Johan Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the greatest

composers in Western musical history. More than 1,000 of his

compositions survive. Some examples are the Art of Fugue,

Brandenburg Concerti, the Goldberg Variations for

Harpsichord, the Mass in B-Minor, the motets, the Easter and

Christmas oratorios, Toccata in F Major, French Suite No 5,

Fugue in G Major, Fugue in G Minor (“The Great”), St.

Matthew Passion, and Jesu Der Du Meine Seele. He came from a

family of musicians. There were over 53 musicians in his

family over a period of 300 years.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany

on March 21, 1685. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a

talented violinist, and taught his son the basic skills for

string playing; another relation, the organist at Eisenach’s

most important church, instructed the young boy on the

organ. In 1695 his parents died and he was only 10 years

old. He went to go stay with his older brother, Johann

Christoph, who was a professional organist at Ohrdruf.

Johann Christoph was a professional organist, and continued

his younger brother’s education on that instrument, as well

as on the harpsichord. After several years in this

arrangement, Johann Sebastian won a scholarship to study in

Luneberg, Northern Germany, and so left his brother’s


A master of several instruments while still in his

teens, Johann Sebastian first found employment at the age of

18 as a “lackey and violinist” in a court orchestra in

Weimar; soon after, he took the job of organist at a church

in Arnstadt. Here, as in later posts, his perfectionist

tendencies and high expectations of other musicians – for

example, the church choir – rubbed his colleagues the wrong

way, and he was embroiled in a number of hot disputes during

his short tenure. In 1707, at the age of 22, Bach became fed

up with the lousy musical standards of Arnstadt (and the

working conditions) and moved on to another organist job,

this time at the St. Blasius Church in Muhlhausen. The same

year, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach.

Again caught up in a running conflict between

factions of his church, Bach fled to Weimar after one year

in Muhlhausen. In Weimar, he assumed the post of organist

and concertmaster in the ducal chapel. He remained in Weimar

for nine years, and there he composed his first wave of

major works, including organ showpieces and cantatas.

By this stage in his life, Bach had developed a

reputation as a brilliant, if somewhat inflexible, musical

talent. His proficiency on the organ was unequaled in Europe

– in fact, he toured regularly as a solo virtuoso – and his

growing mastery of compositional forms, like the fugue and

the canon, was already attracting interest from the musical

establishment – which, in his day, was the Lutheran church.

But, like many individuals of uncommon talent, he was never

very good at playing the political game, and therefore

suffered periodic setbacks in his career. He was passed over

for a major position – which was Kapellmeister (Chorus

Master) of Weimar – in 1716; partly in reaction to this

snub, he left Weimar the following year to take a job as

court conductor in Anhalt-Cothen. There, he slowed his

output of church cantatas, and instead concentrated on

instrumental music – the Cothen period produced, among other

masterpieces, the Brandenburg Concerti.

While at Cothen, Bach’s wife, Maria Barbara, died.

Bach remarried soon after – to Anna Magdalena – and forged

ahead with his work. He also forged ahead in the

child-rearing department, producing 13 children with his new

wife – six of whom survived childhood – to add to the four

children he had raised with Maria Barbara. Several of these

children would become fine composers in their own right –

particularly three sons: Wilhelm Friedmann, Carl Philipp

Emanuel and Johann Christian.

After conducting and composing for the court

orchestra at Cothen for seven years, Bach was offered the

highly prestigious post of cantor (music director) of St.

Thomas’ Church in Leipzig – after it had been turned down by

two other composers. The job was a demanding one; he had to

compose cantatas for the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas

churches, conduct the choirs, oversee the musical

activities of numerous municipal churches, and teach Latin

in the St. Thomas choir school. Accordingly, he had to get

along with the Leipzig church authorities, which proved

rocky going. But he persisted, polishing the musical

component of church services in Leipzig and continuing to

write music of various kinds with a level of craft and

emotional profundity that was his alone.

Bach remained at his post in Leipzig until his death

in 1750. He was creatively active until the very end, even

after cataract problems virtually blinded him in 1740. His

last musical composition, a chorale prelude entitled “Before

They Throne, My God, I Stand”, was dictated to his

son-in-law only days before his death.

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