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Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian BachBorn: 21-Mar-1685
Birthplace: Eisenach, Germany
Died: 28-Jul-1750
Location of death: Leipzig, Germany
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Buried, Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany

Gender: Male
Religion: Lutheran
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Composer

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Baroque composer

German musical composer. The Bach family was of importance in the history of music for nearly two hundred years. Four branches of it were known at the beginning of the 16th century, and in 1561 we hear of Hans Bach of Wechmar who is believed to be the father of Wit Bach (born about 1555). The family genealogy, drawn up by J. Sebastian Bach himself and completed by his son Philipp Emanuel, describes Veit Bach as the founder of the family, a baker and a miller, "whose zither must have sounded very pretty among the clattering of the mill-wheels." His son, Hans Bach, "der Spielmann", is the first professional musician of the family. Of Hans's large family the second son, Christoph, was the grandfather of Sebastian Bach. Another son, Heinrich, of Arnstadt, had two sons, Johann Michael and Johann Christoph, who are among the greatest of J. S. Bach's forerunners, Johann Christoph being now supposed (although this is still disputed) to be the author of the splendid motet, Ich lasse dich nicht ("I wrestle and pray"), formerly ascribed to Sebastian Bach. Another descendant of Veit Bach, Johann Ludwig, was admired more than any other ancestor by Sebastian, who copied twelve of his church cantatas and sometimes added work of his own to them.

The Bach family never left Thuringia until the sons of Sebastian went into a more modern world. Through all the misery of the peasantry at the period of the Thirty Years' War this clan maintained its position and produced musicians who, however local their fame, were among the greatest in Europe. So numerous and so eminent were they that in Erfurt musicians were known as "Bachs", even when there were no longer any members of the family in the town. Sebastian Bach thus inherited the artistic tradition of a united family whose circumstances had deprived them of the distractions of the century of musical fermentation which in the rest of Europe had destroyed polyphonic music.

Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized at Eisenach on the 23rd of March 1685. His parents died in his tenth year, and his elder brother, Johann Christoph, organist at Ohrdruf, took charge of him and taught him music. The elder brother is said to have been jealous of Sebastian's talent, and to have forbidden him access to a manuscript volume of works by Froberger, Buxtehude and other great organists. Every night for six months Sebastian got up, put his hand through the lattice of the bookcase, and copied the volume out by moonlight, to the permanent ruin of his eyesight (as is shown by all the extant portraits of him at a later age and by the blindness of his last years). When he had finished, his brother discovered the copy and took it away from him. In 1700 Sebastian, now fifteen and thrown on his own resources by the death of his brother, went to Luneburg, where his beautiful soprano voice obtained him an appointment at the school of St. Michael as chorister. He seems, however, to have worked more at instrumental than at vocal music. Apart from the choristers' routine, his position provided only for his general education, and we know little about his definite musical instructors. In any case he owed his musical development mainly to his own incessant study of classical and contemporary composers, such as Girolamo Frescobaldi (circa 1587), Caspar Kerl (1628-1693), Buxtehude, Froberger, Muffat the elder, Pachelbel and probably Johann Joseph Fux, the author of the Gradus ad Parnassum on which all later classical composers were trained. A prettier and no less authentic story than that of his brother's forbidden organ-volume tells how, on his return from one of the many holiday expeditions which Bach made to Hamburg on foot to hear the great Dutch organist Reinken, he sat outside an inn longing for the dinner he could not afford, when two herring-heads were flung out of the window, and he found in each of them a ducat with which he promptly paid his way, not home, but back to Hamburg. At Hamburg, also, Keiser was laying the foundations of German opera on a splendid scale which must have fired Bach's imagination though it never directly influenced his style. On the other hand Keiser's church music was of immense importance in his development. In Celle the famous Hofkapelle brought the influence of French music to bear upon Bach's art, an influence which inspired nearly all his works in suite-form and to which his many autograph copies of Couperin's music bear testimony. Indeed, there is no branch of music, from Palestrina onwards, conceivably accessible in Bach's time, of which we do not find specimens carefully copied in his own handwriting. On the other hand, when Bach, at the age of nineteen, became organist at Arnstadt, he found Lübeck within easy distance, and there, in October 1705, he went to hear Buxtehude, whose organ works show so close an affinity to Bach's style that only their lack of coherence as wholes reveals to the attentive listener that with all their nobility they are not by Bach himself. Bach's enthusiasm for Buxtehude caused him to outstay his leave by three months, and this, together with his habit of astonishing the congregation by the way he harmonized the chorales got him into trouble. But he was already too great an ornament to be lightly dismissed; and though his answers to the complaints of the authorities (every word of which makes amusing reading in the archives of the church) were spirited rather than satisfactory, and the consistorium had to add to their complaints the grave scandal of his allowing a "strange maiden" to sing in the church, Bach was able to maintain his position at Arnstadt until he obtained the organistship of St. Blasius in Mühlhausen in 1707. Here he married his cousin, easily identified with the "strange maiden" of Arnstadt; and here he wrote his first great church cantatas, Aus der Tiefe, Gott ist mein König and Gottes Zeit.

