Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the greatest composers in Western musical history. More than 1,000 of his compositions are still around today. Some examples of his works that we still here today are the Art of Fugue, Brandenburg Concerti, the Goldberg Variations for Harpsichord, the Mass in B-Minor, the Easter and Christmas oratorios, Toccata in F Major, French Suite No 5, Fugue in G Major, Fugue in G Minor, and St. Matthew Passion.
J.S. Bach came from a family of musicians. There were over 53 musicians in his family over a period of 300 years. He 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 Bach on the organ. In 1695 his parents died when 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 of learning from his brother, Johann Sebastian won a scholarship to study in Luneberg, Northern Germany, and so left his brother. A master of several instruments while still in his teens, Bach 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, his perfectionist tendencies and high expectations of other musicians, for example, the church choir, rubbed his colleagues the wrong way, and he was mixed up in a number of hot disputes during his short stay.
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. Blazes 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 position 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 the reputation of a brilliant, if somewhat inflexible, musician. His proficiency on the organ was unequaled in Europe. In fact, he toured regularly as a solo artist. His growing mastery of compositional forms, like the fugue and the canon, were already attracting interest from 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 the major position of Chorus Master of Weimar in 1716. Partly in reaction to this, 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 moved on ahead with his work. He also went ahead in having more children, 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. Particularly were his 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 position of Music Director of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig after two other composers had turned it down. 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 set it aside, 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 right up 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.