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Born:March 21, 1685EisenachGermany...(Show more)Died:July 28, 1750 (aged 65)LeipzigGermany...(Show more)Notable Works:“Three-Part Inventions”...(Show more)Movement / Style:Baroque music...(Show more)Notable Family Members:son Wilhelm Friedemann Bachson Carl Philipp Emanuel Bachson Johann Christian Bachson Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach...(Show more)

Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. He is celebrated as the creator of many masterpieces of church and instrumental music. His compositions represent the best of the Baroque era.


Johann Sebastian Bach composed over 1,000 pieces of music. Some of his most famous work included theBrandenburg Concertos,The Well-Tempered Clavier, and theMass in B Minor.


Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musical family. Orphaned before he turned 10 years old, he was looked after by his eldest brother, an organist who gave him his first keyboard lessons. Bach did well at school, and he was selected for a choir of poor boys at the school in Michaelskirche,Lüneburg, Germany.


On October 17, 1707, Johann Sebastian Bach married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach at Dornheim. After Maria died Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, the daughter of a trumpeter at Weissenfels, on December 3, 1721.


Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children, 7 with his first wife and 13 with his second wife. Only 10 of them lived to adulthood. Several of his sons, including Wilhelm Friedemann,Carl Philipp Emanuel, andJohann Christian, who was called the “English Bach,” were also composers.


Johann Sebastian Bach, (born March 21 , 1685, Eisenach, Thuringia, Ernestine Saxon Duchies —died July 28, 1750, Leipzig), composer of the Baroque era, the most celebrated member of a large family of north German musicians. Although he was admired by his contemporaries primarily as an outstanding harpsichordist, organist, and expert on organ building, Bach is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is celebrated as the creator of the Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, and numerous other masterpieces of church and instrumental music. Appearing at a propitious moment in the history of music, Bach was able to survey and bring together the principal styles, forms, and national traditions that had developed during preceding generations and, by virtue of his synthesis, enrich them all.

He was a member of a remarkable family of musicians who were proud of their achievements, and about 1735 he drafted a genealogy, Ursprung der musicalisch-Bachischen Familie (“Origin of the Musical Bach Family”), in which he traced his ancestry back to his great-great-grandfather Veit Bach, a Lutheran baker (or miller) who late in the 16th century was driven from Hungary to Wechmar in Thuringia, a historic region of Germany, by religious persecution and died in 1619. There were Bachs in the area before then, and it may be that, when Veit moved to Wechmar, he was returning to his birthplace. He used to take his cittern to the mill and play it while the mill was grinding. Johann Sebastian remarked, “A pretty noise they must have made together! However, he learnt to keep time, and this apparently was the beginning of music in our family.”

Until the birth of Johann Sebastian, his was the least distinguished branch of the family; some of its members, such as Johann Christoph and Johann Ludwig, had been competent practical musicians but not composers. In later days the most important musicians in the family were Johann Sebastian’s sons—Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Christian (the “English Bach”).

Life

Early years

J.S. Bach was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach and Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. Ambrosius was a string player, employed by the town council and the ducal court of Eisenach. Johann Sebastian started school in 1692 or 1693 and did well in spite of frequent absences. Of his musical education at this time, nothing definite is known; however, he may have picked up the rudiments of string playing from his father, and no doubt he attended the Georgenkirche, where Johann Christoph Bach was organist until 1703.


By 1695 both his parents were dead, and he was looked after by his eldest brother, also named Johann Christoph (1671–1721), organist at Ohrdruf. This Christoph had been a pupil of the influential keyboard composer Johann Pachelbel, and he apparently gave Johann Sebastian his first formal keyboard lessons. The young Bach again did well at school, and in 1700 his voice secured him a place in a select choir of poor boys at the school at Michaelskirche, Lüneburg.

His voice must have broken soon after this, but he remained at Lüneburg for a time, making himself generally useful. No doubt he studied in the school library, which had a large and up-to-date collection of church music; he probably heard Georg Böhm, organist of the Johanniskirche; and he visited Hamburg to hear the renowned organist and composer Johann Adam Reinken at the Katharinenkirche, contriving also to hear the French orchestra maintained by the duke of Celle.

He seems to have returned to Thuringia in the late summer of 1702. By this time he was already a reasonably proficient organist. His experience at Lüneburg, if not at Ohrdruf, had turned him away from the secular string-playing tradition of his immediate ancestors; thenceforth he was chiefly, though not exclusively, a composer and performer of keyboard and sacred music. The next few months are wrapped in mystery, but by March 4, 1703, he was a member of the orchestra employed by Johann Ernst, duke of Weimar (and brother of Wilhelm Ernst, whose service Bach entered in 1708). This post was a mere stopgap; he probably already had his eye on the organ then being built at the Neue Kirche (New Church) in Arnstadt, for, when it was finished, he helped to test it, and in August 1703 he was appointed organist—all this at age 18. Arnstadt documents imply that he had been court organist at Weimar; this is incredible, though it is likely enough that he had occasionally played there.

