Born at Eisenach, in Thuringia, he came of a distinguished musical family. At 15 he became a chorister at Luneburg and at 19 organist at Arnstadt. Subsequent appointments included positions at the courts of Weimar and Anhalt-Kother, and finally in 1723, that of musical director at St Thomas’s choir school in Leipzig, where, apart from his brief visit to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1747, he remained there until his death. Bach married twice and had 21 children, ten of whom died in nfancy.
His second wife, Anna Magdalena Wulkens, was a soprano singer; she also acted as his amanuensis, when in later years his sight failed. Bach was a master of contrapuntal technique, and his music marks the culmination of the Baroque polyphonic style. Important Works Sacred music includes over 200 church cantatas, the Easter and Christmas oratorios, the two great Passions of St Mathew and St John, and the Mass in B minor. Orchestral music includes his six Brandenburg Concertos, other oncertos for clavier and for violin, and four orchestral suites.
Bach’s keyboard music for clavier and for organ is of equal importance and includes the collection of 48 preludes and fugures known as The Well-tempered Clavier, The Goldberg Variations, and the French And English Suites. Of his organ music, the most imporant examples are the choral preludes. He also wrote chamber music and songs. Two important works written in the later years illustrate the principles and potential of his polyphic art – The Musical Offering And The Art Of Fugue.
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Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musically gifted family and was devoted to music throughput his childhood and adult years. He was taught by his father and later by his brother Johann Christoph, and was a boy soprano in Luneberg. His education was acquired largely through independent studies. In 1703 he became a violinist in the private orchestra of the prince of Weimar but left within a year to become an organist at Arnstadt. Bach went to Muhlhausen as an organist in 1707. There he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach; together they had seven children.
In 1708 he was made court organist and chamber musician at Weimar, and in 1714 he became concertmaster. In 1720 Bach’s wife died, and in 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wulken, a woman of considerable musical cultivation; they had 13 children. In 1723 he took the important post of music director of the church of St. Thomas, Leipzig, and of its choir school; he remained in Leipzig until his death. In all his positions as choir director, Bach composed religious cantatas: a total of some 300, of which nearly 200 are in existence. Actually I think my church may have used one or more Bach’s cantatas recently.
There are also over 30 secular cantatas. The bulk of his work is religious: he made four-part settings of 371 Lutheran chorales, also using many of them as the bases of organ preludes and choral works. He also composed an astonishing number of instrumental works, many of them designed for the instruction of his students. In his instrumental and choral works he perfected the art of polyphony, putting two melodies together unexpectedly, displaying an unmatched combination of inventiveness and control in his great, striding fugues.
At Kothen he concentrated on instrumental compositions, especially keyboard works: the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the English Suites; the French Suites; the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions, written to teach his son Wilhelm Friedemann; and Book I of the celebrated Well-Tempered Clavier. He also wrote several unaccompanied violin sonatas and cello suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos, recognized as the best concerti grossi ever composed.
The St. John Passion was performed (1723) at Leipzig when Bach was a candidate for musical director at St. Thomas. His Magnificat was presented shortly after he assumed that post. Many more of his superb religious compositions followed: the St. Matthew Passion (1729), the Christmas Oratorio, the sonorous Mass in B Minor, and the six motets. The principal keyboard works of this period were Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the four books of clavier pieces in the ClavierUbung, which includes: six partitas (1726-31); the Italian Concerto and the Partita in B Minor (1735); the Catechism Preludes, the Prelude and Fugue (St. Anne) in E Flat (1739), and four duets; and the Goldberg Variations (more formally Aria with Thirty Variations, 1742).
His last notable compositions were the Musical Offering composed (1747) for Frederick the Great and The Art of the Fugue (1749). During his lifetime, Bach was better known as an organist than as a composer. For decades after his death his works were neglected, but in the 19th century romantic composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann recognized his genius. Since that time his reputation has grown steadily.
I listened to Five pieces of Bach’s work: Ava Maria, Minuet in G for the Harpsichord, Violin Concerto, Allegro Concerto #3, and Air in G for string. Ava Maria, I believe is a religious symphony that is absolutely beautiful. I have heard many different renditions of Ava Maria and I have decided that Bach’s version is the greatest thus far. In the beginning of the song I hear violins and, I think, a harp. The two instruments give this piece a sense of, shall I say heavenly, beauty that is unparalled by even the greatest composers.
I find it amazing that Bach was not renowned for his work as a composer during his lifetime. Minuet in G for the Harpsichord was the second piece I listened to and, even though this piece may have been a great work for Bach, I am not overly fond of it. It may be that I am not fond of the harpsichord because it reminds me of an old music box that is on its last leg. I feel that this piece would be better used in old western tavern than a piece of classical listening. Violin Concerto, the third piece I listened to, is fast and easy to listen to.
It gets my head moving as if I am conducting it myself. That is a feeling a greatly enjoy because music has always been my passion. I may not be able to play any instruments but I love the sounds most instruments make, and this piece helps to feel that passion. It is a passionate piece, that much is certain, and it calls out to the listener. It makes the listener want more, and that, I believe, is what music is all about. Allegro Concerto #3 is another passionate piece. It does not quite compare to Violin Concerto. I believe this is because Violin Concerto is louder and it feels more passionate.
However, Allegro Concerto #3 is beautiful in its own right because it seems to hold a little less passion and a little more subtlety. It is fast but quiet and gives the listener a little bit of suspense. The final piece I listened to was Air in G for String. A piece that I have heard many times before but have never really listened to. I must say that it is my favorite Bach piece. The contrast between the violin and cello gives this piece a romantic yet somewhat suspenseful aura. When I listen to it I picture Mother Nature in all of her splendor on the first day of spring.
She is dancing among the trees that have seemed to die in their winter slumber and atop the grass that has browned beneath the snow. She begins her dance with a single sweep of her arms and so begins the spring. The trees begin to blossom, slowly at first, gradually taking on speed. She softly whispers her secrets to the flowers and they blossom excitedly as if begging to hear more. Mother Nature blows a kiss to her charges and the breeze from that kiss flows like water through the trees, flowers, and grass to spread the spring across the land.
Again it is a beautiful piece, and one that will bring piece and serenity, and even a springtime beauty to almost anyone’s home. In listening to these pieces I have decided to listen intently to more of Bach’s music. I never thought of Bach as anything more than a composer that I was going to have to learn about until now. His music touches me and even brings a smile to my face when I hear it. I now know the composer that will softly lull my children to sleep at night when they have trouble sleeping. I even listen to Bach in the morning, as his music gives a calm, and somehow more beautiful start to my day.
