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Biography of Johann Sebastian Bach

Biography of Johann Sebastian Bach

Biography of a great musician and composer, who enthralled audiences with his symphonic vibrancy and left them amazed. Johann Sebastian Bach, a name that every organist and violinist wanted to be associated with during the Baroque period.
Sonal Panse
Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composer-performers of the Baroque Period (1600-1750), was born in Eisenach (Thuringia) in Germany on 21 March 1685. He was the eighth child of Johann Ambrosius Bach and his wife Elizabeth Lammerhirt. The family had a long tradition of music, having been professional town musicians over several generations - so much so that it had become somewhat of a common practice by now to refer to musicians in Eisenach as 'Bachs'. Bach's father was a very high ranking town musician and was a proficient String Player, Piper, and Trumpeter; his mother too came from a musical family - it was a usual practice for families belonging to particular guilds to intermarry within the community. Bach's godfather Sebastian Nagel was a Piper for the town of Gotha and his uncles Johann Michael and Johann Christoph were well-known composers. It was a natural matter of course that young Bach, as soon as he was able, should begin to receive musical instruction.

Bach began his music training under the tutelage of his own father. He was taught to play the violin and the viola, and showed considerable aptitude from the beginning. Possibly he had a happy enough childhood, but that came to an end with the death of his mother in 1694. His father followed barely a year later in 1695 and suddenly the nine year old boy was an orphan. The five younger siblings were parceled off between the many relatives. Bach and his brother Johann Jacob were taken in by their eldest brother Johann Christoph. He was an organist at the Michaeliskirche (St. Michael's church) in the town of Ohrdruf and the boys continued their interrupted training under him. Johann Christoph had been a student of the famous Thuringian organist from Erfurt, Johann Pachelbel, and he was well-qualified to tutor his talented younger brother further in Musical Theory and the Keyboard Instruments of the time - the organ, harpsichord and clavichord. Alongside Bach was also sent to the local school or Lyceum to study Latin and here, since he possessed a remarkable Soprano voice, he was also inducted into the school choir. In the seven years that he lived with his brother, Bach became proficient in all that he was taught and constantly strove to improve and learn new, more difficult music. This state of affairs came to an end in 1700 when it became impossible for his brother, not a rich man, to provide for him any longer.

So, on 15 March 1700, Bach joined up with his school friend Georg Erdmann and the two boys, only fifteen, left their homes and went to Luneberg to study at the Latin School here. The cost of their tuition and living was defrayed by singing in the Mettenchor (matin choir) of the Michaeliskirche and -schule (St. Michael's choir and church). They were also paid a small stipend alongside. This was a great learning period in Bach's musical career. The school didn't just have a long and successful musical tradition, it also boasted an impressive musical library - assembled in a major part by the great Cantor Friedrich Emanuel Praetorius (1623-1695) - that had over 1102 important music manuscripts and prints of the works of over 175 of Germany's greatest composers. Aside from putting the Library to good use, Bach also polished his keyboard skills, taking lessons from the well-respected Organist of the Johanniskirche, Georg Bohm. The latter had a decided inclination for the French musical tradition and this rubbed off unto young Bach. While in Luneberg, Bach also came into contact with the famous Dutchman, Johann Adam Reincken. The 78 year old Reincken was an Organist of the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg, and the story goes that, in the summer of 1701, Bach walked all the way there - some thirty miles from Ohrdruf - just to hear him play, and when he got back he was inspired enough to start improvising himself.

Bach left Luneberg during the Easter of 1702. He was seventeen and had been selected to work as an Organist in the town of Sangerhausen. Unfortunately this appointment fell through - the city administration wanted him, but the Duke, Johann Ernst of Saxony-Weimar, didn't. He appointed someone else and Bach was kept twiddling his thumbs until the Duke decided, well, since this chap is here, I'll take him on as a lackey, he can play the violin in my private chapel. Bach remained here from March 1703 to August 1703, and then - with relief no doubt - took off for Arnstadt.

The very small town of Arnstadt required an Organist for its Neue Kirche - it also had two other churches, the Oberkirche and the Liebfrau-kirche - and Bach fit the bill. It was a terrific opportunity for him - not only was he to receive a very high salary, the church organ was a brand-new, beautifully tuned Wender Organ. Bach, taking the prestige that went with the appointment as only his due, now revealed a somewhat snooty side to his personality. He insisted he was hired only to play the organ and only grudgingly oversaw the practice sessions of the Boys' Choir. He also got into street fights and developed an abiding interest in women. Two years later, in October 1705, he took a four weeks' leave and walked 200 miles to Lubeck to hear the celebrated player Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach was thrilled enough to remain there longer than the agreed four weeks. The aging Buxtehude, on his part impressed with Bach's skills, asked him to stay on permanently and work with him - and Bach just might have, except for the condition that went with it - he had to marry Buxtehude's daughter - she was several years older and perhaps not lovely enough to play first fiddle to his music - Bach declined.

Returning to Arnstadt in mid-January 1706, he found the Church Authorities displeased with him for the over-long vacation and he then proceeded to annoy the congregation as well by subjecting them to some of the new musical ideas he had picked up in Lubeck - 'Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo', 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern', etc. These were not to their provincial tastes, as neither were the romantic escapades he got up to next - not in the privacy of his home, but, good grief, 'with a stranger maid in the church wine cellar during sermons'!

