The works of the German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) are the ultimate expression of polyphony. He is probably the only composer ever able to make full use of the possibilities of art available in his time.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, organist at St. George's Church, and Elizabeth Lämmerhirt Bach. He was the culmination of the family's long line of musicians, beginning with his great-grandfather, Veit Bach, who was a professional violinist in Gotha, and the name Bach was considered a synonym for musician. The Bach family was extremely loyal to the Lutheran faith. Throughout the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the religious turmoil affected four generations of Bachs, who remained unwaveringly faithful to their Lutheran persuasion.
Bach's first music lessons were on the violin, with his father as instructor. Having a beautiful soprano voice, he also sang in the choir at St. George's Church. On May 3, 1694, his mother died; his father remarried 6 months later but died scarcely 2 months after that. The oldest brother, Johann Christoph, assumed the care of the 10-year-old Johann Sebastian. The boy moved to Ohrdruf to live with his brother, organist at St. Michael's Church. From him Johann Sebastian received his first instruction at the harpsichord and perhaps at the organ.
In 1700 Bach was nearing his fifteenth birthday, an age when Bachs usually began to earn their own living. When an opening developed at St. Michael's School in Lüneburg, a scholarship was awarded Bach for his fine voice and his financial need. After his voice changed, he was transferred to the orchestra and played violin. At Lüneburg, Bach met the composer Georg Böhm, organist at St. John's Church, who influenced his early organ compositions. In 1701 Bach walked 30 miles to Hamburg to hear the renowned Jan Reinken, organist at St. Catherine's Church. At neighboring Celle, Bach heard the orchestra of Georg Wilhelm, which specialized in French instrumental music. On subsequent visits to Hamburg, Bach made the acquaintance of Vincent Lübeck, organ virtuoso, and heard German opera under the baton of Reinhard Keiser, the leading operatic conductor in Germany.
The artistic weapon of the Lutheran Church was the chorale, a hymn in the vernacular sung by the people during worship. It was preceded by a chorale prelude, an organ composition based upon a chorale melody. Bach composed almost 150 chorale preludes; his earliest ones in print are from the Lüneburg period. The influence of Böhm, whose favorite form was the chorale partita or chorale variation, is evident in two Bach works: Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (Christ, Thou Who Art the Bright Day) and O Gott, du frommer Gott (O God, Thou Righteous God).
Bach graduated from St. Michael's School in 1702, and the following year he accepted the position of violinist in the chamber orchestra of Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar. As substitute organist, he had the privilege of practicing long hours on the church organ, which prepared him for future church positions.
In the summer of 1703 Bach was invited to test and demonstrate the organ in the new church at Arnstad. He made such an impression that a month later he was formally installed as organist. Bach had much time to practice on his favorite instrument and to develop his creative talent. His dramatic flair could already be seen in his Prelude and Fugue in C Minor and Toccata and Fugue in C Major. The first of his church cantatas, No. 15, Denn du wirst meine Seele nicht in der Hölle lassen (For Thou Will Not Leave My Soul in Hell), was performed on Easter 1704. Evidently Bach's choir was less than adequate, because after the performance he immediately requested to be relieved of his choirmaster duties. His request was answered with a reprimand suggesting that his poor relationship with the choir was the source of the problem. A second reprimand, resulting from a street fight with his bassoonist, further deteriorated his relationships at Arnstad. He did find some comfort in his companionship with his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, who was referred to as the "stranger maiden" seen in the balcony while Bach was practicing the organ.
In 1705 Bach obtained a month's leave to hear the renowned Dietrich Buxtehude, organist at St. Mary's Church in Lübeck. Bach walked the 200 miles to Lübeck and he was so impressed by the brilliant sound of choir, organ, and 40 instrumentalists performing the annual Abendmusiken, or evening music, that he remained there for 4 months without sending an explanatory message to Arnstad. Bach, too, must have made an impression because he was offered Buxtehude's position on his retirement, but the offer contained the traditional stipulation that he marry one of Buxtehude's daughters. Since she was considerably older than Bach and Maria Barbara was back in Arnstad, Bach turned down the offer. when he returned to Arnstad, he imitated Buxtehude and composed long organ preludes. Soon Bach was admonished, and he countered by making the preludes extremely short. In addition, he began improvising and accompanying the hymns with what were called curious variations and irrelevant ornaments. Needless to say, the congregation felt no regret when Bach accepted a post at Mühlhausen.
