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Johann Sebastian Bach
Biography



"Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection, writing much, endless self-correction, that is my secret. "

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach echoes everything we know of him as man and artist; physically sturdy, emotionally strong, a superb and conscientious craftsman, as well as a good family man who loved to relax with his wife and children and take a glass of wine or a tankard of beer. Whatever he wrote, from the loftiest choral works and towering fugues, to courtly suites of dances, the music shines with great strength, confidence, and warm humanity.

Bach's lifetime culminated the late Baroque period of music. Much of the music of this period sounds rich and grand. It was also, for the most part, based on long-established musical forms. Bach wrote in many already venerable forms and styles: the polyphonic forms of fugue and canon (weaving themes together according to strict rules); the German Protestant church Passion Music and cantata; the even older form of the church mass; and suites of dances, for solo instruments, or various instrumental ensembles (The only important kind of Baroque music that Bach did not write was opera. He left that to his contemporary Handel.) He crowned each, in turn, with a final touch of glory, just before they were superseded by the new and very different styles of the 18th-century Classical period.

Johann Sebastian Bach came from a family of several generations of musicians. He was born on 21 March, 1685 at Eisenach (in North Germany), to court musician Johann Ambrosius Bach, a fine violinist and organist. Johann was orphaned at the age of ten, and his brother and uncle saw to his musical education, as a choirboy, in composition, and in playing violin, harpsichord and organ. They helped to secure a position for Johann as a chorister at St. Michael's Church in Lueneburg in 1700.

From boyhood Bach was particularly drawn to the organ, and his first professional jobs were as organist (at Arnstadt, 1703-07; at Mülhausen, 1707-08; at the court chapel of Saxe-Weimar, 1708-17). During these years he wrote most of what are now his best-known organ works.

When Bach auditioned for the organist's post in Arnstadt, he was the first candidate to be interviewed. Normally, seven were considered before a decision was made, but 18-year-old Bach was hired on the spot. As organist in the church at Arnstadt, Bach's duties included organising the choir and church orchestra (although the young composer had little patience with the incompetence and casual attitude of many of the boys in his charge). At that time, an organist also had to oversee the maintenance of the instrument. When repairs were being made, he would suggest new pipes and stops to suit his style. Bach enjoyed this part of the job, and was always keen to improve an organ's range. In 1705, Bach took four weeks leave from his job as organist at Arnstadt to visit St. Mary's Church in Lübeck - home to the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach was captivated by the splendour of the place - its 40-piece orchestra and fine choir were in sharp contrast to his own humble church. When he returned to Arnstadt, Bach confused worshippers with the sudden key changes and elaborations, which he now incorporated into his organ playing. He ignored a letter of complaint from church authorities, but the writing was on the wall: Bach knew it was time to move on, and within a year, gave in his notice. In 1707 he took an appointment as organist at St. Blasisus Church in Mülhausen.

Bach's first productive period of composition came in Weimar, where, in 1708, he was made court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst. This is the epoch in Bach's life when he became a pre-eminent organ virtuoso and when he wrote many of his masterworks for that instrument. Here all the earlier tendencies in organ music were swept to their ultimate destiny, both as to style and structure. Most of the organ works by Bach with which we are most familiar today (whether in its original version or in transcription) comes from his Weimar period.

A complete change in Bach's life came in 1717, when he was appointed Kapellmeister (court musician) to the Prince Leopold of Anhalt at Cöthen. Until 1723, Bach cultivated instrumental music, producing rich library of sonatas and concertos. This aristocrat liked his music instrumental and secular, and Bach served him for six years, pouring out orchestral concertos and suites, partitas and sonatas for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord, lightweight vocal pieces and dozens of solo keyboard works (including the six B Concertos, which were commissioned by the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721).

In 1723 B was appointed Kantor of the St. Thomas cathedral-school in Leipzig, a job he kept for the rest of his life (27 years). His tasks were to supervise the choirboys' musical activities (teaching Latin and music), and to compose, rehearse and conduct music for the church of St Thomas itself and for its three daughter-churches. As he had in previous church appointments, Bach regularly grumbled about the inadequacy of the resources available (and equally regularly upset his employers by his uncompromising attitude to pupils, instrumentalists and congregations); his creative output was prodigious. It was during these Leipzig years that Bach composed his noblest church works, including many of his most important cantatas, together with the St Matthew Passion and the monumental B minor Mass. He also produced numerous anthems, motets, oratorios and sacred songs.

During the twenty-seven years that he spent as Kantor (director of music) at St. Thomas's Church school in Leipzig, Bach led an extremely busy professional life: in addition to playing the organ and composing a vast number of works, he made frequent trips to other German cities to test and inaugurate new organs; he gave private lessons on the keyboard and composed a range of pieces specially designed to help his pupils practice each aspect of technique, such as Orchestral Suite in D Major. He seems to have used keyboard-playing and instrumental writing as something of a relaxation.

Bach served a split tenure (1729-37 and 1739-41) as Director of Music at the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. The Collegium, an association of professional and student musicians that gave regular public concerts, had been founded by Georg Philipp Telemann in 1704 and enjoyed an excellent reputation for the quality of its performances. After occupying himself almost exclusively with sacred composition for so long a time, and working with limited forces to get his music performed, Bach was eager for the chance to return to the sphere of orchestral composition and to work with topflight instrumentalists.

Johann Sebastian Bach died in Leipzig on 28 July, 1750, and was buried in an unidentified grave in the churchyard of St. John's Church - his contemporaries, his own sons as well, were prepared to consign him to permanent anonymity. To Bach's immediate successors, he was the voice of a dying, or dead, musical epoch. Now, however, we see him as less an innovator than the bringer to culmination of a glorious tradition, and the fact that he shunned musical fashion may partly explain why his compositions were ignored, outside his own small circle, throughout his life. After his death, a few of them lived on (Mozart and Beethoven, for example, admired his keyboard works). Surprisingly little of his music was published during his lifetime, and the great works for which he is revered today--works such as the B minor Mass, the St. Matthew Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos - existed only in manuscript or fair copies at the time of his death. Insiders like Mozart and Beethoven, who encountered Bach's music via these sources (or through contact with his students and sons), may have had an inkling of his greatness, but the public at large would begin to "discover" Bach only after a revival of interest in his music got underway early in the 19th century.

It was the St Matthew Passion that first set into motion the revival of Bach, which finally lifted the master out of the obscurity into which he had lapsed following his death, and in which he stayed for almost a century. This happened in Berlin on 11 March, 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn revived the St Matthew Passion, which had not been heard since Bach's own time. Bach's works began to be sought out, published (often for the first time) and regularly played. It remains a mystery why, although Bach's work was admired in his day by many, including Handel, it took almost two centuries after his death for his true greatness to be universally recognised.

In 1894, Bach's coffin was finally recovered and reburied within the church.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

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