Bach, Johann Sebastian

March 21, 1685- July 28, 1750

The greatest representative of a wonderful family of musicians, who were prominent in Germany for over two hundred years. Bach not only had a long line of musical ancestors himself but he is also said to have been the direct ancestor of about sixty well-known organists and composers of Germany. The musical branch of the family begins, as far as our knowledge of them is concerned, with Hans Bach, who was a trustee of the parish of Wechmar in Thuringia in 1561 and who is said to have been born there. Veit Bach, probably a son of Hans, was a miller and baker in Wechmar, and was the first musician of the family. He loved and studied music and played on the zither. Veit Bach had at least two sons, one Hans, called " Der Spielmann " (the player), and another whose name is unknown. These two brothers were the heads of the two main branches of the Bach family, which flourished in Thuringia. In time the towns of Armstadt, Erfurt, Eisenach, Gotha, and Muhlhausen  became their centers. Here they lived and were the town musicians and in these towns they held their family meetings, when they all gathered and exchanged musical knowledge and gave musical performances. Their thorough musical training was handed down from one to another, the older members teaching the younger and the younger taking up the musical positions as they became vacant, until finally, the town musicians were called, "The Bachs," even if they belonged to an entirely different family. Their most notable characteristics as a family were their great devotion to each other, their intense patriotism and their profound and absorbing love of music. The Bach family became extinct, in 1846, when Wilhelm F. E. Bach died. Hans Bach, " the player," the son of Veit Bach, was the great grandfather of Johann Sebastian, his grandfather being Christoph, townmusician of Erfurt and of Arnstadt, and his father Johann Ambrosius, was also town musician and a violinist of ability.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born at Eisenach, probably March 21, as he was baptized on March 23. His life as a child was very simple, but from his infancy he was surrounded by a strong musical atmosphere and the most intense German Protestant religious influence, and both of these things had a great effect upon his development and upon his music. He received his first musical instruction, which was on the violin, from his father. When he was ten years old both of his, parents died and left him to the care of Johann Christoph, his older brother, who was organist at Ohrdruf and a pupil of Pachelbel. This brother now became Sebastian's teacher, but it was not long until the pupil had absorbed all of the teacher's knowledge and still longed for more, but the brother seems to have discouraged rather than have encouraged this talent. Beside the organ, Sebastian worked upon the clavichord and harpsichord and made most rapid progress, so rapid, in fact, that his brother Christoph has been accused of jealousy, even to the extent of keeping from the boy the fine collection of manuscript organ music, which he owned and which Sebastian longed most ardently to study. So great was the boy's eagerness to possess this music, that he got hold of it by stealth at night and copied it all by moonlight, but only to have it destroyed by his stern elder brother, when discovered. This copying took six months and the strain on his eyes, thus caused, is said to have resulted in the blindness, which came upon him later in life. The amount of good music which he absorbed while doing this work must, however, have had great influence on his musical development. At the age of fifteen, Sebastian, who had a fine voice, obtained a position in the choir of St. Michael's School at Luneburg, and from this time on depended upon himself and worked out his own salvation in his musical career. During the three years spent here he had opportunity to study, beside vocal music, the organ, the clavichord and the violin and also to hear much good music. While at Luneburg, he made several journeys on foot to Hamburg to hear the famous organists, Reinken and Vincenz Lubeck, who were playing there. He also frequently visited Celle and became familiar with the French music of that place.

