Johann Sebastian Bach (German pronunciation: [joˈhan] or [ˈjoːhan zeˈbastjan ˈbax]) (31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] – 28 July 1750) (often referred to simply as Bach) was a German composer, organist, violist, and violinist whose ecclesiastical and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity. Although he did not introduce new forms, he enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organisation, and the adaptation of rhythms, forms and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France.
Revered for their intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty, Bach's works include the Brandenburg concertos, the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion, the Magnificat, The Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, the English and French Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the Cello Suites, more than 200 surviving cantatas, and a similar number of organ works, including the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
Bach's abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now regarded as the supreme composer of the Baroque, and as one of the greatest of all time.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach. He was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the Stadtpfeifer or town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. His father taught him to play violin and harpsichord. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts ranged from church organists and court chamber musicians to composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), was especially famous and introduced him to the art of organ playing. Bach was proud of his family's musical achievements, and around 1735 he drafted a genealogy, "Origin of the musical Bach family".
The Brazil Guitar Duo play a movement from Bach's French Suite No.3 transcribed for guitar
Bach's mother died in 1694, and his father eight months later. The 10-year-old orphan moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), the organist at the Michaeliskirche in nearby Ohrdruf. There, he copied, studied and performed music, and apparently received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J.C. Bach exposed him to the works of the great South German composers of the day, such as Johann Pachelbel (under whom Johann Christoph had studied) and Johann Jakob Froberger; possibly to the music of North German composers; to Frenchmen, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais; and to the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. The young Bach probably witnessed and assisted in the maintenance of the organ music. Bach's obituary indicates that he copied music out of Johann Christoph's scores, but his brother had apparently forbidden him to do so, possibly because scores were valuable and private commodities at the time.
At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend George Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael's School in Lüneburg, not far from the northern seaport of Hamburg, one of the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire. This involved a long journey with his friend, probably undertaken partly on foot and partly by coach. His two years there appear to have been critical in exposing him to a wider palette of European culture than he would have experienced in Thuringia. In addition to singing in the a cappella choir, it is likely that he played the School's three-manual organ and its harpsichords. He probably learned French and Italian, and received a thorough grounding in theology, Latin, history, geography, and physics. He would have come into contact with sons of noblemen from northern Germany sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in diplomacy, government, and the military.
Although little supporting historical evidence exists at this time, it is almost certain that while in Lüneburg, young Bach would have visited the Johanniskirche (Church of St. John) and heard (and possibly played) the church's famous organ (built in 1549 by Jasper Johannsen and nicknamed the "Böhm organ" after its most prominent master, Georg Böhm). Given his innate musical talent, Bach would have had significant contact with prominent organists of the day in Lüneburg, most notably Böhm (the organist at Johanniskirche) as well as organists in nearby Hamburg, such as Johann Adam Reincken.
Arnstadt to Weimar (1703–08)
Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, he married his second cousin from Arnstadt, Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Two of them—Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach—became important composers in the ornate Rococo style that followed the Baroque.
After barely a year at Mühlhausen, Bach left, to become the court organist and concertmaster at the ducal court in Weimar, a far cry from his earlier position there as 'lackey'. The munificent salary on offer at the court and the prospect of working entirely with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians may have prompted the move. The family moved into an apartment just five minutes' walk from the ducal palace. In the following year, their first child was born and they were joined by Maria Barbara's elder, unmarried sister, who remained with them to assist in the running of the household until her death in 1729. It was in Weimar that the two musically significant sons were born—Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Bach's position in Weimar marked the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works, in which he had attained the technical proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing large-scale structures and to synthesise influences from abroad. From the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli and Torelli, he learned how to write dramatic openings and adopted their sunny dispositions, dynamic motor-rhythms and decisive harmonic schemes. Bach inducted himself into these stylistic aspects largely by transcribing for harpsichord and organ the ensemble concertos of Vivaldi; these works are still concert favourites. He may have picked up the idea of transcribing the latest fashionable Italian music from Prince Johann Ernst, one of his employers, who was a musician of professional calibre. In 1713, the Duke returned from a tour of the Low Countries with a large collection of scores, some of them possibly transcriptions of the latest fashionable Italian music by the blind organist Jan Jacob de Graaf. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian solo-tutti structure, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.
Weimar, he had the opportunity to play and compose for the organ, and to perform a varied repertoire of concert music with the duke's ensemble. A master of contrapuntal technique, Bach's steady output of fugues began in Weimar. The largest single body of his fugal writing is Das wohltemperierte Clavier ("The well-tempered keyboard"—Clavier meaning keyboard instrument). It consists of two collections compiled in 1722 and 1744,each containing a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key. This is a monumental work for its masterful use of counterpoint and its exploration, for the first time, of the full range of keys–and the means of expression made possible by their slight differences from each other—available to keyboardists when their instruments are tuned according to systems such as that of Andreas Werckmeister.
During his tenure at Weimar, Bach started work on the "Little Organ Book" for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann; this contains traditional Lutheran chorales (hymn tunes), set in complex textures to assist the training of organists. The book illustrates two major themes in Bach's life: his dedication to teaching and his love of the chorale as a musical form. Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and was, according to the court secretary's report, jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed:
“ On November 6, , the quondam concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge's place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge.
Bach began once again to search out a more stable job that was conducive to his musical interests. Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music). Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach's talents, paid him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. However, the prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship; thus, most of Bach's work from this period was secular, including the Orchestral suites, the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin. The well-known Brandenburg concertos date from this period.
Tatyana Ryzhkova plays a movement from Bach's French Suite No.3 transcribed for guitar
On 7 July 1720, while Bach was abroad with Prince Leopold, tragedy struck: his wife, Maria Barbara, the mother of his first 7 children, died suddenly. The following year, the widower met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 17 years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen; they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 more children, six of whom survived into adulthood: Gottfried Heinrich, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, all of whom became significant musicians; Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (1726–81), who married Bach's pupil Johann Christoph Altnikol; Johanna Carolina (1737–81); and Regina Susanna (1742–1809).