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Johann Sebastian Bach
1685 - 1759


Bach is considered by many people to be the greatest composer who ever lived. Bach was born on March 21, 1685 in the Thuringian city of Eisenach, now in Germany. He was the youngest child of Johannes Ambrosius Bach and Elisabeth Lammerhirt. Bach's father was a string player who was employed not only by the town council but also at the court of Eisenach.

Johann Sebastian started school when he was 7 or 8 years old, and he apparently was a good student. No information is known about his musical education, so it is possible that he learned to play string instruments from watching his father. It may have been that he learned about harmony from his uncle Johann Christoph Bach, who was organist at the Georgen Church until 1703. Bach also learned to play the organ and harpsichord, and he became an expert at building organs.

Both his parents had died by the time Bach was 10, so his oldest brother, also named Johann Christoph after his uncle, took over his care and musical education.

In March 1703, Bach became a member of the orchestra employed by the Duke of Weimar. At the same time, a new organ was being built and installed in the New Church in the city of Arnstadt, and Bach helped test it. By then, he had decided that his musical interest was mostly in keyboards and sacred music. At age 18, Bach was appointed organist at the church.

In 1705, Bach walked 200 miles to hear the famous composer and organist Dietrich Buxtehude in a concert in Lübeck. He had asked for a month's leave, but Bach was so interested in Buxtehude's music that he stayed away for three months. His employers were upset by this. Bach had also had some arguments with the singers in the church chorale, so he was not completely happy with his situation.

Bach remained in Arnstadt until June 1707, when he moved to Mülhausen, where he became organist in the Blasius Church. Then, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach on October 17, 1707. Not long after, Bach composed the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, one of his most famous works. Bach left Mülhausen in June 1708, apparently because of insufficient salary.

The Bach family moved to Weimar, where Bach became court organist for Duke Wilhelm of Weimar. He wrote several cantatas, both sacred and secular, then. In 1713, Bach was offered a position in the city of Halle, but the Duke raised his salary, so Bach stayed in Weimar. However, his duties were also increased, and he was expected to write a new cantata for the Duke's orchestra every month.

These cantatas began to show an influence from the music of the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Bach began to adopt a musical form called ritornello, which allowed repetition of themes or whole parts of a composition. This made the resulting musical works larger and more complex.

In 1716, Bach was passed over for the position of musical director at Weimar, so he accepted a position with Prince Leopold of Kothen in August 1717. However, the Duke of Weimar refused to let him go. At this same time, an organ playing contest was arranged in Dresden between Bach and the French organist Louis Marchand. Only a few hours before the contest, Marchand left Dresden, so Bach won by default. Bach then asked The Duke to let him go, and the Duke imprisoned him for a month. When he was finally released, Bach left immediately for Kothen.

The French Suites were completed there in 1721, the Brandenburg Concertos in 1720, and the first volume of the Well Tempered Clavier in 1722. This last work consisted of two books of 24 preludes and fugues in all keys, the second book completed in 1744.

Maria Barbara died unexpectedly in July 1720. Bach had to find a way to care for his family, which included his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, who became famous composers on their own.

In December 1721, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, and they began another family, one of whom was composer Johann Christian Bach, who moved to England and became known as the "London Bach." The Prince had been Bach's friend through this time. Then, the Prince married a woman who demanded all his time, so much so that Bach began to feel neglected. Bach applied for a position in Leipzig, but the decision was not made immediately. The Princess died only two years after her marriage, but by then, Bach was committed to Leipzig. He moved his family there, and Johann Sebastian Bach died in Leipzig in 1750.

Some of the most famous music Bach wrote, besides the Brandenburg Concertos, the Well Tempered Clavier, and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, were the Saint Matthew and Saint John Passion, the Mass in B Minor, the Christmas Oratorio, and the Art of the Fugue, Numerous instrumental, choral, and orchestral compositions as well as keyboard works attest to the energy and musical genius of this composer, who was considered "old-fashioned" in his time. His music is still enjoyed by millions of people throughout the world today.






