Who was German composer Johann Sebastian Bach?Information on Johann Sebastian Bach biography, life story, works and compositions.
Johann Sebastian Bach; (1685-1750), German musician and composer, whose many important works transcend the baroque era, to which they belong, and place their creator as one of the most important composers of all time. He is universally acknowledged to be the foremost member of a family musical dynasty that spanned two centuries af Thuringian history.
Bach was born at Eisenach on March 21, 1685. Oiphaned at 10, he left Eisenach and went to Ohrdruf, the home of his oldest brother, Johann Christoph. He left there in 1700 to enroll in the Particularschule of St. Michael’s Church in Lüneburg, where he stayed until 1702. Bach spent a few months in 1703 in the employ of the duke of Weimar before becoming organist of St. Boniface Church in Arnstadt, where he remained for four years. In 1708 he was organist at St. Blasius Church in Mühlhausen. From that year to 1717 he was variously employed by the duke of Saxe-Weimar as court organist, chamber musician, and concertmaster; then for six years he was kapellmeister (conductor of the court orchestra) for the duke of Cöthen. From 1723 until his death he resided in Leipzig as director of music and cantor of St. Thomas School, responsible to the town council for music in the main churches. His other titles were kapellmeister to the prince of Saxe-Weissenfels (1729) and royal Polish and electoral Saxon court composer (1736).
In 1707 he married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach; they had seven children, of whom three survived him, two becoming outstanding composers. His wife died in 1720, and in 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wülcken, by whom he had 13 children. Six, including an important composer and a court musician, survived him.
He traveled often, though never far, usually to neighboring towns to test organs and to perform on them. In his lifetime he was more famous as an organist than as a composer. He knew the musical life of Dresden, and in 1747 visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam.
“I have had to be industrious,” Bach used to say when asked how he acquired his skill in music. He was a hard worker, which is why much of his life seems uneventful. But he followed his aims tenaciously and fought interference. A probably legendary witness to this tenacity is the story of his Ohrdruf days when he copied secretly, by moonlight, music forbidden him by his brother. In Amstadt he expressed his disgust at the incompetence of a certain bassoon player and so angered him that the two came to blows in the town marketplace. Bach was admonished that “man must live among imperfecta.” Half a year later he was reprimanded again for overstaying a leave of absence to visit the Liibeck organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, and also for confusing the congregation with his hymn accompaniments. The accompaniments referred to may have been the setting of To God Alone on High Be Glory (vol. 40, p. 44, of the complete works), where the last two lines (“Now is great peace without ceasing, every feud has now an end”) are set with a fierce array of diminished and minor chords as well as frightening modulations. The little piece is as biting an example of musical irony as can be imagined.
A year later Bach took a better position at Mühlhausen. But he was confronted there with a rector who belonged to the Pietist movement, a recent Lutheran offshoot that opposed elaborate church music. Before long, Bach seized a chance to move to safely orthodox Weimar. There began his shift of interest from the solitary organ bench to the instrumental-vocal ensemble into which his creative impulse was poured. The prospect of directing such musical forces took him to Cothen, after he had been rejected for the corresponding post at Weimar. The duke at first refused to accept his resignation and imprisoned him briefly “for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal,” but finally let him go “with notice of his unfavorable discharge.”
According to a letter written by Bach in 1730, his years at Cothen were the happiest of his life. Yet three years before he left, he tried unsuccessfully for the post of organist in St. James Church, Hamburg. And in Leipzig his struggles with the authorities, who he said were “odd and little interested in music,” became notorious. The authorities answered, saying, “not only did the Cantor do nothing, but he was not even willing to give an explanation of that fact . . . the Cantor was incorrigible.”
Once cause underlying these disputes was the new Enlightenment, which had a center in Leipzig University. It was with the rationalist rector, Johann August Ernesti, that Bach in 1736 had his fiercest and most protracted quarrel. Their dispute had to do with a certain student’s fitness to lead a choir. Ernesti had installed the boy in a morning church service, but Bach ejected him “with great commotion.” Ernesti put him back for the afternoon service but again Bach forced him “out of the choir loft with much shouting and noise.” As for another student who had obeyed Ernesti, Bach “sent him away from the table in the evening.” To Ernesti himself Bach stated that “he would not budge in this matter, no matter what the cost.” The affair dragged on for nearly two years, until apparendy it was stopped by the intervention of the king of Saxony.
By 1739, Bach was tired of quarreling. When the question of his performing a passion on Good Friday came up, he remarked that “he did not care, for he got nothing out of it anyway, and it was only a burden.” No further quarrels are known. But in 1749 the authorities arranged and attended a “trial performance (in Leipzig) for the future appointment as Cantor of St. Thomas’s, in case the Kapellmeister and Cantor Mr. Sebastian Bach should die.” When Bach’s death did occur, at Leipzig on July 28, 1750, Burgomaster Stieglitz remarked: “The School needed a Cantor and not a Kapellmeister.” With so little love did his associates take leave of him. One is reminded of the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey’s remark: “Seb. Bach was of a strong, self-willed race, and the conflicts with the authorities in which he was always finding himself lead one to suspect that this violent man was hard to live with.”
