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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
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"Bach is the beginning and end of all music." - Max Reger
"Study Bach. There you will find everything." - Johannes Brahms
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach (located in what used to be East Germany) on March 21, 1685, the eighth and youngest son of Johann Ambrosius Bach. Music was a part of his family for generations, so it was no surprise that Bach was trained in music from childhood. His mother died in 1694 and his father died the very next year, leaving Bach an orphan before he turned ten. Bach and his brother Johann Jacob went to live with their older brother Johann Christoph, who was working as a church organist in Ohrdruf. Christoph continued Bach's musical education by teaching him the keyboard. In 1700, Bach and his friend Georg Erdmann began attending the St. Michael's School in Lьneburg on a sort of scholarship program. An old regulation allowed poor children to attend the school for free if they sang in the church choir. At St. Michael's, Bach had access to a famous music library and the benefit of the school's high emphasis on music education. Here, Bach learned about Germanic musical traditions as well as French traditions (from the French-style academy that was also housed at the school). Bach gained a reputation here for being an organ virtuoso. His playing and writing at the time was highly influenced by Georg Bцhm, the French inspired organist and Johan Adam Reinken, the Dutch organist. A story was told that Bach walked the nearly 30 miles (48 km) to Hamburg just to hear Reinken play in the summer of 1701.
At the age of 17, Bach was chosen the new organist in Sangerhausen but the offer was rescinded when the local duke decided he wanted his own candidate to have the job. However, Bach did get his next job as organist of the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt. Here he had access to a brand new Wender organ and was paid twice the salary of his predecessor. Bach liked the job except that he was continually told to do jobs that he was not supposed to be responsible for. In the summer of 1705, he got into a brawl with a student named Geyersbach. Geyersbach had insulted Bach's musical abilities and began to threaten him with a stick. Bach then reportedly called Geyersbach a "nanny-goat bassoonist" and Geyersbach retorted that Bach was a "dirty dog" and took a swing at him. Bach drew his sword, but Geyersbach jumped on him, making swordfighting impossible, and they fought until other students were able to break them apart. Later in the year, Bach was given four weeks leave to study the vocal music of Dietrich Buxtehude Another legend claims that Bach walked the entire 200 miles to Lьbeck for these studies. The four week leave actually turned into four months, which did not please Bach's superiors. Also, the new musical techniques that Bach picked up did not go over well and rumors were spread about his impropriety with a young woman. He eventually left this poor situation to take a job in Mьlhausen in June of 1707.
In October of the same year, Bach married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach after receiving a small inheritance. Bach began to concentrate on his vocal church music now, possibly as a result of Buxtehude's influence and the fact that Maria Barbara's father was a great vocal music composer. During this period, Bach wrote his first cantatas. A cantata is a vocal musical piece, often several movements long, that while expressing emotions (whether sacred or secular), does not outright tell a story. His first printed cantata was written in Mьlhausen the Ratswechsel cantata, Gott ist mein Kцnig BWV 71 ("BWV" stands for Bach-Werke Verzeichnis, or Bach Works Catalogue - a catalogue published in 1950 to list all of Bach's surviving works). Some argue that his first cantata was actually Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir BWV 131. Also while in Mьlhausen, Bach wrote the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 (now often associated with horror films, but still an incredible piece) as well as Prelude and Fugue in D Major BWV 532 and Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582. Bach's stay in Mьlhausen did not last long, as a majorly destructive fire forced the town to put more money into rebuilding than towards the music scene.
Bach moved to Weimar in 1708 to work for Duke Wilhelm Ernst. In 1709, Wilhelm's nephew, Ernst August, became a second duke that was in charge of the same town. The courts of the two dukes were openly opposed and even hostile to each other, but Bach was friendly with both leaders. Bach even became teacher to Ernst August's younger half brother, through whom he learned of the Italian styles of Antonio Vivaldi. Bach was especially interested in Vivaldi's L'estro armonico concertos. This added influence helped Bach develop a style that he used from now on. The style combined the Italian use of harmonies and themes with touches of German and French influences from his boyhood. Bach wrote his first non-religious cantata using this new style, Was mir behagt, ist nut die muntre Jagd, otherwise known as the " Hunt Cantata" BWV 208. It was performed for the duke of Weissenfels in 1713 with the intent to flatter the hunt-loving artistocracy. Bach always felt it could not hurt to gain favor with those in power whenever he had the chance. Bach almost left Weimar in 1713 for a job that he was highly wooed for in Halle. Even after they lavished him with food, drink and tobacco at the finest hotel in town, he turned the job down - mainly because Duke Wilhelm doubled his salary. After all, he had his family to support, having already fathered four children (unfortunately the last two, his twins, were stillborn that same year). Bach also had an unmarried sister-in-law staying in his home. The next year, Bach became Wilhelm's Konzertmeister, which required him to write cantatas monthly. Bach's growing fame inspired even more legends of his dedication and skills and brought him many students, but his friendliness with both dukes of Weimar finally got him into trouble. Wilhelm decided to forbid Bach from contacting his rival Ernst August, but Bach ignored the order. Apparently as punishment, Bach was then not even considered for the job of Kappellmeister that opened up shortly after. Even more insulting, the job was given to a fairly mediocre musician (who also happened to be the son of the predecessor). Bach retaliated by refusing to write any more cantatas for Wilhelm. When Wilhelm found out that Bach was asked to work for Prince Leopold in Kцthen, he had the composer locked up for almost a month. After he was freed and dishonorably dismissed, Bach moved his family to Kцthen to accept the Prince's offer.
