Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was unlike most other composers of his time. “He wrote music for the glory of God, and to satisfy his own burning curiosity, not for future fame.” During the 1700s, people knew him as a talented musician, not as a composer, as we do today. He never left his country to pursue bigger and better things. Bach was content as long as he could play music. Traditions were very important to him. He wanted to carry on the musical tradition of his family, and never opted to change the traditional ways of composing, as did most composers. Bach’s work is vast and unique.
Bach received his first big job at the age of 23. He was a court musician, and wrote many wonderful organ pieces, most of which are still played today. It is unbelievable that these works survived, because during this time written pieces were not meant to be kept once they were played. He was one of the most highly skilled organists that ever lived. He was so fast with his hands and feet, people came from all over to see Bach play. Bach was also a very good improviser, making up new tunes as he played the pieces. He created so much music, that it would be impossible for anyone to write down all of it, so there are many of his created works that no one knows about.
Around 1630, a new artistic movement, known as Baroque, was quickly spreading throughout Europe. Bach and Handel are the two most famous composers of the Baroque era. “The drama in their music, the contrasts between soft and strong, chorus and solo, voices and instruments, are all typical of the Baroque style.” In 1708, Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimer appointed Bach as the court organist and chamber musician. Bach did most of his composing while he was at Weimer. In 1717, Bach was appointed Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. Here he wrote several sonatas and concertos for the violin and the flute. Around the year 1721, Bach wrote a book of music called the Well-Tempered Clavier, which was composed of 24 exercises. It had a prelude and fugue for every major and minor key. Twenty years later, he produced a second volume that was just like the first [in format].
Bach’s polyphonic music is full of counterpoint, the combining of two or more melodic lines into a meaningful whole. He perfected the art of the fugue, a complex composition usually written for four musical lines. “Bach’s fugues involved incredibly complex melodies that, even though they started at different times, wound up sounding good together.” The one I chose to describe is the first prelude and fugue from Bach’s second book, in the key of C major.
This piece includes a harpsichord, an ancestor to the piano. It begins with a pedal note, the low note that keeps ringing while others are played ’around it’. In this case, the pedal note is a low C and lasts for 13 seconds. This gives the song stability, making this piece feel momentous. It’s “as if Bach were throwing open the big doors to some enormous building.” As the song progresses, you can hear the counterpoint, including low and high notes. Once the prelude ends, there is a pause, and the fugue begins.
The fugue begins with the first melody, with no accompaniment. As the first changes, the second melody is added at a slightly higher pitch. Again this happens with the third melody, but this one is easier to hear because they are such low notes. Finally, the fourth melody begins with the highest notes you’ve heard so far. Now all four melodies are playing together, all being completely unique, but still sounding perfect together. The main characteristic of the melody is a group of six notes – two very short, two slightly longer, then two even longer notes. This melody is played many times throughout the piece. To create excitement, Bach uses a common technique. One of the melodies enters about once per second at the end of the piece as all the melodies are being pulled together.
In 1750, after going through many jobs, Bach had begun to work less. His eyesight was failing him, which made it very hard to do his job. He agreed to have two operations on his eyes to try to fix the problem. There were no anesthetics in those days, so the pain must have been horrible! The operations were a failure and Bach was becoming ill. After three months, Bach died on July 28, 1750.