Johann Sebastian Bach Biography

Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, Thuringia(Germany). Bach was twice married and fathered 20 children of which four became noted musicians. Most of his life he worked in the Lutheran church in Leipzig, as organist and music director. Johann wrote more than 200 cantatas. Bach died July 28, 1750.

Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March 1685 - 28 July 1750) was a German composer and organist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity. Although he introduced no new forms, he enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organisation in composition for diverse musical forces, and the adaptation of rhythms and textures from abroad, particularly Italy and France. Revered for their intellectual depth and technical and artistic beauty, Bach's works include the Brandenburg concertos; the Goldberg Variations; the English Suites, French Suites, Partitas, and Well-Tempered Clavier; the Mass in B Minor; the St. Matthew Passion; the St. John Passion; The Musical Offering; The Art of Fugue; the Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo; the Cello Suites; more than 200 surviving cantatas; and a similar number of organ works, including the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. While Bach's fame as an organist was great during his lifetime, he was not particularly well-known as a composer. His adherence to Baroque forms and contrapuntal style was considered "old-fashioned" by his contemporaries, especially late in his career when the musical fashion tended towards Rococo and later Classical styles. A revival of interest and performances of his music began early in the 19th century, and he is now widely considered to be one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach. He was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, an organist at St. George's Church, and Maria Elisabetha Lämmerhirt Bach. His father taught him to play violin and harpsichord. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts ranged from church organists and court chamber musicians to composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645-93), was especially famous and introduced him to the art of organ playing. Bach was proud of his family's musical achievements, and around 1735 he drafted a genealogy, "Origin of the musical Bach family". Bach's mother died in 1694, and his father eight months later. The 10-year-old orphan moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), the organist at the Michaeliskirche in nearby Ohrdruf. There, he copied, studied and performed music, and apparently received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J.C. Bach exposed him to the works of the great South German composers of the day, such as Johann Pachelbel (under whom Johann Christoph had studied) and Johann Jakob Froberger; possibly to the music of North German composers, to Frenchmen, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais; and to the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. The young Bach probably witnessed and assisted in the maintenance of the organ music. Bach's obituary indicates that he copied music out of Johann Christoph's scores, but his brother had apparently forbidden him to do so, possibly because scores were valuable and private commodities at the time. At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend George Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael's School in Lüneburg, not far from the northern seaport of Hamburg. This involved a long journey with his friend, probably undertaken partly on foot and partly by coach. His two years there appear to have been critical in exposing him to a wider palette of European culture than he would have experienced in Thuringia. In addition to singing in the a cappella choir, it is likely that he played the School's three-manual organ and its harpsichords. He probably learned French and Italian, and received a thorough grounding in theology, Latin, history, geography, and physics. He would have come into contact with sons of noblemen from northern Germany sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in diplomacy, government, and the military.

Although little supporting historical evidence exists at this time, it is almost certain that while in Lüneburg, young Bach would have visited Johanniskirche (Church of St. John) and heard (and possibly played) the church's famous organ (built in 1549 by Jasper Johannsen and nicknamed the "Böhm organ" after its most prominent master), an instrument whose sonic capabilities could well have been the inspiration for the mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Given his innate musical talent, Bach would have had significant contact with prominent organists of the day in Lüneburg, most notably Georg Böhm (the organist at Johanniskirche) as well as organists in nearby Hamburg, such as Johann Adam Reincken. Through contact with these musicians, Bach probably gained access to the largest and finest instruments he had played thus far. It is likely that during this stage he became acquainted with the music of the German organ schools, especially the work of Dieterich Buxtehude, and with music manuscripts and treatises on music theory that were in the possession of these musicians.

In January 1703, shortly after graduating, Bach took up a post as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar, a large town in Thuringia. His role there is unclear, but appears to have included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboard player spread. He was invited to inspect and give the inaugural recital on the new organ at St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt. The Bach family had close connections with this oldest town in Thuringia, about 180 km to the southwest of Weimar at the edge of the great forest. In August 1703, he accepted the post of organist at that church, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a fine new organ tuned to a modern system that allowed a wide range of keys to be used. At this time, Bach was embarking on the serious composition of organ preludes; these works, in the North German tradition of virtuosic, improvisatory preludes, already showed tight motivic control (where a single, short music idea is explored cogently throughout a movement). However, in these works the composer had yet to fully develop his powers of large-scale organisation and his contrapuntal technique (where two or more melodies interact simultaneously). Strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer failed to prevent tension between the young organist and the authorities after several years in the post. He was apparently dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir; more seriously, there was his unauthorised absence from Arnstadt for several months in 1705-06, when he visited the great master Dieterich Buxtehude and his Abendmusik in the northern city of Lübeck. This well-known incident in Bach's life involved his walking some 400 kilometres (250 mi) each way to spend time with the man he probably regarded as the father figure of German organists. The trip reinforced Buxtehude's style as a foundation for Bach's earlier works, and that he overstayed his planned visit by several months suggests that his time with the old man was of great value to his art.

