Overview

Johann Sebastian Bach

(1685—1750)


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(b Eisenach, 1685; d Leipzig, 1750).

Ger. composer and organist. Son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, organist and town musician, J. S. Bach was orphaned at the age of 10 and went to live with his elder brother Johann Christoph at Ohrdruf where he had klavier and org. lessons. In 1700 was a chorister at St Michael's Church, Lüneburg, staying for 3 years, learning much from the organist‐composer Georg Böhm. Organist at Arnstadt, 1703, and then Mühlhausen, 1707, when he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 became organist in the Kapelle of the Duke of Saxe‐Weimar, where he remained for 9 years, leaving in disappointment at not being appointed Kapellmeister in 1717. By this time he had comp. some of his finest org. works and church cantatas.

In 1717 appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt‐Cöthen where the prince's interest was not in religious works but in instr. comps. From this period date his vn. concs., sonatas, suites, and Brandenburg concs. Also comp. many of his best klavier works at Cöthen, probably for his children's instruction. In 1720 his wife died and in Dec. 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, 20‐year‐old daughter of the court trumpeter. Now dissatisfied with life at Cöthen, where the ruler's new wife showed little interest in mus., Bach applied for the cantorship at St Thomas's, Leipzig, in Dec. 1722. He was not selected, but the chosen candidate, Graupner, withdrew and Bach was appointed in May 1723, having in the meantime cond. his St John Passion in St Thomas's as evidence of his fitness for the post. Remained at St Thomas's for the rest of his life, not without several disputes with the authorities. During time there, comp. more than 250 church cantatas, the St Matthew Passion, Mass in B minor, Christmas Oratorio, Goldberg Variations, and many other works incl. his last, the unfinished Die Kunst der Fuge (Art of Fugue). In 1740 began to have trouble with his eyesight and in the last year of his life was almost totally blind.

Bach was famous as an org. virtuoso. As a composer his reputation in his lifetime was restricted to a fairly narrow circle and his mus. was regarded by many as old‐fashioned. His fame in no way approached that of, e.g., Telemann. His pubd. works today fill many vols., but in his lifetime fewer than a dozen of his comps. were printed, and for half a century after his death this position was only slightly improved until in 1801 the Well‐Tempered Klavier was issued. The revival of interest in Bach's mus. may be dated from the Berlin perf. of the St Matthew Passion on 11 Mar. 1829, cond. Mendelssohn. Systematic publication of his works by the Bach Gesellschaft began in 1850 to mark the centenary of his death. (See Bach Revival.)

Bach's supreme achievement was as a polyphonist. His N. Ger. Protestant religion was the root of all his art, allied to a tireless industry in the pursuit of every kind of refinement of his skill and technique. Sonata form was not yet developed enough for him to be interested in it, and he had no leaning towards the (to him) frivolities of opera. Although some of the forms in which he wrote—the church cantata, for example—were outdated before he died, he poured into them all the resources of his genius so that they have outlived most other examples. The dramatic and emotional force of his mus., as evidenced in the Passions, was remarkable in its day and has spoken to succeeding generations with increasing power. Suffice it to say that for many composers and for countless listeners, Bach's mus. is supreme—to quote Wagner: ‘the most stupendous miracle in all music’. Prin. works:

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Subjects: music.


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