Bach's mastery of the keyboard attracted universal attention, and prevented his ever being unemployed. In 1708 he went to Weimar where his successes were crowned by his appointment, in 1714, at the age of twenty-nine, as Hofkonzertmeister to the duke of Weimar. Here the composition of sacred music was one of his most congenial duties, and the great cantata, Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss, was probably the first work of his new office. In 1717 Bach visited Dresden in the course of a concert tour, and was induced to challenge the arrogant French organist, J. Louis Marchand, who was making himself thoroughly disliked by the German musicians who could not deny his powers. Bach was first given an opportunity of listening secretly to Marchand's playing, then a competition on the organ was proposed, and a day was fixed for the tournament at which all the court and all the musical celebrities of the town were to be present, to see nothing less than the issue between French and German music. Marchand took up the challenge contemptuously; but it would appear that he also was allowed to listen secretly to Bach's playing, for on the day of the tournament the only news of him was that he had left Dresden by the earliest coach.

This triumph was followed by Bach's appointment as Kapellmeister to the duke of Cöthen, a post which he held from 1717 to 1723. The Cöthen period is that of Bach's central instrumental works, such as the first book of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier, the solo violin and violoncello sonatas, the Brandenburg concertos, and the French and English suites.

In 1723, finding his position at Cöthen uninspiring for choral music, he removed to Leipzig, where he became cantor of the Thomasschule, being still able to retain his post as visiting Kapellmeister at Cöthen, besides a similar position at Weissenfels. His wife had died in 1720, leaving seven children, of whom Friedermann and Philipp Emanuel had a great future before them. In December 1721 Bach married again, and for the beautiful soprano voice of his second wife he wrote many of his most inspired arias. She was a great help to him with all his work, and her musical handwriting soon became so like his own that her copies are difficult to distinguish from his autographs. In 1729 Bach heard that Handel was for a second time visiting Halle on his way back to London from Italy. A former attempt of Bach's to meet Handel had failed, and now he was too ill to travel, so he sent his son to Halle to invite Handel to Leipzig; but the errand was not successful, and much to Bach's disappointment he never met his only compeer. Bach so admired Handel that he made a manuscript copy of his Passion nach Brockes. This work, though almost unknown in England then as now, was, next to the oratorios of Keiser, incomparably the finest Passion then accessible, as Graun's beautiful masterpiece, Der Tod Jesu, was not composed until four years after Bach's death. The disgusting poem of Brockes (which was set by every German composer of the time) was transformed by Bach with real literary skill as the groundwork of the non-scriptural numbers in his Passion according to St. John.

All Bach's most colossal achievements, such as the Passion according to St. Matthew and the B Minor Mass, date from his cantorship at Leipzig. But, important and congenial as was his position there, and smooth as the course of his life seems to have been until his death in 1750, he must have had quite as much experience as can have been good for him. He was often ruffled by the town councillors of Leipzig, who (like his earlier employers at Arnstadt) were shocked by the "unecclesiastical style" of his compositions and by his independent bearing. But he had more serious troubles. Of his seven children by his first wife only three survived him. By his second wife he had thirteen children, of whom he lost four of the six sons. For the head of so large a family his post was dignified rather than lucrative, and few documents tell a prouder tale of uncomplaining thrift than the inventory of his possessions made after his death. One can only be thankful that he did not live to see anything but the wonderful promise of his son Friedermann, who, in the words of the brilliantly successful K. Philipp Emanuel Bach, was more nearly capable of replacing his father than all the rest of the family together. The prospect of complete loss of the tradition of his own polyphonic art he faced with equanimity, saying of the new style, which in the hands of his own son, Philipp Emanuel, was soon to eclipse it for the next hundred years, "The art has advanced to great heights: the old style of music no longer pleases our modern ears." But it would have broken his heart if he had forseen that Friedermann Bach was to attain a disreputable old age after a dissolute and unproductive life.

The brilliant successes of Philipp Emanuel led to his appointment as court-composer to the king of Prussia and hence, in 1747, to Sebastian's being summoned to visit Frederick the Great at Potsdam, an incident which Bach always regarded as the culmination of his career, much as Samuel Johnson regarded his interview with George III. Bach had to play on the numerous newly invented pianofortes of Silbermann which the king had bought, and also to try the organs of the churches of Potsdam. Frederick, whose musical reputation rested on a genuine if narrow basis, gave him a splendid theme on which to extemporize; and on that theme Bach afterwards wrote Das musikalische Opfer. Two years after this event his sight began to fail, and before long he shared the fate of Handel in becoming perfectly blind.

