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 fifteen, 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, and 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 for 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 polyphony 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.