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Classical Composers A-Z: Johann Sebastian Bach

Retired doctor Peter Wintersgill, continuing his series on classical composers, presents a moving portrait of the great Johann Sebastian Bach.

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, 1685 -1750

Ancestry

The Bach's were a remarkable family, having been musicians amateur or professional, for 5 generations. They would have family gatherings when they would make music on the slightest provocation, or none at all. Eventually the words Bach and musician became virtually interchangeable.

Born

21st March 1685 in Eisenach, Thuringia.

Father

Johann Ambrosius, town trumpeter.

Mother

Elizabeth

Family

Youngest of 4.

Childhood

Besides music, religion played a large part in his upbringing, his mother regularly reading him bible stories. Both his parents died when he was 10, so he and his brother Jacob went to live with their eldest brother Johann Christoph (24) at Ohrdruf, where he was organist. His brother gave him a strict but thorough education, both musical and general. He went to school there, where most of the boys were older than him; he was seen as very bright, even precocious. There is a well known story, which I have no reason to doubt, about some manuscripts his brother kept locked in a wire fronted cupboard. The boy, eager to learn anything of musical interest, studied them and copied them down by moonlight. He had almost finished this when his brother discovered him and confiscated the copies. One can hardly blame the brother too much, after all it was the middle of the night. He sang in the local church choir; where his treble voice and musical understanding were doubtless appreciated.

Adolescence

At 15 he left his brother's house, which was doubtless overcrowded, and went to a local convent school in Luneberg, where he studied with George Bohm, the organist there. No doubt he sang in the choir here too, till his voice broke, when he was kept on as assistant organist and copyist. While there he walked 30 miles to Hamburg to hear Reinken play the organ. After this he spent 4 months as violinist at the Dukal court of Weimar.

Arnstadt

Appointed organist at Arnstadt in 1703 aged 18, where he became known as an organist who understood organs. He was not a success with boys with his high standards and impatient nature. He was given a months leave while there to visit Lubeck to hear Buxtehude play the organ; he walked - with the aid of a few lifts no doubt - the 200 miles, overstaying his leave by 3 months. He listened a great deal and perhaps had some tuition from the old man; he may even have thought of succeeding him. If so he was soon put off by the condition - marriage to his unattractive daughter. He wrote many organ works there, also an Easter Cantata. Buxtehude was to have a great influence on his music. One day a woman's voice was heard singing in the church. The authorities complained of this, and it turned out to be Maria Barbara, a cousin of his, later to become his wife.

Mulhausen

Moved here in 1707 to become organist and married Maria Barbara, who was to bear him 7 children; a fine soprano, she shared his love of music. He became known as a teacher who took great pains with his pupils, who often became lasting friends. He asked for alterations to the organ, which he laid down in some detail; these were agreed to and he continued to supervise them after he left a year later. He wrote several church cantatas here, including "Christ lag in Todes baden".

Weimar

Appointed Court Organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst in

1708 aged 23, where his first 6 children were born. The Duke was very autocratic, imposing a strict regime, with lights out at 8.00pm in winter and 9.00pm in summer. Here Bach became known as a great organist and improviser, also an authority on organ design and building. He wrote many organ works here, including the 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor". He played on the organ at Halle on which Handel learnt and almost became an organist there. Soon after he was promoted to konzertmeister, with rise in salary; he was unjustly accused of using the Halle offer to get his rise. A great reader of music, he copied out works of many composers of all nationalities. It is often said that too much close work can damage the eyesight in later life, but I can assure you as a medical man that there is no basis whatever for this belief. When praised for his fine organ playing, Bach is reputed to have said "You only have to hit the right notes at the right time and the organ does the rest." While here he wrote his Orgelbuchlein (little book for the organ) for Maria Barbara. He had to compose a church cantata for each Sunday and Holy Day in the church's year; many of these have survived including "Ein Feste Burg.'"(1713). The Duke had a nephew with whom he quarrelled; Bach got involved in this, feeling that the nephew was being unfairly treated. The Duke arranged a musical contest between Bach and Louis Marchant, a very pompous French organist. However when Bach arrived on the appointed day, it turned out that the Frenchman had heard Bach playing and hurriedly left. Bach was therefore left to display his skill unopposed. When Bach announced his intention to leave, the Duke promptly put him in prison – the nobility were a law unto themselves in those days! He had in fact been offered a post with Prince Leopold, whose sister had married the Duke’s nephew. Realising that Bach was not to be deterred, the Duke released him and he duly left.

