One of the most profoundly inspired and masterful composers in history, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), was born into a musical family in Eisenach, Germany. Born into a musical family his father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a talented violinist, and taught his son the basic skills of string-playing. Another relation, the organist at Eisenach’s most important church, intructed the young boy on the organ. In 1695, Johann Sebastian was orphaned; he went to live with his older brother, Johann Christoph, in 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 brothers tutelage. 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. Soon after, he took a job as an organist at a church in Arnstadt (1703-1707).
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 the another organist job, this time at he St. Blasius Church in Muhlhausen (1707-1708). 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 (1708-1717), 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. By this stage in his life, Bach had developed a reputation as a brilliant musical talent. His profiency on the organ was unequalled in Europe and he toured regularly as a solo virtuoso.
In 1717, Bach left Weimar to take a job as a court conductor in Anhalt-Cothen (1717-1723). There is where he started concentrating 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 offspring would become fine composers in their own right, 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 (1723-1750). 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.
His last musical composition, a chorale prelude entitled “Before Thy Throne, My God, I Stand”, was dictated to his son-in-law only days before his death. Bach was that rare composer whose genius cannot be summed up, even approximated, by any known means. He was the supreme master of counterpoint, fugue, vocal writing, melody, chamber composition, solo instrument repertoire…the list is endless. Bach was the greatest master of the Baroque, and probably of all classical music, and one of my favorites to boot.