered.

An orphan before he was 10 years old, Bach moved to join his oldest brother, presumably named for his uncle Johann Christoph Bach, at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf. Here he studied clavichord under his brother. At age 14, Bach would travel to Luneburg to study on a choral scholarship at the renowned St. Michael’s School. He would graduate in 1703 and go on to accept the post of organist at a church in Arnstadt. Bach’s time here would be mired with controversy.

Bach took a one month leave of absence to visit Dieterich Buxtedhude, one of the most influential organists of the Baroque period. The leave was approved by the church, but tensions rose as Bach took it upon himself to extend his visit to 5 months without authorization from the church. Bach’s interest was in a position as Buxtehude’s assistant and successor, but the post came at a cost; Bach would be forced to marry Buxtehude’s daughter. He promptly returned to Arnstadt.

Reports indicate that Bach was also involved in a brawl with a student in August of 1705. The incident occurred when a student, insulted by an allegedly snide remark Bach made in reference to the student’s bassoon, launched an attack on Bach with a stick. After engaging in a brief wrestling match in the street, the two men were separated by a group of nearby students.

Bach would move on to Muhlhausen the following year, accepting the post of organist at St. Blasius Church. Within four months of his arrival, Bach had married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach. The couple would leave for Weimar in less than a year.

Bach’s new post was at the ducal court, where he would perform as court organist and concertmaster. It was here that the Bachs would start a family. The couple had 7 children, four of which survived to adulthood, and two of which would go on to become famous composers in their own right, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanual Bach. Unfortunately, Bach’s time here also ended in controversy, as he was apparently jailed for the better part of a month before being released from his position at the ducal court.

Bach’s talents were better appreciated by Prince Leopold, who allowed him a much greater freedom of composition and performance. Many of the works Bach produced during this period were of a secular nature, including the well known Brandenburg concertos. Unfortunately, it was also during this period that Bach lost his first wife to a sudden death in 1720. The following year, however, Bach would go on to marry a gifted soprano by the name of Anna Magdalena Wilcke. 17 years his junior, Wilcke would give Bach an additional 13 children, with 6 surviving into adulthood, and 3 becoming noted musicians.

Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 to accept the post of Cantor of the Thomasschule at St. Thomas Church. He would also become the director of music to the town’s principal churches. Bach butted heads with the Leipzig Council on several occasions. While the Council recognized Bach’s musical prowess, they considered his position more of an educational endeavor than a musical one. They also encouraged Bach to curb the emphasis on music in the churches and school. Bach was especially disgruntled by the lack of permanent instrumentalists provided by the Council. He was only provided with 8, which meant for larger compositions he was at times forced to recruit dozens of players from outside sources such as the school, the University, or even the general public.

By the end of the decade, Bach looked beyond the liturgy and took a post of director of the Collegium Musicum. This placed Bach in a position of power in all of Leipzig’s principal institutions of music. He would go on to serve as Royal Court Composer, and complete what is considered one of the greatest choral works of all time, the Mass in B Minor.

In 1747, Bach was challenged by Frederick II of Prussia to improvise a fugue based on his royal theme. The theme was written for pianoforte, which was considered a novelty of the time. Bach took the challenge, improvising a three-part fugue and later presenting Frederick with a Musical Offering.

Bach found his health in decline by 1749 and in a bid to preserve what remained of his failing eyesight, underwent an unsuccessful eye surgery in 1750. While a contemporary news source reported this surgery as the cause of his demise, modern historians speculate that the cause of death was more likely a stroke brought on by the complications of pneumonia. Bach was 65.

Bach composed up until the time of his death, dictating his final work “Before thy throne I now appear,” an organ-based choral prelude, from his deathbed in the summer of 1750. This piece is often performed as the close to the unfinished Art of the Fugues which was published after Bach’s death. Of particular interest in this piece is the fact that if you count the notes of the three staves of the final cadence and map them onto the Roman alphabet, they reveal the initials JSB for Johann Sebastian Bach.

While he was considered an organist of great technique and acclaim during his living years, Bach would not receive widespread recognition as a composer until the 19th century. After his death, his best known works were keyboard compositions, and Bach was admired by greats such as Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart.

1802 saw the first signs of a Bach revival as Johann Nikolaus Forkel published Bach’s biography, which Beethoven allegedly read. Perhaps most important in the revival of Bach’s musical catalogue was an 1829 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by Felix Mendelssohn in Berlin. With the continued performance of Bach’s work by Mendelssohn, Bach’s work continued to gain in stature and in 1850 the Bach Society was formed. By 1899, a comprehensive collection of Bach’s compositions had been published by the Bach Society. Respect and admiration for Bach’s talent and compositions continued to grow and in the present day he is not only considered a significant figure of the Baroque period, but is regarded as one the world’s all-time great composers.

As a composer, Bach threw off the traditions of the Baroque period, notating every subtle nuance of his melodic lines and leaving little room for instrumentalists to embellish the work. It is possible that this tendency coincided with the contrapuntal textures on which Bach so heavily relied, which allowed for much less in the way of melodic improvisation.

Much of Bach’s work is based in the tradition of the Lutheran church, which may be symbolic of his devotion to the church, the period’s demand for religious works, or a combination of the two. What is evident is that Bach commanded an audience dedicated to the routine of serious worship, and this audience perfectly suited his creative inclination to elaborate on existing forms rather than attempt to reinvent the proverbial wheel. Bach went on to pen more than 200 cantatas, five masses, several motets and oratorios, and four settings of the Passion story. His St. Matthew Passion is still considered a masterpiece of western music.

Bach also composed a vast amount of material intended for his instrument of choice, the organ. These works included the well known Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. To this day, Bach’s compositions for organ are considered to be the pinnacle of the genre.

Be it religious or secular, the technical and artistic brilliance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is evidence of the composer’s drive to leave his mark on the world of music. From his successful struggle to become the most revered organ virtuoso of his day to his efforts to expound upon the various genres for which he composed, Bach’s intention to push established music to its fullest potential is evident. With a style that seamlessly combined the worlds of intellect and artistic perception, Bach infused the traditional German forms with eclectic foreign rhythms and influences. This, in conjunction with his unrivaled control and technique, provided some of the finest musical compositions of any period.

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