Bach died of apoplexy on the 28th of July 1750. His loss was deplored as that of one of the greatest organists and clavier players of his time. Of his compositions comparatively little was known. At his death his manuscript works were divided amongst his sons, and many of them have been lost; only a small fraction of his greater works was recovered when, after the lapse of nearly a century, the verdict of his neglectful posterity was reversed by the modern upholders of polyphonic art. Even now some important works are still apparently irrecoverable.

The rediscovery of Bach is closely connected with the name of Felix Mendelssohn, who was among the first to proclaim by word and deed the powers of a genius too gigantic to be grasped by three generations. By the enthusiastic endeavors of Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and others, and in England still earlier by the performances and publications of Wesley and Crotch, the circle of Bach's worshippers rapidly increased. In 1850, a century after his death, a society was started for the correct publication of all Bach's remaining works. Robert Franz, the great songwriter, did good service in arranging some of Bach's finest works for modern performance, until the experience of a purer scholarship could prove not only the possibility but the incomparably greater beauty of a strict adherence to Bach's own scoring. The Porson of Bach-scholarship, however, is Wilhelm Rust (grandson of the interesting composer of that name who wrote polyphonic suites and fantasias early in the 19th century). During the fourteen years of his editorship of the Bach-Gesellschaft he displayed a steadily increasing insight into Bach's style which has never since been rivalled. In more than one case he has restored harmonies of priceless value from incomplete texts, by means of research and reasoning which he sums up in a modest footnote that reads as something self-evident. His prefaces to the Bach-Gesellschaft volumes are perhaps the most valuable contributions to the criticism of 18th-century music ever written, Spitta's great biography not excepted.

Bach's importance in the history of music cannot be exaggerated. His art, neglected as old-fashioned and crabbed by his younger contemporaries, survived only in certain limited aspects as the subject of a desultory and unintelligent academic study, until its rediscovery by Mendelssohn. And yet, whatever disguise may have been foisted on it by corrupt traditions and ignorance of its idioms, whenever any fragment of it gained the inner ear of a true composer the effect on the history of music was immediate and profound. Indeed his influence is by no means chiefly manifested in the time when his work became known in its larger aspects, though the Bach-revival is very obviously connected with certain tendencies in the "Romantic" movement in music. But, however clear we may consider Bach's claim to the title of "the first of Romanticists", the full influence of his whole work has hardly yet begun to show itself. Schumann died before even such enthusiasts as the editors of the Bach-Gesellschaft began to find more beauty than extravagance in Bach's ordinary musical language, or, indeed, to grasp the main features of his designs. The labors of the Bach-Gesellschaft have occupied more than fifty years, during which about four-fifths of Bach's choral works have been published for the first time; and it would be surprising if another fifty years sufficed to make these adequately known to the world at large. It is difficult to make an anthology of such bulky works as church-cantatas, nor does an anthology meet the purpose where the whole work so constantly attains that excellence for which the anthologist seeks. Except for practical difficulties (as when Bach writes for obsolete instruments) the only reason why some cantatas are better known than others is that a beginning must be made somewhere.

It is clear, then, that the influence of Bach's art as an understood whole is still undeveloped. In the past history of music his part was hardly suspected except by the great composers themselves; and, to any one contemplating the art of the generation after him, it might have seemed that both he and Handel had worked in vain. Yet his was the most subtle and universal force in the development of music, even when his musical language seemed hopelessly forgotten. Mozart, when rapidly advancing to the height of his mastery, had but to read the Baron von Swieten's manuscript copies of the motets and of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier, and his style, quite apart from his immediate essays in the old art forms, and apart also from the influence of his study of Handel, developed a new polyphonic richness and depth of harmony which steadily increased until his untimely death. Beethoven studied all the accessible works of Bach profoundly, and frequently quoted them in his sketchbooks, often with a direct bearing on his own works. His rendering of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier is said to be recorded in the marks of expression and tempo given in Czerny's edition; and if that record is true, Beethoven must have been completely in the dark as to Bach's meaning in many important respects; but art is full of such illustrations of the way in which great minds influence each other in spite of every barrier which diversity of language and time can set. Beethoven's great Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli were actually described in the publisher's puff as worthy of their kinship with the "Goldberg Variations" of Bach; and that kinship is revealed in its truest light by a comparison between Beethoven's 31st variation and Bach's 25th; for here, just where the resemblance is most obvious, each composer utters his most intimate expression of feeling.

