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Bach, Johann Sebastian (21st March 1685 – 28th July 1750)

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 Lunebergat 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 preludes.

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 Lubeckentailed 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 Clavier.

He and his wife lived close to his place of employment in Weimar where 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-Kothenwhere 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. Thomas Church’sThomasschule 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 himself.

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 Musicumwhich 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”.

Chicago Symphony Low Brass Ensemble recordings
In Dulci Jubilo
(J.S. Bach version)
VOX 7501 (CD: Christmas with the Symphony Brass of Chicago)
Conductor – Barry Faldner