Working for Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Kцthen was one of Bach's happiest times. The prince was a musician himself and had created a band of talented players to perform in Kцthen. Bach was now writing band music and chamber music, but no sacred music - simply because he didn't have to in Leopold's Calvinist state! Works completed in Kцthen include his violin concertos BWV 1041 & 1042 as well as his Inventions. After returning from a second extravagant trip to Carlsburg with the prince's entourage in the summer of 1720, he discovered that his wife Maria Barbara had died and already been buried. Maria Barbara gave Bach seven children, four of which survived to adulthood. In the winter of 1721, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke (Wilcken/Wьlke), a soprano from the prince's court who was talented enough to earn half of Bach's high salary. Anna Magdalena bore Bach thirteen children, six of which lived to adulthood. She also raised Maria Barbara's young children (the oldest being thirteen when she became their stepmother). A favorite Bach collection was written for his new wife in 1722, Klavierbьchlein fьr Anna Magdalena Bach. Shortly after Bach's remarriage, Prince Leopold also married. Leopold's bride was his cousin Friederica Henrietta von Anhalt-Bernburg, who history claims was not interested in music and therefore hampered the music scene in Kцthen. More likely, the decline of music funding was due to the growing need to boost the Prussian military, but regardless, the atmosphere did not please Bach. Bach began to apply for other employment and while on the job hunt, one of Bach's most famous creations was written - The Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051. Bach wrote the six concertos for the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg who had a band in Berlin. While the flattering dedication failed to get Bach the job, it did leave the world one of his most loved works. Bach's third application landed him a job in Leipzig as cantor. Even after Bach took the position, he remained as honorary Kappellmeister for Prince Leopold until Leopold's death in 1728. After Leopold's death, Bach obtained another honorary position as Kappellmeister for the duke Christian von Sachsen-Weissenfels.
In 1723, Bach became cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig after an audition that included the canatas Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwцlfe BWV 22 and Du Wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn BWV 23. St. Thomas was in charge of supplying choirs to the four major churches in town: Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche, Peterskirche and Neue Kirche. Bach was to organize the 55 boys into four choirs based on their abilities so that the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche, respectively, got the best choirs. He also was in charge of running five-day-a-week rehearsals. In spite of his hectic schedule, Bach wrote 200-300 cantatas in 5 years - in 1724-5 writing one per week! Unfortunately, almost half of the cantatas that he wrote during this time were lost over time. Bach's large output of music was extraordinary, even for the productive Baroque era, considering his many duties. Some discount his high number of works by reminding that many of Bach's cantatas were "parodies" (pieces based on themes from previous works). However, most of Bach's parodies were great masterpieces in spite of where they were inspired from. Bach's job in Leipzig also required him to teach Latin - a chore that Bach paid someone else to do for him out of his own salary. Bach grew more discontented with the lack of discipline at the St. Thomas school and supplemented his income with side commissions and performances. Due to his low income (much less than when he worked for Prince Leopold) and his growing annoyance with the school (and besides, he always hated the title of cantor), Bach decided to also become the Director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. With this additional job, Bach's cantata writing ebbed since he was not able to have them performed the way he wanted anyway. At the Collegium Musicum, he found an outlet through running an orchestra of student and professional musicians until the 1740s. The orchestra performed weekly at Zimmerman's Coffee House and Bach wrote the famous Coffee Cantata BWV 211 as a subtle advertisement for Zimmerman's (sadly, Zimmerman's was destroyed during World War II). Bach apparently wrote a lot of chamber music while serving at the Collegium, but most of these works were lost after his death. Bach still composed a little for the church, writing the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244, St. Mark Passion BWV 247 (most of which is lost), the Christmas Oratorio BWV 248, the Easter Oratorio BWV 249, and the Ascension Oratorio BWV 11 in the years from 1731-1735. After 1735, he essentially stopped writing sacred works. Bach continued to write secular cantatas for awhile longer until about 1742, the Peasant Cantata BWV 212 being the last known secular cantata. By this time, Bach was writing a lot on commission for the upper class and major occasions, as well as selling books, sheet music, and for a time, forte-pianos.
