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Johann Sebastian Bach, Baroque Era Composer

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685 – 1750, was born in Eisenach, Thuringia, on March 31. March 21 on the Julian Calendar of the time, but the Gregorian Calendar had been adopted by the time of his death so there is general agreement that he died on July 28.

Eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695), the town trumpeter and director of Eisenach musicians, Johann Sebastian was born into a family where musicians stretched back generations.

Around 80 of them, ranging from church organists and court chamber musicians to composers.

In fact although the name "Bach" means "stream" in German it came to be associated with "musician".

Now recognized as one of the greatest composers in western musical history his life and career all took place within a comparatively small area, but the breadth of music he produced was enormous. It included every musical category of the Baroque era except opera, and by the time of his death he had composed over 1,000 works; from those for the organ, chamber music and concertos to cantatas and larger choral orchestral works such as St. Matthew Passion.

His compositions included "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," one of his most popular pieces for the organ which was given a worldwide audience when Walt Disney included an abstract realization in the old but still watched and admired 1940's movie, Fantasia.

Bach began school at seven and was given religious instruction in Lutheranism, as well as studying Latin and other subjects, and this faith influenced his later works. His mother, Maria Elisabetha, and father both died within a year in 1764 and 1765, so the ten year old was sent to live with his brother, Johann Christoph an organist at St. Michael's Church in the nearby town of Ohrdruf, and went to a local school while learning the keyboard, composition and how to restore and build an organ at home.

He was 14 when, with a school friend Georg Erdmann, Bach was awarded a choral scholarship giving him the opportunity to study at St. Michael's School in Lueneburg, a wealthy church which provided places for boys who were poor but had musical talent.

Not having much money the boys probably walked for most of the long journey to Northern Germany, getting lifts on farmer's carts or river barges whenever possible.

The Michaelisschule and the Michaeliskirche had an impressive musical tradition and Bach stayed there between 1700 – 1702; becoming an organ virtuoso, as well as having had the chance to learn French, Italian, theology, Latin, history, geography and physics, in addition to singing.

On his arrival at St. Michaels he had a perfect soprano singing voice so was immediately chosen for the elite "Metttenchor", Mattins Choir, but after this broke concentrated on expanding his skills with the violin and harpsichord. While among his fellow students were many from noble families destined for diplomatic, military, or governmental careers, so he was exposed to different German and European culture as well as music.

None of which he would have had access to in Thuringia.

This showed in influences of different styles from across Europe in his later compositions. Including those of France, after playing the violin at the Court of Celle at Das Celler Schloss, 50 miles south of Lueneburg, and Italian instrumental music, learned while spending time in Weimar as a violinist in a chamber orchestra belonging to the younger brother of the Duke of Weimar, and as deputy to the official Court Organist.

He became the organist at Blasiuskirche, St. Blasius Church in Muehlhausen, in June 1707. This was a prestigious position that made it possible for him to marry his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach daughter of a composer, in October that year, and they went on to have seven children. Two of five sons and one of two daughters died before reaching their first birthday.

Maria Bach died unexpectedly in 1720 while Johann Sebastian was away working as a musician for his employer of the time, the Duke of Koethen, who was taking the waters in Carlsbad.

Seventeen months later in December 1721 Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a soprano employed at Koethen, and they raised the remaining children from his first marriage and also had 13 of their own. Seven of whom died during infancy.

It was in the relaxed atmosphere of Koethen that Bach wrote the Brandenburg Concertos, four Orchestral Suites and violin concertos.

Bach was happy and content in both his marriages, and a devoted family man who shared his love of music with his children, several of whom became composers and musicians. Although he did not think to ensure an education for his daughters.

The family left Koethen in May 1723, moving to Leipzig where Bach was to be Cantor and Director of Music, and his arrival was treated a a major event in the musical and social world of the city. He spent the remaining 27 years of his life there, but not only was the salary lower there was none of the aristocratic ease of the Court of Koethen, where Bach had been free to make music as and when he liked.

In Leipzig everything was kept to a rigid timetable, and he had clearly defined duties.

In addition the Leipzig authorities had made it clear from the beginning of his tenure that they had hoped a more important composer, Telemann, would accept the post at St. Thomas’s Church and Choir School. He had turned down their offer preferring to write theater music in Hamburg.

Referring to the appointment of Bach the City Council had written: "Since we cannot get the best man, we must put up with a mediocre one", and Bach's entire time in Leipzig was in many ways a stressful one.

Nevertheless his work output during this period was prolific; filled with new compositions and revisions of previous ones.

During the Leipzig years the Bach home became a meeting place for music lovers, and regular musical evenings when the whole family played and sang together would also include friends and musicians from Germany and other countries.

In addition to his work at St. Thomas he was increasingly widely respected as a composer, musician, teacher, organist, and specialist in organ construction, became Court Composer to the Dresden Court - the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland - and until 1741 was permanent director of the highly regarded Collegium Musicum, which proved to be a similarly relaxed and rewarding way of working as his time at Koethen.

One of his biggest fans was King Frederick the Great of Prussia, whose Court Harpsichordist was Bach's son Carl Phillip Emmanuel.

Bach became more introspective as he grew older, although he continued composing, but he had worked in badly lit conditions during his life so his eyesight began to fail, and the Leipzig Council wasted no time in beginning to look for a successor.

In March and Apri1 1750 a famous English ophthalmic specialist John Taylor, who had operated on Handel, performed two cataract operations on Bach's eyes but without success. In fact he became weaker, and spent the last months of his life in a darkened room.

It is said that on the morning of July 28, 1750, Bach awoke to find not only could he see clearly but his eyes were once again able to bear strong light, but later that day he had a stroke and died just before nine o'clock that evening, with his death a defining point in musical history as it marked the end of the Baroque Era.

During his lifetime, Bach was better known as a gifted organist and teacher than composer, and few of his works were published, but although almost forgotten his compositions were admired by Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven among others, while after German composer Felix Mendelssohn had the "St. Matthew Passion" performed in Leipzig's St. Thomas Church in 1829 a rediscovery and appreciation of Bach's work began.

A devout Lutheran, although he had not been been as much of a religiously inspired composer during the last two decades of his life as in the previous years, Bach wrote the initials S. D. G., "Soli Deo Gloria," - To God Alone The Glory - at the bottom of almost every piece of music he composed.

Leipzig's St. Thomas Church authorities did not erect a tombstone or any other monument in his memory.

They evicted his widow Anna Magdalena and their six surviving children from their home, and when she died on February 27, 1760, she was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at Leipzig's Johanniskirche.





IMAGES: Johann Sebastian Bach, in 1746 aged 61. Portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, this is the second version from 1746, owner William H. Scheide, Princeton, the original is in the Altes Rathaus, Leipzig. Public Domaine
Celle Castle, Das Celler Schloss, four-winged castle in Lueneburg Heath region of Lower Saxony, photographer and original uploader Hajotthu via de.Wikipedia
Engraving from 1735 showing the Thomasschule, distant and off center, where Bach's family lived in the left hand third of the building, and the Thomaskirche in the foreground, source 'Heiligenlexikon.de' via de.Wikipedia
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor - Fantasia (1940 Leopold Stokowski - Bach - Brandenburg Concertos No.3 - i: Allegro Moderato, Bwv1048


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Really worth watching and listening to: Brandenburg Concertos/Freiburger Barockorchester - a superb interpretation of Bach

And if you would like to learn more about the various sides, and talents, of Bach Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician is the book to read.



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