German composer and organist [24 in Bach family genealogy]. He was the youngest son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, a town musician, from whom he probably learnt the violin and the rudiments of musical theory. When he was ten he was orphaned and went to live with his elder brother Johann Christoph, organist at St Michael's Church, Ohrdruf, who gave him lessons in keyboard playing. From 1700 to 1702 he attended St Michael's School in Lüneburg, where he sang in the church choir and probably came into contact with the organist and composer Georg Böhm. He also visited Hamburg to hear J. A. Reincken at the organ of St Catherine's Church.

After competing unsuccessfully for an organist's post in Sangerhausen in 1702, Bach spent the spring and summer of 1703 as ‘lackey’ and 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, Mühlhausen, and four months later married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach in nearby Domheim. Bach was appointed organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1708, and in the next nine years he became known as a leading organist and composed many of his finest works for the instrument. During this time he fathered seven children, including Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. When, in 1717, Bach was appointed Kapellmeister at Cöthen he was at first refused permission to leave Weimar and was allowed to do so 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 instrumental composition. From this period date his violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos, as well as numerous sonatas, suites and keyboard works, including several (e.g. the Inventions and Book I of the ‘48’) intended for instruction. 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 later Prince Leopold also married, and his bride's lack of interest in the arts led to a decline in the support given to music at the Cöthen court. In 1722 Bach entered his candidature 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.

Bach remained as Thomaskantor in Leipzig for the rest of his life, often in conflict with the authorities, but a happy family man and a proud and caring parent. His duties centred on the Sunday and feastday services at the city's two main churches, and during his early years in Leipzig he composed prodigious quantities of church music, including four or five cantata cycles, the Magnificat and the St John and St Matthew Passions. He was by this time renowned as a virtuoso organist and in constant demand as a teacher and an expert in organ construction and design. His fame as a composer gradually spread more widely when, from 1726 onwards, he began to bring out published editions of some of his keyboard and organ music.

From about 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 - a mainly amateur society which gave regular public concerts. For these Bach arranged harpsichord concertos and composed several large-scale cantatas, or serenatas, to impress the Elector of Saxony, by whom he was granted the courtesy title of Hofcompositeur in 1736.

Among the 13 children born to Anna Magdalena at Leipzig was Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian, in 1735. In 1744 Bach's second son, Emanuel, was married and three years later Bach visited the couple and their son (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. Contrapuntal artifice predominates in the work of Bach's last decade, during which his membership (from 1747) 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 may also have been intended for distribution among its members.

Bach's eyesight began to deteriorate during his last year, and in March and April 1750 he was twice operated on by the itinerant English oculist John Taylor. The operations and the treatment that followed them may have hastened Bach's death. He took final communion on 22 July and died six days later. On 31 July he was buried at St John's cemetery. His widow survived him for ten years, dying in poverty in 1760.

Bach's output embraces practically every musical genre of his time except for the dramatic ones of opera and oratorio (his three ‘oratorios’ being oratorios only in a special sense). He opened up new dimensions in virtually every department of creative work to which he turned, in format, musical quality and technical demands. As was normal at the time, his creative production was mostly bound up with the external factors of his places of work and his employers, but the density and complexity of his music are such that analysts and commentators have uncovered in it layers of religious and numerological significance rarely to be found in the music of other composers. Many of his contemporaries, notably the critic J. A. Scheibe, found his music too involved and lacking in immediate melodic appeal, but his chorale harmonizations and fugal works were soon adopted as models for new generations of musicians. The course of Bach's musical development was undeflected (though not entirely uninfluenced) by the changes in musical style taking place around him. Together with his great contemporary Handel (whom chance prevented his ever meeting), Bach was the last great representative of the Baroque era in an age which was already rejecting the Baroque aesthetic in favour of a new, ‘enlightened’ one.












This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008