JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACHJohann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in the town of Thuringia, Germany wherehe was raised and spent most of his life.
Due to a shortage of expenses, he was confinedto a very limited geographical space, as was his career. This greatly affected his, in thathis music was not as widley known as other composers of the time. On traveling he neverwent farther north than Hamburg or farther south than Carlsbad. To look back on the lifeof Bach many have referred to him as “one of the greatest and most productive geniuses inthe history of Western music”, particularly of the baroque era. Born to a family that produced at least 53 prominent musicians within sevengenerations, Bach received his first musical instrument from his father. Johann studiedmusic with his father until his father’s death in 1695, at which point he moved to Ohrdrufto study with his brother, Johann Christoph.
In the early 1700’s Bach began working as achorister at a church in Luneburg. In 1703, he became a violinist in the chamber orchestraof Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar, but later that year he moved to Arnstadt where hebecame church organist. In 1705, Bach took a one month leave to study with the renowned Danish-bornGerman organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude who was staying in Lubeck. Later,Buxtehude’s organ music would greatly influence that of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach’sstay was so rewarding that he overstayed his leave by two months to be greatly criticizedfor his breach of contract by the church authorities. Fortunately, Bach was too highlyrespected to be dismissed from his position. In 1707, Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, he also moved toMulhausen as organist for a church there, but, 1708 brought him back toWeimer. Hecame back as an organist and violinist at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst, where hestayed for the following nine years to become concertmaster of the court orchestra in1714.
In Weimer he composed about 30 cantatas, including his well-known funeralcantata “God’s time is the best”, and also wrote organ and harpsichord works. Bach alsobegan traveling throughout Germany as an organ virtuoso and a consultant to organbuilders. 1717 found Bach beginning a six year employment as chapelmaster and director ofchamber music at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen. During this period heprimarily wrote secular music for ensembles and solo instruments, he also prepared musicbooks (including: Well-Tempered Clavier, Inventions, and the Little Organ Book) for his wife and children with a purpose of teaching them keyboard technique andmusicianship. In 1720 Bach’s first wife died , a year later he married Anna MagdalenaWilcken a singer and daughter of a court musician. Anna bore him 13 children in additionto the 7 had to him by his first wife, and helped him by copying the scores of music for hisperformers.
In his later years, Bach moved to Leipzig and spent the rest of his life there. Hewas positioned as musical director and choirmaster of Saint Thomas’s church and churchschool, this position was unsatisfactory to him. He continuously argued with the towncouncil, and neither the council nor the town people appreciated his musical genius. Tothem all Bach was, was a stuffy old man who clung stubbornly to an obsolete form ofmusic. Nonetheless, the two-hundred and two cantatas surviving from the 295 that he wrote while in Leipzig are still played today, where as much that was new at the time haslong since been forgotten. Most of Bach’s cantatas open with a section with chorus and orchestra, continuewith alternating recitatives and areas for solo voices and occumpaning, and conclude witha chorale based on a simple Lutheran hymn.
The music is at all times closely bound to thetext, ennobling the latter immeasurably with its expressiveness and spiritual intensity. Among these works are the Ascension Cantata and the Christmas Oratorio, the latterconsisting of six cantatas. The Passion of St. John and The Passion of St. Matthew alsowere written in Leipzig, as was the epic Mass in B Minor.
Among the works written forkeyboard during this period are the famous Goldberg Variations; Part II of theWell-Tempered Clavier; and the Art of the Fugue, a magnificent demonstration of hiscontrapuntal skill in the form of 16 fugues and 4 canons, all on a single theme. Bach’s sight began to fail in the last year of his life, and he died on July 28,1750,after undergoing an unsuccessful eye operation. After Bach’s death, he was rememberedless as a composer, and more as an organist and harpsichord player. His frequent tourshad ensured his redemption as the greatest organist of the time, but his contrapuntal styleof writing sounded old-fashioned to his contemporaries, most of whom preferred the newpreclassical styles then coming into fashion, which were more homophonic in texture andless contrapuntal than Bach’s music.
Consequentially, for the next 80 years his music was neglected by the public. Although a few musicians admired it, among them were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart andLudwig Van Beethoven. A revival of interest in Bach’s music occurred in the mid-19thcentury. The German composer Felix Mendelssohn arranged a performance of the Passion of St. Matthew in 1829, which did much to awaken popular interest in Bach. TheBach Gesellschaft, formed in 1850, devoted itself assiduously to finding, editing andpublishing Bach’s work.
Because the “Bach Revival” coincided with the flowering of the romanticmovement in music, performance styles were frequently gross distortions of Bach’sintentions. Twentieth-century scholarship, inspired by the early enthusiasm of the FrenchProtestant, medical missionary, organist and musicologist Albert Schweitzer, gradually hasunearthed principals of performance that are truer to Bach’s era and his music. Bach waslargely self-taught in musical composition. His principal study method, following thecustom of his day, was to copy in his workbooks of the French, German and Italiancomposers of his own time and earlier.
He did this throughout his life and often madearrangements of other composers’ works. The significance of Bach’s music is due in large part to the scope of his intellect. He is perhaps best known as a supreme master of counterpoint. He was able to understandand use resource every of musical language that was available in the baroque era. Thus, ifhe chose, he could combine the rhythmic patterns of French dances, the gracefulness ofItalian melody, and the intricacy of German counterpoint all in one composition. At thesame time he could write for voice and the various instruments so as to take advantage ofthe unique properties of construction and tone quality in each.
In addition when a text wasassociated with music, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas, such as anundulating melody to represent the sea, of a canon to describe the Christians followingJesus. Bach’s ability to assess and exploit the media, styles and genre of his day enabledhim to achieve many remarkable transfers of idiom. For instance, he could take an Italianensemble composition, such as a violin concerto, and transform it into a convincing workfor a single instrument, the harpsichord. By devising intricate melodic lines, he couldconvey the complex texture of a multivoiced fugue on a single-melody instrument , suchas the violin or cello. The controversial rhythms and sparse textures of operatic recitatives can be found in some of his own works for solo keyboard. Technical facility alone of course was notthe source of some of Bach’s greatness.
It is the expressiveness of his music, particularlyas manifested in the vocal works, that conveys his humanity and touches listenerseverywhere. That is why Johann Sebastian Bach was considered one of the greatestmusical composers, but more specifically one of the greatest baroque composers of alltime.