His life and times
was inevitable that Johann Sebastian Bach would become a musician, since
he was only one of more than 70 composers and performers from the same
family in Germany from the 16th to the early 19th centuries. Some other
important members of the family include:
Bach (c. 1550-1626), one of the earliest professional musicians among
the Bachs; traveled widely as a musician in various towns.
Bach (1613-1661), grandfather of J.S. Bach; a court
musician in Weimar; later a town musician in other small German
Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695), the father of J.S. Bach; renowned as a violinist
in his early days; later employed as a court trumpeter and music director
- Carl Philipp
Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), son of J.S. Bach, and an important composer
in the galant style.
Friedemann Bach (1710-1784), the eldest son of J.S. Bach and his first
wife; a great melodist, perhaps the most adventurous composer among
Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795), the eldest surviving son of J.S.
Bach and his second wife; an outstanding virtuoso
at the keyboard; wrote mostly in a similar style to his famous father,
though hinting toward the galant
style made famous by his brothers C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach.
Christian Bach (1735-1782), one of the most versatile composers of the
second half of the 18th century; like his brother C.P.E. Bach, he was
strongly associated with the galant style in music; important in establishing
a regular series of public concerts in London.
Friedrich Ernst Bach (1759-1845), son of J.C.F. Bach; important as a
music director to Friedrich Wilhelm II and as a teacher.
Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685, where his father was a town
musician. This was an important year in the history of music, as Georg
Frederick Handel (1685-1759) and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), two other
important 18th-century composers were born. The town of Eisenach is also
significant, as it was also the birthplace of Martin Luther, perhaps the
most important leader in the Protestant
Reformation and the founder of the Lutheran Church.
(as his family called him) was the youngest of eight children his mother
and father had. Like Luther, Sebastian attended the Lateinschule, which
offered a solid general and theological education. Sebastian did not do
well in school, however, due to frequent absences. We presume that his
early musical education came from his father, who taught him string playing.
When his father died in 1695, Sebastian was sent to Ohrdruf to live with
his brother. Here, he had his first keyboard lessons, and was trained
by his brother Christoph to be an organist.
Little else is known of Sebastian's years in Ohrdruf.
Christoph's family grew, he no longer had room to house Sebastian,
so Sebastian was sent north to Lüneburg, where he again entered school.
Sebastian enrolled at the Michaelisschule, a church-related school for
commoners (as opposed to one set aside for noblemen). Bach joined the
choir there because of his good voice, and thus received a free education.
After his voice broke, he continued to make himself useful musically as
an accompanist or perhaps as a string player. His school studies taught
him Lutheran theology, Latin, arithmetic, history, geography, poetry,
and physics, among other thing. The school had an excellent music library,
and Bach certainly learned a lot from studying the music he was to perform.
He also made numerous visits to nearby Hamburg, where he saw the opera,
among other performances.
know exactly when or why Bach left Lüneburg, but we do know that he took
a position as organist at a church in Arnstadt in 1703. Here he was required
to play at the church on Sunday morning, as well as two other times during
the week. His only responsibility was to accompany hymns, so he had a
lot of time to practice the organ and to compose. Eventually, however,
Bach fell out of favor in Arnstadt. The main complaint was that his accompaniments
to the chorales
were too elaborate for congregational singing.
Bach left Lüneburg to search for other employment opportunities, and was
hired at Mühlhausen. Here, Bach began to compose a long string of cantatas,
the genre for which he is most famous. Among his best-known Mühlhausen
compositions is the chorale
cantata Cantata No.4 "Christ lag in todesbanden," written for Easter.
at Mühlhausen for only about a year and a half. From there, he took at
job at Weimar, a much larger city offering him a much larger salary. This
appealed to Bach, whose wife Maria Barbara was now pregnant with their
first child. (They were married in 1707.) Six of their nine children were
born in Weimar.
Bach wrote most of his organ works. A major part of his job was to play
the organ, so he had many opportunities to experiment with the instrument.
Bach was also paid for repairing the harpsichords
in some of the noble households. The number of cantatas Bach produced
during his Weimar years was significant, as Bach was expected to write
a new cantata every four weeks. Bach did not always stick to this plan,
however. For example, for most of 1717, Bach wrote no cantatas. Among
those he did complete are BWV
63, 152, 162, 165, 172, 182, 185, and 199.
relationship with his boss at Weimar began to cool, Bach moved with his
wife and family to Cöthen in late 1717. Prince Leopold at Cöthen was always
a lover of music, and was very supportive of Bach's work. Bach was the
second-highest-paid employee of the court, a sign that he was held in
very high esteem. In the summer of 1720, Bach's wife Maria Barbara died.
After this, Bach returned to working for the church as well. In Cöthen,
he wrote the famous Brandenburg Concertos, as well as numerous
cantatas (both sacred and secular),
the first book of The
Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Orgel-Büchlein. The latter
two are works intended to be used as teaching tools, which makes us believe
that Bach also had some keyboard students. One of his "students" was his
new wife, Anna Magdalena (with whom he had an additional eleven children),
for whom he wrote numerous harpsichord pieces.
important position at St. Thomas' Church and School in Leipzig opened
up, Bach was among the people who applied. One of his competitors for
the job was the composer Georg Philip Telemann, but Telemann refused to
teach Latin, which was part of the job there. Bach also was reluctant
to teach Latin, and some of the city council felt that Bach was really
only a third-rate composer. Bach eventually was hired, and his position
was one which combined civic duties with church music. This job was more
demanding than any of Bach's previous positions in the amount and variety
of music it demanded. He was in charge of the musical education of students
at the local schools, for providing music for civic ceremonies, for organizing
and rehearsing an instrumental ensemble for the town, and for providing
music for the church, among other responsibilities. Here, Bach composed
the B Minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, the St. Mark Passion, St. Luke
Passion, St. Matthew Passion, the popular cantatas BWV 80 and 140, and
the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In his last years, Bach
suffered from eye trouble, and ultimately was totally blind. (He even
sought the assistance of the same eye surgeon who worked on Handel, who
also suffered from eye problems.) In his last year, he was occasionally
able to compose, when his health was better. Eventually, his health deteriorated
and he died on July 28, 1750, after suffering a stroke.
enough, when Bach died, performances of his music virtually ceased. It
wasn't until the 1830s and 1840s, after a hiatus of at least 80 years,
that Bach's works were heard again, due in large part to Felix Mendelssohn,
a 19th-century composer, pianist, and conductor, who spearheaded the Bach
revival and even worked to erect a monument to Bach in Leipzig.
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