Copy of the 1748 Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann
27-10-2021

Johann Sebastian Bach: life and works

Biography of the composer or when his works come to life

In the musical landscape of the late Baroque, a great composer emerged: the german Johann Sebastian Bach. Although he led a sedentary life, always including permanent assignments at courts or religious institutions, he had the ability to introduce the novelties of the changing atmosphere into his music while remaining tied to his own German tradition.

Bach was born on 21 March 1685 in Eisenach, Thuringia (a Central-Eastern German state known for its vast forests in the midst of high mountains), into a family of musicians for generations and generations, so much so that up until the mid-19th century there were around ninety generations. In fact, one of his first teachers was his older brother Johann Christoph who, having studied with the great organist and composer Johann Pachelbel, acted as a link between Bach and the great German organ tradition.

Education in Lüneburg and life in Weimar

In 1700, thanks to his high school teacher Elias Herda, the composer was able to continue his studies in Lüneburg, near Hamburg. Here, Johann Sebastian earned his living by singing in the school's boys' choir. In addition, he had the opportunity to attend the court of Celle, where the duke not only maintained an orchestra, but was also passionate about French music and in this way Bach absorbed the style.

However, he left Lüneburg after a short time and spent the years up to 1708 searching for better and better accommodation, holding various positions one after the other: in the ducal orchestra of Weimar he was violinist and organist in the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt and then in the church of St. Blasius in Mühlhausen.
In July 1708 he was finally employed in Weimar as chamber musician and court organist, he also began to have pupils and from then on was never without them.
In this context, in addition to the numerous cantatas he was asked to write, he wrote his first important compositions almost exclusively for organ and harpsichord, such as the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (probably for his brother Jacob, who had enlisted in the Swedish king's army), the Toccata e fuga in D minor and the sacred cantatas Actus tracigus.

💡 Did you know? Johann Sebastian Bach made a journey of about 350 kilometres on foot to listen to the greatest organist of the north: Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707).

Bach's direct contact with Italian music was very important to him, as it was frequently performed by the court orchestra and the composer transcribed for keyboard instruments some concertos such as those by Vivaldi, Benedetto, and even composed fugues for organ on themes by Corelli, Albinoni and Legrenzi. He was particularly impressed by Vivaldi's music with its contrast between solo and tutti as a means of formal articulation.

Following various disagreements with the authorities, Bach received a convenient job offer at the court of Köthen in 1717 and thus left Weimar.

💡 Did you know? His application to the Weimar court to resign was considered so provocative and imprudent that he was imprisoned and sent away in disgrace.

From Köthen to Lipsia

In 1718, Johann Sebastian Bach went to the princely court in Köthen where he held the position of Kapellmeister, the highest musical responsibility. During this period, the composer did not dedicate himself to sacred music but to instrumental and didactic music. In fact, his major instrumental compositions were born, such as the Brandenburg Concertos, the four French-style Overtures, the three Sonatas and three Partitas for solo violin and the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier (a collection of 24 preludes and fugues in 24 keys). Instead, examples of the didactic compositions Bach wrote during this period are the Inventions for two voices, the Symphonies for three voices and the French Suites given to his wife Anna Magdalena Bach, to whom he married in 1721.

One last professional change in Bach's life took place in 1723: in Leipzig he was employed in the church of St Thomas and the adjoining school as Thomaskantor (Kantor). However, this was not a career advancement because the role of Kantor was one step below that of Kapellmeister. In the school his role was to take care of the education of the pupils and to be responsible for the music at the festive and Sunday ceremonies, not only of St. Thomas Church but also of other important churches in Leipzig such as St. Matthew, St. Nicholas and St. Peter.

💡 Did you know? Bach was also supposed to teach the pupils Latin, but he refused and preferred to pay for a substitute teacher at his own expense.

For this reason, he wrote a large number of sacred cantatas and among these compositions for the liturgy, two masterpieces stand out: the St Matthew Passion (1724) and the Johannes Passion (1729). After this last composition, Bach almost completely stopped composing sacred music and worked on adapting already composed works according to need.

The Society of Musical Sciences and the rebirth in 1829

Johann Sebastian Bach, having accumulated enough with the composition of sacred music, spent the last twenty years of his life on an income, returning to the composition of almost exclusively secular music with the intention of achieving the profile of a modern musician. But this was not enough and in 1747 he joined, as a member, the "Society of Musical Sciences" (Societät der Musikalischen Wissenchaften) founded by one of his pupils who had become a professor of counterpoint at the University of Leipzig.

Every year in this society, reserved for musicians who were experts in mathematics and philosophy, they would exchange a speech or a scientific paper written around a mathematical-musical topic. At these gatherings, contemporaries never fully understood Bach's great reflections; for most of them, our dear composer was too much turned to the past and wrote music that was difficult to perform and listen to.

signature of johann sebastian bach

Although Johann Sebastian Bach's works continued to circulate among musicians, it was not until 1829 that there was a real breakthrough for his fame, namely when Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy performed the St Matthew Passion in Berlin.

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