Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March [O.S. 21 March] 1685 – 28 July 1750) was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist of the Baroque period. He enriched many established German styles through his skill in counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation, and the adaptation of rhythms, forms, and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France. Bach's compositions include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Mass in B minor, the The Well-Tempered Clavier, his cantatas, chorales, partitas, Passions, and organ works. His music is revered for its intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty.
Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, into a very musical family; his father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the director of the town musicians, and all of his uncles were professional musicians. His father taught him to play violin and harpsichord, and his brother, Johann Christoph Bach, taught him the clavichord and exposed him to much contemporary music. Bach also went to St Michael's School in Lüneburg because of his singing skills. After graduating, he held several musical posts across Germany: he served as Kapellmeister (director of music) to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, Cantor of Thomasschule in Leipzig, and Royal Court Composer to August III. Bach's health and vision declined in 1749, and he died on 28 July 1750. Modern historians believe that his death was caused by a combination of stroke and pneumonia.
Bach's abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now generally regarded as one of the main composers of the Baroque period, and as one of the greatest composers of all time.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, on 21 March 1685 O.S. (31 March 1685 N.S.). He was the son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. He was the eighth child of Johann Ambrosius, (the eldest son in the family was 14 at the time of Bach’s birth) who probably taught him violin and the basics of music theory. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), introduced him to the organ, and an older second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731), was a well-known composer and violinist. Bach drafted a genealogy around 1735, titled "Origin of the musical Bach family".
Bach's mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. Bach, 10, moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), the organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. There he studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother's, despite being forbidden to do so because scores were so valuable and private and blank ledger paper of that type was costly. He received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J.C. Bach exposed him to the works of great composers of the day, including South German composers such as Johann Pachelbel (under whom Johann Christoph had studied) and Johann Jakob Froberger; North German composers; Frenchmen, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais; and the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. Also during this time, he was taught theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian at the local gymnasium.
At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend George Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael's School in Lüneburg in the Principality of Lüneburg. Although it is not known for certain, the trip was likely taken mostly on foot. His two years there were critical in exposing him to a wider facet of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir he played the School's three-manual organ and harpsichords. He came into contact with sons of noblemen from northern Germany sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in other disciplines.
Although little supporting historical evidence exists at this time, it is almost certain that while in Lüneburg, Bach visited the Johanniskirche (Church of St. John) and heard (and possibly played) the church's famous organ (built in 1549 by Jasper Johannsen, and played by Georg Böhm). Given his musical talent, Bach had significant contact with prominent organists of the day in Lüneburg, most notably Böhm, but also including organists in nearby Hamburg, such as Johann Adam Reincken.
In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael's and being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. His role there is unclear, but likely included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread so much that he was invited to inspect the new organ, and give the inaugural recital, at St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt, located about 40 km southwest of Weimar. In August 1703, he became the organist at St Boniface's, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a fine new organ tuned in the modern tempered system that allowed a wide range of keys to be used.
Despite strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer, tension built up between Bach and the authorities after several years in the post. Bach was dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir, while his employer was upset by his unauthorised absence from Arnstadt; Bach was gone for several months in 1705–06, to visit the great organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude and his Abendmusiken at the Marienkirche in the northern city of Lübeck. The visit to Buxtehude involved a 400 kilometre (250 mi) journey on foot each way. The trip reinforced Buxtehude's style as a foundation for Bach's earlier works. Bach wanted to become amanuensis (assistant and successor) to Buxtehude, but did not want to marry his daughter, which was a condition for his appointment.
In 1706, Bach was offered a post as organist at St. Blasius's in Mühlhausen, which he took up the following year. It included significantly higher remuneration, improved conditions, and a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood, including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who both became important composers as well. Bach was able to convince the church and city government at Mühlhausen to fund an expensive renovation of the organ at St. Blasius's. Bach, in turn, wrote an elaborate, festive cantata - Gott ist mein König, BWV 71- for the inauguration of the new council in 1708. The council paid handsomely for its publication, and it was a major success.
In 1708, Bach left Mühlhausen, returning to Weimar this time as organist and from 1714 "Konzertmeister", director of music, at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians. Bach moved with his family into an apartment very close to the ducal palace. In the following year, their first child was born and Maria Barbara's elder, unmarried sister joined them. She remained to help run the household until her death in 1729.
Bach's time in Weimar was the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works. He attained the proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing structures and to include influences from abroad. He learned to write dramatic openings and employ the dynamic motor-rhythms and harmonic schemes found in the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli, and Torelli. Bach absorbed these stylistic aspects in part by transcribing Vivaldi's string and wind concertos for harpsichord and organ; many of these transcribed works are still played in concert often. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian style in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.
In Weimar, Bach continued to play and compose for the organ, and to perform concert music with the duke's ensemble. He also began to write the preludes and fugues which were later assembled into his monumental work Das Wohltemperierte Clavier ("The Well-Tempered Clavier" - Clavier meaning clavichord or harpsichord), consisting of two books, compiled in 1722 and 1744, each containing a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key.
Also in Weimar Bach started work on the Little Organ Book for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, containing traditional Lutheran chorales (hymn tunes) set in complex textures to train organists. In 1713 Bach was offered a post in Halle when he advised the authorities during a renovation by Christoph Cuntzius of the main organ in the west gallery of the Marktkirche Unser Lieben Frauen. Johann Kuhnau and Bach played again when it was inaugurated in 1716. Musicologists debate whether his first Christmas cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63, was premiered here in 1713, or if it was performed for the bicentennial of the Reformation in 1717. Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and was, according to a translation of the court secretary's report, jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed: "On November 6, , the quondam concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge's place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge."
Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music) in 1717. Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach's talents, paid him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. The prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship; accordingly, most of Bach's work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, the six suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the Brandenburg concertos. Bach also composed secular cantatas for the court such as the Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a.
Despite being born in the same year and only about 80 miles apart, Bach and Handel never met. In 1719 Bach made the 20 mile journey from Köthen to Halle with the intention of meeting Handel, however Handel had recently departed the city. In 1730, Bach's son Friedmann travelled to Halle to invite Handel to visit the Bach family in Leipzig, however the visit did not come to pass.
On 7 July 1720, while Bach was abroad with Prince Leopold, Bach's first wife suddenly died. The following year, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 17 years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen; they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 more children, six of whom survived into adulthood: Gottfried Heinrich, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian, all of whom became significant musicians; Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (1726–81), who married Bach's pupil Johann Christoph Altnikol; Johanna Carolina (1737–81); and Regina Susanna (1742–1809)
In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of the Thomasschule at Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and Director of Music in the principal churches in the town, namely the Nikolaikirche and the Paulinerkirche, the church of the University of Leipzig. This was a prestigious post in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, which he held for 27 years until his death. It brought him into contact with the political machinations of his employer, Leipzig's city council.
Bach was required to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide church music for the main churches in Leipzig. Bach was required to teach Latin, but he was allowed to employ a deputy to do this instead. A cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year. He usually performed his own cantatas, most of which were composed during his first three years in Leipzig. The first of these was Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, first performed in the Nikolaikirche on 30 May 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity. Bach collected his cantatas in annual cycles. Five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant. Most of these concerted works expound on the Gospel readings prescribed for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year. Bach started a second annual cycle the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724, and composed only Chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn. These include O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1.
Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the School, and the tenors and basses from the School and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings and funerals provided extra income for these groups; it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets, at least five of which are for double choir. As part of his regular church work, he performed other composers' motets, which served as formal models for his own.
Bach broadened his composing and performing beyond the liturgy by taking over, in March 1729, the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by the composer Georg Philipp Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that was established by musically active university students; these societies had become increasingly important in public musical life and were typically led by the most prominent professionals in a city. In the words of Christoph Wolff, assuming the directorship was a shrewd move that "consolidated Bach's firm grip on Leipzig's principal musical institutions". Year round, the Leipzig's Collegium Musicum performed regularly in venues such as the Café Zimmermann, a Coffeehouse on Catherine Street off the main market square. Many of Bach's works during the 1730s and 1740s were written for and performed by the Collegium Musicum; among these were parts of his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) and many of his violin and harpsichord concertos.
In 1733, Bach composed a Missa of Kyrie and Gloria which he later incorporated in his Mass in B minor. He presented the manuscript to the King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony, August III in an eventually successful bid to persuade the monarch to appoint him as Royal Court Composer. He later extended this work into a full Mass, by adding a Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the music for which was partly based on his own cantatas, partly new composed. Bach's appointment as court composer was part of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig Council. Although the complete mass was probably never performed during the composer's lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time. Between 1737 and 1739, Bach's former pupil Carl Gotthelf Gerlach took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum.
In 1747, Bach visited the court of King Frederick II of Prussia at Potsdam. The king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach improvised a three-part fugue on one of Frederick's fortepianoss, then a novelty, and later presented the king with a Musical Offering which consists of fugues, canons and a trio based on this theme. Its six-part fugue includes a slightly altered subject more suitable for extensive elaboration.
In the same year Bach joined the Correspondierende Societät der musicalischen Wissenschaften (de) of Lorenz Christoph Mizler after a long formal preparation which was necessary by the Society. Mizler called his former teacher one of his “guten Freunde und Gönner” (good friends and sponsors). This is particularly noteworthy because Mizler was a passionate representative of the German and Polish Enlightenment. Bach's membership had several effects. On the occasion of his entry to this Society Bach composed Einige canonische Veraenderungen, / über das / Weynacht-Lied: / Vom Himmel hoch da / komm ich her (BWV 769). In 1746, during the preparation of Bach's entry, the famous Bach-portrait was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. A portrait had to be submitted by each member of the Society. The canon triplex á 6 voc. (BWV 1076) on this portrait was dedicated to the Society. The Society insisted on a necrology of each member. Therefore, Mizler initiated the history of the Bach biographies in the Musikalische Bibliothek (de). It was often argued, that other late works might have a connection with the music theory based Society. One of those works was The Art of Fugue, which was composed shortly before his death, but Bach never completed the final fugue. It consists of 18 complex fugues and canons based on a simple theme. It was only published posthumously in 1751.
The final work Bach completed was a chorale prelude for organ, entitled Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before thy throne I now appear, BWV 668a) which he dictated to his son-in-law, Johann Altnikol, from his deathbed. When the notes on the three staves of the final cadence are counted and mapped onto the Roman alphabet, the initials "JSB" are found.
Bach's health declined in 1749; on 2 June, Heinrich von Brühl wrote to one of the Leipzig burgomasters to request that his music director, Gottlob Harrer, fill the Thomascantor and Director musices posts "upon the eventual ... decease of Mr. Bach." Bach became increasingly blind, so the British eye surgeon John Taylor operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in March or April 1750.
On 28 July 1750 Bach died at the age of 65. A contemporary newspaper reported "the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful eye operation" as the cause of death. Modern historians speculate that the cause of death was a stroke complicated by pneumonia. His son Emanuel and his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola wrote an obituary of Bach.
Bach's estate included five Clavecins, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet, and 52 "sacred books", including books by Martin Luther and Josephus. He was originally buried at Old St. John's Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years. In 1894 his coffin was finally found and moved to a vault in St. John's Church. This building was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, so in 1950 Bach's remains were taken to their present grave at Leipzig's Church of St. Thomas.
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