Johann Sebastian Bach, born March 21 [March 31, New Style], 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringia, Ernestine Saxon Duchies [Germany], was a composer of the Baroque era, the most celebrated member of a large family of north German musicians. Although he was admired by his contemporaries primarily as an outstanding harpsichordist, organist, and expert on organ building, Bach is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is celebrated as the creator of the Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, and numerous other masterpieces of church and instrumental music. Appearing at a propitious moment in the history of music, Bach was able to survey and bring together the principal styles, forms, and national traditions that had developed during preceding generations and, by virtue of his synthesis, enrich them all.
The Aristipposian Poet
The Life You Give: Johann Sebastian Bach
in celebration of his life in music
March 21 at 1:30 EST
He was a member of a remarkable family of musicians who were proud of their achievements, and about 1735 he drafted a genealogy, Ursprung der musicalisch-Bachischen Familie (“Origin of the Musical Bach Family”), in which he traced his ancestry back to his great-great-grandfather Veit Bach, a Lutheran baker (or miller) who late in the 16th century was driven from Hungary to Wechmar in Thuringia, a historic region of Germany, by religious persecution and died in 1619. There were Bachs in the area before then, and it may be that, when Veit moved to Wechmar, he was returning to his birthplace. He used to take his cittern to the mill and play it while the mill was grinding. Johann Sebastian remarked, “A pretty noise they must have made together! However, he learnt to keep time, and this apparently was the beginning of music in our family.”
Until the birth of Johann Sebastian, his was the least distinguished branch of the family; some of its members, such as Johann Christoph and Johann Ludwig, had been competent practical musicians but not composers. In later days the most important musicians in the family were Johann Sebastian’s sons—Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Christian (the “English Bach”).
J.S. Bach was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach and Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. Ambrosius was a string player, employed by the town council and the ducal court of Eisenach. Johann Sebastian started school in 1692 or 1693 and did well in spite of frequent absences. Of his musical education at this time, nothing definite is known; however, he may have picked up the rudiments of string playing from his father, and no doubt he attended the Georgenkirche, where Johann Christoph Bach was organist until 1703.
By 1695 both his parents were dead, and he was looked after by his eldest brother, also named Johann Christoph (1671–1721), organist at Ohrdruf. This Christoph had been a pupil of the influential keyboard composer Johann Pachelbel, and he apparently gave Johann Sebastian his first formal keyboard lessons. The young Bach again did well at school, and in 1700 his voice secured him a place in a select choir of poor boys at the school at Michaelskirche, Lüneburg.
His voice must have broken soon after this, but he remained at Lüneburg for a time, making himself generally useful. No doubt he studied in the school library, which had a large and up-to-date collection of church music; he probably heard Georg Böhm, organist of the Johanniskirche; and he visited Hamburg to hear the renowned organist and composer Johann Adam Reinken at the Katharinenkirche, contriving also to hear the French orchestra maintained by the duke of Celle.
He seems to have returned to Thuringia in the late summer of 1702. By this time he was already a reasonably proficient organist. His experience at Lüneburg, if not at Ohrdruf, had turned him away from the secular string-playing tradition of his immediate ancestors; thenceforth he was chiefly, though not exclusively, a composer and performer of keyboard and sacred music. The next few months are wrapped in mystery, but by March 4, 1703, he was a member of the orchestra employed by Johann Ernst, duke of Weimar (and brother of Wilhelm Ernst, whose service Bach entered in 1708). This post was a mere stopgap; he probably already had his eye on the organ then being built at the Neue Kirche (New Church) in Arnstadt, for, when it was finished, he helped to test it, and in August 1703 he was appointed organist—all this at age 18. Arnstadt documents imply that he had been court organist at Weimar; this is incredible, though it is likely enough that he had occasionally played there.
