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.