Bach, Johann Sebastian

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Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685 - 1750): German Composer

Bach is considered the first and finest of the German composers. Bach stands as the culmination and end-point of centuries of polyphonic composition of music and of music’s primary role being a tool for religious worship. Bach’s work is significant because he was the supreme master of counterpoint, allowing him to write music as the musical equivalent of textual ideas. The emotional expressiveness of his music continues to touch listeners centuries after his death.

The Bach family, throughout Thuringia, produced at least 53 prominent musicians over the course of seven generations. The most prominent, Johann Sebastian Bach, was born 21 March 1685. He was the youngest son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, a court trumpeter for the Duke of Eisenbach and a town musician. Johann Sebastian probably learned the basics of musical theory and violin from his father. Bach was orphaned at age ten and was taken in by his older brother Johann Christoph, an organist at St. Michael’s Church, who tutored him in the keyboard. By 1700, Johann Sebastian was earning a living as a chorister at St. Michael’s. In 1703, the 18-year-old Bach served as a violinist in the chamber orchestra of Duke Johann Ernst who was the brother of the Duke of Weimar. Soon afterwards, Bach left to become the church organist at Arnstadt.

In 1705, the Church granted Bach a one month leave to study with organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Three months later, Bach returned to Arnstadt only to be criticized by Church authorities for not only overstaying his leave, but for the bewildering new variations and strange harmonies that he was adding to his organ music, the result of which was a confused congregation.

In 1707, Bach left Arnstad and took up the post of organist at Muhlhausen. Shortly after arriving in Muhlhausen, he married his cousin, Maria Barbara, at a small church in Dornheim. His stay in Muhlhausen produced his only published cantata Gott ist mein Konig (BMW 71). After less than a year, Bach accepted an offer from the Duke of Weimar to serve as a Court Chamber musician and organist. By 1714, Bach was the leader of the orchestra. In his nine years in Weimar, he became known as one of Europe’s leading organists, and composed some of his finest works for the organ including the funeral cantata God’s Time is Best. He also found the time to father seven children. He was rapidly becoming renown throughout Germany as the country’s greatest organist. This reputation was cemented when, on a visit to Dresden, Bach was invited to compete with French organist Louis Marchand, long considered the best organist in Europe. After hearing Bach practice Marchand quietly left Germany rather than face Bach in competition.

In 1717, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen tried to hire Bach as chapelmaster and director of chamber music but, initially, the Duke of Weimar refused to release Bach, even going to the extent of holding him as a prisoner for a month in the local jail. During that month, Bach wrote a cycle of organ chorale preludes later published as the Orgelbuchlein. Eventually the Duke relented and Bach was released to become Leopold’s chapelmaster.

Bach’s newest master, Prince Leopold, a musician himself, was Calvinist which meant that there was no church music performed in Kothen. Despite this, Leopold funded a court orchestra of eighteen talented musicians, of whom Bach was to be their Chapelmaster, the highest rank given to a musician at the time. During his six years at Kothen, Bach wrote predominantly secular music for ensembles and solo instruments as well as a number of books designed to teach youngsters the rudiments of keyboard skills. The six Brandenburg Concertos were among the more prominent works written during this time.

In 1720, while Bach was touring Karlsbad, his wife, Maria Barbara, died and was buried before he could return. A few months later, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, singer and daughter of a court trumpeter. Soon after that, Prince Leopold married and, due mainly to his bride’s lack of interest in the arts, his support of Bach’s orchestra began to wane. In 1723, Bach left Leopold’s service and took the role of musical director at Leipzig and Kantor of the Thomasschule. In 1723, Leipzig was a thriving urban center for trade, printing, and culture, making it an ideal location for Bach’s work. Bach remained at Leipzig for the remainder of his life, occasionally at odds with church and school authorities, but generally happy.

During the first five years of his tenure at Leipzig, Bach composed prodigiously. This included a number of religious works. Among the sacred works he produced at this time are: Magnificat, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions. These works show a marked difference from his later sacred works, b Minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio, which were predominantly rearrangements of earlier works. Some critics have even labeled the later works parodies.

In 1729 Bach became director of Leipzig’s Collegia Musicum which was composed of a number of secular music organizations. Bach regularly arranged harpsichord concertos, cantatas, and serenatas for the Collegia Musicum’s public concerts. As a result, in 1736, Bach was granted the honorary title of Hofcompositeur by the Elector of Saxony.

Bach’s years in Leipzig were filled with squabbles with town officials who saw him more and more as a relic who clung to out-dated musical forms. Bach’s contrapuntal style was also viewed as old-fashioned by his peers. Despite their beliefs, 202 of the 295 Leipzig cantatas are still played while the bulk of music composed by Bach’s contemporaries has been forgotten. His days were also filled with the day to day duties of his offices and his role as a father to twenty children, 13 of whom were born to him and his second wife. As a result, Bach began to withdraw from the public light and, turning inwards, he produced works that are considered among the most profound statements of the baroque era. Among these treasures are the Mass in b Minor, the Canonic Variations, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of the Fugue.

During the last years of his life, Bach’s vision began to fail. His passing was, in all likelihood, hastened by two eye surgeries in March and April of 1750. The final months of his life were spent in a darkened room revising compositions; he died on July 28th. Bach’s work was revived in the mid 19th century thanks to Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of The Passion of St. Matthew in 1829. This was followed by the development of the Bach Society in 1850 which was devoted to finding and Bach publishing Bach’s works.

Further reading:

L. Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention, 1997.

R. Ridley, Bach's Passion : The Life of Johann Sebastian Bach, 1999.

C. Wolf, Johann Sebastian Bach : The Learned Musician, 2000.

B. Keith Murphy

Fort Valley State University