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Johann Sebastian Bach had a very interesting and educated life. He was a
very worldly and talented man and deserves to be recognized for more than
just his beautiful music. Below is a history of Johann Sebastian Bach
written in a timeline format. It goes through each stage of his life and
where he was and what he was doing. He contributed to so many people and
enriched so many with his music even after his death.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st l685, the son of Johann
Ambrosius, court trumpeter for the Duke of Eisenach and director of the
musicians of the town of Eisenach in Thuringia. For many years, members of
the Bach family throughout Thuringia had held positions such as organists,
town instrumentalists, or Cantors, and the family name enjoyed a wide
reputation for musical talent.
The family at Eisenach lived in a reasonably spacious home just above the
town center, with rooms for apprentice musicians, and a large grain store.
(The pleasant and informative “Bach Haus” Museum in Eisenach does not claim
to be the original family home). Here young Johann Sebastian was taught by
his father to play the violin and the harpsichord. He was also initiated
into the art of organ playing by his famous uncle, Johann Christoph Bach,
who was then organist at the Georgenkirche in Eisenach. Sebastian was a
very willing pupil and soon became extraordinarily proficient with these
When he was eight years old he went to the old Latin Grammar School, where
Martin Luther had once been a pupil; he was taught reading and writing,
Latin grammar, and a great deal of scripture, both in Latin and German. The
boys of the school formed the choir of the St. Georgenkirche, which gave
Johann Sebastian an opportunity to sing in the regular services, as well as
in the nearby villages. He was described as having ‘an uncommonly fine
treble voice’. The Lutheran spirit would have been strong in Eisenach, for
it was in the Wartburg Castle standing high above the town, that Martin
Luther, in hiding from his persecutors, translated the New Testament into
Roads were still unpaved in the smaller towns, sewage and refuse disposal
poorly organized, and the existence of germs not yet scientifically
discovered. Mortality rates were high as a result. At an early age Johann
Sebastian lost a sister and later a brother. When he was only nine years
old his mother died. Barely nine months later his father also died.
Johann Sebastian and one of his brothers, Johann Jakob, were taken into
the home of their eldest brother, Johann Christoph (born l671) who had
recently married and settled down at Ohrdruf, a small town thirty miles
south-east of Eisenach. Johann Christoph, a former pupil of Pachelbel, was
now well established as organist of the St. Michaeliskirche, Ohrdruf.
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Johann Christoph was an excellent teacher – all of his five sons were to
reach positions of some eminence in music, and he was a keen student of the
latest keyboard compositions.
Johann Sebastian at once settled down happily in this household studying
the organ and harpsichord with great interest under his brother, and he
quickly mastered all the pieces he had been given. When a new organ was
installed at the Ohrdruf church, Christoph allowed his young brother to
watch its construction. He also encouraged him to study composition and set
Sebastian to copying music by German organist composers such as Jakob
Froberger, Johann Caspar Kerll and Pachelbel. An anecdote tells how
Christoph punished his young brother when he discovered he had copied a
forbidden musical manuscript by moonlight over a period of six months, and
confiscated the precious copy.
During this period Johann Sebastian attended the Gymnasium (grammar
school) of Ohrdruf, once a monastic foundation, which had become one of the
most progressive schools in Germany. He made excellent progress in Latin,
Greek and theology, and had reached the top form at a very early age. The
scholars of the Gymnasium, as at Eisenach, were also employed as choir-
boys, and their Cantor, Elias Herda, had a high opinion of Johann
Sebastian’s voice and musical capabilities.
It was his excellent soprano voice that found Johann Sebastian a position
in the choir of the wealthy Michaelis monastery at Lneburg, which was
known to provide a free place for boys who were poor but with musical
talent. This was no doubt arranged by Elias Herda who had held a
scholarship there himself.
In the Spring of 1700 Johann Sebastian set out with his schoolfriend,
Georg Erdmann, who was also joining the choir, on the journey of a hundred
and eighty miles north to Lneburg. It is not known how they traveled; most
probably the journey would have been undertaken largely on foot, relieved
where possible with a lift on a river barge or farmer’s cart. Doubtless the
two boys would have been given free food and accommodation in the many
monasteries along the route.
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When Johann Sebastian reached this North-German musical center, he was
well received because of his uncommonly beautiful soprano voice, and was
immediately appointed to the select body of singers who formed the
‘Mettenchor’ (Mattins Choir). Their obligations to sing were many, and
Johann Sebastian thus had a unique chance to participate in choral and
orchestral performances on a scale unknown in the poorer Thuringian towns
of his homeland. He was also freely permitted to study the fine library of
music in the Gymnasium, which included some of the best examples of German
The growing lad soon lost his soprano voice, but was able to make himself
useful as a violinist in the orchestra, and as an accompanist at the
harpsichord during choir rehearsals.
During this period he was fortunate in meeting Georg Bhm, organist of the
Johanniskirche at Lneburg, who himself had been a pupil of the famous
organist Jan Adams Reinken in Hamburg, and was a friend of the Bach family
in Ohrdruf. Bhm introduced Johann Sebastian to the great organ traditions
of Hamburg, to which city he made several pilgrimages on foot. He also came
under the influence of French instrumental music when, through his great
proficiency on the violin, he played at the Court of Celle, 50 miles south
of Lneburg. Though distinctly German in its construction and outer
appearance, Celle Castle was known as a ‘miniature Versailles’ for its rich
interiors and then-current musical tastes.
When he was nearly eighteen, Johann Sebastian, considerably enriched by
these musical experiences, decided he would try to find employment as an
organist in his native Thuringia. He was greatly interested in an organ
under construction in the new church of Arnstadt, and as members of his
family had been professionally active in the district for generations, he
felt he had a good chance of getting the post. So in 1702 he left Lneburg
and returned South.
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WEIMAR (first term): 1703.
While awaiting the completion of the organ at Arnstadt, Sebastian was
offered, and accepted the post of violinist in the small chamber orchestra
of Duke Johann Ernst, the younger brother of the Duke of Weimar. At
Lneburg he had already experienced church choir music, violin, continuo
and organ playing, as well as musical composition and performance in the
French style. Here at Weimar he now came into contact with Italian
instrumental music, and acted as deputy to the aging Court Organist,
Effler, an old friend of the Bach family, thus having a chance to keep his
organ playing in practice. His stay here was short, but he was to return
In July 1703 the Arnstadt Town Council invited young Bach to try out the
newly finished organ in the ‘New Church’, so called as it had been almost
totally rebuilt having been seriously damaged by fire. He so impressed the
people of Arnstadt with his brilliant playing at the dedication that he was
immediately offered the post of organist on very favorable terms.
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At the end of 1703, 18-year-old Sebastian took up his post at the small
town of Arnstadt, no doubt thrilled at having his own relatively large
organ of two manuals and 23 speaking stops, and the responsibility of
providing music for his own congregation. Though the present organ is not
“Bach’s”, the original manuals, stops and pedals of Bach’s organ are
displayed in the Palm Haus Museum of this quiet historic little town, where
the house in which Bach lodged can also be seen.
