Johann Sebastian Bach was a German organist, composer, and musical scholar of the Baroque period, and is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. His works, noted for their intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty, have provided inspiration to nearly every musician after him, from Mozart to Schoenberg.
J. S. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, March 21, 1685. Bach’s uncles were all professional musicians ranging from church organists and court chamber musicians to composers. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the town piper in Eisenach, a post that entailed organizing all the secular music in town as well as participating in church music at the direction of the church organist (p. 309, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 2). Bach was the youngest son of Ambrosius Bach and probably learned the fundamentals of musical theory and how to play the violin from him (p104, The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians).
Bach’s mother died when he was still a young boy and his father suddenly passed away when J. S. Bach was 9, at which time he moved in with his older brother Johann Christoph Bach, who was the organist of Ohrdruf, Germany (p105, The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians). While in his brother’s house, J. S. Bach continued copying, studying, and playing music. According to one popular legend, late one night, when his brother was asleep, he found a collection of works by Johann Christoph’s former mentor, Johann Pachelbel, and began to copy it by the moonlight. This went on every night until Johann Christoph heard his brother playing some of the distinctive tunes from his private library, at which point he demanded to know how Sebastian had come to learn them (www.sfsymphony.org/templates/composer).
It was at Ohrdruf that Bach began to learn about organ building. The Ohrdruf church’s instrument was in constant need of minor repairs, and young J. S. Bach was often sent into the belly of the old organ to tighten, adjust, or replace various parts. This hands-on experience with the innards of the instrument provides a good explanation for his unequalled skill at playing the organ (p. 11, Classical Music, the Rough Guide).
From 1700 to 1702 he attended St Michael’s School in Lneburg, where he sang in the church choir. After competing unsuccessfully for an organist’s position in Sangerhausen in 1702, he spent the spring and summer of 1703 as violinist at the court of Weimar and then took up the post of organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. In June 1707 he moved to St Blasius, Mhlhausen, and four months later he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, with whom he had seven children, including Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. Bach was appointed organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1708, and in the next nine years he composed many of his finest works and became known as a leading organist (p. 315, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 2).
In 1717, Bach was appointed Kapellmeister at Kothen but was refused permission to leave Weimar. He was eventually allowed to leave but only after being held prisoner by the duke for almost a month. Bach’s new employer, Prince Leopold, was a talented musician who loved and understood the art. Since the court was Calvinist, Bach had no chapel duties and instead concentrated on composition. In this period he wrote his violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos, as well as numerous sonatas, suites and keyboard works (p. 164, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Vol. 1)
In 1720 Maria Barbara died while Bach was visiting Karlsbad with the prince. In December of the following year, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, daughter of a court trumpeter at Weissenfels. A week after Bach was married Prince Leopold also married. Unfortunately, the prince’s bride lacked interest in the arts which eventually led to a decline in the support given to music at the Kothen court (p. 11, Classical Music, the Rough Guide). In 1722 Bach decided to leave the Kothen court and applied for the prestigious post of Director musices at Leipzig and Kantor of the Thomasschule there. In April 1723 after the preferred candidates, Telemann and Graupner had withdrawn; he was offered the post and accepted it (p. 327, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 2).
Bach remained as Thomaskantor in Leipzig for the rest of his life as a happy family man and a proud and caring parent. His duties centered on the Sunday and feastday services at the city’s two main churches. During his early years in Leipzig he composed enormous quantities of church music, including four or five cantata cycles, the Magnificat and the St John and St Matthew Passions. By this time J. S. Bach was renowned as a virtuoso organist, an expert in organ construction and design, and was constantly being sought after as a teacher (www.sfsymphony.org/templates/composer). From 1726 onwards, his fame as a composer grew tremendously after he began to publish some of his keyboard and organ music (p. 19, Classical Music, the Rough Guide).
After 1729 Bach’s interest in composing church music sharply declined, and most of his sacred works after that date including the B minor Mass and the Christmas Oratorio consist mainly of ‘parodies’ or arrangements of earlier music. At the same time he took over the direction of the collegium musicum that Telemann had founded in Leipzig in 1702. For the public concerts given there, Bach arranged harpsichord concertos and composed several large-scale cantatas, or serenatas. With these works he managed to impress the Elector of Saxony, who granted him the courtesy title of Hofcompositeur in 1736 (p. 335, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 2).
Among the 13 children Bach had with Anna Magdalena at Leipzig was Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, born in 1735. In 1744 Bach’s second son, Emanuel, was married and three years later Bach visited the couple and his first grandchild at Potsdam, where Emanuel was employed as harpsichordist by Frederick the Great. At Potsdam Bach improvised on a theme given to him by the king, and this led to the composition of the Musical Offering, a compendium of fugue, canon and sonata based on the royal theme (p. 331, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 2). During the last decade of Bach’s life, his membership of Lorenz Mizler’s learned Society of Musical Sciences profoundly affected his musical thinking. The Canonic Variations for organ was one of the works Bach presented to the society, and the unfinished Art of Fugue was also intended for distribution among its members (p107, The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians).
Bach’s eyesight began to deteriorate during his last year, and in March and April 1750 he was operated twice on by the English oculist John Taylor. The operations and the treatment that followed may have hastened Bach’s death. He took final communion and died six days later on July 28, 1750. Three days later he was buried at St John’s cemetery. His widow, Anna Magdalena, survived him for ten years, and later died in poverty in 1760 (p. 172, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Vol. 1).
Bach’s works embrace practically every musical genre of his time except for the dramatic ones of opera and oratorio. He opened up new dimensions in virtually every department of creative work to which he turned, in format, musical quality and technical demands (p. 22, Classical Music, the Rough Guide). His music was so complex that many analysts have uncovered layers of religious and numerological significance that is rarely found in the music of other composers. Bach’s chorale harmonizations and fugal works were soon adopted as models for new generations of musicians. Bach was the last great representative of the Baroque era in an age which was already rejecting the Baroque aesthetic in favor of a new, enlightened one (www.sfsymphony.org/templates/composer).
“Johann Sebastian Bach,” http://www.sfsymphony.org/templates/composer.
Newman, Ernest “Bach, Johann Sebastian.” The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 1985, 11th Edition, pp. 102-108
Sadie, Stanley “Bach, Johann Sebastian.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2002, Vol. 2, pp. 309-346
Slonimsky, Nicolas “Bach, Johann Sebastian.” Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 2001, Vol. 1, pp. 161-172
Staines, Joe “Bach, Johann Sebastian.” Classical Music, the Rough Guide, 1998, pp. 11-22