At Arnstadt, on the northern edge of the Thuringian Forest, where he remained until 1707, Bach devoted himself to keyboard music, the organ in particular. While at Lüneburg he had apparently had no opportunity of becoming directly acquainted with the spectacular, flamboyant playing and compositions of Dietrich Buxtehude, the most significant exponent of the north German school of organ music. In October 1705 he repaired this gap in his knowledge by obtaining a month’s leave and walking to Lübeck (more than 200 miles [300 km]). His visit must have been profitable, for he did not return until about the middle of January 1706. In February his employers complained about his absence and about other things as well: he had harmonized the hymn tunes so freely that the congregation could not sing to his accompaniment, and, above all, he had produced no cantatas. Perhaps the real reasons for his neglect were that he was temporarily obsessed with the organ and was on bad terms with the local singers and instrumentalists, who were not under his control and did not come up to his standards.
During these early years, Bach inherited the musical culture of the Thuringian area, a thorough familiarity with the traditional forms and hymns (chorales) of the orthodox Lutheran service, and, in keyboard music, perhaps (through his brother, Johann Christoph) a bias toward the formalistic styles of the south. But he also learned eagerly from the northern rhapsodists, Buxtehude above all. By 1708 he had probably learned all that his German predecessors could teach him and arrived at a first synthesis of northern and southern German styles. He had also studied, on his own and during his presumed excursions to Celle, some French organ and instrumental music.
The Weimar period
Bach was, from the outset, court organist at Weimar and a member of the orchestra. Encouraged by Wilhelm Ernst, he concentrated on the organ during the first few years of his tenure. From Weimar, Bach occasionally visited Weissenfels; in February 1713 he took part in a court celebration there that included a performance of his first secular cantata, Was mir behagt, also called the Hunt Cantata (BWV 208).
Late in 1713 Bach had the opportunity of succeeding Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow at the Liebfrauenkirche, Halle; but the duke raised his salary, and he stayed on at Weimar. On March 2, 1714, he became concertmaster, with the duty of composing a cantata every month. He became friendly with a relative, Johann Gottfried Walther, a music lexicographer and composer who was organist of the town church, and, like Walther, Bach took part in the musical activities at the Gelbes Schloss (“Yellow Castle”), then occupied by Duke Wilhelm’s two nephews, Ernst August and Johann Ernst, both of whom he taught. The latter was a talented composer who wrote concerti in the Italian manner, some of which Bach arranged for keyboard instruments; the boy died in 1715, in his 19th year.
Unfortunately, Bach’s development cannot be traced in detail during the vital years 1708–14, when his style underwent a profound change. There are too few datable works. From the series of cantatas written in 1714–16, however, it is obvious that he had been decisively influenced by the new styles and forms of the contemporary Italian opera and by the innovations of such Italian concerto composers as Antonio Vivaldi. The results of this encounter can be seen in such cantatas as No. 182, 199, and 61 in 1714, 31 and 161 in 1715, and 70 and 147 in 1716. His favourite forms appropriated from the Italians were those based on refrain (ritornello) or da capo schemes in which wholesale repetition—literal or with modifications—of entire sections of a piece permitted him to create coherent musical forms with much larger dimensions than had hitherto been possible. These newly acquired techniques henceforth governed a host of Bach’s arias and concerto movements, as well as many of his larger fugues (especially the mature ones for organ), and profoundly affected his treatment of chorales.
Among other works almost certainly composed at Weimar are most of the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), all but the last of the so-called 18 “Great” chorale preludes, the earliest organ trios, and most of the organ preludes and fugues. The “Great” Prelude and Fugue in G Major for organ (BWV 541) was finally revised about 1715, and the Toccata and Fugue in F Major (BWV 540) may have been played at Weissenfels.
On December 1, 1716, Johann Samuel Drese, musical director at Weimar, died. He was then succeeded by his son, who was rather a nonentity. Bach presumably resented being thus passed over, and in due course he accepted an appointment as musical director to Prince Leopold of Köthen, which was confirmed in August 1717. Duke Wilhelm, however, refused to accept his resignation—partly, perhaps, because of Bach’s friendship with the duke’s nephews, with whom the duke was on the worst of terms. About September a contest between Bach and the famous French organist Louis Marchand was arranged at Dresden. The exact circumstances are not known, but Marchand avoided the contest by leaving Dresden a few hours before it should have taken place. By implication, Bach won. Perhaps this emboldened him to renew his request for permission to leave Weimar; at all events he did so but in such terms that the duke imprisoned him for a month (November 6–December 2). A few days after his release, Bach moved to Köthen, some 30 miles north of Halle.