The Arnstadt period

At Arnstadt, on the northern edge of the Thuringian Forest, where he remained until 1707, Bach devoted himself to keyboard music, the organ in particular. While at Lüneburg he had apparently had no opportunity of becoming directly acquainted with the spectacular, flamboyant playing and compositions of Dietrich Buxtehude, the most significant exponent of the north German school of organ music. In October 1705 he repaired this gap in his knowledge by obtaining a month’s leave and walking to Lübeck (more than 200 miles <300 km>). His visit must have been profitable, for he did not return until about the middle of January 1706. In February his employers complained about his absence and about other things as well: he had harmonized the hymn tunes so freely that the congregation could not sing to his accompaniment, and, above all, he had produced no cantatas. Perhaps the real reasons for his neglect were that he was temporarily obsessed with the organ and was on bad terms with the local singers and instrumentalists, who were not under his control and did not come up to his standards. In the summer of 1705 he had made some offensive remark about a bassoon player, which led to an unseemly scuffle in the street. His replies to these complaints were neither satisfactory nor even accommodating; and the fact that he was not dismissed out of hand suggests that his employers were as well aware of his exceptional ability as he was himself and were reluctant to lose him.

During these early years, Bach inherited the musical culture of the Thuringian area, a thorough familiarity with the traditional forms and hymns (chorales) of the orthodox Lutheran service, and, in keyboard music, perhaps (through his brother, Johann Christoph) a bias toward the formalistic styles of the south. But he also learned eagerly from the northern rhapsodists, Buxtehude above all. By 1708 he had probably learned all that his German predecessors could teach him and arrived at a first synthesis of northern and southern German styles. He had also studied, on his own and during his presumed excursions to Celle, some French organ and instrumental music.

Among the few works that can be ascribed to these early years with anything more than a show of plausibility are the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (1704; Capriccio on the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother, BWV 992), the chorale prelude on Wie schön leuchtet (c. 1705; How Brightly Shines, BWV 739), and the fragmentary early version of the organ Prelude and Fugue in G Minor (before 1707, BWV 535a). (The “BWV” numbers provided are the standard catalog numbers of Bach’s works as established in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, prepared by the German musicologist Wolfgang Schmieder.)

The Mühlhausen period

In June 1707 Bach obtained a post at the Blasiuskirche in Mühlhausen in Thuringia. He moved there soon after and married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach at Dornheim on October 17. At Mühlhausen things seem, for a time, to have gone more smoothly. He produced several church cantatas at this time; all of these works are cast in a conservative mold, based on biblical and chorale texts and displaying no influence of the “modern” Italian operatic forms that were to appear in Bach’s later cantatas. The famous organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565), written in the rhapsodic northern style, and the Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532) may also have been composed during the Mühlhausen period, as well as the organ Passacaglia in C Minor (BWV 582), an early example of Bach’s instinct for large-scale organization. Cantata No. 71, Gott ist mein König (God Is My King), of February 4, 1708, was printed at the expense of the city council and was the first of Bach’s compositions to be published. While at Mühlhausen, Bach copied music to enlarge the choir library, tried to encourage music in the surrounding villages, and was in sufficient favour to be able to interest his employers in a scheme for rebuilding the organ (February 1708). His real reason for resigning on June 25, 1708, is not known. He himself said that his plans for a “well-regulated church music” had been hindered by conditions in Mühlhausen and that his salary was inadequate. It is generally supposed that he had become involved in a theological controversy between his own pastor Frohne and Archdeacon Eilmar of the Marienkirche. Certainly, he was friendly with Eilmar, who provided him with librettos and became godfather to Bach’s first child; and it is likely enough that he was not in sympathy with Frohne, who, as a Pietist, would have frowned on elaborate church music. It is just as possible, however, that it was the dismal state of musical life in Mühlhausen that prompted Bach to seek employment elsewhere. At all events, his resignation was accepted, and shortly afterward he moved to Weimar, some miles west of Jena on the Ilm River. He continued nevertheless to be on good terms with Mühlhausen personalities, for he supervised the rebuilding of the organ, is supposed to have inaugurated it on October 31, 1709, and composed a cantata for February 4, 1709, which was printed but has disappeared.

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The Weimar period

Bach was, from the outset, court organist at Weimar and a member of the orchestra. Encouraged by Wilhelm Ernst, he concentrated on the organ during the first few years of his tenure. From Weimar, Bach occasionally visited Weissenfels; in February 1713 he took part in a court celebration there that included a performance of his first secular cantata, Was mir behagt, also called the Hunt Cantata (BWV 208).