IX: Johann Sebastian Bach


J. S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was born into the musical family of Bachs in Eisenach in 1685. 1 His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, had held the post of a court trumpeter in Eisenach along with that of head of the town piper band, and according to his household rules, the young Johann Sebastian was trained not only as a clavier player, but on several instruments. From 1693 to 1695 he attended the Lateinschule in Eisenach. In 1694, when he was nine, his mother died, and in 1695, his father. On the death of his father he was taken into the house of his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was organist in Ohrdruf. From 1695 to 1700 he attended the Gymnasium there, and also became a pupil of his brother who had studied with Johann Pachelbel in Erfurt, and (according to the 1754 obituary) 'under his guidance he laid the foundations of his keyboard playing.'

That young Johann Sebastian left Ohrdruf in 1700 is explicable much less by family friction (the obituary relates the cruel story of the 'book full of clavier pieces by the most famous masters of the day,' laboriously copied out by moonlight, which his brother had confiscated) than by the fact that he had to leave the lyceum in Ohrdruf in default of a scholarship on which he, as an orphan, was dependant. Together with his friend Georg Erdmann he went off to Lüneburg, where 'because of his uncommonly beautiful soprano voice' he obtained a place as a matins-pupil (i.e. in the special choir of the choir school of St. Michaelis).

In many respects Lüneburg was a significant station for Bach. For one thing, there for the first time he came into really active contact with the highly developed choir school tradition of a long-famous institution like the Michaeliskloster and was able to get to know the choral repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries. For another, he must have had adequate opportunities to perfect his dexterity in organ-playing, possibly under the guidance of the famous organist at the Johanniskirche in Lüneburg, Georg Böhm: later, in the 1720s, old Böhm had taken care of the distribution of Bach's first printed Partitas. Thirdly, he utilized the time in excursions to the neighboring musical centres of Hamburg and Celle. The obituary relates: 'From Lüneberg he travelled now and again to Hamburg to hear the then famous organist of the Catharinenkirche, Johann Adam Reinken . Here too he had the opportunity, through more frequent hearings of a then famous band maintained by the Duke of Celle, consistIng mainly of Frenchmen, to acquire a thorough grounding in French taste, which in those parts was something quite new at the time.' Last but not least, in Lüneburg Bach brought his academic schooling, which he had begun at the Eisenach grammar school, to a satisfactory conclusion. The scholarly library Bach left behind him provides eloquent witness to his lively and advanced interests at this time, especially in theological literature.

Bach's first, though only brief, professional engagement was as a court violinist in the private band of Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, from March to July 1703.

In August 1705 Bach obtained the appointment as organist at the New Church (Neue Kirche) in Arnstadt, and by then was already esteemed as a renowned organist. commanding a good salary (which was reduced again after his departure). And in the ensuing years he had the opportunity of sharpening his profile as an organ virtuoso. In this connection must be seen his prolonged stay in Lübeck in the winter of 1705/06 -- to the annoyance of the Arnstadt consistory -- for study with Dietrich Buxtehude . For the citizens of Arnstadt the stormy development of their ambitious organist must have been bewildering. The consistory complained 'that he had hitherto made many curious variations in the chorale, and mingled many strange notes in it;' furthermore they deplored that Bach took no interest in the figured music for the choir. This last clearly indicates that Bach in fact quite consciously devoted himself to the purely organistic, and certainly more to playing than to composing, since very few compositions have been preserved from those years.

On taking over the post of organist to the church of St. Blasius in the Free and Imperial city of Mühlhausen in June 1707 one thing in particular was decisively changed as against Arnstadt: Bach developed an interest in composing vocal church music; and his discontent that he did not find sufficient support for the organization of a 'well-regulated church music' (i.e. regular performances of cantatas) led him a year later to tender his premature resignation. The early vocal works reveal how deeply Bach was rooted in the Central German choir school tradition: predominant are the musical forms bound up with the 17th century - the motet, concerted vocal work, strophic aria and chorale, textually confined to the words of the Bible and church hymns. For study purposes he had at that time, in his own words, 'acquired, not without cost, a good store of the choicest church compositions.' Despite this interest in the vocal field, however, even in Mühlhausen keyboard music took pride of place, as emerges not least from the extensive work of reconstruction which he instigated on his organ at Mühlhausen. In the 'project for new repairs' he outlined for this he produced his first expert opinion on organs. As a recognized adviser on organ matters he was also, henceforth, increasingly active as a consultant and tester.