Despite his comfortable position in Arnstadt, by 1706 Bach appeared to have realised that he needed to escape from the family milieu and move on to further his career. He was offered a more lucrative post as organist at St. Blasius's in Mühlhausen, a large and important city to the north. The following year, he took up this senior post with significantly improved pay and conditions, including a good choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, he married his second cousin from Arnstadt, Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Two of them, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, became important composers in the ornate Rococo style that followed the Baroque. The church and city government at Mühlhausen must have been proud of their new musical director. They readily agreed to his plan for an expensive renovation of the organ at St. Blasius's, and were so delighted at the elaborate, festive cantata he wrote for the inauguration of the new council in 1708 God is my king BWV 71, clearly in the style of Buxtehude that they paid handsomely for its publication, and twice in later years had the composer return to conduct it. However, that same year, Bach was offered a better position in Weimar.

After barely a year at Mühlhausen, Bach left to become the court organist and concertmaster at the ducal court in Weimar, a far cry from his earlier position there as 'lackey'. The munificent salary on offer at the court and the prospect of working entirely with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians may have prompted the move. The family moved into an apartment just five minutes' walk from the ducal palace. In the following year, their first child was born and they were joined by Maria Barbara's elder, unmarried sister, who remained with them to assist in the running of the household until her death in 1729. It was in Weimar that the two musically significant sons were born, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

Bach's position in Weimar marked the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works, in which he had attained the technical proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing large-scale structures and to synthesise influences from abroad. From the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli and Torelli, he learnt how to write dramatic openings and adopted their sunny dispositions, dynamic motor-rhythms and decisive harmonic schemes. Bach inducted himself into these stylistic aspects largely by transcribing for harpsichord and organ the ensemble concertos of Vivaldi; these works are still concert favourites. He may have picked up the idea of transcribing the latest fashionable Italian music from Prince Johann Ernst, one of his employers, who was a musician of professional calibre. In 1713, the Duke returned from a tour of the Low Countries with a large collection of scores, some of them possibly transcriptions of the latest fashionable Italian music by the blind organist Jan Jacob de Graaf. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian solo-tutti structure, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.

In Weimar, he had the opportunity to play and compose for the organ, and to perform a varied repertoire of concert music with the duke's ensemble. A master of contrapuntal technique, Bach's steady output of fugues began in Weimar. The largest single body of his fugal writing is Das wohltemperierte Clavier. It consists of two collections compiled in 1722 and 1744, each containing a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key. This is a monumental work for its masterful use of counterpoint and its exploration, for the first time, of the full range of keys and the means of expression made possible by their slight differences from each other available to keyboardists when their instruments are tuned according to systems such as that of Andreas Werckmeister. During his tenure at Weimar, Bach started work on The little organ book for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann; this contains traditional Lutheran chorales (hymn tunes), set in complex textures to assist the training of organists. The book illustrates two major themes in Bach's life: his dedication to teaching and his love of the chorale as a musical form. Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and was, according to the court secretary's report, jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed.

Bach began once again to search out a more stable job that was conducive to his musical interests. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music). Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach's talents, paid him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. However, the prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship; thus, most of Bach's work from this period was secular, including the Orchestral suites, the Six suites for solo cello and the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin. On 7 July 1720, while Bach was abroad with Prince Leopold, tragedy struck: his wife, Maria Barbara, the mother of his first 7 children, died suddenly. The following year, the widower met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 17 years his junior, who performed at the court in Cöthen; they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 more children.

In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of Thomasschule, adjacent to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas' Lutheran Church) in Leipzig, as well as Director of Music in the principal churches in the town. This was a prestigious post in the leading mercantile city in Saxony, a neighbouring electorate to Thuringia. Apart from his brief tenures in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, this was Bach's first government position in a career that had mainly involved service to the aristocracy. This final post, which he held for 27 years until his death, brought him into contact with the political machinations of his employer, the Leipzig Council. The Council comprised two factions: the Absolutists, loyal to the Saxon monarch in Dresden, Augustus the Strong; and the City-Estate faction, representing the interests of the mercantile class, the guilds and minor aristocrats. Bach was the nominee of the monarchists, in particular of the Mayor at the time, Gottlieb Lange, a lawyer who had earlier served in the Dresden court. In return for agreeing to Bach's appointment, the City-Estate faction was granted control of the School, and Bach was required to make a number of compromises with respect to his working conditions. Although it appears that no one on the Council doubted Bach's musical genius, there was continual tension between the Cantor, who regarded himself as the leader of church music in the city, and the City-Estate faction, which saw him as a schoolmaster and wanted to reduce the emphasis on elaborate music in both the School and the Churches. The Council never honoured Lange's promise at interview of a handsome salary of 1,000 talers a year, although it did provide Bach and his family with a smaller income and a good apartment at one end of the school building, which was renovated at great expense in 1732.