What was the ideal for which Bach fought so long and often so bitterly? As he put it, he could express himself “more in deed than in words” and so used few for the latter. But when asking the church at Miihlhausen for dismissal to accept the Weimar position, he spoke twice of his “goal,”—”a well-regulated church music to the Glory of God.” The latter phrase occurred regularly in baroque definitions of music, and Bach echoed it again when he wrote: “The aim and final reason … of all music . . . should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind.” But with characteristic pugnacity he added: “Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish hubbub.”
It is misleading to interpret Bach’s phrases “church music” and “Glory of God” in a narrow way. Bach was not a self-consciously pious man, and he used these words merely as a simple and general way of describing his musical style. The essence of Bach’s style is his method of relating melody and harmony. Centuries of polyphony (music written as a combination of several simultaneous voices) converged on Bach. But during his time there arose a new system of key modulations, a so-called tonal harmony. Together with other developments, such as the instrumental concerto, the new tonal system forced the old polyphonic music into permanent eclipse and secured the dominance of the single melodic line with harmonic accompaniment. In this process Bach is a transitional figure. In his music the old style remains fully alive and the new style becomes equally vital. All his melodies exude the new harmonic thought, accounting for the tex-tural intensity of his fugues. But it also follows that the harmonic notes that are needed to articulate each melody cannot always be supplied. This is the reason for the frequent dissonances that so mark his music. Dissonance is the price he pays for conceiving polyphony harmonically.
Since Bach was one of the discoveries of 19th century romanticism, it has often been claimed that his music is romantic, and many a melody may be cited to support this view. But infinitely expressive as his melodies may be, they are carried by rhythms, usually in the bass, that are wholly inflexible. The melody may be as anguished, as rhapsodic as the most extreme romantic gesture, but the rhythmic bass remains as unconcerned, as remote, as insistent as time itself.
A further tension in Bach is the matter of sonority. What was his ideal instrument? Was it the rigid, impersonal tone of the baroque organ that conjures up the sense of the eternal, or the warmer human sounds of voices and string and woodwind instruments? There is no final answer. Bach veers one way and then another. Many of his most affecting melodies are scored for organ; many of his starkest and grimmest compositions are given to voices and instruments.
The relationships in Bach’s style between the various musical elements point not only in a generally religious but also in a specifically Christian direction. Such music was meant for the church, and its composer knew it.
Compared to Mozart or Schubert, Bach was slow in developing. He entered the musical world as an organist, and it was for the organ that his first major compositions were written. Intensive work at Weimar brought this branch of his art to a definite maturity. The main forms were: (1) the so-called “free” compositions, consisting of prelude, toccata, or fantasia, usually followed by a fugue, and (2) settings of chorale melodies. In all these compositions Bach built on the centuries-old traditions of German organ music, but in raising the chorale prelude to its highest level of expression, he began a trend that was directly against the spirit of his time. Few 18th century organ chorales of merit exist that are not from his pen. His works of this type may be classified as follows: (1) chorale variations; (2) chorale fughettas, or short fugues, usually on the first line of the chorale; and (3) the simple organ chorale (3a) where the complete melody occurs once. An important variant (3b) is the chorale fantasy, an enlarged form, where the lines of the chorale are separated by musical interludes. This part of Bach’s work is represented most clearly in the unfinished collection of chorale preludes, mostly of type 3a, which he called the Little Organ Book. The manuscript is dated 1717, and he probably stopped work on it in Cothen.
An equally large body of keyboard music without pedal part is now played on the piano, although it is not known for which instrument it was written originally. Bach’s two most common string keyboard instruments were the harpsichord and clavichord, and his works as a whole show no clear indication of which instrument he had in mind. His favorite was said to have been the clavichord, which like the modern piano was sensitive to touch. In Cöthen he brought this branch of his music to full maturity in the preludes and fugues (in all the keys) of the Well-Tempered Clavier (part 1, 1722, sometimes wrongly called Well-Tempered Clavichord; no specific instrument is named in the title). The work reveals Bach’s mastery of counterpoint and also shows evidence of the stimulus he received from the new tonal harmony and the remote keys recently made available through equal tempered tuning.
In the sonatas for flute, violin, and gamba with clavier, also composed at Cöthen, a certain dualism of style is apparent. The allegros are brilliant studies in fugal trio writing and lead directly to the six famous trio sonatas included in the organ works. The adagios are freer, deeper, and more mature in style. Unique landmarks in Bach’s career are the solo violoncello suites and the solo violin suites and sonatas. As expressive as any composition ever written for one melodic line is the sarabande from the fifth cello suite. The solo violin works contain some of Bach’s mightiest designs (such as the great fugues and the chaconne), perhaps because a satisfactory organ was not regularly accessible in Cöthen.
Cöthen is also the period of Bach’s most famous orchestral works, including the Brandenburg concertos, where the baroque orchestral style achieves its most fascinating utterance. Records of the Cöthen court indicate that much of this music may have disappeared. At Cöthen, Bach’s style ripened in almost every direction, and the great proportion of those works most often heard today were composed at that time.
