Johann Sebastian Bach
(Born; Eisenach, 21 March 1685; Died; Leipzig, 28 July 1750).
German composer and organist [24 in Bach family genealogy]. He was the youngest son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, a town musician, from whom he probably learnt the violin and the rudiments of musical theory. When he was ten he was orphaned and went to live with his
elder brother Johann Christoph, organist at St Michael's Church, Ohrdruf, who gave him
lessons in keyboard playing. From 1700 to 1702 he attended St Michael's School in
Lüneburg, where he sang in the church choir and probably came into contact with the
organist and composer Georg Böhm. He also visited Hamburg to hear J. A. Reincken at the
organ of St Catherine's Church.
After competing unsuccessfully for an organist's post in
Sangerhausen in 1702, Bach spent the spring and summer of 1703 as 'lackey' and violinist
at the court of Weimar and then took up the post of organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt.
In June 1707 he moved to St Blasius, Mühlhausen, and four months later married his cousin
Maria Barbara Bach in nearby Domheim. Bach was appointed organist and chamber musician to
the Duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1708, and in the next nine years he became known as a leading
organist and composed many of his finest works for the instrument. During this time he
fathered seven children, including Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. When, in
1717, Bach was appointed Kapellmeister at Cöthen he was at first refused permission to
leave Weimar and was allowed to do so only after being held prisoner by the duke for
almost a month.
Bach's new employer, Prince Leopold, was a talented
musician who loved and understood the art. Since the court was Calvinist, Bach had no
chapel duties and instead concentrated on instrumental composition. From this period date
his violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos, as well as numerous sonatas,
suites and keyboard works, including several (e.g. the Inventions and Book I of the '48')
intended for instruction. In 1720 Maria Barbara died while Bach was visiting Karlsbad with
the prince; in December of the following year Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, daughter
of a court trumpeter at Weissenfels. A week later Prince Leopold also married, and his
bride's lack of interest in the arts led to a decline in the support given to music at the
Cöthen court. In 1722 Bach entered his candidature for the prestigious post of Director
musices at Leipzig and Kantor of the Thomasschule there. In April 1723 after the
preferred candidates, Telemann and Graupner, had withdrawn, he was offered the post and
Bach remained as Thomaskantor in Leipzig for the rest of
his life, often in conflict with the authorities, but a happy family man and a proud and
caring parent. His duties centred on the Sunday and feastday services at the city's two
main churches, and during his early years in Leipzig he composed prodigious quantities of
church music, including four or five cantata cycles, the Magnificat and the St John
and St Matthew Passions. He was by this time renowned as a virtuoso organist and in
constant demand as a teacher and an expert in organ construction and design. His fame as a
composer gradually spread more widely when, from 1726 onwards, he began to bring out
published editions of some of his keyboard and organ music.
From about 1729 Bach's interest in composing church music
sharply declined, and most of his sacred works after that date including the B minor Mass
and the Christmas Oratorio consist mainly of 'parodies' or arrangements of earlier
music. At the same time he took over the direction of the collegium musicum that Telemann
had founded in Leipzig in 1702 - a mainly amateur society which gave regular public
concerts. For these Bach arranged harpsichord concertos and composed several large-scale
cantatas, or serenatas, to impress the Elector of Saxony, by whom he was granted the
courtesy title of Hofcompositeur in 1736.
Among the 13 children born to Anna Magdalena at Leipzig was
Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian, in 1735. In 1744 Bach's second son, Emanuel, was
married and three years later Bach visited the couple and their son (his first grandchild)
at Potsdam, where Emanuel was employed as harpsichordist by Frederick the Great. At
Potsdam Bach improvised on a theme given to him by the king, and this led to the
composition of the Musical Offering, a compendium of fugue, canon and sonata based
on the royal theme. Contrapuntal artifice predominates in the work of Bach's last decade,
during which his membership (from 1747) of Lorenz Mizler's learned Society of Musical
Sciences profoundly affected his musical thinking. The Canonic Variations for organ was
one of the works Bach presented to the society, and the unfinished Art of Fugue may
also have been intended for distribution among its members.
Bach's eyesight began to deteriorate during his last year,
and in March and April 1750 he was twice operated on by the itinerant English oculist John
Taylor. The operations and the treatment that followed them may have hastened Bach's
death. He took final communion on 22 July and died six days later. On 31 July he was
buried at St John's cemetery. His widow survived him for ten years, dying in poverty in
Bach's output embraces practically every musical genre of
his time except for the dramatic ones of opera and oratorio (his three 'oratorios' being
oratorios only in a special sense). He opened up new dimensions in virtually every
department of creative work to which he turned, in format, musical quality and technical
demands. As was normal at the time, his creative production was mostly bound up with the
external factors of his places of work and his employers, but the density and complexity
of his music are such that analysts and commentators have uncovered in it layers of
religious and numerological significance rarely to be found in the music of other
composers. Many of his contemporaries, notably the critic J. A. Scheibe, found his music
too involved and lacking in immediate melodic appeal, but his chorale harmonizations and
fugal works were soon adopted as models for new generations of musicians. The course of
Bach's musical development was undeflected (though not entirely uninfluenced) by the
changes in musical style taking place around him. Together with his great contemporary
Handel (whom chance prevented his ever meeting), Bach was the last great representative of
the Baroque era in an age which was already rejecting the Baroque aesthetic in favour of a
new, 'enlightened' one.
Sacred choral music: St John Passion (1724); St Matthew Passion (1727); Christmas Oratorio (1734); Mass, b (1749); Magnificat (1723);
over 200 church cantatas, incl. no.80, Ein feste Burg (Circa; 1744), no.140, Wachet auf
(1731); 7 motets, incl. Singet dem Herm (Circa; 1727), Jesu meine Freude (Quest;1723);
chorales, sacred songs.
Secular vocal music: over 20 cantatas,
incl. no.211,'Coffee cantata' (Circa; 1735), no.212, 'Peasant Cantata' (1742).
Orchestral music: Brandenburg Conc.s
nos.1-6 (1721); 2 vn concs., a, E (1717-23), 2- vn conc., d (1723), hpd concs. (Circa;
1738-9): 8 for 1 hpd (d, E, D, A, f, F, g, d), 3 for 2 hpd (c, C, c), 2 for 3 hpd (d, C),
1 for 4 hpd (a); 4 orch. suites, C, b (with fl), D, D.
Chamber music: 6 sonatas and partitas, vn (1720); 6 sonatas, vn, hpd (1717-23); 6 suites, vc (Circa; 1720); Musical Offering (1747); 7 fl sonatas (2 unacc.); 3 sonatas, viola da gamba, hpd; trio sonatas.
Keyboard music: 7 toccatas (Circa;
1708-10); Chromatic fantasia and fugue, d (Circa; 1720); Das wohltemperirte Clavier,
'48Rsquo; (1722, 1742); 6 English Suites (Circa; 1722); 6 French Suites (Circa; 1722); 15
Inventions, 15 Sinfonias (1723); 6 Partitas (1731); Italian Conc. (1735); French Ov.
(1735); Goldberg Variations (Circa; 1741); The Art of Fugue (Circa; 1745-50); suites,
fugues, capriccios, 16 concertos.
Organ music: over 150 chorale preludes; preludes, fugues, toccatas, fantasias, sonatas, passacaglia.
© Groves Dictionaries, MacMillan Publishers Limited, UK