In October 1705, the Church Council granted Bach leave to visit the north-
German city of Lbeck to hear the great organist, Dietrich Buxtehude. In
Lbeck he took every chance to hear Buxtehude play, and to attend the
famous evening concerts in the Marienkirche when Buxtehude’s church
cantatas were performed. Bach was so fascinated by these concerts, and by
his discussions on the arts with the great master, that he remained in
Lbeck over Christmas until the following February.
He returned to Arnstadt three months late, having also visited Reincken in
Hamburg and Bhm in Lneburg on the way, full of new ideas and enthusiasm
which he immediately put into practice in his playing. The congregation
however was completely surprised and bewildered by his new musical ideas:
there was considerable confusion during the singing of the chorales, caused
by his “surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the
melody and confuse the congregation”.
The Church Council resolved to reprimand Bach on his ‘strange sounds’
during the services, and they also asked him to explain the unauthorized
extension of his leave in Lbeck. Bach did not attempt to justify himself
before what must have seemed to him a group of narrow minded and
conservative old gentlemen; yet the Council, knowing how skilled his
playing was, decided to treat their young and impetuous organist with
However, new conflicts soon arose when Bach, citing a clause in his
contract, refused to work any longer with the undisciplined boys’ choir
which he had been required to train for the sake of Council economy. For
this the Council further reprimanded him and also added the complaint that
he had been “entertaining a strange damsel” to music in organ loft of the
church. The young lady was probably his cousin, Maria Barbara, whom he was
later to marry.
Thus, what had been an exciting and promising start at Arnstadt, had now
turned into recriminations and disputes; Bach no doubt decided it would be
better to look around for somewhere new.
At the end of 1706, he heard that the organist to the town of Mhlhausen
had died. Knowing that Mhlhausen had a long musical tradition, he applied
for the post, and after yet another very successful audition at the
imposing cathedral-like St Blasius Church on Easter Sunday 1707, he was
accepted, again on very favorable terms. So in June 1707 he returned the
keys of his office to the Arnstadt Council and left quietly with his few
belongings for Mhlhausen.
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Bach arrived at Mhlhausen, a small Thuringian town proud of its ancient
foundation and independence, to take up the post of organist to the town.
Unfortunately, a quarter of the whole town had recently been devastated by
fire; it was difficult for him to find suitable dwellings, and he was thus
forced to pay a high rent. Nevertheless, shortly after his arrival, he
brought his cousin Maria Barbara from Arnstadt, and on October 17th 1707 he
married her at the small church in the picturesque little village of
Dornheim. Maria Barbara came of a branch of the musical Bach family, her
father being organist at Gehren.
By now Bach had high ideals for the church music of Germany, and to start
with, he began organizing the rather poor facilities of Mhlhausen; he
began by making a large collection of the best German music available,
including some of his own, and set about training the choir and a newly
created orchestra to play the music.
The first result of these efforts was his cantata ‘Gott ist mein Knig’
(BWV 71), given in hitherto unknown splendor in the spacious Marienkirche
to celebrate the inauguration of the Town Council in February 1708. This
success gave Bach the courage to put in a long and detailed report,
proposing a complete renovation and improvement of the organ in the St
Blasiuskirche. The Council agreed to carry out the renovation and
improvements, and Bach was given the task of supervising the work, for not
only was he now a brilliant player, he had also become an expert on the
construction of organs.
However, before the organ was completed, a religious controversy arose in
Mhlhausen between the orthodox Lutherans, who were lovers of music, and
the Pietists, who were strict puritans and distrusted art and music. Bach
was apprehensive of the latter’s growing influence, in addition to the fact
that his immediate superior was a Pietist. Music in Mhlhausen seemed to be
in a state of decay, and so once more he looked around for more promising
Former contacts made in Weimar were now useful; the Duke of Weimar offered
him a post among his Court chamber musicians, and on June 25, 1708, Bach
sent in his letter of resignation to the authorities at Mhlhausen, stating
very diplomatically that not only was he finding it difficult to keep a
wife on the small salary agreed to on his arrival, but that he could see no
chance of realizing his final aim, namely the establishment of a proper
church music ‘to the glory of God’. The Council had little option but to
allow his departure. However, the situation was concluded quite amicably
and Bach was asked that he should continue to supervise the rebuilding of
the St Blasiuskirche organ. This he did, and some time in 1709 he came over
to inaugurate its first performance.
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WEIMAR (second term): 1708-1717
Weimar was quite a small town with only 5000 inhabitants; yet Bach was to
meet some very cultured people here. Not least was his employer, the Duke
of Sachsen-Weimar, one of the most distinguished and cultured nobles of his
Bach’s two-fold position as member of the chamber orchestra and as
Organist to the Court offered him many opportunities for improvement.
The Court Orchestra consisted of about 22 players: a compact string
ensemble, a bassoon player, 6 or 7 trumpeters and a timpanist. Bach’s
function in the orchestra was mainly as a violinist, however he also played
the harpsichord and occasionally wrote or arranged some of the music. As
was the custom in most 18th century Courts, the musicians also spent some
of their time employed in household and domestic duties.
In 1714 Bach became the leader of the orchestra, and was now second only
to the old and frail Capellmeister Johann Samuel Drese, whose duties he was
gradually taking over.
As Court Organist, Bach had succeeded Johann Effler, a musician of some
standing. The organ was new and not quite as large as the one at Arnstadt.
After a few years, Bach declared that it was inadequate and should be
rebuilt. It was in fact rebuilt at great expense according to his plans:
proof of the high regard the Court had for his capabilities as organist and
expert on organ construction.
During this period he wrote profusely for the organ, and he was rapidly
becoming known throughout the country as one of the greatest German
organists. Organ pupils came to him from far and wide, and he was asked to
test or dedicate many organs in various towns. His tests were extremely
thorough and critical. He used to say for fun ‘Above all I must know
whether the organ has a good lung’, and, pulling out all the stops he
produced the largest sound possible, often making the organ builders go
pale with fright. He would usually complete his trial by improvising a
prelude and fugue: the prelude to test the organ’s power, the fugue to test
its clarity for counterpoint. Constantin Bellermann describes his playing
(during a visit to Kassel) in these words; ‘His feet seemed to fly across
the pedals as if they were winged, and mighty sounds filled the church’.
Mizler’s ‘Nekrolog’ states: ‘His fingers were all of equal strength, all
equally able to play with the finest precision. He had invented so
comfortable a fingering that he could master the most difficult parts with
perfect ease (using 5 fingers instead of the then normal 3). He was able to
accomplish passages on the pedals with his feet which would have given
trouble to the fingers of many a clever player on the keyboard’.