Anhalt Cothen

Appointed Kappel-Meister to Prince Leopold at Anhalt-Cothen, only a few miles away. The prince was very friendly and very musical, so Bach had a very happy time there. He and Bach used to play together more like friends than master and servant. There being no organ at Cothen, most of his music there was orchestral and chamber music; for instance for his son Friedman he wrote Part I of his "Well Tempered Clavier" the 48, consisting of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys. The Well Tempered Clavier literally means the well tuned keyboard, most keyboards in those days being slightly out of tune by modem standards. For the Margrave of Brandenburg he wrote the 6 Brandenburg Concertos (1721), one of which, the 5th, included a passage for solo piano and was the forerunner of the piano concertos of the next generation. He also wrote much fine music for the harpsichord and various instrumental groups. After a short absence he returned to find his wife, Maria Barbara, had died very suddenly, having been perfectly well when he left. He was naturally grieved at his sudden loss, but his music must have been a great solace to him. However life had to go on, especially with a large and growing family to feed.

Within a year he married again, to another fine soprano, Anna Magdalena Wilchen, who was to bear him 13 children, only half of whom reached maturity.

Their fourth son, Gottfried was mentally retarded, but was able to play the harpsichord a little. His music of this middle period was much influenced by Italian composers, especially Vivaldi. After a while Bach began to miss the organ, which made him rather restless. Another factor was the Prince's marriage to an un-musical wife, who resented her husband's close relationship with Bach. He travelled to Hamburg and played the organ to the now ageing Reinken, who said "I though the art was dead, but I see it lives in you.”

Leipzig

Appointed Cantor of St. Thomas Church aged 38, stayed for the rest of his life. First choice was Telemann who turned the post down, had to make do with the mediocre. Really a three-fold post; organist to the church, choirmaster to the choir school and teacher of general subjects to the choirboys. For the latter he was responsible to the Town Council, but disliked teaching so much that he employed a tutor to do the job for him. The councillors were pompous and often high handed.

They would insist for example that he took on the most un-musical choir boys, who happened to have very influential parents. He wrote many cantatas here, some secular, e.g. the Coffee Cantata, but mostly church cantatas, e.g. Wachet auf or Sleepers Wake (1731). Bach appealed against the Councillors to the Dresden Court, when they made him take back a boy he had dismissed. One of Bach's finest and best loved works is the St. Matthew Passion, first performed in 1729, then not till 1829 when it was revived by Mendelssohn. A certain Count von Kayserling suffered from insomnia and commissioned Bach to write the Goldberg Variations, for Goldberg to play to his master on the harpsichord. In 1733 he wrote Kyrie and Gloria and sent them to the Elector of Saxony at Dresden, hoping for a court appointment, which he got. These formed the basis for the B minor Mass (1747), perhaps the finest work he ever wrote.

His son Emmanuel was Kappelmeister to Frederick the Great of Prussia, an accomplished flautist; Emmanuel arranged a visit, at the King's request, of his father to the court at Potsdam in 1747. The King took "old Bach" around all his keyboard instruments in turn to try them out. He then gave him a theme to improvise variations on, which he did to the amazement of them all. Bach later wrote these out and sent them to the King, entitled "The Musical Offering.”

Last Days

Bach's eyesight, never his strong point, had got worse over the last 2-3 years and he was finally persuaded to consult a travelling oculist, "Chevalier Taylor", who operated on him for cataract in 1749. Incidentally he operated on Handel for the same condition, in neither case was it successful, Bach afterwards went completely blind. His sight is said to have temporarily returned, before a stroke caused his death on 28th July 1750, aged 65. His grave has been lost, but was identified in the last century. A few days before his death he dedicated a final chorale to his son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnikol:

"Before thy throne, my God I stand, Myself, my all, are in Thy hand; Turn to me Thine approving face,
Nor from me now with-hold Thy Grace."

His wife, Anna Magdalena, who survived him by 10 years, died in poverty.

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