The one branch of his music that was not yet mature proved to be his main extant work, the church music for voices and instruments. These pieces mark the realization of the goal announced at Mühlhausen in 1708 and are rightly associated with the Leipzig period. All told, there are about 200 cantatas (usually known by the numbers assigned them in the edition of his complete works) plus a few motets, passion settings, masses, and other music. Only five cantatas can be dated before 1714, and these works show the youthful Bach’s dependence on the old German cantata style. The remainder reveal the influence of Italian opera, in their use of the madrigal form of the verse, the da capo aria, and recitative passages. The texts were prepared by contemporary authors, with occasional quotations from the Bible and Lutheran hymns. They illustrate the Bible readings of the traditional church year. Bach himself may have written a few of them. Over 20 Weimar cantatas are extant containing some of Bach’s finest arias and showing his love for the solo obbligato instrument. About half of the more than 600 arias and duets, plus a few trios, use combinations of solo instruments without string orchestra.
But Bach was still searching for his final choral style. Cöthen gave him a chance to develop it. It is now certain that this non-Lutheran court did occasionally use concerted vocal music, and Bach wrote a number of cantatas there. As reconstructed by Friedrich Smend (Bach in Kothen, 1951), they show an increasing interplay of concerto orchestral elements with the chorus. Thus equipped, Bach launched himself on his Leipzig career of cantata composition.
The standard Bach cantata opens with a chorus, followed by perhaps four solo numbers, usually recitatives and arias, and closes with a simple chorale. The most important exception is the solo cantata, which dispenses with the opening chorus. A few other cantatas begin with an aria, with chorus following. Some choruses have contemporary texts, but most of those composed in 1723-1724 are set to Bible verses. Many cantatas use hymn stanzas, with the chorale tune confined to the choruses. Such verses, however, were ill-adapted for recitative or da capo aria settings. Thus, for his second series of cantatas, composed about 1735-1740 and all based on chorales. Bach had the texts for the middle movements paraphrased (or paraphrased them himself). The roughly three years of extant cantatas, plus the organ chorales in the third part of the Clavier Übung (published 1739) are Bach’s reaffirmation of orthodox Lutheranism as opposed to the rationalist tendencies of his day.
This mighty union of art and religion is nowhere more graphically depicted than in Bach’s longest work, the St. Matthew Passion (1729). In setting the Gospel narrative to music, a centuries-old tradition is perpetuated, while in adorning it with lyric meditation, Bach anticipates the religious spirit of the future. Hermann Abert called this work “a piece of religious folk art which the world has known only once before in similar fullness; in Greek tragedy. … So did Bach, without himself willing it, animate anew an ideal toward which the opera right down to Wagner strove in vain, because it was not able to create that which was most important in the classic tragedy, its religious foundation” (Gesammelten Schriften, 1929). Modern opera began with the purpose of recreating Greek tragedy. Yet Bach, who never wrote an opera, alone is credited with reaching the goal. The reasons why he never wrote in the operatic form become clear when we consider that the features of his mind and musical style inclined him toward religion. Still more important is the fact that his nature was lyric rather than dramatic. His work abounds in lyric contemplation of unexampled depth, power, poignancy, and intensity, which are always fused with the spirit of the eternal, and therefore are unsuitable for representing the more purely human emotions of the stage.
Bach celebrated the final maturing of his choral style with the B Minor Mass, consisting of two-thirds chorus and one-third arias and duets-no recitatives or chorales. It apparently was composed rather haphazardly, as indicated by the disproportionate size of the first Kyrie as well as by the arbitrary way in which Bach divided the Mass: “1. Missa [Kyrie and Gloria], 2. Symbolum Nicenum [Credo], 3. Sanctus. 4. Osanna, Bene-dictus, Agnus Dei, Dona nobis pacem.” The Missa was sent to the king of Saxony in 1733 and the rest assembled about 1748.
As the amount of music he had written grew in volume, Bach often rearranged older compositions instead of composing new ones. He did this not only to save time but also in the interest of artistic perfection as well. His rule was not to arrange religious works for secular purposes, although he often turned secular works to religious uses. His material was the world of baroque music; his goal the service of the church. To this end everything in the former was to become subject to the latter, as can be seen, for example, in the final chorale cantata choruses. Above the highly contemporary elements of tonal harmony, of fugue, concerto, and thematic material of every kind there reigned the ancient, often modal chorale tune.
In Bach’s later years the rising spirit of modern scientific speculation seems to have inspired him to explore new musical mysteries in such works as the Musical Offering, memorializing the visit to Frederick the Great, and the unfinished Art of Fugue.
Considering how few of Bach’s works were published during his life, it is remarkable how much influence he did exert. His numerous pupils kept alive the keyboard music. It profoundly influenced Mozart’s work. Beethoven as a boy learned the Well-Tempered Clavier from his teacher, who had studied with one of Bach’s pupils. Beethoven’s pun on Bach’s name is famous: “Not Bach (brook) but Meer (sea) should be his name.” The romantic period provided a climate favorable to the reception of the church music, and on the 100th anniversary of Bach’s death the Bach-Gesellschaft society was founded. In the following 50 years the society produced a virtually complete edition of his works. A new edition based on the latest research is now being published.