JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in the town of Thuringia, Germany where
he was raised and spent most of his life. Due to a shortage of expenses, he was confined
to a very limited geographical space, as was his career. This greatly affected his, in that
his music was not as widley known as other composers of the time. On traveling he never
went farther north than Hamburg or farther south than Carlsbad. To look back on the life
of Bach many have referred to him as “one of the greatest and most productive geniuses in
the history of Western music”, particularly of the baroque era.
Born to a family that produced at least 53 prominent musicians within seven
generations, Bach received his first musical instrument from his father. Johann studied
music with his father until his father’s death in 1695, at which point he moved to Ohrdruf
to study with his brother, Johann Christoph. In the early 1700’s Bach began working as a
chorister at a church in Luneburg. In 1703, he became a violinist in the chamber orchestra
of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar, but later that year he moved to Arnstadt where he
became church organist.
In 1705, Bach took a one month leave to study with the renowned Danish-born
German organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude who was staying in Lubeck. Later,
Buxtehude’s organ music would greatly influence that of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s
stay was so rewarding that he overstayed his leave by two months to be greatly criticized
for his breach of contract by the church authorities. Fortunately, Bach was too highly
respected to be dismissed from his position.
In 1707, Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, he also moved to
Mulhausen as organist for a church there, but, 1708 brought him back toWeimer. He
came back as an organist and violinist at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst, where he
stayed for the following nine years to become concertmaster of the court orchestra in
1714. In Weimer he composed about 30 cantatas, including his well-known funeral
cantata “God’s time is the best”, and also wrote organ and harpsichord works. Bach also
began traveling throughout Germany as an organ virtuoso and a consultant to organ
1717 found Bach beginning a six year employment as chapelmaster and director of
chamber music at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen. During this period he
primarily wrote secular music for ensembles and solo instruments, he also prepared music
books (including: Well-Tempered Clavier, Inventions, and the Little Organ Book)
for his wife and children with a purpose of teaching them keyboard technique and
musicianship. In 1720 Bach’s first wife died , a year later he married Anna Magdalena
Wilcken a singer and daughter of a court musician. Anna bore him 13 children in addition
to the 7 had to him by his first wife, and helped him by copying the scores of music for his
In his later years, Bach moved to Leipzig and spent the rest of his life there. He
was positioned as musical director and choirmaster of Saint Thomas’s church and church
school, this position was unsatisfactory to him. He continuously argued with the town
council, and neither the council nor the town people appreciated his musical genius. To
them all Bach was, was a stuffy old man who clung stubbornly to an obsolete form of
music. 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 has
long since been forgotten.
Most of Bach’s cantatas open with a section with chorus and orchestra, continue
with alternating recitatives and areas for solo voices and occumpaning, and conclude with
a chorale based on a simple Lutheran hymn. The music is at all times closely bound to the
text, ennobling the latter immeasurably with its expressiveness and spiritual intensity.
Among these works are the Ascension Cantata and the Christmas Oratorio, the latter
consisting of six cantatas. The Passion of St. John and The Passion of St. Matthew also
were written in Leipzig, as was the epic Mass in B Minor. Among the works written for
keyboard during this period are the famous Goldberg Variations; Part II of the
Well-Tempered Clavier; and the Art of the Fugue, a magnificent demonstration of his
contrapuntal 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 remembered
less as a composer, and more as an organist and harpsichord player. His frequent tours
had ensured his redemption as the greatest organist of the time, but his contrapuntal style
of writing sounded old-fashioned to his contemporaries, most of whom preferred the new
preclassical styles then coming into fashion, which were more homophonic in texture and
less 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 and
Ludwig Van Beethoven. A revival of interest in Bach’s music occurred in the mid-19th
century. 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. The
Bach Gesellschaft, formed in 1850, devoted itself assiduously to finding, editing and
publishing Bach’s work.
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Because the “Bach Revival” coincided with the flowering of the romantic
movement in music, performance styles were frequently gross distortions of Bach’s
intentions. Twentieth-century scholarship, inspired by the early enthusiasm of the French
Protestant, medical missionary, organist and musicologist Albert Schweitzer, gradually has
unearthed principals of performance that are truer to Bach’s era and his music. Bach was
largely self-taught in musical composition. His principal study method, following the
custom of his day, was to copy in his workbooks of the French, German and Italian
composers of his own time and earlier. He did this throughout his life and often made
arrangements 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 understand
and use resource every of musical language that was available in the baroque era. Thus, if
he chose, he could combine the rhythmic patterns of French dances, the gracefulness of
Italian melody, and the intricacy of German counterpoint all in one composition. At the
same time he could write for voice and the various instruments so as to take advantage of
the unique properties of construction and tone quality in each. In addition when a text was
associated with music, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas, such as an
undulating melody to represent the sea, of a canon to describe the Christians following
Bach’s ability to assess and exploit the media, styles and genre of his day enabled
him to achieve many remarkable transfers of idiom. For instance, he could take an Italian
ensemble composition, such as a violin concerto, and transform it into a convincing work
for a single instrument, the harpsichord. By devising intricate melodic lines, he could
convey the complex texture of a multivoiced fugue on a single-melody instrument , such
as 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 not
the source of some of Bach’s greatness. It is the expressiveness of his music, particularly
as manifested in the vocal works, that conveys his humanity and touches listeners
everywhere. That is why Johann Sebastian Bach was considered one of the greatest
musical composers, but more specifically one of the greatest baroque composers of all