There, as musical director, he was concerned chiefly with chamber and orchestral music. Even though some of the works may have been composed earlier and revised later, it was at Köthen that the sonatas for violin and clavier and for viola da gamba and clavier and the works for unaccompanied violin and cello were put into something like their present form. The Brandenburg Concertos were finished by March 24, 1721; in the sixth concerto—so it has been suggested—Bach bore in mind the technical limitations of the prince, who played the gamba. Bach played the viola by choice; he liked to be “in the middle of the harmony.” He also wrote a few cantatas for the prince’s birthday and other such occasions; most of these seem to have survived only in later versions, adapted to more generally useful words. And he found time to compile pedagogical keyboard works: the Clavierbüchlein for W.F. Bach (begun January 22, 1720), some of the French Suites, the Inventions (1720), and the first book (1722) of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier, eventually consisting of two books, each of 24 preludes and fugues in all keys and known as “the Forty-Eight”). This remarkable collection systematically explores both the potentials of a newly established tuning procedure—which, for the first time in the history of keyboard music, made all the keys equally usable—and the possibilities for musical organization afforded by the system of “functional tonality,” a kind of musical syntax consolidated in the music of the Italian concerto composers of the preceding generation and a system that was to prevail for the next 200 years. At the same time, The Well-Tempered Clavier is a compendium of the most popular forms and styles of the era: dance types, arias, motets, concerti, etc., presented within the unified aspect of a single compositional technique—the rigorously logical and venerable fugue.
Maria Barbara Bach died unexpectedly and was buried on July 7, 1720. About November, Bach visited Hamburg; his wife’s death may have unsettled him and led him to inquire after a vacant post at the Jacobikirche. Nothing came of this, but he played at the Katharinenkirke in the presence of Reinken. After hearing Bach improvise variations on a chorale tune, the old man said, “I thought this art was dead; but I see it still lives in you.”
On December 3, 1721, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, daughter of a trumpeter at Weissenfels. Apart from his first wife’s death, these first four years at Köthen were probably the happiest of Bach’s life. He was on the best terms with the prince, who was genuinely musical; and in 1730 Bach said that he had expected to end his days there. But the prince married on December 11, 1721, and conditions deteriorated. The princess—described by Bach as “an amusa” (that is to say, opposed to the muses)—required so much of her husband’s attention that Bach began to feel neglected. He also had to think of the education of his elder sons, born in 1710 and 1714, and he probably began to think of moving to Leipzig as soon as the cantorate fell vacant with the death of Johann Kuhnau on June 5, 1722. Bach applied in December, but the post—already turned down by Bach’s friend, Georg Philipp Telemann—was offered to another prominent composer of the day, Christoph Graupner, the musical director at Darmstadt. As the latter was not sure that he would be able to accept, Bach gave a trial performance (Cantata No. 22, Jesu nahm zu sich die Zwölfe [Jesus Called unto Him the Twelve]) on February 7, 1723; and, when Graupner withdrew (April 9), Bach was so deeply committed to Leipzig that, although the princess had died on April 4, he applied for permission to leave Köthen. This he obtained on April 13, and on May 13 he was sworn in at Leipzig.
He was appointed honorary musical director at Köthen, and both he and Anna were employed there from time to time until the prince died, on November 19, 1728.
As director of church music for the city of Leipzig, Bach had to supply performers for four churches. At the Peterskirche the choir merely led the hymns. At the Neue Kirche, Nikolaikirche, and Thomaskirche, part singing was required; but Bach himself conducted, and his own church music was performed, only at the last two. His first official performance was on May 30, 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday, with Cantata No. 75, Die Elenden sollen essen. New works produced during this year include many cantatas and the Magnificat in its first version. The first half of 1724 saw the production of the St. John Passion, which was subsequently revised. The total number of cantatas produced during this ecclesiastical year was about 62, of which about 39 were new works.
