Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany as the youngest child of a church organist father, Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695), and a mother, Maria Elisabeth Lammerhirt (1644-1694) and into a great musical family, stretching back seven generations. Bach’s family was devoutly Lutheran. Bach learned violin and music theory from his father and organ from Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721). In 1692, when Bach was seven years old, he attended Lateinschule in Eisenach and studied religion, Latin, and other subjects.
Although Bach was an excellent student, his attendance was poor because he already worked as a member of the student choir to support family financial. Bach lost his mother in 1694 and his father in 1695. At the age of ten, Bach became an orphan and lived with his eldest brother, Johann Christopher Bach, an organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf. He received much of his musical and keyboard studies from Christopher. A popular anecdote demonstrated young Bach’s passion to learn compositions on his own.
Christopher had a collection of organ and clavier scores by famous German composers and Bach asked eagerly study these scores; however he denied Bach his request saying it was too early for him to study them. However, it is said that Bach secretly removed them from his shelf and copied them under the moonlight for six months. Unfortunately, Christopher found them and took them away from him. In 1700, Bach attended St. Michael’s School in Luneburg on a choral scholarship. There, he studied religion, reading, writing, math, singing, history, and science.
After his voice changed, he transferred to the orchestra and played violin. Bach also traveled to Hamburg, Germany often to listen to opera and organ performances. Bach graduated from St. Michael’s School in 1702. In 1703, Bach received his first job as a violinist at the court of Duke Johann Ernst Weimar. Bach’s reputation as a performer had grown, and he was also offered a position as an organist at the New Church in Arnstadt. His responsibilities were providing music for religious services and special events and giving music instruction.
This position was great for him because he was able to practice organ anytime and to spend time studying organ composition. In 1705, Bach obtained a month’s leave to visit a church in Lubeck, Germany to hear the famed organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach was so impressed that he extended his stay there for four months without letting anyone know back in Arnstad. When Bach returned to Lubeck in 1706, he was scolded by church officials again for not only returning late but also criticized his lack of support to the church choir and organ performances at services.
In 1707, Bach left Arnstadt at the age of 22 and moved a new organist position at the Church of St. Blaise in Muhlhausen. In October, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his cousin. Bach wanted to present “well-ordered church music” based on complex arrangements with different melodic lines. However, the church pastor, Johann Frohne, believed that church music should be simple. Bach’s Cantata No. 71, Gott ist mein Konig (God Is My King) was performed at the service at which new members were placed into the city council in 1708.
This cantata impressed the council, and the music was printed and recorded into the city. However, the conflict between Bach’s musical ideas and the pastor’s musical ideas caused Bach to look for a new position. After a year in Muhlhausen, Bach accepted the position of the court organist of the Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar in 1708. His new salary was almost doubled and allowed him to work strictly in Lutheran environment. At this time, Bach was asked to play remodeled organs from various places as an authority on organ structures.
Bach received a permit from the Duke to remodel the organ. The project took three years to complete. Bach wrote many church cantatas and organ compositions while working for the Duke. Some of his popular pieces during this period were Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, a church cantata from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147). In 1717, Bach was offered a position by Prince Leopold of Cothen, Germany and accepted another advance in his salary.
Bach requested to release him to go to Cothen, but Duke Wilhelm Ernst refused to accept this short notice and even jailed him for a month. In December, Bach was released and allowed to go to Cothen where he enjoyed one of the most productive compositional periods in his life. While in Cothen, Bach was responsible to conduct the court orchestra in which the prince himself participated. He also spent his time to compose great instrumental works because the Cothen musicians were all skilled performers and their talent inspired Bach to write special music for them.
He also wrote keyboard music for his own children as instructional materials. In July 1720, Bach’s wife, Maria Barbara died, leaving him to take care of their seven children. In 1721, Bach created a series of a collection of six instrumental works that became known as the Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051). They were written for the Margrave of Brandenburg and are considered the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque era. In December, he married his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wulken, a twenty-years-old soprano singer and a daughter of a court trumpeter at Weissenfels.
They added thirteen more children to their family. Sadly, only ten of Bach’s twenty children reached maturity. During this happy period in his life, Bach wrote many popularly studied piano works including Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach in 1722 and 1725, Inventions and Sinfonias (BWV 772-801), English Suites (BWV 806-811), French Suites (BWV 812-817), and the Well-Tempered Clavier Book One (BWV 846-869). He composed these keyboard pieces to help his students learn certain techniques and methods.
In 1723, Bach decided to leave Cothen to Leipzig, Germany because Prince Leopold’s interest for music decreased after his new marriage, his desire to live near a university where his children could receive good music education, and because he received a better job offer in Leipzig. Bach spent the rest of his life in Leipzig for 27 years. There, Bach was contracted as an organist and a teacher at the St. Thomas Church, St. Nicholas Church, and Thomas School. His duties at Leipzig were to provide choral music for weekly services and other occasions such as funerals and Good Friday services.
The Passions, sacred oratorios, were musical interpretations created from the Bible. St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b) was performed at a Good Friday service in 1727. In 1729, Bach’s focus shifted from church music and in the years following, he spent most of his time touching up his old works, putting together collections of pieces in the forms of albums or suites, or publishing his works. Bach published four sets he called Clavier-Ubung or keyboard practice that include the Six Partitas (BWV 825-830), Italian Concerto (BWV 971), French Overture (BWV 831), German Organ Mass (BWV 552/1, 669-805, 552/2), and the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988).
In 1736, Bach’s hard work was recognized and he became a Hofkomponist, or court composer. By 1740, Bach gradually lost his eyesight, but he continued to work. In 1741, he made two important journeys. One of these was to Dresden to see Count von Keyserlingk, a longtime supporter. The other one was to visit his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach at Berlin, who had taken a post as court harpsichordist to Crown Prince Frederick in 1747. He played for the king, making up a new composition on the spot.
Back in Leipzig, Bach refined the piece and gave the prince a set of fugues called Musical Offering (BWV 1079). In the spring of 1749, Bach started The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080) but unfortunately, he never finished it. Bach’s eyesight worsened in May 1749 and he received two operations by the English doctor John Taylor in March to April 1750 but the operation ended up leaving him completely blind. Bach’s health declined further and on July 28, 1750, Bach died shortly after suffering a stroke at the age of 65.
Contrary to our current perceptions, Bach was better known as an organist than as a composer and only few of his works were published during his lifetime. Even though Bach lived his entire life in Germany, he still mastered various national musical styles. He introduced different music style, such as counterpoint and fugue to create richly detailed compositions, across Europe. His outstanding musicianship, performing skills, and creativity as a composer have qualified him as one of the great musical geniuses in history. His music is revered for its technical command, artistic beauty, and intellectual depth.