On a visit to Halle in 1713, during which he gave a trial cantata
(probably BWV 21), he was invited to become organist in succession to
Zachau, a composer well-known, and celebrated as Handel’s early teacher.
However, the conditions and salary were not sufficient for his growing
family, so he was obliged to refuse the post.
On a visit to Dresden, Bach was invited to compete in a contest with the
visiting French organist, Louis Marchand, considered to be one of the best
in Europe. But, on the day appointed for the contest, Marchand decided to
withdraw discreetly by taking the fastest coach available back to France.
And so Bach gave an impressive solo performance before the assembled
audience and referees, establishing himself as the finest organist of the
Bach made some very good friends at Weimar, among whom was the eminent
philologist and scholar Johann Matthias Gesner, who expressed with great
eloquence his admiration for the composer’s genius. Bach was also a
frequent visitor to the nearby ‘Rote Schlo’, the home of the former Duke’s
widow and her two music-loving sons. Here the interest was in the new
Italian style of music which was then becoming the rage of Europe, one of
the chief exponents being the Venetian composer Vivaldi. Bach and his
cousin Johann Georg Walther transcribed some of the Italian instrumental
concertos for keyboard instruments.
During 1717 a feud broke out between the Duke of Weimar at the
‘Wilhelmsburg’ household and his nephew Ernst August at the ‘Rote Schlo’.
Consequently musicians of the first household were forbidden to fraternize
with those of the second. Bach did his best to ignore what was, after all,
merely an extension of a private quarrel. But the atmosphere was no longer
so pleasant. Added to this, the ancient Capellmeister then died, and Bach
was passed over for the post in favor of the late Capellmeister’s mediocre
son. At this, Bach was bitterly disappointed, for he had lately been doing
most of the Capellmeister’s work, and had confidently expected to be given
Through the help of Duke Ernst August, Bach was introduced to the Court of
Anhalt-Cthen, and as a result he was offered the post of Capellmeister,
which he accepted. This infuriated the Duke of Weimar, so that when Bach
put in a polite request for his release, he was arrested and put in the
local jail. However, after a month, he was released and given reluctant
permission to resign his office. During this enforced rest, Bach typically
used his time productively, and prepared a cycle of organ chorale preludes
for the whole year, published later as the ‘Orgelbchlein’.
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Bach arrived at the small Court of Anhalt-Cthen to hold the position of
Capellmeister, the highest rank given to a musician during the baroque age.
His master was the young prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cthen, barely twenty-
five years old, the son of a Calvinist. As the Calvinists were antagonistic
to the splendors of the Lutheran liturgy, there was no church music at
Cthen; however, the young Prince’s religious beliefs did not bar him from
enjoying a cheerful and cultivated style of living complete with secular
cantatas and instrumental music featuring the latest styles and fashions.
Prince Leopold had already spent three years (1710-13) doing the Grand Tour
of Europe, first to Holland and England, through Germany to Italy,
returning by way of Vienna. So he would have been thoroughly familiar with
the latest European fashions in music.
The young Prince stretched the limited budget of his miniature Court to
provide an orchestra of eighteen players, all chosen for their high musical
standards from all over the country, some from as far afield as Berlin. In
fact it was during the Prince’s Grand Tour in 1713 that news came to him of
a golden opportunity: when Wilhelm I of Prussia came to power, he dismissed
his father’s Court Capelle, and Prince Leopold was able to tempt many of
the best musicians from Berlin to Cthen. He had well-developed musical
tastes, having traveled widely, particularly to Italy, where he studied
Italian secular music with great interest; he returned from Italy
determined to raise the standard of German secular music to an equally high
Unlike most Princes of his time, he was a player of considerable
proficiency on the harpsichord, the violin and the viola da gamba, and
contrary to current Court etiquette he played quite freely and informally
with his Court musicians, treating them entirely as his equals. He soon
became very friendly with his new Capellmeister, having a high regard for
him, and would often ask his advice on various matters.
Life at Cthen was informal and easy-going; in this happy atmosphere
Bach’s days were completely devoted to music. During this period he wrote
much of his chamber music; violin concertos, sonatas, keyboard music, etc.
When the Prince traveled, Bach and some of the Court musicians (together
with instruments, including an ingenious folding-harpsichord) would
accompany him on his extensive journeys. Twice they visited Carlsbad, the
meeting place of the European aristocracy, in 1718 and in the summer of
1720. It was on returning from this second visit that Bach received a
serious shock; his wife, Maria Barbara, whom he had left in perfect health
three months earlier, had died and been buried in his absence, leaving four
Two months later he visited Hamburg and expressed an interest in the newly
vacant post of organist in the Jakobskirche. This church contained the
famous Arp Schnitger organ with four manuals and sixty stops. However, Bach
left Hamburg for Cthen before the audition, presumably because the
conditions there did not suit him.
Bach continued with his work at Cthen. He was asked to compose and
perform cantatas for the Prince’s birthday and the New Year; two each time,
one sacred and one secular. To perform these works there were singers under
contract from nearby Courts, and one of these, Anna Magdalena, daughter of
J.C. Wilcke, Court and Field-Trumpeter at Weienfels, attracted Bach’s
attention with her fine soprano voice. In December 1721, Anna Magdalena and
Bach married, she at the age of 20, and he 36.
Anna Magdalena was very kind to Bach’s children, a good housekeeper, and
she took a lively interest in his work, often helping him by neatly copying
out his manuscripts. In the twenty-eight years of happy marriage that
followed, thirteen children were born to the Bach family (though few of
them survived through childhood).
A week after Bach’s wedding, the Prince also married. But for Bach this
was to be an unfortunate event, as the new Princess was not in favor of her
husband’s musical activities and managed, by exerting constant pressure (as
Bach wrote in a letter), to ‘Make the musical inclination of the said
Prince somewhat luke-warm’. Bach also wrote to his old school-friend,
Erdmann, ‘There I had a gracious Prince as master, who knew music as well
as he loved it, and I hoped to remain in his service until the end of my
But in any case, Bach was now having to consider his growing sons; he
wished to give them a good education, and there was no university at
Cthen, nor the cultured atmosphere and facilities of a larger city.
So once more, Bach decided to look around for somewhere new. It may
perhaps have been these circumstances which led Bach to revive an old
invitation to produce what are now known as the Brandenburg Concertos. We
know from the opening of this dedication, dated March 24th 1721, that Bach
had already met the Margrave of Brandenburg, at which time Bach had been
invited to provide some orchestral music.
“Your Royal Highness; As I had a couple of years ago the pleasure of
appearing before Your Royal Highness, by virtue of Your Highness’ commands,
and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the small
talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking leave of Your
Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honor me with the command to send
Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have then in accordance with
Your Highness’ most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most
humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have
adapted to several instruments…. For the rest, Sire, I beg Your Royal
Highness very humbly to have the goodness to continue Your Highness’
gracious favor toward me, and to be assured that nothing is so close to my
heart as the wish that I may be employed on occasions more worthy of Your
Royal Highness and of Your Highness’ service….”.
