It goes without saying that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is one of the greatest composers of all time, so it’s surprising that his music was considered old-fashioned and didn’t receive the appreciation it deserved while he was alive. Few of his works were published during his lifetime as he was primarily known as a brilliantly talented organist.
Still, his compositions were admired by several prominent composers including Mozart and Beethoven, but it wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Berlin that there was a renewed interest in Bach’s compositions.
Let’s delve into the fascinating life of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685, Bach was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Back and Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. He hailed from a family of talented musicians stretching back several generations, and his father worked as the town musician. Although Bach’s musical education during his early childhood is not really known for sure, it’s thought his siblings taught him basic music theory after he was introduced to the organ by one of his uncles, and his father may have taught his young son the violin and harpsichord.
Sadly, in 1695 when Bach was nine, both his parents died within a year of each other and he went to live with his brother, Johann Christoph. Christoph was a church organist and provided some further musical education and enrolled him at school, where he did well.
Bach had a beautiful soprano singing voice which earned him a scholarship at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg in 1700. However, this didn’t last long as his voice broke, so he switched to playing the violin and harpsichord. Being influenced by local organist, George Böhm, he became a proficient organist and landed his first job as a musician at the Court of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar in 1703.
Bach held many prestigious positions during his lifetime, however he was often an arrogant employee.
In his first position as an organist at Arnstadt where he was responsible for providing music for religious services, Bach was dissatisfied with the choir and scolded by officials for not rehearsing them enough. Given a few weeks leave, Bach decided to extend his leave without telling officials in Arnstadt.
In his next position as an organist at the Church of St. Blaise in Mühlhausen, Bach again clashed with his employer. His style of complex musical arrangements was not appreciated by the church pastor who desired more simple church music.
His next position as organist at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst In Weimar seemed to go well. During his time at Weimar he began a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works writing “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”. But after several years he fell out of favour with the Duke and accepted a position with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. However, Duke Wilhelm Ernst was not happy with this and imprisoned him for several weeks before he was released!
While at Cöthen, Bach devoted much of his time to composing. Here he wrote a series of concertos in tribute to the Duke of Brandenburg (the “Brandenburg Concertos”) and are some of his greatest works.
From here Bach took a new position as an organist and teacher at St Thomas Church and stayed here until his death. New music was needed for services each week and Bach threw himself into writing cantatas and musical interpretations of the Bible.
By all accounts, Bach was a devoted to his family and had a total of 20 children, however only 10 survived into adulthood.
In 1706, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. The couple had seven children together, some of whom died as infants. Maria died in 1720 while Bach was traveling and the following year, he married a singer named Anna Magdalena Wülcken. They had thirteen children, more than half of them died as children.
In his later years he struggled with his eyesight and tried to have it rectified by having surgery twice, but it left him completely blind (Bach used the same surgeon that also left Handel blind). Four months later, Bach passed away after having a stroke on 28 July 1750 however it is speculated that he died from complications due to the operation on his eyes.
Although Bach was primarily known as a talented organist during his lifetime, he was admired for his keyboard work and influenced several prominent composers’ styles. Beethoven described him as “Urvater der Harmonie”, the “original father of harmony”.
After the renewed interest in Bach’s work in the mid-19th century, the Bach Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded to promote the works. In 1899 the Society published a comprehensive edition of the composer’s works, and during the 20th century his works have continued to receive the recognition and admiration they deserve.
Bach was a man who lived a full life. He was arrogant, adored his family, and experienced all the highs and tragedies of life. Amongst it all, he was a brilliantly talented organist and composer.