Johann Sebastian Bach (21 March 1685 – 28 July 1750) was a German composer and musician of the late Baroque period. He is known for his orchestral music, instrumental compositions, keyboard works, organ works and vocal music. The Bach family already counted several composers when Johann Sebastian was born as the last child of a city musician in Eisenach. After being orphaned at the age of ten, he lived for five years with his eldest brother Johann Christoph, after which he continued his musical education in Lüneburg. From 1703 he was back in Thuringia, working as a musician for Protestant churches in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen and, for longer stretches of time, at courts in Weimar, where he expanded his organ repertory, and Köthen, where he was mostly engaged with chamber music. From 1723 he was employed as cantor at St Thomas’s in Leipzig. There he composed music for the principal Lutheran churches of the city, and for its university’s student ensemble, Collegium Musicum. From 1726 he published some of his keyboard and organ music. In Leipzig, as had happened during some of his earlier positions, he had difficult relations with his employer, a situation that was little remedied when he was granted the title of court composer by his sovereign, Augustus III of Poland in 1736. In the last decades of his life he reworked and extended many of his earlier compositions. He died of complications after eye surgery in 1750 at the age of 65. Bach enriched established German styles through his mastery of counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation, and his adaptation of rhythms, forms, and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France. Bach’s compositions include literally hundreds of cantatas, both sacred and secular. He composed Latin church music, passions, oratorios and motets. He often adopted Lutheran hymns, not only in his larger vocal works, but for instance also in his four-part chorales and his sacred songs. He wrote extensively for organ and for other keyboard instruments, also composing works for instruments such as the violin and the harpsichord, along with suites and chamber music for orchestra. Many of his works employ the genres of both canon and fugue. Throughout the 18th century, Bach was primarily valued as an organist, whilst his keyboard music, such as “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, was appreciated for its didactic qualities. The 19th century saw the publication of some major Bach biographies and by the end of that century all of his known music had been printed. Dissemination of scholarship on the composer continued through periodicals (and later also websites) exclusively devoted to him, and other publications such as the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV, a numbered catalogue of his works) and new critical editions of his compositions. His music was further popularised through a multitude of arrangements as well as of recordings, such as three different box sets with complete performances of the composer’s body of work marking the 250th anniversary of his death.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, the capital of the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, in present-day Germany, on 21 March 1685 and was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. His father likely taught him violin and basic music theory. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, introduced him to the organ and an older second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach, was a well-known composer and violinist. Bach’s mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. The 10-year-old Bach moved in with his eldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, the organist at St.Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. There he studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother’s, despite being forbidden to do so because scores were so valuable and private, and blank ledger paper of that type was costly. He received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. Johann Christoph exposed him to the works of great composers of the day, including South Germans such as Johann Caspar Kerll, Johann Jakob Froberger and Johann Pachelbel, under whom Johann Christoph had studied). Bach also learned of Frenchmen such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand and Marin Marais, even the Italian Girolamo Frescobaldi. During this time, he was also taught theology, Latin and Greek at the local gymnasium. By 3 April 1700, Bach and his schoolfriend Georg Erdmann, who was two years Bach’s elder, were enrolled in the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, some two weeks’ travel north of Ohrdruf. Their journey was probably undertaken mostly on foot. His two years there were critical in exposing Bach to a wider range of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir, he played the school’s three-manual organ and harpsichords. He also came into contact with sons of aristocrats from northern Germany who had been sent to the nearby ‘Ritter-Academie’ to prepare for careers in other disciplines.
In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael’s and being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III in Weimar. His role there is unclear, but it probably included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread so much that he was invited to inspect the new organ and give the inaugural recital at the New Church (now Bach Church) in Arnstadt, located about 19 miles (30 kilometres) southwest of Weimar. On 14 August 1703, he became the organist at the New Church, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a new organ tuned in a temperament that allowed music written in a wider range of keys to be played. Despite strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer, tension built up between Bach and the authorities after several years in the post. Bach was dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir. He called one of them a “Zippel Fagottist” (weenie) bassoon player. Late one evening this student, named Geyersbach, went after Bach with a stick. Bach filed a complaint against Geyersbach with the authorities. They acquitted Geyersbach with a minor reprimand and ordered Bach to be more moderate regarding the musical qualities he expected from his students. Some months later Bach upset his employer by a prolonged absence from Arnstadt as after obtaining leave for four weeks, he was absent for around four months in 1705–1706 to visit the organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude in the northern city of Lübeck. The visit to Buxtehude involved a 280-mile (450-kilometre) journey each way, reportedly on foot. In 1706, Bach applied for a post as organist at the Blasius Church in Mühlhausen and as part of his application he had an Easter cantata performed at 24 April 1707. A month later Bach’s application was accepted and he took up the post in July. The position included significantly higher remuneration, improved conditions, and a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. Bach was able to convince the church and town government at Mühlhausen to fund an expensive renovation of the organ at the Blasius Church and in 1708 Bach wrote a festive cantata for the inauguration of the new council which was published at the council’s expense.