In the same way, Chopin is nowhere more characteristic than where he shows his love of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier in his Études and Preludes; and so subtle is the influence of polyphonic style even over a writer so little apt to make direct use of it as Chopin, that one of Schumann's few plagiarisms occurs in his use of a phrase from Chopin's F minor Étude (written for the Méthode des méthodes) as the subject of a fugue (Op. 72, No. 3). And, apart from fugues, which Schumann cultivated assiduously at a late stage in his career, the influence of Bach pervades the texture and rhythm of his work in more ways than can easily be followed.

In a more external, but not less significant way, the Passion according to St. Matthew made its mark on Mendelssohn from the time when he discovered it at the age of twelve, and suggested to him many features in the general design of oratorios, by means of which he rescued that branch of art from the operatic influences that ruined Beethoven's Mount of Olives. Without the example of Bach, Wagner's schemes of Leitmotif would never in his lifetime have become woven into that close polyphonic texture which secures for his music a flow as continuous as that of drama itself -- and intimately connected with this is the whole subject of Wagner's harmonization, which in many of its boldest characteristics was foreshadowed by Bach. A close study of the texture of Brahms's work shows that he develops Bach's and Beethoven's artistic devices pari passu, and that the result is a complete unification of that opposition between polyphony and form which in the infancy of the sonata (as in every transitional stage in musical history) threatened to wreck the art as a false antithesis wrecks a philosophy. Perhaps the only great composers who escaped the direct influence of Bach are Gluck and Berlioz. Even Gluck reproduced in every detail of harmony and figure the first twelve bars of the Gigue of Bach's B flat Clavier-Partita in the aria "Je t'implore et je tremble" in Iphigénie en Tauride. But plagiarism, however unconscious, is a very different thing from that profound indebtedness which makes a great man attain his truest originality; and Gluck's training practically deprived him of Bach's direct influence, useful as that would have been to the attainment of his aims in harmonic and choral expression. The indirect influence no one could escape, for whatever in modern music is not traceable to Sebastian Bach is traceable to his sons, who were encouraged by their father in the cultivation of those infant art forms which were so soon to dazzle the world into the belief that his own work was obsolete.

Bach's place in music is thus far higher than that of a reformer, or even of an inventor of new forms. He is a spectator of all musical time and existence, to whom it is not of the smallest importance whether a thing be new or old, so long as it is true. It is doubtful whether even the forms most peculiar to him (such as the arpeggio-prelude) are of his invention. Yet he left no form as he found it -- not even that most conventional of all, the Da Capo Aria, which he did not outwardly alter in the least. On the other hand, with every form he touched he said the last word. All the material that could be assimilated into a mature art he vitalized in his own way, and he had no imitators. The language of music changed at his death, and his influence became all-pervading just because he was not the prophet of the new art, but an unbiased seeker of truth. Whether so great a man becomes "progressive" or "reactionary" depends on the artistic resources of his time. He will always work at the kind of art that is most complete and consistent in all its aspects. The same spirit of truthfulness that makes Sebastian Bach hold himself aloof from the progressive art which he encourages in his sons, drives Beethoven to invent new forms and new means of expression with every work he writes. Gluck abolished the Da Capo Aria, because it was unfit for dramatic music. Bach did not abolish it, because he did not intend to write dramatic music in the strict sense of the term. Mature musical art in Bach's time could not be dramatic, except in the loose sense in which the term may be applied to an epic poem. Dramatic expression, properly so called, can only be attained in music by the full development of resources that do not blend with those of Bach's art at all. Meanwhile there are many things unsuitable for the stage which are nevertheless valuable on purely musical grounds; and the Da Capo Aria was one. Bach developed it in a great variety of ways, while retaining even the minor details of what in other hands had long before become its conventional form; but the one thing he did not do was to abuse it according to time-honored custom as the staple form for opera. For that he had too much dramatic insight.

Father: Johann Ambrosius Bach (b. 1645, d. 1695)
Mother: Elisabeth Lämmerhirt (b. 1644, d. 1694)
Brother: Johann Christoph
Brother: Johann Jacob
Wife: Maria Barbara (m. 17-Oct-1707, d. 1720, seven children)
Wife: Anna Magdalena Wilcken (m. 11-Dec-1721, thirteen children)
Daughter: Catharina Dorothea (b. 1708)
Son: Wilhelm Friedemann (b. 22-Nov-1710)
Son: Carl Philipp Emanuel (b. 8-Mar-1714)
Son: Johann Gottfried Bernhard
Son: Gottfried Heinrich
Son: Johann Christoph Friedrich (b. 1732)
Son: Johann Christian (b. 1735)
Daughter: Elisabeth Juliane Friederica

    Teacher: University of Leipzig

    Stroke early 1750
    Risk Factors: Smoking, Diabetes, Obesity



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