One of the world's most profoundly inspired and masterful composers, Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musical family in Eisenach, Thueringen. His great, great grandfather, Veit -- a baker who so loved to play his lute at the mill that he became assistant Stadtpfeiffer in the town of Gotha -- had fled his native Hungary for the Protestant Saxon province in the heart of Germany, the province where Luther had found safe haven in Wartburg Castle after his famed dispute with the Catholic Church in 1517. Bach's great grandfather, Johannes had studied music with Gotha's head piper and often played in bands of neighboring towns. According to Bach expert Tim Smith, his reputation as an amateur musician was sufficient for him to be identified as a minstrel in the register of his death. Bach's grandfather, Christoph, had a reputation as a musician, and Bach's father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, not only sang, but played the organ, violin, trumpet, and kettledrum. Bach's mother, Elisabeth Laemmerhirt, also grew up in a musical family. Smith notes, "The reputation of the family was such that in Erfurt the town bandsmen continued to be known as "the Bachs" even after there were no Bachs living there." And musicality did not end with Johann Sebastian. Bach also had famous cousins, and four of his own sons were outstanding musicians.
Bach's father taught his young son the basic skills of string-playing; a second cousin, a court musician and organist in Eisenach, instructed the young boy on the organ.
Johann Sebastian's mother died in 1694 and his father in 1695, so, at the age of 9 he was orphaned. Of the five surviving children, he and one brother went to live with their eldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was organist in Ohrdruf. Johann Christoph continued his younger brother's education on the organ, as well as on the harpsichord. After several years in this arrangement, Johann Sebastian won a scholarship to study in Lueneburg, in Northern Germany. According to a regulation, children of poor parents could attend the Latin school in Lueneburg and pay for their costs by singing in the choirs of the Michaeliskirche. With a much-praised soprano voice (before his voice broke), Bach sang in the matin choir. Bach's choice for St. Michael's was seen by one biographer as a conscious step toward an advanced musical career, for the school had an impressive musical tradition and a famous music library, which included many important music manuscripts brought by Praetorius. The foundation must have been laid here for Bach's profound familiarity with the 17th century German choir tradition.
A master of several instruments while still in his teens, Johann Sebastian first found employment at the age of 18 as a "lackey and violinist" in a court orchestra in Weimar; soon after, he took the job of organist at a church in Arnstadt. Here, as in later posts, his perfectionist tendencies and high expectations of other musicians - for example, in the church choir - rubbed his colleagues the wrong way, and he was embroiled in a number of hot disputes during his short tenure. In 1707, at the age of 22, Bach became fed up with the low musical standards of Arnstadt and moved on to another organist job, in Muehlhausen. The same year, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. It was after his marriage that Bach developed an interest in composing vocal church music. Most biographers mention the probable influence of Buxtehude. Although his young wife is rarely mentioned in this context, it was noted that she may also have played a role in her husband's shift of interest, for Maria Barbara was the daughter of Johannes Michael Bach, a prolific composer of vocal works.
Caught up in a running conflict between factions of his church, Bach fled to Weimar after one year in Mhlhausen. In Weimar, he assumed the post of organist and concertmaster in the ducal chapel. He remained in Weimar for nine years, and there he composed his first wave of major works, including organ showpieces and cantatas.
By this stage in his life, Bach had developed a reputation as a brilliant, if somewhat inflexible, musical talent. His profiency on the organ was unequalled in Europe - in fact, he toured regularly as a solo virtuoso - and his growing mastery of compositional forms, like the fugue and the canon, was already attracting interest from the musical establishment - which, in his day, was the Lutheran church. Although clearly interested in his career, he was not very good at playing the political game, and therefore suffered periodic setbacks. He was passed over for a major position - as Kapellmeister of Weimar - in 1716; partly in reaction to this snub, he left Weimar the following year to take a job as court conductor in Koethen. There he slowed his output of church cantatas, and instead concentrated on instrumental music. His patron, Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Koethen, was a 23-year-old music enthusiast who loved to join the musicians. The Korthen period produced, among other masterpieces, the Brandenburg Concerti.
More than one of his biographers referred to him as a "careerist," noting Bach's interest in upward social mobility and his ambition. Most cantatas after 1730 were described as homage and congratulatory pieces, produced for high-ranking citizens of Leipzig or to please influential members of the nobility who might help him with his career. Bach is also described as a genius with a life-long quest for knowledge. As a young man he reportedly made several notable journeys. For example, in 1705 he made a pilgrimage from Arnstadt to Luebeck to hear the great organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude, a journey of more than 200 miles which he made on foot.
While at Koethen, Bach's wife, Maria Barbara, died. Bach remarried soon after - to Anna Magdalena - and with her produced 13 children - only six of whom survived childhood - to add to the four children he had raised with Maria Barbara.
After conducting and composing for the court orchestra at Koethen for seven years, Bach was offered the highly prestigious post of cantor of St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig. The job was a demanding one; he had to compose cantatas for the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches, conduct the choirs, oversee the musical activities of numerous municipal churches, and teach Latin in the St. Thomas choir school. He subcontracted the Latin instruction, paying his replacement out of his own pocket. He had to get along with the Leipzig church authorities, which proved difficult for Bach. But he persisted, polishing the musical component of church services in Leipzig and continuing to write music of various kinds with a level of craft and emotional profundity that was his alone. It was here that Bach's Christmas Oratorio - which the Washington Saengerbund performed again in the 1990s - was written.
Bach was not as widely known or admired in his own time as might be expected from his reputation today. Even considering the journeys on foot made in his younger days, Bach did not travel widely. During the last fifteen years of his life, Bach undertook two projects that indicate he wished to preserve for future Bachs (and others) not only his own legacy but the memory of their ancestors. He compiled a genealogy entitled Ursprung der musicalisch-Bachischen Familie. During the same period he also began the Alt-Bachisches Archiv, a catalog of choral compositions by members of his family as far back as his great grandfather Johannes.
Bach remained at his post in Leipzig until his death in 1750. He was creatively active until the very end, even after cataract problems nearly blinded him. His last musical composition, a chorale prelude entitled "Before Thy Throne, My God, I Stand", was dictated to his son-in-law days before his death.
Bach has been described as "that rare composer whose genius cannot be summed up, even approximated, by any known means. He was the supreme master of counterpoint, fugue, vocal writing, melody, chamber composition, solo instrument repertoire...the list is endless. His Passions are arguably the greatest compositions ever created for choral ensemble and orchestra.... His writing for keyboard ... reveal an unsurpassed ability to combine intricate musical structure with pure spiritual force; in fact, most leading musicians point to the mastery of these pieces as their ultimate goal." Bach's death in 1750 defines the end of the Baroque era for most musicologists. One wrote, "Bach was the greatest master of the Baroque, and probably of all classical music. Any student of music must start - and end - an inquiry into the glories of classical music with him."
History of the Bachs by Professor Tim Smith, Arizona University, and other internet sources.
This brief biography, compiled by Carol Traxler from several internet sources, appeared in the September 1997 issue of Quarter Notes, the newsletter of the Washington Saengerbund, Walter Mueller, editor.