Today the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded as essential to the classical music repertoire, but the composer and his works were not especially significant during the time in which he lived. A local composer from Eisenach, Bach was not well known outside Germany until many years after his death. Regarded as too complex, J.S. Bach’s music was easily forgotten and was left unpublished for some time. It was with the interest and help of German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that his music was revived and his prominence established.
Most of his music was written for the voice, and J.S. Bach composed in every musical genre but opera. As he wrote countless pieces for the Lutheran church that were based on hymns, generating vocal music went along with his professional positions. A master of harmony and counterpoint, or the combination of voices each having an independent line, his music was technically challenging and dissonant. Perhaps this is the reason why his complex works were ignored for so long — no one knew quite how to interpret them in listening or in performance. Using counterpoint, Bach wrote many fugues. These are works that have a single theme called a fugue subject, which are completed with an answer to the subject. This subject is stated in all the voices and/or instruments, then combined in varying ways throughout the work. Stylistically, Bach fused German church music, the Italian concerto, and French dances. In all these genres, it was common for Bach to texturally build the voices one on top of another, and employ a compelling sense of motion all the way through to the end.
Born in 1685 at Eisenach, Germany, in the same year as Baroque composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), Johann Sebastian Bach came from a family of generations of musicians. Most were church organists or town performers in Germany. In fact, the last name “Bach” was specifically associated with the title “town musician.” Thus, Johann Sebastian’s early musical education came from his father. Both parents, however, died when he was nine, and Bach went to live with his older brother who was an organist in another town. Because his brother didn’t support Bach’s musicianship, the young boy left at age fifteen and went to live by himself in yet a different German town. Here, he went to school, sang in a church choir, and earned extra money by playing both the organ and violin. This led to the position of church organist at Arnstadt. But church leaders were suspicious because his music was so complicated. Understandably, Bach left at age 23 and traveled to Mülhausen, where again he was given the responsibilities as church organist. It was in this town that he met and married his first wife, his cousin Maria Barbara. The couple had seven children together.
J.S. Bach’s Weimar period chronologically came after his two church positions. Moving from the church to the court, he became court organist and concertmaster of the court orchestra in 1708. Bach established himself here for nine years and rose in popularity as an organ virtuoso and composer of numerous organ works. But relations with the duke went awry when Bach was denied a promotion. The duke was annoyed and jailed Bach for a month when the composer decided to resign! His time behind bars was productive, nevertheless; he wrote a well-known collection of chorale preludes entitled Little Organ Book, popular with students today.
Becoming court conductor for the prince of Cöthen, Bach’s most highly regarded position followed his time of employment in Weimar. From 1717-1723 he directed and composed for the prince’s small orchestra, which was during the same years that he produced the important Brandenburg Concertos. As it didn’t include church or organ music in its duties, this well-paid job at Cöthen was different. Providing him, then, the opportunity to explore other musical genres, it was at this court that Bach wrote many suites, concertos, keyboard music, and the sixteen sonatas for unaccompanied violin. In 1720, Bach’s wife died, and he remarried a young singer involved with the court. Starting over, his second marriage produced thirteen children. From his 20 children in all came four important Classical period composers: Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784), Carl Philip Emmanuel (1714-1788), Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-1795), and Johann Christian (1735-1782). Though happy at Cöthen, Prince Leopold married a woman who was indifferent toward music, and Bach began to look for yet another job.
The composer’s final position as director of music at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig came in 1723 and was offered to him only after Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) declined. This particular town had educational appeal, as Bach wanted his children to have solid Lutheran schooling and, later, attend the university. In this job, Bach dealt with responsibilities for four local churches and composed and directed for each Sunday and holiday of the church year. In addition, he taught music major students in organ and composition at the St. Thomas School and directed the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a group of students who gave weekly concerts. A devoted teacher and diligent worker, Bach even lived in a school room next to a classroom!
J.S. Bach’s main works highlight the popular Well-Tempered Clavier, two volumes of 24 total keyboard works which exploit new baroque tuning systems and key schemes, with a piece written in each major and minor key. Others well known in western music are the six Brandenburg Concertos, the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B minor, over 200 church cantatas, chorale preludes, and organ fugues. This last category includes the Art of the Fugue, seventeen different canons and fugues derived from the same theme and left unfinished at his death.
At the end of his life, Bach’s eyesight began to fail. In spite of surgeries to remove cataracts, he became blind during his last year. Buried at St. John’s Church in Leipzig, the composer died of a brain hemorrhage in 1750. Extremely spiritual and a devout Lutheran, Bach wrote at the start of every composition “Jesus help,” and at the end, “to God alone the glory” (qtd. in Kamien 173). This truly powerful Baroque composer believed that “the aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the Glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit” (qtd. in Machlis & Forney 164).