There is some internal evidence in the music itself that Bach was intending
to visit Berlin in person for the first performance of these works. There
are for example some musicological errors in the scores – hardly something
Bach would permit were he seriously dedicating music to a dignitary,
particularly with the hope of prospective employment. The most noteworthy
indication however is the missing middle movement of the third concerto.
Bach, so his contemporaries frequently noted, would not even permit his
performers to put in their own trills and elaborations; he would certainly
not have left an entire movement to the whim of some distant performer
about whose capabilities Bach knew nothing.
History shows no record of Bach’s having subsequently visited the Margrave
at his Brandenburg Court. There could be many reasons for this. The
Margrave was not easily accessible as he was more frequently to be found in
residence at his estates at Malchow than in Berlin. Moreover the death of
Johann Kuhnau, Cantor of the Thomasschule at Leipzig in June 1722 opened
the possibility of an appointment for Bach at Leipzig, perhaps more
attractive to him than Berlin. Leipzig was situated in familiar territory
where he already had many musical and courtly connections; in addition it
had a famous university, and the three-times-yearly Trade Fair gave the
city a distinctly cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The merits of various candidates to succeed Kuhnau were considered, and
the Council eventually nominated Georg Philipp Telemann. However, the
authorities at Hamburg would not release Telemann, and so the candidature
was left pending. This position of Cantor at Leipzig had been favorably
described to Bach, and as the town offered the necessary educational
facilities for his sons, he applied for the post. The Council, after trying
unsuccessfully to get a certain Christoph Graupner, old boy of the
Thomasschule and Capellmeister at Darmstadt, eventually settled for Bach as
a reasonable alternative.
Bach applied for his dismissal at Cthen, and the Prince, regretting his
departure but not wishing to stand in his way, quickly consented.
And so Bach left with his family and belongings for Leipzig, where he was
to remain for the rest of his life.
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LEIPZIG 1: 1723-1729 – Cantor and Director of Music
Leipzig, with a population of 30.000, was the second city of Saxony, the
center of the German printing and publishing industries, an important
European trading center, and site of a progressive and famous university.
It was also one of the foremost centers of German cultural life, with
magnificent private dwellings, streets well paved and illuminated at night,
a recently opened municipal library, a majestic town hall, and a vibrant
social life. Outside its massive town walls were elegant tree-lined
promenades and extensive formal gardens. The old-established university
drew scholars and men of distinction from far and wide, and the famous book
trade contributed much to the cultural life of the city. One of Leipzig’s
most important features was its international commerce. When the Leipzig
Trade Fair was in progress, the respectable town was transformed into a
show-ground mixing business with pleasure, and was popular with members of
the Royal Court of Dresden. Many connections were established between
nations on these occasions, and this in turn had a beneficial effect on the
civic economy and culture as well as the international variety of its
Bach moved to Leipzig on May 22, 1723, where for the remaining 27 years of
his life he was to live and work as Cantor, or Directore Chori Musici
Lipsiensis – Director of Choir and Music in Leipzig. He would have known
the town from previous visits, as he had come, for instance, in December
1717 to test the large new organ (53 stops) in the University Church, the
Paulinerkirche, just completed by the Leipzig organ builder Johann Scheibe.
Despite the Leipzig Council’s almost disrespectful reticence in appointing
him, Bach’s arrival was clearly a major event in the musical and social
world, and one North German newspaper described it in great detail: “Last
Saturday at noon, four carts laden with goods and chattels belonging to the
former Capellmeister to the Court of Cthen arrived in Leipzig and at two
in the afternoon, he and his family arrived in two coaches and moved into
their newly decorated lodgings in the school building”. The Bach family at
that time comprised his wife and four children, of eight, nine, twelve and
fourteen years of age. May 31, 1723, marked the inaugural ceremony for the
new Capellmeister with the customary speeches and anthems, putting an end
to six unsettled months for the city in filling the post.
The school of St Thomas was situated on the western wall of the town, not
far from the imposing Pleissenburg fortress with its large tower on the
south-western corner of the town wall. The school had around 60 boarders,
aged between 11 and early 20s, and provided the choirs for at least four
city churches. These boarders were mainly from deprived backgrounds and
were maintained at the school on a charitable basis, and they also
occasionally had to sing outdoors at funerals and in the city streets for
Bach’s apartment in the school was divided between the ground floor and
the next two floors. From the window of his study (Componierstube) on the
first upper floor of the Thomasschule, Bach would look out west over the
town wall, to a magnificent view of the surrounding gardens, fields and
meadows, a view about which Goethe later wrote “When I first saw it, I
believed I had come to the Elysian Fields”. Adjacent to the Thomas Schule
was the narrow St Thomas gate (Thomaspfrtchen) set in the town wall with a
small bridge over the town’s moat leading to a popular walk bordered with
lime trees which followed the town wall between the moat and the Pleisse
river. Along here were some of the eight Leipzig garden Coffee-houses
situated outside the town, where much of the musical life of the city took
place during the summer. Indeed the city was nicknamed ‘Athens on the
Pleisse’, and offered many attractions for the summer holiday-makers in its
well cared-for parks and pleasure gardens beside the river Pleisse and its
idyllic surrounding countryside.
Though contemporary newspaper reports stated that the incoming Cantor’s
apartments were “newly renovated”, the building itself, dating from 1553,
was however, in a somewhat dilapidated condition; discipline was
practically non-existent, the staff quarreled among themselves, and the
living conditions were unhealthy. Parents were unwilling to send their
children to a school where illness amongst the pupils was so prevalent, and
consequently, there were only 54 scholars out of a possible 120.
The Cantor’s duties were to organize the music in the four principal
churches of Leipzig, and to form choirs for these churches from the pupils
of the Thomasschule. He was also to instruct the more musically talented
scholars in instrument playing so that they might be available for the
church orchestra, and to teach the pupils Latin (which Bach quickly
delegated to a junior colleague).
Out of the 54 boys at Bach’s disposal for use in the different choirs, he
stated, ’17 are competent, 20 not yet fully, and 17 incapable’. The best
singers were selected to form the choir which sang the Sunday cantata; one
week at the Thomaskirche, the other week at the Nikolaikirche. A ‘second’
choir, of the same size but less ability, would sing at the church without
the cantata. The ‘third’ choir of even less ability at the Petrikirche, the
‘fourth’ at the Neuekirche.
The orchestra used for the cantatas consisted of up to 20 players. The
city had, for a century or more, maintained a Town Band (stdtisches
Orchester) consisting of four wind players and four string players. It may
be assumed by the presence of the near-legendary Gottfried Reicha among
them both as wind and string player, and after 1719 their “senior”, that
they were players of a high standard. Surprisingly perhaps to present-day
readers, they were expected to be proficient in the violin, reed, flute and
brass families. They were under the control of the Thomaskantor.
