Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German organist and composer. He is recognized as one of the greatest composers in the history of music and is still unmatched today as a composer of sacred music. He was, along with Handel, the most important composer of the Baroque period. Bach’s importance in music is comparable to that of Shakespeare in literature, Michaelangelo in art, and Newton in science.

He was born in Eisenach, Germany into a historic family of musicians. When he was nine, he lost both of his parents within the span of a few months. He went to live with his older brother, who was a church organist and exposed him to many important Baroque composers, including Pachelbel, Lully, and Frescobaldi. He later expanded on this base with the music of Telemann, Buxtehude, Vivaldi, and Corelli. Through this exposure, he was able to incorporate musical styles of France and Italy into his own works. He later won a scholarship to study at St. Michael’s school in Lüneberg, where he sang, played organ and harpsichord, and studied theology, Latin, French, Italian, and the sciences.

Bach’s first main post was in the town of Arnstadt, where he served as a church organist for two years. He wrote some of his first organ preludes and cantatas there. After marrying his second cousin, Maria Barbara, he moved to the city of Weimar, where he served as organist, composer, and music director for the local duke. While in Weimar, Bach wrote the two books known as the Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of 48 preludes and fugues in all 12 major and minor keys for keyboard. He also wrote the “Little Organ Book”, a set of organ chorales for his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann.

After ten years in Weimar, Bach was hired by Prince Leopold to be his music director and composer in at his court in Köthen. The prince was a Calvinist, rather than a Lutheran, and required very little worship music, so many of Bach’s greatest secular pieces come from six years in Köthen, including the four Orchestral Suites, the magnificent six unaccompanied Cello Suites, the Partitas for solo violin, the Lute Suites, the Two-Part Inventions for keyboard, and the six Brandenburg Concertos. During his years in Köthen, Bach’s first wife died. He then married a young singer, Anna Magdalena.

In 1723, Bach was named as Cantor and music director at St. Thomas church and school in Leipzig. He remained in this post until the end of  his life. In addition to teaching singing and Latin to the students at the school, Bach also wrote music for the services at the church. He produced five complete sets of cantatas for each Sunday of the Lutheran church year during his first years in Leipzig, many of which are very familiar today, including “Wachet Auf” (“Sleepers Awake!”), “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and one based on Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” He also wrote oratorios for Christmas and Easter, a Magnificat for use during Advent, the monumental St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion, and his masterpiece, the Mass in B minor, which was probably never performed completely in Bach’s lifetime.

During his time in Leipzig, Bach also became director of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance group that had been created by Telemann.  Some of his secular works from the Leipzig years include the Wedding and Coffee Cantatas, the Goldberg Variations for keyboard, his Flute Sonatas, various motets, and several violin and harpsichord concertos. Towards the end of his life, Bach visited his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was a court musician for Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia. Frederick, an amateur musician, invited Bach to compose a fugue on a theme that the king had written. Bach composed a set of fugues, canons, and variations on this theme, which he titled A Musical Offering. This was followed with a last masterwork, The Art of the Fugue, which demonstrates Bach’s unsurpassed gifts and counterpoint and musical development. His very last piece was an organ prelude on the hymn, “Before Thy throne I now appear.” 

During his lifetime, Bach was highly regarded as an organist, but considered old-fashioned as a composer and his music largely fell into neglect. (Some of his best-known organ works include the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the “Little” Fugue in G minor and the “Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor”.) From his two marriages, Bach had twenty children, only half of whom survived into adulthood. His sons were better known as composers in his day, including Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian, (who briefly taught Mozart). His sons helped to maintain some interest in their father’s works. Mozart and Beethoven both wrote of their admiration for his music. It wasn’t until Mendelssohn’s centennial anniversary performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, that the modern resurgence of interest in Bach’s music began. His pieces were later championed by Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms. In more recent times, Bach’s contrapuntal works for keyboard have influenced the works of Hindemith (especially in the “Ludus Tonalis”) and Shostakovich, (the 24 Preludes and Fugues).

Bach’s devotion to his Christian faith were the foundation for all of his endeavors. He saw little distinction between the secular and sacred. Almost all of his manuscripts are marked “Soli Deo Gratia” (“To God alone Glory”). He was a serious student of theology and his own bible was marked with many of his own comments. The strong emphasis on music that Luther established in his churches provided fertile ground, both musically and spiritually for Bach. As he stated:

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

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