Bach left Mühlhausen in 1708, returning to Weimar this time as organist and from 1714 ‘Konzertmeister’ (director of music) at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians. Bach and his wife moved into a house close to the ducal palace. Later the same year, their first child, Catharina Dorothea, was born, and Maria Barbara’s elder, unmarried sister joined them. She remained to help run the household until her death in 1729. Three sons were also born in Weimar. Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara had three more children, who however did not live to their first birthday, including twins born in 1713. Bach’s time in Weimar was the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works. He attained the proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing structures and include influences from abroad. He learned to write dramatic openings and employ the dynamic rhythms and harmonic schemes found in the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli and Torelli. Bach absorbed these stylistic aspects in part by transcribing Vivaldi’s string and wind concertos for harpsichord and organ, happily many of these transcribed works are still regularly performed. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian style, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement. In Weimar, Bach continued to play and compose for the organ and perform concert music with the duke’s ensemble. He also began to write the preludes and fugues which were later assembled into his monumental work The Well-Tempered Clavier, “clavier” meaning clavichord or harpsichord) consisting of two books, each containing 24 preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. Bach also started work on the Little Organ Book in Weimar, containing traditional Lutheran chorale tunes set in complex textures. In 1713, Bach was offered a post in Halle when he advised the authorities during a renovation of the main organ in the west gallery of the Market Church of Our Dear Lady. In the spring of 1714, Bach was promoted to ‘Konzertmeister’, an honour that entailed performing a church cantata monthly in the castle church. Bach’s first Christmas cantata was premiered in either 1714 or 1715, then in 1717 Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and, according to a translation of the court secretary’s report, was jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed. The official notice was “On November 6, 1717, the quondam (former) concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge.”
Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music) in 1717. Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach’s talents, paid him well and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. The prince was a Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship, so most of Bach’s work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, cello suites, sonatas and partitas for solo violin and his Brandenburg Concertos. Bach also composed secular cantatas for the court. Despite being born in the same year and only about 80 miles (130 kilometres) apart, Bach and Handel never met. In 1719, Bach made the 22 mile (35 kilometre) journey from Köthen to Halle with the intention of meeting Handel, however, Handel had left the town. In 1730, Bach’s oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, travelled to Halle to invite Handel to visit the Bach family in Leipzig, but the visit did not take place. On 7 July 1720, whilst Bach was away in Carlsbad with Prince Leopold, Bach’s wife suddenly died. The following year, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 16 years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen and they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 children, six of whom survived into adulthood, these being Gottfried Heinrich, Elisabeth Juliane Friederica, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian who both, especially Johann Christian, became significant musicians, also Johanna Carolina and Regina Susanna. In 1723, Bach was appointed Thomaskantor (Cantor) of the St. Thomas School at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, which provided music for four churches in the city, the St. Thomas Church and St. Nicholas Church and to a lesser extent the New Church and St. Peter’s Church. This meant he was “the leading cantorate in Protestant Germany”, located in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, a post which he held for 27 years until his death. During that time he gained further prestige through honorary appointments at the courts of Köthen and Weissenfels, as well as that of the Elector Frederick Augustus (who was also King of Poland) in Dresden. Bach frequently disagreed with his employer, Leipzig’s city council, which he regarded as “penny-pinching”.
Johann Kuhnau had been Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1701 until his death on 5 June 1722. Bach had visited Leipzig during Kuhnau’s tenure and in 1714 he attended the service at the St. Thomas Church on the first Sunday of Advent. In 1717 he had tested the organ of the St. Paul’s Church. In 1716 Bach and Kuhnau had met on the occasion of the testing and inauguration of an organ in Halle. After being offered the position, Bach was invited to Leipzig only after Georg Philipp Telemann indicated that he would not be interested in relocating to Leipzig. Telemann went to Hamburg, where apparently he had his own struggles with the city’s senate.
