Throughout the history of music, many great composers, theorists, and instrumentalists have left indelible marks and influences that people today look back on to admire and aspire to. No exception to this idiom is Johann Sebastian Bach, whose impact on music was unforgettable to say the least. People today look back to his writings and works to both learn and admire. He truly can be considered a music history great. Bach, who came from a family of over 53 musicians, was nothing short of a virtuosic instrumentalist as well as a masterful composer.
Born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, he was the son of a masterful violinist, Johann Ambrosius Bach, who taught his son the basic skills for string playing. Along with this string playing, Bach began to play the organ which is the instrument he would later on be noted for in history. His instruction on the organ came from the player at Eisenach’s most important church. He instructed the young boy rather rigorously until his skills surpassed anyone’s expectations for someone of such a young age. Bach suffered early trauma when his parents died in 1695.
He went to go live with his older brother, Johann Christoph, who also was a professional organist at Ohrdruf. He continued his younger brother’s education on that instrument, as well as introducing him to the harpsichord. The rigorous training on these instruments combined with Bach’s masterful skill paid off for him at an early age. After several years of studying with his older brother, he received a scholarship to study in Luneberg, Germany, which is located on the northern tip of the country. As a result, he left his brother’s tutelage and went to go and study there.
The teenage years brought Bach to several parts of Germany where he mainly worked as an organist in churches, since that was the skill he had perfected the best from his young training. However, a master of several instruments while still in his teens, Johann Sebastian first found employment at the age of 18 as a violinist in a court orchestra in Weimar. Although he did not remain there terribly long, he was able to make good money playing for the king. He soon after accepted a position as a church organist in Arnstadt. It was here that Bach would soon realize his high standards and regards that he had for music.
In Arnstadt as well as in many other places that Bach worked he was notorious for getting into fights over the quality of music that was being produced. A perfect example of this can be seen in Arnstadt. Previous accounts of history claim that Bach was upset with the performance of the church choir for which he played for. He claimed that “the voices could never make the music soar to the sky as it should” (loosely translated). Here Bach realized the high level of music and perfectionism that he wanted. In 1707, at the age of 22, Bach moved on from Arnstadt to another organist job, this time at the St. Blasius Church in Muhlhausen.
Once again he did not remain there too long, only a little over a year, when he moved again to Weimar where he accepted the position of head concertmaster and organist in the Ducal Chapel. It was here that Bach settled himself and began to compose the first collection of his finest early works which, included organ pieces and cantatas. By this time Bach had been married for several years. He actually became married to his cousin Maria Barbara. They, for the most part, had a happy marriage. He was happy. By this stage of his life he had “composed” for himself a wonderful reputation of being a brilliant musical talent.
Along with that his proficiency on the organ was unequaled in Europe by this time. In fact, he toured regularly as a solo virtuoso, and his growing mastery of compositional forms, like the fugue and the canon, were already attracting interest from the musical establishment, which, in his day, was the Lutheran church. The church began to look at Bach’s writings and saw the opportunity to possibly use his music in their masses. Thus was the slow birth of the German chorale, which Bach later became renowned for. Bach’s virtuosic career did suffer minor setbacks along the way.
He occasionally would be passed over for deserved positions within the court that he worked. However, in 1715 when he did not receive a truly desired position of “Kapellmeister” (choral master) of Weimer, he was insulted and left the city. He accepted a position as a court conductor in Cothen, where he began to work on another part of his musical genre, that of instrumental music. Up until this point, Bach was mainly writing organ pieces and church cantatas. One of his most famous, “Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme,” became well known around the world and is still looked upon as a classic today.
However, when he arrived in Cothen he began to focus on all other instruments and used his talents as a string player and knowledge of “wind & brass” instruments to begin composing instrumental pieces. It was during his stay here in Cothen that the orchestral masterpiece known as the “Brandenburg Concerto” was born. Bach’s tenure in Cothen lasted approximately seven years. In that time his wife Mara became ill and died. Although distraught, he soon remarried to Anna Magdalena. It was during this time that Bach had several children, three in particular would grow to become talented musicians like their father.
Wilhelm Friedmann, C. P. E. Bach, and J. C. Bach. They to became virtosos of the organ and later the harpsichord, much like their father was. After Bach left Cothen, he received a prestigious position as music director at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. Here Bach accepted his most demanding position of all. He had the responsibility of composing cantatas for the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches, conducing the choirs, overseeing the musical activities of numerous municipal churches, and teaching Latin in the St. Thomas choir school.
Although demanding, Bach persisted and succeeded in Leipzig and continued 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. Although he was blinded by cataract problems in the early 1740s, he still managed to compose masterful pieces up until days before his death. His last musical composition that he crafted happened to be a choral prelude, which was dedicated to his son-in law.
To this day more than 1,000 of Bach’s accomplished compositions survive. Some of his most famous works include the “Brandenburg Concerto,” The “Mass In B Minor,” “The Goldberg Variations for Harpsichord,” his vast amount of toccatas, especially his “Toccata In F Major,” his collection of variations on organ preludes captured in the “Well Tempered Clavier,” his immense amount of fugues and chorales including his “Fugue in G minor,” major as well as his tremendous amount of chorales, and his Christmas and Easter oratorios, which was another schism in his music genre.
Quite frankly, the list goes on and on and on. Surely, Johann Sebastian Bach never believed that his success would become so heroic and monumental. However, we today perceive him to be one of the key individuals to shape the music we listen to. It is no secret that his writings, especially chorale writings, are used to illustrate the principles of our functional system of harmony.
It is in this example alone that it can be seen that Bach’s works have not only survived to the point where they are still heard and listened to, but they also still provide us with knowledge and understanding from which we can learn and discover music. It is for these reasons that the life of Johann Sebastian Bach was truly a great one and it is without any apprehension that he can be considered a musical great.