In 1703, Bach was appointed violinist in the Court Orchestra of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar, but could have remained only a few months, for, when visiting Arnstadt in the summer of the same year, he was appointed organist of the new church of that place. Bach remained at Arnstadt three years and during that time, having a good organ to play and a choir for which to compose, he produced some works of importance, but had much trouble with the church authorities, who wanted an organist and not a composer. He began at this time some of his church cantatas, which later grew into a long series and also wrote his odd Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, when his elder brother, Johann Jakob, left to join the Swedish Guard as oboe player. Each movement of this piece has a descriptive title and it is the only one of all of Bach's works that can be called program music. From Arnstadt, he made his famous journey on foot to Lubeck to hear the organist, Dietrich Buxtehude. He had leave of absence for four weeks, but was so fascinated by the music which he heard that he stayed four months. This, together with the liberties which he took with the service in the way of improvising, brought upon him the severe criticism of the Arnstadt church authorities, but he was not dismissed, which shows that his genius was already appreciated. In 1706, a position as organist at the Church of St. Blasias in Mühlhausen  became vacant and Bach obtained it at a salary of about seven pounds or thirty-five dollars a year together with certain quantities of corn, wood and fish, to be delivered without charge at his door. Upon this salary he was able to marry his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, by whom he had a family of seven children. Bach's stay at Mühlhausen was very short, for about a year after accepting the position he resigned, to become Court organist to the Grand Duke at Weimar. Here he remained for nine years, from his twenty-third to his thirty-second year, and was made conductor of the Court Orchestra in 1714.

While at Weimar, Bach became not only the finest organist of his time, but the greatest composer for the organ that the world has ever known. While here many of his greatest organ compositions were produced and also a series of church cantatas, which were written as part of the duties of his office. These cantatas hold much the same position in the German church services that anthems do in the service of English churches and they were a very important form of composition. In 1717, Bach was appointed to a position entirely different from those he had occupied before. He was called to Cothen by Prince Leopold of Anhalt, as conductor and director of his chamber music, at a salary of three hundred dollars a year. Here he had nothing to do with church music or organ playing and he gave his attention, chiefly, to writing orchestral music for stringed instruments and composing for the clavichord, and to teaching and traveling with his patron. The life at Cothen was very narrow and uninteresting, compared with that of Weimar and some biographers have thought it necessary to apologize for Bach, because he. accepted this position, others, however, have considered it a kind of breathing space or pause in his busy life, without which, he might not have accomplished the great amount of important work that he did later on.

Trips to Halle, Leipsic and Dresden varied the monotony of his life at Cothen and he also made a journey to Hamburg, to compete for the position of organist for the Jacobi Kirche, whose magnificent new organ attracted him. Things seem to have been very much the same then, as they are today, however, as in spite of the fact that Bach was recognized as the man for the place and the greatest organist of his time, the position was given to an insignificant young man, who could pay four hundred marks for it.

While at Cothen, Bach wrote the first part of his collection of forty-eight preludes and fugues known in German as The Well-tempered Clavier. As Bach's life at Weimar is representative of his work as an organist and a composer for the organ, so the time at Cothen stands for his production for the clavichord and orchestra. While at Carlsbad on one of his many trips with Leopold, Bach's wife died very suddenly. No news could be gotten to him and on his return he found her buried. He was left with four children, and about eighteen months after his wife's death, he married Anna Magdalena Wulkin, a young woman of twenty-one, who was a very fine soprano singer. Thirteen children were the result of this marriage, making a family of twenty in all. These children ranged all the way from idiocy to genius, those who were the most musically gifted belonging to the first family. In 1723, Bach was appointed cantor and musical director of the famous Thomas School at Leipsic, which position he held until his death, at the same time retaining his title as " Kapelmeister of Cothen." From Court conductor to cantor might be considered a step backward, did we not know that Bach was devoted heart and soul to the organ and the composition of church music, and that the position at Leipsic gave him special opportunity for these things. This particular position as cantor, too, had been always held by distinguished men and was differently considered from the ordinary post of the kind. Another very strong reason for Bach s going to Leipsic was that he wished to live in a place where he could have the best of educational advantages for his children, his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedman, being at once entered as a student in the University. As cantor at the Thomas School, Bach was supposed to teach the boys vocal and instrumental music and Latin. The latter work, however, he turned over to an assistant. He was also organist and director of music at the two chief churches of Leipsic, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, as well as overseer for several lesser churches. He was at the same time, director of music for the city of Leipsic.