Bach was required to instruct the students of the ‘Thomasschule’ in singing and provide church music for the main churches in Leipzig. He was also assigned to teach Latin but was allowed to employ four ‘prefects’ (deputies) to do this instead. The prefects also aided with musical instruction. It seems too that a cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year. Bach usually led performances of his cantatas, most of which were composed within three years of his relocation to Leipzig. Bach collected his cantatas in annual cycles. Five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant. Sadly, of the more than 300 cantatas which Bach composed in Leipzig, over 100 have been lost to posterity. Most of these works expound on the Gospel readings prescribed for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year. Bach started a second annual cycle the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724 and composed only chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn. Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the school and the tenors and basses both from the school and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings and funerals provided extra income for these groups and it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets. As part of his regular church work, he performed other composers’ motets, which served as formal models for his own. Bach’s predecessor as cantor, Johann Kuhnau, had also been music director for the St. Paul’s Church, the church of Leipzig University but when Bach was installed as cantor in 1723, he was put in charge only of music for festal (church holiday) services at the St. Paul’s Church. His petition to also provide music for regular Sunday services there (for a corresponding salary increase) went all the way to the Elector but was denied. After this, in 1725, Bach ‘lost interest’ in working even for festal services at the St. Paul’s Church and appeared there only on special occasions. The St. Paul’s Church had a much better and newer organ than did the St. Thomas Church or the St. Nicholas Church. Bach was not required to play any organ in his official duties, but it is believed he liked to play on the St. Paul’s Church organ “for his own pleasure”. Bach broadened his composing and performing beyond the liturgy by taking over, in March 1729, the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that were established by musically active university students; these societies had become increasingly important in public musical life and were typically led by the most prominent professionals in a city. In the words of Christoph Wolff, assuming the directorship was a shrewd move that consolidated Bach’s firm grip on Leipzig’s principal musical institutions. Every week the Collegium Musicum would give two-hour performances in winter at the Café Zimmermann, a coffee house on Catherine Street off the main market square and during the summer months in the proprietor’s outdoor coffee garden just outside the town walls, near the East Gate. The concerts, all free of charge, ended with Gottfried Zimmermann’s death in 1741. Apart from showcasing his earlier orchestral repertoire such as the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites, many of Bach’s newly composed or reworked pieces were performed for these venues, including parts of his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice), his violin and keyboard concertos and of course the eponymous Coffee Cantata.
In 1733, Bach composed a Kyrie–Gloria Mass in B minor which he later incorporated in his Mass in B minor and he presented the manuscript to the Elector in an eventually successful bid to persuade the prince to give him the title of Court Composer. He later extended this work into a full mass by adding a Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, the music for which was partly based on his own cantatas and partly original. Bach’s appointment as Court Composer was an element of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig council. Then in 1735 Bach started to prepare his first publication of organ music, which was printed as the third Clavier-Übung in 1739. From around that year he started to compile and compose the set of preludes and fugues for harpsichord that would become his second book of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’. He received the title of ‘Royal Court Composer’ from Augustus III in 1736. It was during his final years from 1740 to 1748 Bach copied, transcribed, expanded or programmed music in an older polyphonic style, showing an increased integration of polyphonic structures and canons and other elements. His fourth and last ‘Clavier-Übung’ volume, the Goldberg Variations for two-manual harpsichord, contained nine canons and was published in 1741. Throughout this period, Bach also continued to adopt music of contemporaries such as Handel and Stölzel, giving many of his own earlier compositions such as the St Matthew and St John Passions and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes their final revisions. He also programmed and adapted music by composers of a younger generation, including Pergolesi and his own students such as Goldberg. Two large-scale compositions occupied a central place in Bach’s last years. From around 1742 he wrote and revised the various canons and fugues of The Art of Fugue, which he continued to prepare for publication until shortly before his death. After extracting a cantata from his 1733 Kyrie-Gloria Mass for the Dresden court in the mid-1740s, Bach expanded that setting into his Mass in B minor in the last years of his life. Although the complete mass was never performed during the composer’s lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works in history. Becoming blind, Bach underwent eye surgery in March 1750 and again in April by the British eye surgeon John Taylor, a man widely understood today as a charlatan and believed to have blinded hundreds of people. Bach died on 28 July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful treatment. The composer’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel saw to it that ‘The Art of Fugue’, although still unfinished, was published in 1751. Together with one of the composer’s former students, Johann Friedrich Agricola, the son also wrote an obituary which was published in Mizler’s Musikalische Bibliothek, a periodical journal produced by the Society of Musical Sciences, in 1754. There is so much more that can be written about Bach, like his musical style, along with detail of his many and varied works, but that may be for another time.
This week… Alternative responses.
Statement: “I’m looking for a lift.”
Response 1: “Walk around that corner and there’s a taxi ahead of you.”
Response 2: “Where is it you want to get to?”
Response 3: “You’re a beautiful person with a wonderful personality!”