In October 1707, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. Before he death in 1720, she was to bear the sons Wilhelm Friedemann (b. 11/22/1710), Carl Philipp Emanuel (3/8/1714) and Johann Gottfried Bernhard (5/11/1715).

In July 1708 Bach took up the attractive post of court organist in Weimar. He clearly did not leave Mühlhausen on bad terms, for he was still asked in the two following years to write cantatas on the change of the council. But the first years in Weimar were otherwise again devoted entirely to the field of keyboard music. As court organist he was at the same time also court harpsichordist, and consequently was obliged to apply himself wholeheartedly to the harpsichord repertoire. For the first time Bach now also took up teaching: among his first pupils was Johann Tobias Krebs, but soon young Bachs also came to him, like his cousin Johann Lorenz and his nephew Johann Bernhard.

Of great significance for Bach was his encounter with the modern Italian style, to which the Weimar court orchestra began to adapt itself. In particular Vivaldi played a part in this, and Bach's involvement with his work (specifically with his 1712 collection of concertos L'estro armonico ) was immediately reflected in organ transcriptions. A thoroughly worked out setting for the outer voices with concise and unified thematic material and a clearly articulated plan of modulation, which is typical of Vivaldi, from then on remained an essential element in Bach's style of composition. This adoption was indeed coupled with complex counterpoint, distinct and lively texture of middle voices and harmonic finesse, and thus was elevated to a highly characteristic and idiosyncratic level.

The years 1713/14 form a definite turning-point in Bach's Weimar period: he inclined towards independent activity, and therefore applied to succeed Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, Handel's teacher, as organist of the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle. He submitted a test (probably the cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21) and was elected in December 1713. With this entry Bach unquestionably exploited to the full the possibilities of composition of larger concerted works. Already in early 1713, during a guest appearance at the court of Weissenfels, he had performed his Hunting Cantata (BWV 208), in which for the first time he made systematic use in a vocal work of elements of Italian style, particularly recitative. This kind of composition must have been very stimulating to him; so it was understandable that he should accept a counter-offer from the court of Weimar and refuse the post in Halle. In March 1714 namely he obtained the appointment of Konzertmeister while retaining his position as court organist. With that promotion, along with a considerable increase in salary, went above all the responsibility of 'performing new works monthly.' By this was meant the regular composition and performance of cantatas, a task to which Bach applied himself in the following years with great zeal. There now arose a series of some thirty cantatas of the modern kind (i.e. with free verse texts as the essential basis for the composition of recitatives and da capo arias, which are entirely lacking from the early cantatas). Moreover, to this period belongs a larger Passion music, which has however not been preserved. Alongside vocal works Bach was also busy with keyboard music. Towards the end of his Weimar period, at all events, the greater part of his organ works was completed, as well as a considerable part of his harpsichord compositions. Certainly Bach also wrote at this time a series of orchestral and chamber music works, though nothing has been preserved of them except in the form of later adaptations (like, perhaps, the 1st and 6th Brandenburg Concertos ). Outstanding among the instrumental works is the Orgelbüchlein, a collection of organ chorales in novel formats, in which the cantus firmi, combined with striking themes, were woven in elaborate counterpoint into highly expressive movements.

Bach was at the peak of his mastery, and it is therefore not to be wondered at that Johann Mattheson , in the earliest reference in print to Bach, commented: 'I have seen things by the famous organist of Weimar, Herr Joh. Sebastian Bach, both for the church [i.e. cantatas] and for the hand [i.e. keyboard music] that are certainly such as must make one esteem the man highly' ( Das Beschützte Orchestre, Hamburg 1717). In the year 1717 also occurred the contest in improvisation with the French virtuoso Louis Marchand at the court of Dresden, in which Bach was brilliantly victorious (in fact the competition never took place because Marchand refused to participate). So it is only understandable that Bach must have felt himself neglected in the appointment for the post of court Capellmeister in Weimar on the death of Johann Samuel Drese (Drese's son received the appointment). He accepted an equivalent offer from the court of Cöthen and left Weimar in anger, after a month's arrest 'for his stubborn forcing of the issue of his discharge.'

