Johann Sebastian Bach (March 21, 1685 - July 28, 1750) was a German composer, organist and musical scholar of the Baroque period, and is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. His works, noted for their intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty, have provided inspiration to nearly every musician in the European tradition, from Mozart to Schoenberg.
J. S. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685. His father, Ambrosius Bach, was the town piper in Eisenach, a post that entailed organizing all the secular music in town as well as participating in church music at the direction of the church organist, and his uncles were also all professional musicians ranging from church organists and court chamber musicians to composers, although Bach would later surpass them all in his art. In an era when sons were expected to assist in their fathers' work, we can assume J. S. Bach began copying music and playing various instruments at an early age.
Bach's mother died when he was still a young boy and his father suddenly passed away when J. S. Bach was 9, at which time J. S. Bach moved in with his older brother Johann Christoph Bach, who was the organist of Ohrdruf, Germany. While in his brother's house, J. S. Bach continued copying, studying, and playing music. According to one popular legend of the young composer's curiosity, late one night, when the house was asleep, he retrieved a manuscript (which may have been a collection of works by Johann Christoph's former mentor, Johann Pachelbel) from his brother's music cabinet and began to copy it by the moonlight. This went on nightly until Johann Christoph heard the young Sebastian playing some of the distinctive tunes from his private library, at which point the elder brother demanded to know how Sebastian had come to learn them.
It was at Ohrdruf that Bach began to learn about organ building. The Ohrdruf church's instrument, it seems, was in constant need of minor repairs, and young J. S. Bach was often sent into the belly of the old organ to tighten, adjust, or replace various parts. Realizing that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the church organ, with its moving bellows, manifold stops, and complicated mechanical linkages from the keys and pedals to the many actual pipes, was the most complex machine in any European town, we can imagine that Sebastian may have been awed by it much as modern boys are fascinated by cars, trucks, and planes. This hands-on experience with the innards of the instrument would provide a unique counterpoint to his unequalled skill at playing the instrument; J. S. Bach was equally at home talking with organ builders and performers.
While in school and as a young man, Bach's curiosity compelled him to seek out great organists of Germany such as Georg Böhm, Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reinken, often taking journeys of considerable length to hear them play. He was also influenced by the work of Nicholas Bruhns. Shortly after graduation (Bach completed Latin school when he was 18, an impressive accomplishment in his day, especially considering that he was the first in his family to finish school), Bach took a post as organist at Arnstadt, Germany, in 1703. He apparently felt cramped in the small town and began to seek his fortune elsewhere. Owing to his virtuosity, he was soon offered a more lucrative organist post in Muhlhausen. Some of Bach's earliest extant compositions date to this period (including, according to some scholars, his famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), but owing to the general immaturity of this "early" Bach music, much of the music Bach wrote during this time has unfortunately been lost.
Still not content as organist of Muhlhausen, in 1708, Bach took a position as court organist and concert master at the ducal court in Weimar, Germany. Here he had opportunity to not only play the organ but also compose for it and play a more varied repertoire of concert music with the dukes' ensemble. A devotee of contrapuntal music, Bach's steady output of fuguess begins in Weimar. The best known example of his fugal writing is probably The Well-Tempered Clavier, which comprises 48 preludes and fugues, two for each major and minor key, a monumental work not only for its masterful use of counterpoint but also for exploring, for the first time, the full glory of keys--and the means of expression made possible by their slight differences from each other--available to keyboard musicians when their instruments are tuned according to Andreas Werckmeister's system of well temperament or similar system.
Also during his tenure at Weimar, Bach began work on the Orgelbuchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann. This "little book" of organ music contains traditional Lutheran church hymns harmonized by Bach and compiled in a way to be instructive to organ students. This incomplete work introduces two major themes into Bach's corpus: Firstly, his dedication to teaching, and secondly, his love of the traditional chorale as a form and source of inspiration. Bach's dedication to teaching is especially remarkable. There was hardly any period in his life when he did not have a full-time apprentice studying with him, and there were always numerous private students studying in Bach's house, including such 18th century notables as Johann Friedrich Agricola. Still today, students of nearly every instrument encounter Bach's works early and revisit him throughout their careers.
Sensing increasing political tensions in the ducal court of Weimar, Bach began once again to search out a more stable job conducive to his musical interests. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen provided Bach with a place in his court ensemble as chambermusician. Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach's talents, compensated him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. However, the prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship, so that most of Bach's work from this period is secular in nature. Many of the Brandenburg concerti, as well as many other instrumental works, including the suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the orchestral suites, date to this period.
In 1723, J. S. Bach was appointed Cantor and Musical Director of St. Thomas church in Leipzig, Germany. This post required him to not only instruct the students of the St. Thomas school in singing but also to provide weekly music at the two main churches in Leipzig. Rising above and beyond the call of duty, Bach endeavored to compose a new church piece, or cantata, every week. This challenging schedule, which basically amounted to writing an hour's worth of music every week, in addition to his more menial duties at the school, produced some genuinely sublime music, most of which has been preserved. Most of the cantatas from this period expound upon the Sunday readings from the Bible for the week in which they were originally performed; some were written using traditional church hymns, such as Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, as inspiration for the music.
