Baroque composer and musician extraordinaire Johann Sebastian Bach had a prodigous output that encompassed almost every musical genre of his time, with the exception of opera. His dense and complex contrapuntal music was creative and innovative in format and quality, as well as in the technique it demands of musicians. Though he died over 250 years ago, he is still revered as one of the greatest composers of all time. A musician shows great mastery and skill to be able to play Bach's more difficult pieces with fluency and feeling, and in fact many of the great musicians of this time have made their reputations on their interpretations of Bach - Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma, to name two of my favourites.
JS Bach was born in 1685 in the town of Eisenach in what is now Germany, the eighth child of Elisabeth and Johann Ambrosius Bach. (There's a lot of Johanns in this story, so I'm going to refer to them by their initials. Our hero is JS.) The family was Lutheran, and reasonably well off. His father JA was a string player, town piper, and court trumpeter, and introduced his young son to music, teaching him violin and harpsichord. At the tender age of nine JS lost both his parents, and so he and his brother Johann Jacob went to live with their oldest brother Johann Christoph, an organist in Ohrdruf. JC encouraged JS with organ and harpsichord lessons, and JS, unsurprisingly, was an excellent pupil. Here also JS first saw an organ being constructed.
JS also sang and was considered a good soprano until his voice broke. In 1700 young JS went to Lüneburg with a school chum to enroll in a Latin school that allowed poor boys to attend for free if they sang in the choir. The school boasted an impressive musical library, at which young JS may have laid the foundation for his legendary musical erudition. He also studied the organ, emerging from the school in 1702 an accomplished player. For a short time JS was employed by the Duke of Weimar as a lackey and violinist.
In 1703 he was appointed organist at one of the churches in Arnstadt, but he was obsessed with the new organ there and neglected his duties, particularly the teaching of the choirboys. Once he obtained a short leave of absence to walk hundreds of miles to meet a famous composer and musician. Thrilled with all he was learning, he returned to his post three months late, and then launched into dazzling new techniques which confused the unprepared congregation. The church elders were not impressed with his extended leave of absence, his new playing style, nor, it must be said, with his going into the wine cellar during sermons and making music with a female stranger in the church. All in all, the young man didn't impress the town, and they may perhaps have heaved a sigh of relief when JS won a prestigious post at a church in Mühlhausen in 1707.
Maria Barbara, and Cantatas
A small inheritance the same year allowed him to marry his second cousin Maria Barbara. In Mühlhausen JS became interested in choral music and began to compose cantatas which are counted as masterpieces even today. He oversaw the construction of a new organ in the church. But his ambition and drive outgrew the position rather quickly, and in 1708 he gained a court position at Weimar under the employ of yet another of the dukes there.
JS was now making twice as much money as previously, and the Bach family began to grow. Barbara gave birth to Catharina Dorothea in 1708, Wilhelm Friedemann in 1710, Carl Philipp Emanual in 1714, though she also bore twins in 1713 who did not survive. JS, meanwhile, was becoming quite famous. He demanded that the organ be rebuilt, and wrote many of his great organ compositions in Weimar. At the same time, he continued to pen "homage" cantatas for local nobles in return for favours.
Legend has it that while visiting Dresden he was invited to compete with the great French organist Louis Marchand, who was so intimidated by Bach's reputation that he fled before the concert. At one point too JS was scouted by another town; after his audition they locked him in a room and demanded he write a cantata on the spot, which he did. The hotel bill, still surviving, shows he was lavished with food, alcohol, and tobacco: clearly JS loved the good things in life. In addition, he was ambitious and was always looking to improve his position. After said audition he was offered the job, but the Duke of Weimar doubled his salary, so JS decided, for the moment, to stay. In the end, however, JS fell out with his employer, one of the two dukes of Weimar, because he refused to stop giving musical service to the rival duke. When as a result JS was passed by for the job of Capellmeister in 1716 he was so offended that he stopped writing cantatas altogether and found a position as Capellmeister elswhere. At this, his patron the duke grew so infuriated that he had JS arrested and imprisoned for a month before dismissing him "without honour", and so ended the time in Weimar.