Bach would certainly have taken steps early on to ensure that the
instruments used wee in top condition. We know that the stringed
instruments used were maintained during the 1730s, and several of them
built, by the celebrated Leipzig instrument maker (and Court Lute-maker) J
C Hoffmann (Hoffmann’s instruments are still in possession of and played in
the Thomaskirche today). Hoffmann incidentally also built a viola pomposa,
a tenor of the violin family, to Bach’s orders.
Music-making was a popular pastime, and the regular concerts at
Zimmerman’s Coffee House and other musical venues would indicate that there
were no doubt musicians in the town who could be invited to attend in the
gallery for church performances. Thus it may be assumed that Bach could
count on a fairly professional orchestra. Bach’s many arias featuring oboe
obbligato attest to the presence of a good oboist among the town’s wind
players (possibly Reicha himself?). Viola and violin obbligati Bach would
normally play himself. It is highly unlikely that there was either a
chamber organ or a harpsichord in the gallery – the main organ being used
exclusively. The wealth and complexity of instrumentation in Bach’s
cantatas is evidence itself that musicianship of a high standard was not
hard for him to obtain. His sons and pupils would also have participated,
together with visiting musicians happy no doubt to have the honor of
performing under the direction of the now famous Herr Bach.
In Leipzig there was none of the aristocratic ease of the Court of Cthen,
where Bach could make music as and when he liked; here he had to keep
strictly to his duties within the organized life of church and school.
Singing classes were held from 9 to 12 am on Mondays, Tuesdays and
Wednesdays. On Thursdays the Cantor was free, on Friday he taught in the
morning. Rehearsals for the Sunday Cantatas took place on Saturday
The Sunday services began at 7a.m, with a motet, hymns, and an organ
voluntary. The cantata, usually lasting about 20 minutes, preceded the hour-
long sermon, or if the cantata was in two parts, it came before and after
the sermon. The main service finished at about mid-day, after which there
followed a communion service.
There were also week-day services for Bach to superintend at the four
churches, also in one of the ancient hospitals and in a ‘house of
correction’. Although these services were simple and required only a few
hymns, the Cantor had to organize a group of about nine singers to work on
a rota system. Apart from this, he had to attend and compose music for
funerals and various other occasions. Bach also took a lively interest in
the divine services at the University church, the Paulinerkirche. It was
only after he had conducted eleven services up till Christmas 1725, that he
discovered that the Cantor of Leipzig was no longer officially director of
music in the University church, this position being given to the moderately
talented organist of the Nikolaikirche. A long dispute between Bach and the
authorities arose over this, and it was only after he had appealed to the
Elector of Saxony at Dresden that a compromise was reached.
Bach nonetheless performed his duties as required, pursuing during these
early years his long-held objective of providing a complete set of cantatas
for every Sunday corresponding to the liturgical year. This self-imposed
task was largely completed during his first 5 years, after which he
produced cantatas with less regularity.
It may sometimes appear to listeners enjoying Bach’s cantatas today, that
some of the arias are – well – perhaps a little less imaginative than might
be expected from such a great master. That this is in fact the case may be
explained by recalling the educational customs of Bach’s time. Much stress
was placed on “learning by doing” – by copying or transcribing works of the
masters, by copying part-scores for performances, by working out continuo
parts… and by composing simpler recitatives and arias for performance. It
should also be recalled that any duties enumerated as part of a titular
position were to be fulfilled, but not necessarily by the incumbent
personally. Bach’s position for example required him to provide instruction
in Latin, which he did by delegation. Delegation was an accepted means of
fulfilling obligations, and was also seen as means of instructing the more
gifted pupils. While Bach did in fact delegate the composition of some
recitatives and arias to his pupils, he would always set the tone by
composing an opening chorus reflecting the scriptural theme of the week. In
the case of more important occasions he would compose the entire cantata
himself. The listener can usually be sure of Bach’s personal authorship of
a particular aria or recitative when it bears Bach’s “signature” –
accompaniment scored for strings, rather than simple figured bass.
One particularly special performance of a work by Bach was recorded in
some detail: the cantata known as the Trauerode, BWV 198.
In 1697, the Elector Augustus of Saxony assumed the Polish crown, a step
that obliged him to adopt the Roman Catholic faith. His wife, Christiane
Eberhardine, preferred her Lutheranism to her husband, however, so she
renounced the throne and lived apart from him until her death on September
6th, 1727, an event which was deeply mourned in strongly Lutheran Saxony.
Two weeks later, one Hans von Kirchbach, a nobleman student at the
University of Leipzig, proposed to organize a memorial service in the
Paulinerkirche during which he would deliver a valedictory address. Von
Kirchbach commissioned a sometime librettist of Bach’s, Johann Christoph
Gottsched, to write verses for a mourning ode, and Bach to set these verses
to music. A difficulty arose, however, because of the fact that Von
Kirchbach’s choice of composer ignored the director of music at the
University Church, Herr Grner, who as Bach’s protocol senior would
ordinarily have supplied the music for a University function of this sort.
Grner protested, and Kirchbach was required to pay him twelve thalers in
compensation. Bach was then granted permission to compose the Ode, albeit
with a reprimand that he was not thereafter “to assume the right to compose
music for academic festivals.” The permission came on October 12th, but
Bach must have had Gottsched’s text a few days before. In any case, the
score was finished on the15th, just two days before the performance. A
great catafalque bearing the Queen’s emblems stood in the center of the
crowded church, and the service began with the ringing of all the bells of
the city. Kirchbach delivered his oration after the second chorus.
According to the program, the Ode was “set by Herr Bach in the Italian
style.” Herr Bach conducted the performance from a harpsichord, among the
musicians in the gallery.
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LEIPZIG 2: 1729-1740 – The Collegium Musicum
Much is often made in current biographical notes, of Bach’s disputes with
the Council. When fuller, more detailed and more recent research is taken
into account these records may perhaps give an unbalanced picture of Bach’s
life there at that time. There is no doubt whatsoever that he was widely
respected as a composer, musician, teacher, organist, and specialist in
organ construction. This respect was to grow steadily, as Bach’s reputation
widened, and as he gained the official title of Court Composer to the
Dresden Court – the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. This comfortable
security of position combined with the fact that Bach had established,
during his first six or seven years’ tenure, a more than sufficient
repertoire of cantatas (it has been suggested that he composed in total
some 300), allowed him to widen his musical scope of activity.
Bach would now begin to devote more time to activities outside Leipzig; to
examine for musical appointments, to advise on organ building, to lend
support from time to time to such private establishments as at Cthen and
Weienfels, where he was honorary Capellmeister from 1729-1736. In
particular, Bach had become famous, not only as an organist and
improvisator, but as an expert in organ construction. As a result he was
frequently asked to advise on new organ specifications and to test newly
completed instruments with a thorough and detailed examination and report,
as was the custom of the time.