Bach's job required him to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide weekly music at the two main churches in Leipzig, St. Thomas' and St Nicholas's. His post also obliged him to teach Latin, but he was allowed to employ a deputy to do this instead. In an astonishing burst of creativity, he wrote up to five annual cantata cycles during his first six years in Leipzig (two of which have apparently been lost). Most of these concerted works expound on the Gospel readings for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year; many were written using traditional church hymns, such as Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, as inspiration.

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To rehearse and perform these works at St Thomas's Church, Bach probably sat at the harpsichord or stood in front of the choir on the lower gallery at the west end, his back to the congregation and the altar at the east end. He would have looked upwards to the organ that rose from a loft about four metres above. To the right of the organ in a side gallery would have been the winds, brass and timpani; to the left were the strings. The Council provided only about eight permanent instrumentalists, a source of continual friction with the Cantor, who had to recruit the rest of the 20 or so players required for medium-to-large scores from the University, the School and the public. The organ or harpsichord was probably played by the composer (when not standing to conduct), the in-house organist, or one of Bach's elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann or Carl Philipp Emanuel. Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the School, and the tenors and basses from the School and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings provided extra income for these groups; it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets, mostly for double choir. As part of his regular church work, he performed motets of the Venetian school and Germans such as Heinrich Schütz, which would have served as formal models for his own motets.

Having spent much of the 1720s composing cantatas, Bach had assembled a huge repertoire of church music for Leipzig's two main churches. He now wished to broaden his composing and performing beyond the liturgy. In March 1729, he took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble that had been started in 1701 by his old friend, the composer Georg Philipp Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that had been established by musically active university students; these societies had come to play an increasingly important role in public musical life and were typically led by the most prominent professionals in a city. During much of the year, Leipzig's Collegium Musicum gave twice-weekly, two-hour performances in Zimmerman's Coffeehouse on Catherine Street, just off the main market square. For this purpose, the proprietor provided a large hall and acquired several musical instruments. Many of Bach's works during the 1730s and 1740s were probably written for and performed by the Collegium Musicum; among these were almost certainly parts of the Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) and many of the violin and harpsichord concertos.

During this period, he composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B Minor, and in 1733, he presented the manuscript to the Elector of Saxony in an ultimately successful bid to persuade the monarch to appoint him as Royal Court Composer. He later extended this work into a full Mass, by adding a Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the music for which was almost wholly taken from some of the best of his cantata movements. Bach's appointment as court composer appears to have been part of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig Council. Although the complete mass was probably never performed during the composer's lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time. Between 1737 and 1739, Bach's former pupil Carl Gotthelf Gerlach took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum. In 1747, Bach went to the court of Frederick II of Prussia in Potsdam, where the king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach improvised a three-part fugue on Frederick's pianoforte, then a novelty, and later presented the king with a Musical Offering which consists of fugues, canons and a trio based on the "royal theme", nominated by the monarch. Its six-part fugue includes a slightly altered subject more suitable for extensive elaboration. The Art of Fugue, published posthumously but probably written years before Bach's death, is unfinished. It consists of 18 complex fugues and canons based on a simple theme. A magnum opus of thematic transformation and contrapuntal devices, this work is often cited as the summation of polyphonic techniques. The final work Bach completed was a chorale prelude for organ, dictated to his son-in-law, Johann Altnikol, from his deathbed. Entitled Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before thy throne I now appear); when the notes on the three staves of the final cadence are counted and mapped onto the Roman alphabet, the initials "JSB" are found. The chorale is often played after the unfinished 14th fugue to conclude performances of The Art of Fugue.

Bach's health may have been in decline in 1749. Bach became increasingly blind, and a celebrated British quack John Taylor (who had operated unsuccessfully on Handel) operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in 1750. Bach died on 28 July 1750 at the age of 65. A contemporary newspaper reported the cause of death was from the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful operation". His estate was valued at 1159 Thalers and included 5 Clavecins, 2 Lute-Harpsichords, 3 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet, 52 "Sacred Books".

During his life he composed more than 1,000 works. At Leipzig, Bach seems to have maintained active relationships with several members of the faculty of the university. He enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship with the poet Picander. Sebastian and Anna Magdalena welcomed friends, family, and fellow musicians from all over Germany into their home. Court musicians at Dresden and Berlin, and musicians including Georg Philipp Telemann (one of Emanuel's godfathers) made frequent visits to Bach's apartment and may have kept up frequent correspondence with him. Interestingly, George Frideric Handel, who was born in the same year as Bach in Halle, only 50 km from Leipzig, made several trips to Germany, but Bach was unable to meet him.

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