Johann expectations of other musicians – for

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Johann Sebastian Bach was one of
the greatest composers in Western musical history. More
than 1,000 of his compositions survive. Some examples are
the Art of Fugue, Brandenburg Concerti, the Goldberg
Variations for Harpsichord, the Mass in B- Minor, the
motets, the Easter and Christmas oratorios, Toccata in F
Major, French Suite No 5, Fugue in G Major, Fugue in G
Minor (“The Great”), St. Matthew Passion, and Jesu Der
Du Meine Seele. He came from a family of musicians.

There were over 53 musicians in his family over a period of
300 years. Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach,
Germany on March 21, 1685. His father, Johann
Ambrosius Bach, was a talented violinist, and taught his son
the basic skills for string playing; another relation, the
organist at Eisenach’s most important church, instructed the
young boy on the organ. In 1695 his parents died and he
was only 10 years old. He went to go stay with his older
brother, Johann Christoph, who was a professional organist
at 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 brother’s tutelage. A master of several
instruments while still in his teens, Johann Sebastian first
found employment at the age of 18 as a “lackey and
violinist” in a court orchestra in Weimar; soon after, he took
the job of organist at a church in Arnstadt. 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 to another organist job, this time at the St.

Blasius Church in Muhlhausen. 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, 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, including
organ showpieces and cantatas. By this stage in his life,
Bach had developed a reputation as a brilliant, if somewhat
inflexible, musical talent. His proficiency on the organ was
unequaled in Europe – in fact, he toured regularly as a solo
virtuoso – and his growing mastery of compositional forms,
like the fugue and the canon, was already attracting interest
from the musical establishment – which, in his day, was the
Lutheran church. But, like many individuals of uncommon
talent, he was never very good at playing the political game,
and therefore suffered periodic setbacks in his career. He
was passed over for a major position – which was
Kapellmeister (Chorus Master) of Weimar – in 1716;
partly in reaction to this snub, he left Weimar the following
year to take a job as court conductor in Anhalt-Cothen.

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There, he slowed his output of church cantatas, and instead
concentrated 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 children 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 –
after it had been turned down by two other composers.

The job was a demanding one; he had to compose cantatas
for the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches, conduct the
choirs, oversee the musical activities of numerous municipal
churches, and teach Latin in the St. Thomas choir school.

Accordingly, he had to get along with the Leipzig church
authorities, which proved rocky going. But he persisted,
polishing the musical component of church services in
Leipzig and continuing 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.

He was creatively active until the very end, even after
cataract problems virtually blinded him in 1740. His last
musical composition, a chorale prelude entitled “Before
They Throne, My God, I Stand”, was dictated to his
son-in-law only days before his death.

Category: Biographies

Categories: Music


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