Bach developed a close working relationship with his contemporary, the
celebrated Saxon organ-builder Gottfried Silbermann, who was also a
personal friend of the Bach family and godfather to Carl Philipp Emmanuel.
Bach may well have played any number of Silbermann’s instruments, almost
all of which were located in Saxony. In 1733 Bach petitioned the Elector of
Saxony in Dresden for an official title, enclosing copies of the Kyrie and
Gloria from the b-minor Mass; though unsuccessful, Bach tried again this
time with the backing of his Dresden patron Count von Keyserlingk.
Thereafter he received the title, and signed himself as Dresden
Hofcompositeur. By way of acknowledgment Bach presented a two-hour recital
on the new Silbermann organ in the Frauenkirche (tragically destroyed in
the Second World War and now being actively rebuilt).
It is on record that the Council reprimanded Bach in August 1730 for
leaving his teaching duties in the overworked hands of his junior
colleague, Petzold; for not properly disciplining his choirs, and for his
frequent unauthorized journeys away from Leipzig. Bach did not try to
justify himself, which further annoyed the Council, and so they attempted
to diminish his income. This drove Bach to write to his school-friend
Erdmann in Danzig, asking him to find him a ‘convenient post’ where he
could escape the ‘trouble, envy and persecution’ which he had perpetually
to face in Leipzig.
The city would have lost Bach if his friend Gesner had not intervened on
his behalf. Gesner had just taken over the post of headmaster at the
Thomasschule after the death in 1729 of the former headmaster, and he used
his influence to settle the situation between Bach and the authorities, and
to secure him better working conditions. The 1730s was a great period of
new building and urban improvement in Leipzig and between May 1730 and June
1732 alterations and improvements were made to the Thomasschule buildings,
including the addition of two upper floors and some exterior “restyling”.
Bach’s own accommodations were much improved in the process. The choral
forces were much diminished during this period and so Bach produced a
number of solo cantatas. The school buildings were reopened on June 5, 1732
with a dedicatory cantata BWV Anhang 18. At the opening speech, Gesner
stressed the need for music within the foundation – which must have given
Bach some hope for a brighter future in the school.
Unfortunately however, Gesner left Leipzig in 1733 to take up an
appointment as professor at the University of Gttingen. His successor was
Johann August Ernesti, 29 years old, a former senior member of the
Thomasschule staff. Ernesti had entirely new ideas on education: Classics
and Theology were out of date, and there must be more stress on subjects
that would be useful in secular life. This led to disputes with Bach who
particularly wanted more time to train his choirs and musicians.
This renewal of the old disputes with the school and church authorities
must have been a considerable discouragement for Bach; in any case it is
apparent that from then on he appeared less and less eager to provide the
Council with church music. Salvation came however in the form of the
Collegium Musicum; when Bach became its permanent director in 1729 he began
to receive official recognition of the high regard in which he was
generally held. It is worth examining the activities of this musical group
in some detail as it gives a closeup view of everyday cultural life in the
Leipzig of the 1730s.
In Bach’s time, the city of Leipzig already had an established tradition
of Collegia Musica – secular musical organizations, run mainly by the
students of the city’s famed university – dating back at least to the
middle of the preceding century, if not its beginning. Many of Leipzig’s
most famous musicians were connected with the students’ musical activities
(among them several Thomaskantors) and contributed music of the highest
quality. Various such groups came and went. At the beginning of the1700s,
two new ones – which were to enjoy a comparatively long existence – were
founded by two young men at the University who were eventually to number
among the most celebrated composers of their time. One was established in
1702 by the redoubtable Georg Philipp Telemann; the other was begun six
years later, by Johann Friedrich Fasch. Fasch’s group ultimately fell to
the direction of Johann Gottlieb Grner, the director of music at the
University and a constant musical rival of Bach’s. After Telemann left
Leipzig the leadership of his Collegium was taken by Balthasar Schott, the
In the spring of 1729, Schott moved to a new position in Gotha, and Bach
took over directorship of the Collegium.
The story of Bach’s Collegium Musicum is closely bound to a Leipzig
coffeeshop-proprietor named Gottfried Zimmermann. The concerts were given
on Zimmermann’s premises, probably under his auspices. During the winter,
the group played every Friday night, from 6 to 8pm, in Zimmermann’s coffee
house on the Catherine Strasse, centrally placed close to the Marktplatz.
In the warmer months, the music was moved outdoors, to Zimmermann’s coffee
garden “in front of the Grimma gate, on the Grimma stone road” – so the
address is given in contemporary reports, with summer performances on
Wednesdays, from 4 to 6pm.
That Gottfried Zimmerman was not only a restaurateur and impresario, but
also a music-lover and quite possibly a competent musician, is indicated by
the fact, as confirmed by several contemporary newspaper reports, that he
frequently re-equipped his establishment with the latest musical
instruments for use by the Collegium and other musical guests. One of his
prize possessions in the late 1720s was “a clavcymbel of large size and
range of expressivity” which was a Leipzig attraction in itself. It was
replaced by an ‘even finer instrument’ in 1733. German harpsichords were
larger and fuller in tone than their Italian and French contemporaries,
offering a much wider range of sound. The new instrument would certainly
have had two, possibly three manuals, and may have been the work of the
famous Hamburg builder Hass similar to his 1740 I instrument with three
manuals and five choirs of strings (2′, 4′, 8′, 8′ and 16′). There may well
have been a separate organ-type pedalboard.
Two types of concerts were given: ordinaire and extraordinaire. The former
were the standard performances; the latter were for special celebrations
(king’s birthdays and the like), and were usually marked by elaborate
festive cantatas, with trumpets and drums in full splendor. (Bach adapted
many of these works into church pieces; the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248,
for example, is made up largely of such adaptations). About the regular
concerts we know less; the Leipzig newspapers, in general, only announced
the extraordinaire events. Presumably, instrumental music was heard,
ranging from clavier solos through sonatas to orchestral works. It was
doubtless here that Bach’s concerti for one or several harpsichords
received their performances, many of these having been adapted from earlier
(eg violin) concertos, or from concertos by other composers (eg Vivaldi).
Occasionally, too, vocal music might be given; such an example is the
Coffee Cantata, BWV 211, first presented in 1732. It is also on record that
works of Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Locatelli, Albinoni and others were
Admission was charged for the extraordinaire concerts, and also for those
occasional “special concerts” (Sonder-konzerte) which featured
distinguished visiting artists. The regular concerts were probably free.
These concerts were serious events, given outside of the regular coffee
shop hours, and were thus not merely an ornament to the usual culinary
attractions. The performances of the Collegium were, in fact, hardly
different from what we consider to be normal concert procedure today.