In 1717 JS moved to Köthen where he took the position of Capellmeister for Prince Leopold, a 23-year old nobleman with a love of music and a small orchestra which the prince himself loved to play in. In this Calvinist court JS did not have to write religious music, and he turned his attention to chamber music in general and composition for the keyboard - organ and harpsichord - in particular. In 1720 the prince took the orchestra to Carlsbad to play and "take the waters". Unfortunately while JS was away his wife died, and he returned to find that she had already been buried.
It didn't set him back much in the end: within a year the 36 year old musician had married again, taking as his wife a 20 year old soprano named Anna Magdalena, with whom he was reputedly very happy. But his employment situation was less pleasant. Like JS himself, Prince Leopold had just married, and JS complained to friends that the new wife was responsible for the Prince's waning interest in music. (Perhaps it was simply that he was obliged to spend more money on the military, less on music.) In any case, JS began to apply for other jobs. He wrote the gorgeous Brandenburg Concertos, dedicated to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, as an implicit job application, to no avail. (During this period JS also composed his unaccompanied cello suites, so beautifully interpreted by Yo-Yo Ma, as well as his unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas and his violin concertos.) Finally, in 1723, JS won a post in Leipzig.
His initial years at Leipzig were a period of astonishing output for JS, who at times wrote a cantata a week. But he also had to teach Latin - or hire a replacement to do so in his place - and his official salary was a fraction of what it used to be. He supplemented his income by having his choirs sing at weddings and funerals; one can guess he needed the money, for between 1723 and 1737 poor Anna Magdalena brought twelve pregnancies to term. Sadly, eight of the twelve children died at ages varying from an hour to five years. Of the four surviving children, one was seriously mentally challenged. The last was born in 1742, when Anna Magdalena was 41 and JS 57.
Playing at the Coffee House
JS, meanwhile, had many conflicts and difficulties with officials over his duties and the division of labour among the various music masters at churches and educational establishments in the town. He grew bitter and disillusioned, petitioning the town officials for changes which did not materialize. Happily, however, in 1729 he was appointed Musical Director of the Collegium Musicum, an orchestra of students and professional musicians. They held weekly performances at Zimmerman's Coffee House and JS and his sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel were among the talented harpsichordists who performed his harpsichord concertos there. He charged an admission fee for the concerts at the coffee house, and also engaged in other entrepreneurial pursuits, including selling books and music and renting out instruments.
In 1736, after years of writing congratulatory contatas for members of the Polish royal family, JS was appointed court Capellmeister and composer in Dresden in the service of king Augustus III, though without specified duties. JS withdrew from his duties as cantor and began to focus on his compositions and on launching his sons in their musical careers, for JS had reared his sons, though not his daughters, to be musicians and composers. Late in his life his eyesight began to fail, and in 1750 he underwent two operations on his eyes at the hands of itinerant oculist John Taylor. The operations and treatments may have had a detrimental effect, for within a few months he was dead.
Bach's music wasn't much performed in the decades immediately following his death; it was considered too difficult to enjoy playing or listening to. It is thanks to Felix Mendelssohn that his works began to be performed again, and, as I mentioned, he is now viewed as one of the greatest composers ever.
A Personal Note
On a more personal note, I've seen Bach's work performed by many people in many settings, including, memorably, Yo-Yo Ma playing selections from the unaccompanied cello suites. Most recently, I attended a concert at Tafelmusik which featured four harpsichordists who played JS's work in varying combinations of one, two, and three harpsichords, with the culmination a concerto featuring all four being played at once. In this day and age, though not in JS's, it was a rare and impressive spectacle.
There is an exhaustive webliography on JS at Bach Central Station (www.jsbach.net/bcs/). Most of my information came from