Johann Sebastian Bach

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: For three hundred years, Bach has brought joyful, profound, and uplifting music to millions of people the world over. So significant was his contribution to musical composition that some historians classify music history as “before Bach” and “after Bach.”

Early Life

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in the shadow of Wartburg Castle, in the spring of 1685 in Eisenach, a few miles from where his great fellow composer, George Frideric Handel, was born in the same year. Bach came from seven generations of musically talented Bachs and so was born into an extended family of competent musicians. Bach’s father was a court musician for the Duke of Eisenach and several of his close relatives were organists in the larger nearby churches. His eldest brother was apprenticed to the famous Johann Pachelbel.

Bach was only nine years old when his mother died, and his father died the following year. Consequently, in 1695, he moved thirty miles to Ohrdruf to live with his brother, the organist at St. Michael’s Church. He continued his musical education and began studying New Testament Greek and other basic subjects at the cloister school. His brother, an excellent musician, taught him keyboard techniques and worked with him on the construction of a new organ. Very early, Bach became interested in the harmonic structure underlying the melodies he copied from manuscripts.

In March of 1700, Bach, at the age of fifteen, walked two hundred miles with a fellow student to the ancient northern German city of Lüneburg to attend the Knights’ Academy, a school of practical education for young noblemen. The curriculum included courtly dancing, fencing and riding, and the study of feudal law, politics, and history. Young Bach had the ability to read music at first sight and supported himself largely by singing and playing the organ.

Bach broadened his experiences while at Lüneburg. More than once he walked the thirty miles to Hamburg to hear two of the largest organs in the world. The great organist Johann Reincken was in Hamburg, and Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck. Bach also observed a French community of Huguenot exiles; music was a focal point of their lives, and Bach heard French instrumental music performed by French orchestras, which enhanced his knowledge of German and Italian musical forms.

Life’s Work

In 1703, Bach was ready for his first career appointment; he found it with the installation of a new organ in the old church at Arnstadt, a small city of lovely, tree-lined streets some twenty-five miles from Eisenach. His salary was substantial enough to enable him to purchase a harpsichord, several books, and clothing that befitted his new position. His duties as church organist were light, but his choir, he said, consisted of “a band of ruffians.”

Bach’s early compositions, as might be expected, were marked by immaturity. Perhaps his best organ work of this period was the serene Pastorale in F Major, characterized by its “free flow and logical unfolding of melody.” At Arnstadt, Bach also wrote his first cantata, later revised, For Thou Wilt Not Leave My Soul in Hell. His continuous melody creates a musical soliloquy of the text.

Needing greater depth to his musical experience, Bach, in the autumn of 1705, received a one-month leave of absence to observe and listen to the great Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck. Bach was impressed with Buxtehude’s arrangement of cantatas in his Vesper Concerts, sung as dialogues between soloists and the chorus. When, after four months, Bach finally returned to Arnstadt, he brought fresh ideas with him and began ornamenting his organ playing with coloratura and countermelodies.

In 1707, Bach left Arnstadt to become organist at St. Blaise Church in Mühlhausen. That same year, at twenty-three years of age, he married his second cousin, Maria Barbara. At Mühlhausen Bach gained valuable technical experience in overseeing the repair of the aged organ in the church. He was also called upon to write music for various civic occasions, such as the cantata God Is My King, calling for a brass ensemble, two woodwind ensembles, a string section, and two separate choirs.

The Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Wilhelm Ernst, appointed Bach chamber musician and court organist in 1708 and, later, his concertmaster. The duke doubled Bach’s salary as he entered a completely different social world. Bach loved the melodic warmth and intensity of Italian music and moved more into that style. His cousin, Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748), was his close companion, and he and Bach developed musical theory together. Both were particularly interested in the philosophical values underlying music, believing music a gift from God and of great spiritual importance. Bach wrote many dances and loved joyful music.

During the Weimar years, Bach composed some of the greatest organ music ever written. He perfected his technique of counterpoint and mastered the relation between melodic and harmonic considerations in his writing of counterpoint. The Bachs had six children born to them at Weimar, two of whom (twins) died at...

(The entire section is 2134 words.)