On June 11, 1724, the first Sunday after Trinity, Bach began a fresh annual cycle of cantatas, and within the year he wrote 52 of the so-called chorale cantatas, formerly supposed to have been composed over the nine-year period 1735–44. The “Sanctus” of the Mass in B Minor was produced at Christmas.
During his first two or three years at Leipzig, Bach produced a large number of new cantatas, sometimes, as research has revealed, at the rate of one a week. This phenomenal pace raises the question of Bach’s approach to composition. Bach and his contemporaries, subject to the hectic pace of production, had to invent or discover their ideas quickly and could not rely on the unpredictable arrival of “inspiration.” Nor did the musical conventions and techniques or the generally rationalistic outlook of the time necessitate this reliance, as long as the composer was willing to accept them. The Baroque composer who submitted to the regimen inevitably had to be a traditionalist who willingly embraced the conventions.
A repertoire of melody types existed, for example, that was generated by an explicit “doctrine of figures” that created musical equivalents for the figures of speech in the art of rhetoric. Closely related to these “figures” are such examples of pictorial symbolism in which the composer writes, say, a rising scale to match words that speak of rising from the dead or a descending chromatic scale (depicting a howl of pain) to sorrowful words. Pictorial symbolism of this kind occurs only in connection with words—in vocal music and in chorale preludes, where the words of the chorale are in the listener’s mind. There is no point in looking for resurrection motifs in The Well-Tempered Clavier. Pictorialism, even when not codified into a doctrine, seems to be a fundamental musical instinct and essentially an expressive device. It can, however, become more abstract, as in the case of number symbolism, a phenomenon observed too often in the works of Bach to be dismissed out of hand.
Number symbolism is sometimes pictorial; in the St. Matthew Passion it is reasonable that the question “Lord, is it I?” should be asked 11 times, once by each of the faithful disciples. But the deliberate search for such symbolism in Bach’s music can be taken too far. Almost any number may be called “symbolic” (3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, and 41 are only a few examples); any multiple of such a number is itself symbolic; and the number of sharps in a key signature, notes in a melody, measures in a piece, and so on may all be considered significant. As a result, it is easy to find symbolic numbers anywhere, but ridiculous to suppose that such discoveries invariably have a meaning.
Besides the melody types, the Baroque composer also had at his disposal similar stereotypes regarding the further elaboration of these themes into complete compositions, so that the arias and choruses of a cantata almost seem to have been spun out “automatically.” One is reminded of Bach’s delightfully innocent remark “I have had to work hard; anyone who works just as hard will get just as far,” with its implication that everything in the “craft” of music is teachable and learnable. The fact that no other composer of the period, with the arguable exception of Handel, even remotely approached Bach’s achievement indicates clearly enough that the application of the “mechanical” procedures was not literally “automatic” but was controlled throughout by something else—artistic discrimination, or taste. One of the most respected attributes in the culture of the 18th century, “taste” is an utterly individual compound of raw talent, imagination, psychological disposition, judgment, skill, and experience. It is unteachable and unlearnable.
As a result of his intense activity in cantata production during his first three years in Leipzig, Bach had created a supply of church music to meet his future needs for the regular Sunday and feast day services. After 1726, therefore, he turned his attention to other projects. He did, however, produce the St. Matthew Passion in 1729, a work that inaugurated a renewed interest in the mid-1730s for vocal works on a larger scale than the cantata: the now-lost St. Mark Passion (1731), the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (1734), and the Ascension Oratorio (Cantata No. 11, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen; 1735).
