Universally considered to be one of the greatest composers of all times, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in Eisenach, in Thüringen.
He was one of a long line of musicians as his family had produced musicians for more than seven generations (in fact, at that time, the family name ‘Bach’ was a synonym for musician).
His life story is usually divided into various periods that correspond to the main cities where he lived and worked. After Ohrdrurf, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen – where he completed most of his studies on the organ and produced his first compositions – the other fundamental cities in his life were Weimar, Köthen and Leipzig. In Weimar, Bach composed most of his enormous repertory of toccatas and partitas for organ. The famous work, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (“The Well Tempered Clavier”) also dates to this period. As his relationship with the Duke Wilhelm Ernst Sachsen-Weimar deteriorated, Bach was pushed to move on and in 1717 he went to the court of Leopold di Anhalt-Köthen, himself a musician and great admirer of Bach’s. Given the austere Calvinist principles which demanded only extremely sober liturgical music, for Wilhelm Ernst the composer wrote mostly instrumental music, such as the well-known Brandenburg Concertos, the Suite for Cello solo, the Sonatas and Suites for Violin solo, the Suites for orchestra.
In Köthen, Bach’s first wife died, Maria Barbara Bach (with whom he fathered seven children only four of whom survived), and he met his second wife, the soprano Anna Magdalena Wilcke with whom he fathered 13 children. Continuing in the long standing tradition of the Bach family, many of Johann Sebastian’s off-spring became professional musicians and some of them – Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian – became quite famous. Furthermore, it is largely thanks to them that most of their father’s musical production has been conserved.
In 1723 Bach was named Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig (the school of Saint Thomas), located next to the Lutheran church of Saint Thomas, as well as music director of the main churches of that Saxon city, a university city and home to a brilliant cultural center (affectionately called “little Paris on the Pleisse”) and he took up residence there. His job was not only as teacher (teaching singing to the students of the famous choir which still exists today) but also as musical composer for the city’s two principal churches. And so Bach produced the vast body his cantatas (on the average he wrote one per week), as well as other liturgical works that have become world renown, such as the Magnificat, the Christmas Oratorio, and the St. Mathew Passion.
Other compositions that date to that period in Leipzig came out of Bach’s collaboration with the Collegium Musicum: a type of club of musicians who played secular and fashionable music together, meeting frequently in one of the numerous cafe’s that populated the city – almost a counterpoint to the severe Lutheran take on liturgical music, but in reality the second soul of Leipzig, brilliant center that it was. In this the last phase of Bach’s life, other masterpieces were also produced (the so-called erudite works): four volumes of his Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercises), and various works for keyboard instruments such as the Art of Fugue, the Italian Concerto, the Goldberg variations and the Musical Offering.
Bach died in Leipzig in 1750 following what was a successful operation for cataracts. Nine years later another great musician of the Baroque era, Georg Friedrich Haendel, died for the same reason, operated on by the same surgeon, Sir John Taylor.
In 1950 the musicologist, Wolfgang Schmieder, edited the catalog of Bach’s works known as Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV). After Bach’s death his work was almost forgotten, until 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn Barholdy directed the St. Mathew Passion in Berlin, setting off that Bach renaissance that has yet to fade.
To sum up briefly, it could be said that Bach’s works represent the sum total of the principal trends in music composition that preceded him, taking them to their logical conclusion and projecting them into the future, a future that continues still.
Bach wrote a large number of vocals works designed to accompany liturgical functions: many cantatas, among them, Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 358), Wachet auf (BWV 140), Ich habe genug, (BWV 82), and Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51); masses, among them the Mass in B minor (BWV 232), the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and St. John Passion (BWV 245), the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), and Easter Oratorio (BWV 249). Among his secular cantatas, of note is his Coffee Cantata (BWV 211), about the famous beverage which had recently been introduced in Europe.
Naturally, speaking about Bach means speaking about organ music: at the very least, everyone knows the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565); among the other compositions, of note are la Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 538) called the “Dorian”; the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582); the Toccata and Fugue in F major (BWV 540); the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903).
Other Compositions for Keyboard Instruments
The series of Suites: six English Suites (BWV 806-811); and six French Suites (BWV 812-817); the Italian Concerto (BWV 971), the Well Tempered Harpsichord (BWV 846-893) and the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), commissioned as a cure for insomnia, are other compositions Bach wrote for keyboard instruments.
In addition to the famous Sonatas and Partitas for Violin solo (BWV 1001-1006) and the six Suites for Cello (BWV 1007-1012), Bach also wrote six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (BWV 1014 – 1019), as well as various sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027 – 1029.
Music for orchestra
His six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046 – 1051 (so-called because they are dedicated to the Margravio of Brandenburg), and the four Suites or Overtures for Orchestra, BWV 1066 – 1069, the penultimate of which includes the “famous” “Aria on the Fourth Chord” are also well known.
Only three of Bach concertos for violin survived to today in their original form (BWV 1041, 1042, and the double concert in D minor for two violins BWV 1043). Other Concertos were written for one, two, three, even four Harpsichords and strings.