From mid-December 1717 in Cöthen Bach was completely absorbed in his new sphere of work as Capellmeister to the prince's court, under an intelligent ruler who was a musical enthusiast. The emphasis of his work lay in the instrumental field, now principally in the sector of orchestral and chamber music. For this he relied on a picked ensemble largely consisting of Berlin musicians, with which it was possible to play the finest and most difficult pieces. Early in 1719 he procured from Berlin a new large harpsichord, which then was presented at the court in the 5th Brandenburg Concerto. He produced concertos for all kinds of instrumentation, over and above the conventional, but also accompanied and unaccompanied solo works, particularly for violin, violoncello and viola da gamba. In addition he composed two major keyboard works, the Inventionen und Sinfonien and the first part of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Vocal music plainly fell behind, although he wrote various occasional works, of which however only the texts have been preserved.

What made Bach apply in 1720 for the post of organist at St. Jacobi in Hamburg is not immediately clear, in view of his extremely favorable conditions in Cöthen. Probably what attracted him was the famous four-manual Schnitger organ of 1689-93 (Bach had hitherto never had a really large and fine instrument at his disposal), and possibly also the prospect of working with the renowned cantata-poet Erdmann Neumeister, who as principal minister of the St. Jacobi church was among the supporters of Bach's application. This was unsuccessful, however, despite Bach's enthusiastically received organ concerts, since the application was bound up with a not inconsiderable contribution to the church funds. Another, and perhaps the deciding, reason for moving away from Cöthen may be looked for in the domestic tragedy which befell Bach in the summer of 1720, a few months before his journey to Hamburg. While, with the court orchestra, he was entertaining his prince, who was taking the waters in Carlsbad, his wife Maria Barbara, whom he had married in 1707 and who was the mother of his later famous sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, died. However, a year later he found a new life-partner in the court singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke. From this marriage, contracted in December 1721, later issued the two other great sons, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian .

The reasons for Bach's move to Leipzig were that circumstances at the court of Cöthen had changed for him through the prince's marriage to an unmusical princess, and that Bach was concerned about the possibilities of education for his growing children, although he 'initially did not consider it at all seemly for a Capellmeister to become a Cantor.' He was selected in April 1723 as successor to Johann Kuhnau , after Georg Philipp Telemann had declined and Johann Christoph Graupner was not released from the court of Darmstadt. Previously, on Quinquagesima Sunday, he had performed in the Thomaskirche his musical test, for which he had written the two cantatas Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23) and Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (BWV 22). His Leipzig post made a twofold claim on him: as "Cantor zu St. Thomae" he was responsible for the musical education of the pupils of the Thomasschule (from giving Latin lessons to whom he was later exempted) and for the musical supervision of the four principal churches of Leipzig; and as 'Director musices' he was the senior musician of the city and answerable for the musical organization of official occasions like council elections and homage ceremonies. Bach moved to Leipzig in May, and on the 30th of that month, the first Sunday after Trinity, performed in the Nicolaikirche 'his first music here, to great approval' (the cantata Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75). With this Bach began an artistic undertaking on the largest scale: in the ensuing years he wrote a cantata for, almost every Sunday and church holiday, until he had altogether five complete yearly runs. There were interruptions in this immense process of creation only when he fell back on other works or compositions by others. Embedded in the great continuity of the annual series of cantatas are also found the two great Passions according to St. John (1724) and St. Matthew (1729). The Matthew Passion forms a climax, yet at the same time also the conclusion, of the first Leipzig phase, which was spent entirely in the sphere of choirschool music. In the approximately twenty years remaining he could in the main draw on the accumulated fund of vocal music through repeat performances. New works for ecclesiastical use arose only in a relatively limited range, including nevertheless compositions such as the Christmas Oratorio and the Masses.

