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About Johann Sebastian Bach

Meet the composer, Johann Sebastian Bach

J. S. Bach: Overview

  • Born: March 21, 1685 - Eisenach, Germany 
  • Died: July 28, 1750 - Leipzig, Germany
  • Historical period: Baroque
  • Compositional media: Orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, choral

Johann Sebastian Bach is universally considered as the greatest composer of all time for his exceptional achievements in baroque music. He was born on the 21st of March in 1685 in Germany and passed away after an illustrious career on the 28th of July, 1750. Bach is well-celebrated as the creator of pieces like the Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, etc. 

German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach

Dive in more about J. S. Bach: The Baroque Maestro

Throughout his career, Bach was famous for being a world-class organ player. He was the youngest of his seven siblings and belonging to a music-oriented family, he was naturally inclined to become a musician. Apart from his mastery over the organ and the violin, he was also a fabulous singer. 

Bach lost both his parents at the age of 10, and was cared for by his elder brother, Johann Christoph. By 15, Bach had secured a position in the choir of St. Michael's School in Lüneburg. 

The year of 1703 saw Bach assume the position of organist at the St. Boniface Church in Arnstadt. Bach found a new position at Mülhausen in 1706, where he married his cousin, Maria Barbara. Consequently, he gained the position of organist and concertmaster at the Duke of Weimer’s court. 

After this, in 1717, Bach moved on to the post of Kapellmeister in the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. It was in this period, when he wrote numerous pieces. These include orchestral dance suites, concertos, trio sonatas, etc. The six concerti grossi composed by Bach for the Duke of Brandenburg in 1721, have attained exceptional fame. The Brandenburg Concerto no. III or Concerto 3zo a tre Violini, tre Viole, è tre Violoncelli col Basso per il Cembalo is a stellar example of the Concerto Grosso. 

Johann Sebastian Bach married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach in the year of 1706. The couple’s first born, Catharina Dorothea, was born in the year of 1708. The year 1720 was hard for Bach when he lost his wife while out on travels with Prince Leopold. She gave birth to seven children during her lifetime, some of whom died as infants. 

A year after Maria’s passing, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken. The daughter of a trumpeter from Weissenfels, she was an extremely gifted individual, who was sixteen years younger than Bach. She was known for her own performances at the Köthen court. Bach fathered thirteen children with Anna, of whom, ten died in infancy. 

The master composer’s first marriage, produced Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach as famous composers, while, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Johann Christian Bach, were musical celebrities borne from their Bach’s second matrimonial union. 

Johann Sebastian Bach’s love for solo instruments is amply evident in his six suites for violoncello. Also, worth mentioning are his sonatas and partitas for violin. Bach included a popular dance form of the era, the gavotte, in The Violin Partita no. III, which further amplified its notability. 

The number of brilliant musical pieces in Bach’s repertoire is extensive. He composed:

  • Over 200 cantatas
  • Several motets
  • 5 masses
  • 3 oratorios
  • 4 settings of the Passion story

The St. Matthew Passion, among the Passion settings, is a major mention among Western masterpieces. Bach’s favorite instrument was the organ, and as such, he wrote pieces like the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. 

Periods and locations of Bach's musical career 

The Arnstadt Period

Bach resided beside the Thuringian Forest at Arnstadt until the year 1707. During this period, his devotion was primarily directed toward organ music. He learned and adapted the style of the Thuringian region, which was his complete comprehension of hymns or chorales of the Lutheran church service and keyboard musical pieces. Further education in music happened from the Northern rhapsodists, particularly Dieterich Buxtehude. Prime examples of Bach’s work from this time are the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo and the chorale prelude on Wie schön leuchtet. 

The Mühlhausen period

Bach gained a position at the Blasiuskirche in Mühlhausen in Thuringia in June 1707. The northern rhapsodic organ piece Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565), the Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532), Passacaglia in C Minor (BWV 582) and the Gott ist mein König (BWV 71), are supreme examples of Johann Sebastian Bach’s work during this period.  

The Weimar Period

At Weimer, Bach was a respected court organist and a member of the orchestra. In 1713, Bach was involved in court celebrations, with the performance of Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (BWV 208), universally recognized as the Hunting Cantata. 1714 saw Bach assuming the role of concertmaster, making him responsible for a cantata composition every month. Additionally, he adapted the Italian ritornello or da capo schemes, while accepting an appointment to the post of musical director for Prince Leopold of Köthen. Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring is the English title of the last movement of Bach’s famous cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, which translates as “Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life”. The composition was made sometime between 1716 to 1723. The music here is characterized by Bach's Weimar period. As one of Bach’s surviving cantatas, BWV 147 was assigned to it. Johann Schop, another composer, was responsible for the movement's chorale music, Werde munter, mein Gemüthe. Johann Sebastian Bach consequently composed the chorale movements VI and X, from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben for other channels such as choir, trumpet, violin, et cetera. 

The Köthen period

Johann Sebastian Bach, at Köthen, arranged the sonatas for violin and clavier to their present accepted form. He completed the Brandenburg Concertos in 1721.  Notable pieces by Bach during this period were the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, some French Suites, the Inventions, and the first book of Das wohltemperierte Klavier, better known as The Well-Tempered Clavier

Leipzig

At Leipzig, keeping with his brilliance, Bach assumed the position of the director of church music. His responsibilities included the supply of performers at four churches. Peterskirche was where the choir led the hymns while at the Neue Kirche, Nikolaikirche, and even Thomaskirche, part singing became a necessity. Bach acted as the conductor and his first official performance was on the 30th of May, 1723, where the Cantata No. 75 or Die Elenden sollen essen was performed. The pieces composed at Leipzig include a number of cantatas and also the Magnificat in its initial version. The production of the St. John Passion in 1724 and the 62 cantatas during this ecclesiastical period made it a good year for the eminent composer. Within a year of June 11, 1724, the master composer had created 52 chorale cantatas, with the Sanctus of the Mass in B Minor produced during the Christmas season. 

Subsequently, the St. Matthew Passion was penned in 1729, which played a major part in the revival of vocal works over the cantata in the 1730s. The St. Mark Passion, which has since been lost, was produced in 1731, the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) in 1734 and the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11) or Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen in 1735 are additional examples of Bach’s proficiency. 

By the year 1726, Bach had completed most of his cantata pieces, and commenced the publishing of the clavier partitas singly. A collected edition was produced in 1731, possibly to attract audiences beyond the boundaries of Leipzig. The Clavierübung’s second part, containing an Italian Style concerto and the French overture in B Minor, were produced in 1735. Next, he produced the Organ Mass with the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (BWV 552), in the year 1739. Following this, Clavierübung’s part IV and Book Two of the Forty-Eight are known to have been created at this time. Bach was also responsible for the Schübler Chorale Preludes around the year of 1746.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach was a stalwart of baroque music; a precursor of future musical prodigies. His works paved the foundation for elite composers like Mozart and Beethoven to highlight their talents. An extremely prolific and well versed composer, Bach’s command over musical pieces makes him the well-deserved title holder of the greatest composer the world has ever seen.


 

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