Probably the best known Baroque composer, he was born in
Eisenach, Germany into a musical family
where his father Johann Ambrosius worked with the
town musicans as a director and his most of the
male members of the family were musicians and composers.
His father was his first music teacher and with him he
learned to play the harpsichord and violin. Sadly his parents both died by the
time he was 10 years old and so his older brother, Johann Christoph Bach, who was by now working in Ohrsdruf at the Michaeliskirche
as the organist. He would give
the younger Johann Sebastian Bach a lot of musical tuition and taught him
to play the clavichord. He also
introduced him to the music of many of the European composers of the day
such as Girolano Frescobaldi, Johann Jakob Froberger, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marin Marais and his ex-student Johann Pachelbel.
When he was fourteen years old he left the home of his
brother to go to study in Luneberg at St.
Michael’s School, where he had been awarded a choral
scholarship. He remained there
for two years and during this time he played the harpsichord, organ and was
a member of an a capella
choir alongside his other studies.
There is also the likelihood that he came into contact with many of
the major organists in the local area and may have even played the Bohm organ at Johanniskirche.
He failed an audition at Sangerhausen
after he had applied to be the organist there but in 1703 he went to Weimar to work for
Duke Johann Ernst as a court musician.
He remained there for approximately 7 months and gained himself a
good reputation for his keyboard skills. This led to him being asked to go to
Arnstadt to carry out an inspection of the newly
built organ at St. Boniface Church and also perform the inaugural
recital. This led to him
becoming the organist there later in 1703, where he began writing organ
His time at St. Boniface’s Church was not always
an easy one as he became unhappy at the singing standards of the choir
which led to him going to visit Dieterich
Buxtehude on an extended unauthorised absence in
1705. The 250 mile journey to
visit him in Lubeck
entailed an on-foot journey both ways but the time with Buxtehude did
influence some of his earlier compositions. Bach had wanted to become the
successor to Buxtehude at his Abendmusiken at Marienkirche but because he didn’t want to have
to marry his daughter, which was a condition, he returned and later
accepted a position in Muhlhausen as the organist
of St. Blasius Church.
In 1707, now working in Mulhausen
he planned a renovation to St. Blasius’s
organ and even though it was a costly project it had the approval of the
government and church. When the
time came for the new council inauguration in 1708 he wrote a festive
cantata for the occasion in appreciation. Also in 1707 he married Maria
Barbara Bach who was his second cousin. For the years they were married they
had seven children with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach becoming two eminent composers.
By 1708 he had left Mulhausen
and gone back to the court at Weimar
after receiving a good remuneration package. This time he held the positions of
concertmaster and organist and he wrote many orchestral and keyboard pieces
that showed the influence of several Italian composers. He started writing his “Little
Organ Book” around 1708 and also composed his much acclaimed collection
of preludes and fugues which were later published in the collections known
as Das Wohltemperierte
He and his wife lived close to his place of employment in
their first child was born.
Their second child and eldest son, Wilhelm Friedeman
Bach, was born there in 1710.
For some reason in 1717 he was dismissed from Weimar but not going
gracefully it seems he made an issue of it and was supposedly recorded as spending
a month in jail before his release.
After leaving Weimar
he became the Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen
where he was allowed a lot of leeway as a musician and composer as his
employer was also a musician who appreciated his work. It was while with the Prince that
Bach wrote many of his orchestral works, most notably the Brandenburg Concertos. He often travelled with Prince
Leopold and during a visit outside of Germany in 1720 his wife,
Maria, who had borne him seven children with four surviving infancy, died
very suddenly. A year later he
met and married the soprano Anna Magdalena Wilcke
who bore a further 13 children with 6 surviving infancy and the sons Johann
Christian, Johann Christoph Friedrich and
Gottfried Heinrich all becoming noted musicians.
Moving his family to Leipzig
in 1723 he went to work at St.
Thomasschule as their Cantor and also Director of
Music in other churches in the city.
He taught and led the students in singing and music that was
performed at the churches of St. Nicholas and St. Thomas and at the same time wrote
around five cantata cycles every year until about 1729 and motets for the
choir. His time there also saw him being in charge of recruiting musicians
for larger musical works that couldn’t be performed by the eight
musicians in residence alone and often playing the harpsichord or organ
1729 saw an avenue for him outside of the liturgical
music he was more used to performing and composing when he became the
director of the secular ensemble Collegium Musicum which had been established by Georg Philipp
Telemann 28 years earlier. The
ensemble performed twice a week at the Zimmermannsches
Caffeehouse, often playing his works, and this
gave him even more recognition by the main musical institutions within Leipzig. From 1737 to 1739 the directorship of
the Collegium Musicum
was taken over by the organist and previous student of Bach’s, Carl Gotthelf Gerlach. He also made his move to become a
Royal Court Composer to the August III who was King of Polandm
Grand Duke of Lithuania
and Elector of Saxony. For this
he composed “Kyrie” and “Gloria” which would
eventually become his Mass in B Minor.
He visited Potsdam in
1747 and went to the King of Prussia’s
court where the King played him a piece of music and asked him to use the
theme to improvise a fugue for him.
Going one better, Bach put together a 3-part fugue and later gifted
the King with his Musical Offering
which was a collection of several pieces all using that theme
Two years after his visit to Potsdam
there was a noticeable downturn in his health back in Leipzig, to the point that there was a
request that his position as the cantor and music director be filled by
someone else. He gradually
became blind and in 1750 was operated on by a British eye surgeon who was
visiting the city. He passed
away later that year, when he was 65, with his Vor deinen Thron ich Hiermit dictated to
his son-in-law while he lay in bed.
A newspaper article reportedly
blamed the operation but many people have since surmised that he died from
pneumonia following a stroke. For around 150 years he was buried in an
unmarked grave until he was re-interred at St. John’s Church. That Church was bombed in WWII so
his remains were moved again to his final resting place of St.
Thomas’s Church in Leipzig.
He left behind him in excess of 1,000 compositions which
were catalogued in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmeider and
known as Back Werke Verzeichnis. Since that time the thematically
numbered pieces have often been known by their BWV numbers. It would be impossible to list all
his works but a few of his better known ones that haven’t been
mentioned above include the Art of Fugue, English Suite, French Suite,
Goldberg Variations, Orchestral Suites, St. John Passion, St. Matthew
Passion, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and many cantatas, masses, motets,
partitas, preludes and sonatas.
Although his music was not as popular after his death as
you would have thought it was only in the 18th and 19th
century that it started to get noticed again. His work influenced later composers
that include Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mozart as a few of many and the
Bach Society, which still continues, was founded in 1850. Countless modern pieces have used
his works as an influence and they have also been heard in numerous
television shows and films. He
remains one of the most, if not the most, recorded composers in history and
has regularly been called the “greatest composer of all time”.