Indeed, the word “concert” began to be used expressly in connection with
the Collegium during its later years.
The schedule of weekly performances, the composition of new works,
rehearsing them, arranging programs, etc., reveals that the Collegium
Musicum was no mere diversion for Bach. The fact is that this was, for much
of his later life, his central artistic activity, the church becoming
almost peripheral. In the years with the Collegium Bach satisfied a side of
himself that certainly must have lain dormant since the happy and fruitful
period at Cthen. He remained its director from 1729 until the death of
Gottfried Zimmermann in 1741.
Bach also enjoyed visits, often with his son Wilhelm Friedemann, to
Dresden, where he would meet with friends in the Court Orchestra and
perhaps visit the Opera. On one occasion he called upon his patron Count
von Keyserlingk, whom he presented with the set of variations now known as
the Goldberg variations after the count’s harpsichordist.
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LEIPZIG 3: 1744-1750 – The Introspective Years
During the latter years of his life Bach gradually withdrew inwards,
producing some of the most profound statements of baroque musical form.
In his own much improved apartments of the newly rebuilt Thomasschule Bach
would welcome visiting musicians from all over Germany and many other
countries. His son Carl-Phillip Emanuel was to write that “no musician of
any consequence passing through Leipzig would fail to call upon my father”.
No doubt they and some of his sons would enjoy a private concert in Bach’s
large music-room, perhaps featuring concertos for 2, 3 or 4 harpsichords,
for Bach kept six claviers and many other instruments.
In 1747, on his way to visit his daughter-in-law in Berlin who was
expecting her second child to his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel, Bach stopped
at Potsdam after two weary days of traveling. Here he had been invited to
attend at the Royal Palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, where
his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel was also employed as Court Harpsichordist.
On Bach’s arrival, Frederick was about to begin his evening concert, in
which he himself played the flute with the orchestra, when he was given the
list of people who had arrived at Court. Laying down his flute, he said to
his orchestra, ‘Gentlemen, old Bach is here’. He cancelled his evening
concert and invited Bach straight up to try his new fortepianos built by
Bach’s organ-builder colleague and friend Gottfried Silbermann. The King
owned several of these instruments, located in different rooms. After Bach
had played on all the different instruments, moving with the King and
musicians from room to room, Bach invited the King to give him a theme on
which to improvise; Bach of course rose to the occasion, improvising at
length and with amazing skill. On his return to Leipzig, to show his
gratitude for the excellent reception he had received at Potsdam, Bach
developed the King’s theme into a sequence of complex contrapuntal
movements, added a sonata for violin and flute (Frederick being a flute-
player), entitled the whole ‘A Musical Offering’ and sent it to the Court
with a letter of dedication.
On the day following the musical evening, a royal procession made its way
around Potsdam, as Bach was invited to play on all the city’s organs.
Bach then became a member of the Mitzler society, a learned society
devoted to the promotion of musical science, whose members were expected on
joining to display some token of their learning. Bach’s opening
contribution was a set of canonic variations on the Christmas hymn, ‘Vom
In these last years of his life, Bach’s creative energy was conserved for
the highest flights of musical expression: the Mass in b minor, the Canonic
Variations, the Goldberg Variations, and of course the Musical Offering
displaying the art of canon. His last great work is the complete summary of
all his skill in counterpoint and fugue; methods which he perfected, and
beyond which no composer has ever been able to pass. This work is known to
us as ‘Die Kunst der Fuge’ (‘The Art of the Fugue’, BWV 1080).
Bach had overworked in poor light throughout his life, and his eyesight
now began to fail him. The Leipzig Council started looking around as early
as June 1749 for a successor. On the advice of friends, Bach put himself in
the hands of a visiting celebrated English ophthalmic specialist, John
Taylor (who also operated on Handel) and who happened to be passing through
Leipzig. Two cataract operations were performed on his eyes, in March and
Apri1 1750, and their weakening effect was aggravated by a following
infection which seriously undermined his health.
He spent the last months of his life in a darkened room, revising his
great chorale fantasias (BWV 651-668) with the aid of Altnikol, his pupil
and son-in-law. It was in these circumstances that he composed his last
chorale fantasia, based fittingly on the chorale “Before Thy Throne O Lord
I Stand”. He was also working on a fugue featuring the subject B-A-C-H (B
in German notation is B flat, while H in German notation = B natural). He
had often been asked why he had not exploited this theme before, and had
indicated that, despite its thematic possibilities, he would consider it
arrogant to do so. Appropriately, perhaps intentionally, it was left
unfinished at his death. (This incomplete fugue, normally appended to the
Art of the Fugue in performances, has no discernible connection with the
Art of the Fugue, though the Art of Fugue theme can be made to fit, as
Gustav Nottebohm pointed out in 1880.) The last great Triple Fugue of the
Art (Contrapunctus XI) may also have been written during his final days.
Then, on the morning of the 28th of July, 1750, he woke up to find he
could bear strong light again, and see quite clearly.
That same day he had a stroke, followed by a severe fever. He died ‘in the
evening, after a quarter to nine, in the sixty-fifth year of his life,
yielding up his blessed soul to his savior’.
Bach was buried in St John’s Cemetery which stood one block outside the
town’s Grimma Gate in the early morning of July 31, and in the absence of
any tombstone his grave was soon forgotten.
When St John’s Church was rebuilt in 1894 a few Leipzig scholars and Bach
admirers succeeded in having what were believed to be the composer’s bones
exhumed. Partial identification was established by a series of anatomical
and other tests. The bones were laid to rest in a stone sarcophagus next to
the poet Gellert in the vaults of the Johanniskirche, and many people went
to pay homage to this tomb until the church was destroyed by bombs in WW2.
Once more his remains were rescued and in 1949 buried, this time in the
altar-room of the Thomaskirche where they remain to this day.
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Our favorite portrait of Bach is the wonderful Altersbild – Portrait in
Old Age. We feel it is more accurate than the more frequently seen work of
Elias Haussmann. Click to view!
Johann Sebastian BACH: Portrait in Old Age
Bach’s Life Story in Pictures – contemporary color illustrations
Bach’s Leipzig in pictures: 1725-50 – b/w engravings
The Trauerode – Mourning Ode for Queen Christiana
illustrated story, full cantata text, and music samples.
View an early 19th century illustration of the
Royal Palace of King Frederick the Great at Potsdam
More on Gottfried Silbermann, organ builder
More on Gottfried Silbermann’s fortepianos
Johann Sebastian Bach:
. Bach Central Station
. An Illustrated Tour of Bach’s Homeland
BAROQUE COMPOSERS & MUSICIANS
to see this composer in geographical and historical context
A BAROQUE MUSIC SAMPLER
to hear samples of his music.
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