In the early 1730s, the situation at the St. Thomas school improved when a new rector took over. The school underwent both physical and academic renovations that pleased Bach. In 1734, another new rector stepped in named Johann August Ernesti. Bach got along quite well with him at first and Ernesti was even godfather to two of Bach's sons. The friendship faltered when Ernesti became interested in the growing Enlightenment movement. The Enlightenment Era rose in the 17th and 18th centuries, giving prominence to ideas of science, reason, and individualism. Ernesti's own Enlightenment led to a desire to reduce the importance of music education at the school, which caused understandable conflict with Bach. The disagreement escalated until the Dresden court had to intervene. In 1736, Bach was appointed court Kappellmeister of Dresden for the future king Augustus II of Poland. His application included the Kyrie and the Gloria from the Mass in B Minor BWV 232. After gaining the post, Bach began to neglect his duties as cantor at the Thomas School and concentrated more on his personal projects.
During this time, Bach's three oldest sons, Wilhelm Fredemann, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, and Johann Gottfried Bernhard found musical employment and moved out of the house. While Wilhelm and Carl did quite well, Johann Gottfried Bernhard had troubles with debt and was repeatedly on the run, causing his family much distress until his death in 1739 at age 24. As Bach became aware of his own mortality, he began to concentrate on preserving his place in history. Since his family had been so intensively musical for so long, Bach wrote a well-researched geneaology that he called Ursprung des musicalisch - Bachischen Familie. Bach also began to put more of his music into print and to revise previous works to "improve" on them.
Dresden offered Bach a much richer musical scene than in Leipzig and Bach recognized the Italian styles that he loved in the local musicians. He also began to frequent Berlin, where Carl Phillip Emmanuel had a post. When Leipzig was conquered by Prussia, Bach visited it's king, Frederick II, who was an amateur musician. At the end of the visit, Frederick gave Bach a theme to base a major work upon, which would become the Musical Offering BWV 1079. Bach was able to make a rough draft of sorts while visiting, but convinced Frederick to let him take it home to refine it and have the score engraved and printed. Some might resent Bach's seemingly traitorous actions, going off to amuse the invader, but Bach was a practical man, ready to preserve his position and lifestyle. He had the foresight to realize that Frederick might well be an important figure who could be of use to Bach in the future. Bach's works now began to reflect his new galant style (a mix of the new Italian style with the strict counterpoint of Palestrina called stile antico). The Goldberg Variations BWV 988 from 1742 (aka Clavier-Uebung IV) were written as a result of a benefactor's commission for the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The Goldbergs represent the galant style through their emphasis on melody, the use of dance rhythms and the use of folk songs, among other things. Other works that are written in the same style are Mass in B Minor BWV 232, Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) BWV 1080, and one of Bach's collections of preludes and fugues known as Das Wohltemperiente Clavier II (The Well-tempered Clavier) BWV 870-893.
At the end of his life, Bach began to lose his sight - supposedly from reading by candlelight, but his symptoms suggest diabetes. Anna Magdalena then acted as his eyes, taking musical dictation from her husband on his final works. A few months after a failed cataract operation, Bach suffered a stroke and died shortly afterwards on July 28, 1750. His estate was divided up among his survivors with much legal difficulty since he had neglected to write up a will. Anna Magdalena was soon abandoned by her stepchildren and left to raise her own young children alone. When she died in 1760, she was given a pauper's funeral.
Bach remains the greatest contrapuntal composer in history. "Contrapuntal" refers to the use of counterpoint in a composition. Counterpoint takes different melodies and joins them harmoniously and rhythmically into a single piece. Bach's work is very Baroque in its beauty, power and emotion, but he was also ahead of his time with his later styles. Unfortunately, as he began to use Palestrina's styles from the Renaissance Era, his contemporaries accused him of being old-fashioned. Due to their lack of vision, many of Bach's works were either lost or thrown out by his replacement at the Thomas School. Some works were rented out by his sons and others were given away - some to be used to wrap meat at the market! Unthinkable now, but at the time, no one was concerned with the preservation of Bach's every last work since most considered him outdated. Fortunately, a majority of his work remains today for our continuing enjoyment and well-deserved appreciation. Johann Sebastian Bach is now properly recognized as the great composer and genius that he was.