The first years of Bach's life in Leipsic were very hard and unsatisfactory, on account of musical conditions at the Thomas School, and it was not until after the death of the rector, who opposed Bach in every way, that he was able to make much progress with the work. His relations with the Municipal Council, by whom he was elected and under whose direction he was supposed to work, were also very unpleasant. This body, which had charge of the city's musical affairs, as well as the Consistory, which looked after music matters for the church, utterly failed to understand Bach and caused him much annoyance in many petty ways. Things became so bad, in 1830, that Bach appealed to Erdmann, an old friend, to find him a more congenial position. But just at this time a new rector, named Gesner, came to the Thomas School and affairs immediately began to mend. Gesner became the firm friend of Bach and aided him in every possible way and, fortunately for the city of Leipsic and the development of music, the great master remained in the town and in his position until his death. Gesner remained at the Thomas School four years, which were the most peaceful, the busiest and most productive of Bach's life. But after these four good years, the old troubles and annoyances with school and church authorities began again and lasted, ever increasing, until his death. The most pathetic thing about all of these unpleasant affairs is that Bach  seems to have been always in the right, but seems also to have had always to deal with the most unreasonable and disagreeable people. His one solace during his busy and troubled days in Leipsic was his home life, which was the most delightful imaginable, his wife and children all being musicians and keenly interested in all musical matters and his house being filled at all times by pupils, who adored him. Grove says: "His art and his family, these were the two poles around which Bach's life moved; outwardly simple, modest, insignificant; inwardly great, rich, and luxurious in growth and production."

During the years at Leipsic, Bach developed his full creative powers and produced his greatest works. For the services of the Leipsic churches he was supposed to compose music, and for them he wrote his great series of cantatas, comprising not less than three hundred and eighty, providing one for every Sunday and festival for five years. Many of these were lost, but about two hundred and twenty-six were saved and published. During these years he also wrote his greatest work, The Passion-Music. According to some biographers, there were five of these, but we have left only three, the St. John, the St. Matthew and the St. Mark. There is also a St. Luke Passion, but much doubt exists as to whether Bach wrote it. Soon after going to Leipsic, Bach was made honorary conductor to the Duke of Weissenfels, receiving the salary without being obliged to attend the court. In 1736 he was made Royal Court composer to the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. In 1747, after repeated invitations, Bach visited King Frederick the Great at Potsdam. He was received by the King with the greatest courtesy, was taken through the Palace, where he played on Frederick's collection of pianos, about fifteen in number; was invited to play on all the principal organs of the city and shown all the sights. After returning home, Bach composed and sent to the King The Musical Offering, worked  out on a theme written by the King himself. About a year before his death, Bach's eyesight began to fail and after two operations he became totally blind, but even after this he composed and dictated to his son-in-law one of his most beautiful chorales, When We in Sorest Trouble Are. About ten days before his death his sight returned. He died, July 25, 1750, at the age of sixty-five, of apoplexy. Bach was buried in St. John's churchyard in Leipsic. His grave was not marked, and when sometime afterward a road was made through the churchyard it was lost entirely. Professor Wilhelm His of Leipsic, in 1894, discovered a grave containing remains, which corresponded exactly to Bach's measurements. By covering the skull with wax, a portrait of the head was obtained, which agreed so closely with authentic portraits of the great musician that all doubts were set at rest and the remains were reinterred in a crypt, specially prepared, under the altar of the church. The reinterment took place, July 28, 1900, on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Bach's death.

