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Johann Sebastian Bach

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 tutelage. 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 alent. 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 ear 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 ight – 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.

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Home » Biography » Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Regarded as perhaps the greatest composer of all time, Bach was known during his lifetime primarily as an outstanding organ player and technician. The youngest of eight children born to musical parents, Johann Sebastian was destined to become a musician. While still young, he had mastered the organ and violin, and was also an excellent singer. At the age of ten, both of his parents died within a year of each other.

Young Sebastian was fortunate to be taken in by an older brother, Johann Christoph, who most likely continued his musical training. At the age of ifteen, Bach secured his first position in the choir of St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg. He travelled little, never leaving Germany once in his life, but held various postitions during his career in churches and in the service of the courts throughout the country. In 1703 he went to Arnstadt to take the position of organist at the St. Boniface Church. It was during his tenure there that Bach took a month’s leave of absence to make the journey to Lübeck (some 200 miles away, a journey he made on foot) to hear the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. One month turned into five, nd Bach was obliged to find a new position at Mülhausen in 1706.

In that year he also married his cousin, Maria Barbara. Bach remained at Mülhausen for only a year before taking up a post as organist and concertmaster at the court of the Duke of Weimar. In 1717, Bach moved on to another post, this time as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. During the years Bach was in the service of the courts, he was obliged to compose a great deal of instrumental music: hundreds of pieces for solo keyboard, orchestral dance suites, trio sonatas for various instruments, and concertos or various instruments and orchestra.

Of these, the most famous are the six concerti grossi composed for the Duke of Brandenburg in 1721, and the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 exemplifies the style of the concerto grosso in which a small group of instruments (in this case a small ensemble of strings) is set in concert with an orchestra of strings and continuo. Of Bach’s music for solo instruments, the six Suites for violoncello and the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are among the greatest for those instruments. The Violin Partita no. 3 contains an example of a popular dance form, the gavotte.

Maria Barbara died suddenly in 1720, having borne the composer seven children. Within a year Bach remarried. The daughter of the town trumpeter, Anna Magdalena Bach would prove to be an exceptional companion and helpmate to the composer. In addition, the couple sired thirteen children. (Of Bach’s twenty off-spring, ten died in infancy. Four became well-known composers, including Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian. ) Soon after his second marriage, Bach began looking for another position, and eventually took one in Leipzig, where he became organist and cantor (teacher) at St. Thomas’ Church.

He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life. A devout Lutheran, Bach composed a great many sacred works as his duties required when in the employ of the church: well over two hundred cantatas (a new one was required of him every week), several motets, five masses, three oratorios, and four settings of the Passion story, one of which, The St. Matthew Passion, is one of western music’s sublime masterpieces. Bach also wrote vast amounts of music for his chosen instrument, the organ, much of which is still regarded as the pinnacle of the repertoire. One such work is the tremendous Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

Towards the end of 1749, Bach’s failing eyesight was operated on by a traveling English surgeon, the catastrophic results of which were complete blindness. His health failing, Bach nevertheless continued to compose, dictating his work to a pupil. He finally succombed to a stroke on July 28, 1750. He was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Thomas’ Church. Bach brought to majestic fruition the polyphonic style of the late Renaissance. By and large a musical conservative, he achieved remarkable heights in the art of fugue, choral olyphony and organ music, as well as in instrumental music and dance forms.

His adherence to the older forms earned him the nickname “the old wig” by his son, the composer Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, yet his music remained very much alive and was known and studied by the next generation of composers. It was the discovery of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 by Felix Mendelssohn that initiated the nineteenth century penchant for reviving and performing older, “classical” music. With the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, music scholars conveniently mark the end of the Baroque age in music

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Home » Biography » Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

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. Bachs 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]. Bachs 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. Bachs 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 Bachs 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. Its 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 youve 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.

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