Bach, twenty, lively, and unrepentant, thought the townsfolk were being unnecessarily stuffy and decided to scan the horizon for a place more ventilated. And this is how he came to find employment next in the town of Muhlhausen in June 1707.

Bach became the Organist of Muhlhausen's Blasiuskirche and, although he was to remain only for a year, it was an immensely satisfying period. The Blasiuskirche not only had a rich tradition of vocal music, but an immense library as well. Bach, who hadn't hitherto been very interested in vocals, began composing vocal music now - the famous Muhlhausen cantatas. Also, during this year, Bach received an inheritance from his maternal uncle Tomas Lammerhirt and he celebrated the change in fortune by marrying his second cousin from the paternal side, Maria Barbara Bach. It was a happy time and Bach's reputation grew by leaps and bounds, but Bach was also deeply ambitious and soon felt that his talents deserved a wider exposure than Muhlhausen. So he resigned and went back to Weimar.

He was more warmly received than he had been the last time, and given a double salary, with many perks added, moreover. Bach, satisfied for the moment, remained for nine years, from 1707 to 1717, during which time his children Catharina Dorothea, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Gottfried Bernhard were born. He also composed more Cantatas and his fame began to spread beyond Weimar. It is said that the future King Frederick I of Sweden heard him play and was so moved that he offered him his diamond ring there and then.

Weimar was ruled - and not very amicably - by two Dukes, Wilhem Ernst, and Ernst August, the successor of the formerly mentioned Johann Ernst, and Bach, who was on friendly terms with both, had to manage a tight-rope performance between the two rivals. It was this rivalry that in the end ended his tenure here. Wilhem Ernst forbade him to compose music for Ernst August, and, when Bach wouldn't comply, he refused him a deserving promotion as Capellmeister. Bach, offended, resigned and sought employment with Ernst August's brother-in-law, Leopold von Anhalt-Kothen. He left for Kothen in disgrace and 'without honor', and after having suffered a month-long imprisonment in Wilhem Ernst's jail.

Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Kothen (1694-1728) was a young, fun-loving playboy. He was also an amateur musician, and so impressed with Bach he appointed him as his Capellmeister. The two of them remained on excellent terms and it was here that Bach began composing his famous Brandenburg Concertos.

Then, in 1720, while he was away on a trip with the Prince, Bach's wife died, leaving him with four young children. They had a happy marriage, but Bach wasn't the sort to grieve forever. On 3 December 1721, he married Anna Magdalena, a young soprano at the Court with whom he had probably already been having an affair, and with whom he was subsequently to have twelve children, only four of whom were to survive to adulthood and two of whom, the sons, Johann Christoph Fredrich, and Johan Christian were to become successful musicians and composers.

Shortly after Bach's marriage his patron too wed and perhaps as a consequence became less interested in music - certainly Bach seems to have resented the new Princess Friederike Henriette von Anhalt-Bernburg for her anti-musical stance - which she, to look at things from her perspective, probably only assumed to put a dampener on the wild carousing that went on with the music appreciation.

Feeling the musical atmosphere waning in Kothen, Bach decided he needed a new appointment elsewhere - though he didn't sever relations with his beloved Prince, remaining his honorary Capellmeister until the Prince's untimely death at the young age of 33 in 1728. Anyway, right now in April 1723, he chose to move to Leipzig to assume post as the director of music at the St. Thomas School there. He was to remain in Leipzig from 1723 to 1750, and this was to be his last and longest-lasting appointment. His principal duties were to teach Latin to school boys and to provide music and choirs to the four churches associated with the St. Thomas School - Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche, Peterskirche, and Neue Kirche. As he didn't particularly care to be a Latin Teacher, he hired someone else to do that and concentrated on the music. His Cantata production during this period was prodigious, averaging at almost one Cantata per week and, even astonishing, practically every single one was a master-piece.

In 1729, Bach also became the Director of the Collegium Musicum, a student orchestra that gave weekly public performances at a popular coffee house, Zimmerman's Coffee House. This experience inspired Bach, in 1734-1735, to write his famous Coffee Cantata. The Collegium Musicum later laid the foundation of the Gewandhaus orchestra tradition.

Bach also found time to become a dealer of books, music sheets, and music instruments. He also sought and received appointment as honorary Capellmeister at the Dresden Court. Later, in 1747, he came into contact with the Prussian King Frederick The Great through his son Carl Philip Emanuel who was now employed in the royal court at Potsdam. The King, an amateur Flute Player, received him kindly and gave him a tour of the music instruments in his collection, particularly the latest and very novel Silbermann Pianos. The King then gave Bach a theme to improvise on and this later culminated into the sophisticated 'Musical Offering', a set of pieces all based on the King's theme.

Other works from this last period - the Goldberg Variations, the Peasant Cantata, the Schübler chorales, Mass in B Minor, Vom Himmelhoch da komm' ich her, Kunst der Fuge (left unfinished), Das Wohltemperierte Clavier II, etc.

By the late 1740s, Bach had ceased to take an active role in the St. Thomas School and was suffering from Diabetes Mellitus. He died on 28 July 1750.

References :

The Performing World of the Musician, by Christopher Headington, Published by Hamish Hamilton London, 1981.