In March 1729 Bach assumed the direction of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, founded in his time by Telemann : it was an association of professional musicians and students which each week (more frequently at the time of the Fair) held public concerts. These Collegia Musica played a significant role in the beginnings of middle-class musical culture and public concert life, and in the trade metropolis of Leipzig Bach, with his distinguished ensemble, was not left out. With only a short interruption from 1737 to 1739 Bach retained his directorship until the early 1740s. Unfortunately we know nothing of the programs of the 'ordinary' weekly concerts, which took place in winter on Friday evenings from 8 until 10 o'clock in the Zimmermann coffee-house, and in summer on Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 6 in the coffee-garden 'in front of the Grimmische Tor.' But Bach's Collegium Musicum would have chiefly played works by their director, including overtures, sinfonias, concertos, duo-sonatas and trio-sonatas. Certainly the concertos for one or more harpsichords (remoulded from Cöthen works), which Bach played with his sons and pupils as soloists, belong here. About the occasional "extraordinary concerts" we are better informed. There were presented most of the large secular cantatas such as, for example, the homage and birthday pieces for the ruling house of Saxony. Work with his Collegium Musicum must often have been, for Bach, a welcome diversion from the difficulties which loomed up in the church music field and of which neither the school authorities nor the city council showed any real understanding. His position was indeed considerably improved by his nomination as court composer to the King of Poland and the Elector of Saxony in 1736 (as a consequence of his dedication of the Kyrie and Gloria of the B minor Mass in 1755 to the king in Dresden) ; yet this removed no problems from his path, as for example the long-smouldering dispute about the prefects, in which Bach insisted on his right to appoint the leader of the school choral group himself.

Beside his Leipzig public functions, Bach turned increasingly to private interests. Thus he not infrequently went off on concert tours, which took him several times to Dresden and Berlin, among other places. From 1727 he busied himself above all with the publication of his harpsichord and organ works: this was ultimately due to his wide reputation as a clavier virtuoso. In 1731 he was able to open the series of the Clavier-Übungen with his "opus 1" (Six Partitas ). A second part followed in 1735 ( Italian Concerto, French Overture ), and a third in 1739 (Mass and Catechism chorales etc. for organ) ; then about 1742 the last (Goldberg Variations ). These publications were later concluded with the Musical Offering (1747), the canonic work Vom Himmel hoch (1747), the Schübler Chorale s (1748?) and the unfinished Art of Fugue (which appeared in 1751). Beside these publications there still came into being, around 1740, the second part of the Well-Tempered Clavier. From all this industry it is clear how Bach's very own sphere of keyboard music held him captive. In later years he also took the time to sift, tidy up, copy out, or revise, older compositions. The composer's generally more reflective attitude made itself decisively felt in the character of most of the later works. His thoughts constantly revolved round fugue and canon in particular. In so doing he in no way closed his mind to contemporary currents in music. Indeed, with types of movement influenced by folk music as well as the galant and expressive ideals of style, in the Peasant Cantata, Goldberg Variations or Musical Offering he provided the best examples that he could definitely keep up with the young generation.

In his last years Bach became very weakened and frail through his eye trouble. Presumably from the summer of 1749 he was no longer active in his post, since in June 1749 the Leipzig Council had the tactlessness to approve a 'test for a future Cantor of St. Thomas's, in case the Capellmeister and Cantor Herr Sebast: Bach should die' and to nominate Gottlob Harrer as his successor. Two eye operations, which the English oculist Taylor performed on Bach early in 1750, went badly. On the evening of 28 July 1750 he died as the result of a stroke. The press contained brief obituary notices on the deceased 'famous musician.' But at that time those who knew his work had scarcely any notion -- let alone appreciation -- of his greatness.

Musicians in Rehearsal (18th Century Germany)
Ein Hubsch new Gesangbuch Ulm: 1538

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Links: Johann Sebastian Bach (Teri Noel Towe) | Baker's Entry on the Bach Family


1. See Geiringer The Bach Family New York 1954. Geiringer traces the seven generations of the Bach family that supplied Thuringia with cantors, organists, and outstanding composers from the sixteenth century miller Veit to Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst (1759-1845), Johann Sebastian's grandson. Return to Text