Johann Sebastian Bach. If you’re a musician, chances are you hear his name all the time.
Bach’s cello suites, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s organ preludes, Bach’s twenty children…the classical world never stops talking about him.
But who was he, and why should we be interested in his work today?
I’m glad you asked.
In this series, we’re going to take a trip back in time to discover some of the world’s best composers. We’ll learn who they were and how they shaped music as we know it today.
This is Johann’s story.
Johann Sebastian Bach
One of the greatest composers of all time.
Also a singer, violinist, organist, harpsichordist, music educator, music director, choir master, director of the Collegium Musicum (a group of performing students from the local university), and expert on organ construction.
And husband. And father of twenty. Presumably, he had little free time.
March 21, 1685 – July 28, 1750.
The old Julian calendar was still in use in Germany when Bach was born; according to our modern Gregorian calendar, his birthday would be the 31st of March.
So he technically has two birthdays. (I am unsure if he had two birthday cakes each year, but if I had two birthdays, I would).
Bach is one of the most famous composers from the Baroque period. He was a contemporary of Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Georg Philipp Telemann, George Frideric Handel, Domineco Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi.
Germany. Born in Eisenach, Bach also lived in Ohrdruf, Luneberg, Weimar (twice), Arnstadt, Muhlhausen, Cothen, and finally, Liepzig. The guy got around.
Why It Matters
It’s hard to overestimate the impact that J.S. Bach had on music as we know it.
His work influenced nearly every composer who came after him. The system of major and minor keys as we know it today, while not invented by Bach, was popularized by him after he wrote his Well-Tempered Clavier featuring a prelude and fugue in every key.
His skill in composing counterpoint (multiple independent melodies that fit together) is unsurpassed.
His music seems to touch everyone who hears it with its beauty, emotion, and power. Many consider him to be the father of classical music.
In the following video, Hilary Hahn plays Bach’s Chaconne from his Second Partitia for violin. Scholars believe he wrote it in memory of his late first wife, Maria Barbara, and it is one of the greatest masterworks ever written for the instrument:
Other Interesting Facts
Bach, a devout Lutheran, was born in the same town where Martin Luther had translated the New Testament into the German language. His Trauerode cantata was written in memory of the late Lutheran heroine Christiane Eberhardine.
He was once reprimanded by the Council of the church of Arnstadt for embellishing his organ accompaniment so much that the congregation could not sing along. Oops.
Bach was put in prison by the Duke of Weimar, who was upset that he was leaving to go work for Prince Leopold of Cothen. Eventually he was released and allowed to go his way, but he took this brief incarceration as an opportunity to compose a series of forty-six organ chorales. You can’t keep a good composer down, I guess.
In the last year of his life, he underwent two operations to remove cataracts. The surgeries were unsuccessful, and he was left completely blinded. In fact, the same surgeon, John Taylor, went on to nearly blind George Frideric Handel the following year.
As mentioned above, Bach had twenty children: eleven sons and nine daughters. Sadly, only nine of his children outlived him.
He believed his success was due to hard work rather than natural talent, referring to his musical gifting as “the small talents which Heaven has given me for music”.
He once said, “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”
And that is the story of J.S. Bach in a nutshell. What do you think of him? Let me know in the comments!