On holy days such as Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter, Bach produced cantatas of particular brilliance, most notably the Magnificat for Christmas and St. Matthew Passion for Good Friday. The composer himself considered the monumental St. Matthew Passion among his greatest masterpieces; in his correspondence, he referred to it as his "great Passion" and carefully prepared a calligraphic manuscript of the work, which required every available musician in town for its performance. Bach's representation of the essence and message of Christianity in his religious music is considered by many to be so powerful and beautiful that in Germany he is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Evangelist.
Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara, had seven children together, although several of them died while still very young. Little is known about Maria Barbara. She died suddenly while Bach was travelling with Prince Leopold in July, 1720.
While still at Cöthen, Bach met and later married Anna Magdalena, a young soprano. Despite the age difference (she was 17 years his junior), the couple seem to have enjoyed a very happy marriage, with Anna Magdalena supporting Sebastian's composing (many final scores are in her hand) and with Sebastian encouraging her singing career. Together they had 13 children, although few survived to adulthood.
All of the Bach children seem to have been musically inclined, which must have given the aging composer much pride. His sons Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Gottfried Bernhard Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, Johann Christian Bach, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach all became accomplished musicians, with C. P. E. Bach especially winning the respect of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although the barriers to women having professional careers were great, all of Bach's daughters most likely sang and possibly played in their father's ensembles. The only one of the Bach daughters to marry, Elisabeth Juliana Friederica, choose as husband Bach's student Johann Christoph Altnickol. Most of the music we have from Bach was passed on through his children, who preserved much of what C. P. E. Bach called the "Old Bach Archive" after his father's death.
At Leipzig, Bach seems to have fit in amongst the professoriate of the university there, with many professors standing as god-parents for his children, and some of the university's men of letters and theology providing many of the librettos for his cantatas. In this last capacity Bach enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship with the poet Picander. Sebastian and Anna Magdalena also welcomed friends, family, and fellow musicians from all over Germany into their home; court musicians at Dresden and Berlin as well as musicians including George Philipp Telemann (one of Carl Philipp Emanuel's godfathers) made frequent visits to Bach's house and may have kept up frequent correspondence with him. Interestingly, George Friedrich Handel, who was born in the same year as Bach, made several trips to Germany, but Bach was unable to meet him, a fact he regretted.
Later Life and Legacy
Having spent much of the 1720s composing weekly cantatas, Bach assembled a sizable repertoire of church music that, with minor revisions and a few additions, allowed him to continue performing impressive Sunday music programs while pursuing other interests in secular music, both vocal and instrumental. Many of these later works were collaborations with Leipzig's Collegium Musicum, but some were increasingly introspective and abstract compositional masterpieces that represent the pinnacle of Bach's art. These erudite works start with the four volumes of his Clavier-Übung ("Keyboard Practice") a set of keyboard works to inspire and challenge organists and lovers of music that includes the 6 Partitas for keyboard (Vol. I), the Italian Concerto, the French Overture (Vol. II), and the Goldberg variations (Vol. IV).
At the same time, Bach wrote a complete Mass in B Minor, which incorporated newly composed movements with portions from earlier works. Although the mass was never performed during the composer's lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest of his choral works.
After meeting King Frederick II of Prussia in Berlin in 1747, who played a theme for Bach and challenged the famous musician to improvise a six-part fugue based on his theme, Bach presented the king with a Musical Offering including several fugues and canons based on the "royal theme." Later, using a theme of his own design, Bach produced The Art of Fugue. These 14 fugues (called Contrapuncti by Bach), are all based on the same theme, demonstrating the versatility of a simple melody. During his life time he composed over 1,000 pieces.
Johann Sebastian Bach's contributions to music, or to borrow a term popularized by his student Lorenz Christoph Mizler, "musical science" are frequently compared to the "original geniuses" of William Shakespeare in English literature and Isaac Newton in physics.
The early biography by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, from 1808, reprinted in The Bach Reader (W. W. Norton, 1966), is of considerable value, as Forkel was able to correspond directly with people who had known Bach.
The Bach Reader, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, also contains much other interesting material, such as a large selection of contemporary documents, some by Bach himself.
An early groundbreaking study of Bach's life and music is by Philipp Spitta: Johann Sebastian Bach: Sein Leben etc..., Dover, 1951, ISBN 0-486-22278-0
Another famous study of his life and music is J. S. Bach by the versatile scholar and organist Albert Schweitzer, in two volumes (1908).
Christoph Wolff's more recent works (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician and Johann Sebastian Bach: Essays), include a discussion of Bach's "original genius" in German aesthetics and music.