In addition to his responsibilities as director of church music, Bach also had various nonmusical duties in his capacity as the cantor of the school at Thomaskirche. Since he resented these latter obligations, Bach frequently absented himself without leave, playing or examining organs, taking his son Friedemann to hear the “pretty tunes,” as he called them, at the Dresden opera, and fulfilling the duties of the honorary court posts that he contrived to hold all his life. To some extent, no doubt, he accepted engagements because he needed money—he complained in 1730 that his income was less than he had been led to expect (he remarked that there were not enough funerals)—but, obviously, his routine work must have suffered. Friction between Bach and his employers thus developed almost at once. On the one hand, Bach’s initial understanding of the fees and prerogatives accruing to his position—particularly regarding his responsibility for musical activities in the University of Leipzig’s Paulinerkirche—differed from that of the town council and the university organist, Johann Gottlieb Görner. On the other hand, Bach remained, in the eyes of his employers, their third (and unenthusiastic) choice for the post, behind Telemann and Graupner. Furthermore, the authorities insisted on admitting unmusical boys to the school, thus making it difficult for Bach to keep his churches supplied with competent singers; they also refused to spend enough money to keep a decent orchestra together.
The resulting ill feeling had become serious by 1730. It was temporarily dispelled by the tact of the new rector, Johann Matthias Gesner, who admired Bach and had known him at Weimar; but Gesner stayed only until 1734 and was succeeded by Johann August Ernesti, a young man with up-to-date ideas on education, one of which was that music was not one of the humanities but a time-wasting sideline. Trouble flared up again in July 1736; it then took the form of a dispute over Bach’s right to appoint prefects and became a public scandal. Fortunately for Bach, he became court composer to the elector of Saxony in November 1736. As such, after some delay, he was able to induce his friends at court to hold an official inquiry, and his dispute with Ernesti was settled in 1738. The exact terms of the settlement are not known, but thereafter Bach did as he liked.
In 1726, after he had completed the bulk of his cantata production, Bach began to publish the clavier Partitas singly, with a collected edition in 1731, perhaps with the intention of attracting recognition beyond Leipzig and thus securing a more amenable appointment elsewhere. The second part of the Clavierübung, containing the Concerto in the Italian Style and the French Overture (Partita) in B Minor, appeared in 1735. The third part, consisting of the Organ Mass with the Prelude and Fugue [“St. Anne”] in E-flat Major (BWV 552), appeared in 1739. From c. 1729 to 1736 Bach was honorary musical director to Weissenfels; and, from 1729 to 1737 and again from 1739 for a year or two, he directed the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. For these concerts, he adapted some of his earlier concerti as harpsichord concerti, thus becoming one of the first composers—if not the very first—of concerti for keyboard instrument and orchestra, just as he was one of the first to use the harpsichordist’s right hand as a true melodic part in chamber music. These are just two of several respects in which the basically conservative and traditional Bach was a significant innovator as well.
About 1733 Bach began to produce cantatas in honour of the elector of Saxony and his family, evidently with a view to the court appointment he secured in 1736; many of these secular movements were adapted to sacred words and reused in the Christmas Oratorio. The “Kyrie” and “Gloria” of the Mass in B Minor, written in 1733, were also dedicated to the elector, but the rest of the Mass was not put together until Bach’s last years. On his visits to Dresden, Bach had won the regard of the Russian envoy, Hermann Karl, Reichsgraf (count) von Keyserlingk, who commissioned the so-called Goldberg Variations; these were published as part four of the Clavierübung in 1741, and Book Two of “the Forty-Eight” seems to have been compiled about the same time. In addition, he wrote a few cantatas, revised some of his Weimar organ works, and published the so-called Schübler Chorale Preludes in or after 1746.
In May 1747 he visited his son Emanuel at Potsdam and played before Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia; in July his improvisations, on a theme proposed by the king, took shape as The Musical Offering. In June 1747 he joined a Society of the Musical Sciences that had been founded by his former pupil Lorenz Christoph Mizler; he presented the canonic variations on the chorale Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come) to the society, in manuscript, and afterward published them.
Of Bach’s last illness little is known except that it lasted several months and prevented him from finishing The Art of the Fugue. His constitution was undermined by two unsuccessful eye operations performed by John Taylor, the itinerant English quack who numbered Handel among his other failures; and Bach died on July 28, 1750, at Leipzig. His employers proceeded with relief to appoint a successor; Burgomaster Stieglitz remarked, “The school needs a cantor, not a musical director—though certainly he ought to understand music.” Anna Magdalena was left badly off. For some reason, her stepsons did nothing to help her, and her own sons were too young to do so. She died on February 27, 1760, and was given a pauper’s funeral.