Bach was said, by Schumann, to hold the same position in regard to music that a founder does to a religion. He is called "The musician for musicians." Bach left behind him an immense number of works, of which only a small part were published during his life. For over fifty years his works were much neglected, after that some attention were paid to them, some were printed and some reprinted, but not until Mendelssohn brought out the Passion-Music, in 1829 at Berlin, was the full greatness of the man realized. It is said, that as an organist, no one has been his equal, with the possible exception of Handel, and that his organ compositions, written at Weimar, were " unsurpassed and unsurpassable." He was also an able performer on stringed instruments and wrote much orchestral music. For instruments no longer in use he wrote three sonatas for the viola da gamba; three partitas (or variations) for the lute; and a suite for the viola pomposa, an instrument between the viola   and the violoncello, which he himself invented. Among such a great mass of compositions, only a few of the most important can be mentioned: The Passion-Music; the Mass in B Minor; the series of three hundred cantatas; and the oratorios for Christmas, Ascension and Easter are among the best of his vocal works. For the piano are The Well-tempered Clavier; French Suites; English Suites; and a great mass of preludes, sonatas and inventions. For the organ are his Art of Fugue; an enormous number of preludes, fantasias, toccatas, fugues and chorals. There are also sonatas for the violin and violoncello, a concerto for several different instruments; also many motets, secular cantatas, solos and trios for different instruments in different combinations, beside an immense number of single pieces for various instruments. Beside his great Art of Fugue and other compositions for the organ, Bach's three most important works were probably his Well-tempered Clavier, the Passion-Music, and his High Mass in B Minor, which has been described as a "Gothic cathedral in music." The Well-tempered Clavier is in two volumes, each containing twenty-four preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys. The first volume was written during his five years' residence at Cothen, the second was composed at Leipsic in 1740. Forkel, a noted musical authority, says of his work, "The second part consists, from the beginning to the end entirely of masterpieces. In the first part, on the other hand, there are still some preludes and fugues, which bear marks of the immaturity of early youth and have been retained by the author only to have the number of four-and twenty complete. But even here -the author corrected, in course of time, whatever was capable of amendment. Even the second part received great improvements. In general both parts of this work contain a treasure of art, which cannot be found anywhere but in Germany." Another authority says of this work, that no musician or pianist can ignore it with impunity, and Schumann commended it to young musicians as their "daily bread." Of Bach's St. John and St. Matthew Passions, which are the gospel stories presented in musical form, R. L. Poole says: "The biblical narrative is followed with entire fidelity and the master has proceeded with such independent judgment that his work stands quite remote from the strange medley, with which his immediate predecessors had to be contented. The music they wrote to it was indeed of great individual beauty, but in their hands it never gained the symmetry of an organic whole. It is Bach's peculiar glory to have succeeded in this endeavor where everyone else had failed. He adopted, not the forms of the Italian oratorio, but he absorbed its spirit. He blended it in a manner of which no previous composer had ever suspected the possibility, with the profound religiousness of the national chorale. Above all, he created a recitative of his own, stripped of all that was theatrical and entirely appropriate to the setting forth of the divine narrative. In his Passion-Music, he brings to absolute completeness the form for which his conception of the church cantata had been through long years the preparation. The Passions according to St. John and St. Matthew lie before us as the noblest monuments of Bach's spirit. Each is in truth incomparable, whether in relation to the other, or to the rest of sacred music. The St. John Passion is the perfection of church-music; the St. Matthew reaches the goal of all sacred art, while its colossal dimensions take it, almost, happily not quite, out of the range of church performance." The Mass in B Minor was written probably for production in the Leipsic churches. On it, it is said, Bach put all his strength and consecrated every resource of inspiration and art, every possibility of voice and instrument. To quote again from Poole, "Words, however, can give but a very faint impression of this masterpiece of universal Christendom; and daring with forced fingers rude, to touch its perfect outline, I leave inviolate the lyrical tenderness of the Agnus Dei and the yearning desire of the Dona nobis pacem, the restful consummation of the whole, nor can I describe the infinite fertility of the design, the happy frequency with which, in the arias, a single instrument, violin, flute, hautboy or horn, is made to enhance the delicacy of the human voice; or the splendor of the grouping of the orchestra, equally noble in sonorous magnificence and in chastened softness. Whether in its art or in its religion, the High Mass stands among the creations of Bach's master-spirit, first and alone, and for its sole equal the Passion according to Saint Matthew."

One writer has said, "It is not too much to assert, that without Sebastian Bach and his matchless studies for the piano, organ and orchestra, we could not have had the varied musical development, in sonata and symphony from such masters as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven." Apthorp, a musical critic of ability, has said of Bach, "No one man has left so deep a mark on the history of music, nor has exerted so strong and far-reaching an influence upon the subsequent development of the art as he. In a word, Sebastian Bach is the great source and fountain-head from whom well nigh all that is best and most enduring in modern music has been derived."