Johann Sebastian Bach was one ofthe greatest composers in Western musical history. Morethan 1,000 of his compositions survive. Some examples arethe Art of Fugue, Brandenburg Concerti, the GoldbergVariations for Harpsichord, the Mass in B- Minor, themotets, the Easter and Christmas oratorios, Toccata in FMajor, French Suite No 5, Fugue in G Major, Fugue in GMinor (“The Great”), St. Matthew Passion, and Jesu DerDu Meine Seele.
He came from a family of musicians. There were over 53 musicians in his family over a period of300 years. Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach,Germany on March 21, 1685. His father, JohannAmbrosius Bach, was a talented violinist, and taught his sonthe basic skills for string playing; another relation, theorganist at Eisenach’s most important church, instructed theyoung boy on the organ.
In 1695 his parents died and hewas only 10 years old. He went to go stay with his olderbrother, Johann Christoph, who was a professional organistat Ohrdruf. Johann Christoph was a professional organist,and continued his younger brother’s education on thatinstrument, as well as on the harpsichord. After severalyears in this arrangement, Johann Sebastian won ascholarship to study in Luneberg, Northern Germany, andso left his brother’s tutelage.
A master of severalinstruments while still in his teens, Johann Sebastian firstfound employment at the age of 18 as a “lackey andviolinist” in a court orchestra in Weimar; soon after, he tookthe job of organist at a church in Arnstadt. Here, as in laterposts, his perfectionist tendencies and high expectations ofother musicians – for example, the church choir – rubbedhis colleagues the wrong way, and he was embroiled in anumber of hot disputes during his short tenure. In 1707, atthe age of 22, Bach became fed up with the lousy musicalstandards of Arnstadt (and the working conditions) andmoved on to another organist job, this time at the St. Blasius Church in Muhlhausen. The same year, he marriedhis cousin Maria Barbara Bach.
Again caught up in arunning conflict between factions of his church, Bach fled toWeimar after one year in Muhlhausen. In Weimar, heassumed the post of organist and concertmaster in theducal chapel. He remained in Weimar for nine years, andthere he composed his first wave of major works, includingorgan showpieces and cantatas. By this stage in his life,Bach had developed a reputation as a brilliant, if somewhatinflexible, musical talent. His proficiency on the organ wasunequaled in Europe – in fact, he toured regularly as a solovirtuoso – and his growing mastery of compositional forms,like the fugue and the canon, was already attracting interestfrom the musical establishment – which, in his day, was theLutheran church.
But, like many individuals of uncommontalent, he was never very good at playing the political game,and therefore suffered periodic setbacks in his career. Hewas passed over for a major position – which wasKapellmeister (Chorus Master) of Weimar – in 1716;partly in reaction to this snub, he left Weimar the followingyear to take a job as court conductor in Anhalt-Cothen. There, he slowed his output of church cantatas, and insteadconcentrated on instrumental music – the Cothen periodproduced, among other masterpieces, the BrandenburgConcerti. While at Cothen, Bach’s wife, Maria Barbara,died. Bach remarried soon after – to Anna Magdalena -and forged ahead with his work.
He also forged ahead inthe child-rearing department, producing 13 children with hisnew wife – six of whom survived childhood – to add to thefour children he had raised with Maria Barbara. Several ofthese children would become fine composers in their ownright – particularly three sons: Wilhelm Friedmann, CarlPhilipp Emanuel and Johann Christian. After conductingand composing for the court orchestra at Cothen for sevenyears, Bach was offered the highly prestigious post ofcantor (music director) of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig -after it had been turned down by two other composers.
The job was a demanding one; he had to compose cantatasfor the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches, conduct thechoirs, oversee the musical activities of numerous municipalchurches, and teach Latin in the St. Thomas choir school. Accordingly, he had to get along with the Leipzig churchauthorities, which proved rocky going.
But he persisted,polishing the musical component of church services inLeipzig and continuing to write music of various kinds witha level of craft and emotional profundity that was his alone. Bach remained at his post in Leipzig until his death in 1750. He was creatively active until the very end, even aftercataract problems virtually blinded him in 1740. His lastmusical composition, a chorale prelude entitled “BeforeThey Throne, My God, I Stand”, was dictated to hisson-in-law only days before his death.Category: Biographies