Unfinished as it was, The Art of the Fugue was published in 1751. It attracted little attention and was reissued in 1752 with a laudatory preface by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, a well-known Berlin musician who later became director of the royal lottery. In spite of Marpurg and of some appreciative remarks by Johann Mattheson, the influential Hamburg critic and composer, only about 30 copies had been sold by 1756, when Emanuel Bach offered the plates for sale. As far as is known, they were sold for scrap.
Emanuel Bach and the organist-composer Johann Friedrich Agricola (a pupil of Sebastian’s) wrote an obituary; Mizler added a few closing words and published the result in the journal of his society (1754). There is an English translation of it in The Bach Reader. Though incomplete and inaccurate, the obituary is of very great importance as a firsthand source of information.
Bach appears to have been a good husband and father. Indeed, he was the father of 20 children, only 10 of whom survived to maturity. There is amusing evidence of a certain thriftiness—a necessary virtue, for he was never more than moderately well off and he delighted in hospitality. Living as he did at a time when music was beginning to be regarded as no occupation for a gentleman, he occasionally had to stand up for his rights both as a man and as a musician; he was then obstinate in the extreme. But no sympathetic employer had any trouble with Bach, and with his professional brethren he was modest and friendly. He was also a good teacher and from his Mühlhausen days onward was never without pupils.
For about 50 years after Bach’s death, his music was neglected. This was only natural; in the days of Haydn and Mozart, no one could be expected to take much interest in a composer who had been considered old-fashioned even in his lifetime—especially since his music was not readily available, and half of it (the church cantatas) was fast becoming useless as a result of changes in religious thought.
At the same time, musicians of the late 18th century were neither so ignorant of Bach’s music nor so insensitive to its influence as some modern authors have suggested. Emanuel Bach’s debt to his father was considerable, and Bach exercised a profound and acknowledged influence directly on Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
After 1800 the revival of Bach’s music gained momentum. The German writer Johann Nikolaus Forkel published a study of Bach’s life and art in 1802 and acted as adviser to the publishers Hoffmeister and Kühnel, whose collected edition, begun in 1801, was cut short by the activities of Napoleon. By 1829 a representative selection of keyboard music was nonetheless available, although very few of the vocal works were published. But in that year the German musician Eduard Devrient and the German composer Felix Mendelssohn took the next step with the centenary performance of the St. Matthew Passion. It and the St. John Passion were both published in 1830; the Mass in B Minor followed (1832–45). The Leipzig publisher Peters began a collected edition of “piano” and instrumental works in 1837; the organ works followed in 1844–52.
Encouraged by Robert Schumann, the Bach-Gesellschaft (BG) was founded in the centenary year 1850, with the purpose of publishing the complete works. By 1900 all the known works had been printed, and the BG was succeeded by the Neue Bach-Gesellschaft (NBG), which exists still, organizing festivals and publishing popular editions. Its chief publication is its research journal, the Bach-Jahrbuch (from 1904). By 1950 the deficiencies of the BG edition had become painfully obvious, and the Bach-Institut was founded, with headquarters at Göttingen and Leipzig, to produce a new standard edition (the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, or NBA), a publication that eventually exceeded 100 volumes.
In retrospect, the Bach revival, reaching back to 1800, can be recognized as the first conspicuous example of the deliberate exhumation of old music, accompanied by biographical and critical studies. The revival also served as an inspiration and a model for subsequent work of a similar kind.
Among the biographical and critical works on Bach, the most important was the monumental study Johann Sebastian Bach, 2 vol. (1873–80), by the German musicologist Philipp Spitta, covering not only Bach’s life and works but also a good deal of the historical background. Although wrong in many details, the book is still indispensable to the Bach student.
By Walter Emery, Robert L. Marshall / Source: Britannica