In 1707 Bach was appointed organist at the Church of St. Blaise in Mühlhausen. It was a free imperial city, larger and richer than Arnstad, and a rich musical tradition had been developed during the previous 50 years by Johann Rudolf Ahle and his son Johann Georg. Every year, for example, they composed a cantata for the installation of the newly elected city council. Later that year Bach married Maria Barbara.
No doubt under the influence of Buxtehude, Bach wanted to present Mühlhausen with what he called "well-ordered church music." He soon discovered that his pastor, Johann Frohne, was an advocate of Lutheran Pietism. Frohne preferred simplicity in both the liturgy and the music, and the former organist, Johann Georg Ahle, had followed his wishes to a large extent. The very simple musical scores in the choir library reflected this approach. Bach soon became friendly with Reverend George Eilmar, an out-spoken enemy of Pietism, who is thought to be the librettist of at least three cantatas which Bach wrote during the Mühlhausen tenure. The brilliant setting of Cantata No. 71, Gott ist mein König (God Is My King), written for the installation service of the city council on Feb. 4, 1708, certainly must have antagonized Reverend Frohne and members of the congregation who were in the audience. Bach scored the cantata for strings, woodwinds, trumpets, tympani, and the usual chorus and soloist. The council was so impressed by the performance that the music was printed and put into the city records. In spite of the council's support, the fundamental conflict between his musical ideas and those of Pietism advocated by his pastor caused Bach to look elsewhere for a new position. In his letter requesting an honorable dismissal, he states very clearly that his goal in life is "with all goodwill to conduct well-ordered church music to the honor of God."
When Bach arrived in Weimar late in the summer of 1708 as court organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst, it marked the third time in 5 years that he had changed positions because of unfavorable circumstances. Hopefully, all would now be well, since his new position doubled his salary and he could work in an orthodox Lutheran environment. The years 1708-1710 saw an enormous output of organ music by Bach. Preludes, fugues, choral preludes, and toccatas poured from his pen. The very familiar Toccata and Fugue in D Minor dates from this early Weimar period.
Bach's primary reputation came from his organ playing, not his compositions. He was in constant demand as a recitalist and organ consultant. Typical is the reaction of Crown Prince Frederick of Sweden, who heard Bach play in Cassel in 1714. Frederick was so astonished at his virtuosity that he took a diamond ring from his finger and gave it to Bach. The musical historian Johann Mattheson, writing in 1716, refers to him as "the famous organist" of Weimar. In 1713 Bach was invited to succeed Friedrich Zachau, the teacher of George Frederick Handel, in the Liebfrauenkirche at Halle. The possibility of playing a 65-rank instrument was a great temptation to him. When he informed the duke of his leaving, the duke promptly raised his salary and promoted him to concertmeister. When the formal invitation from Halle came 2 weeks later, Bach refused it, much to the chagrin of the Halle authorities. They, in fact, accused Bach of simply using their invitation to get an increase in salary at Weimar.
For his cantata compositions Bach was blessed with two fine librettists, Erdmann Neumeister, a Lutheran pastor at St. Jacob's Church in Hamburg, who was especially interested in elaborate church music, and Salamo Franck, the custodian of the library of Duke Wilhelm Ernst. Some of the cantatas from the Weimar period are No. 142, Uns ist ein Kind geborn (Unto Us a Child Is Born), and No. 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (My Spirit Was in Heaviness). Bach also wrote a secular cantata, No. 208, Was mir behagt (What Pleases Me), to honor Duke Wilhelm's friend the Duke of Weissenfels. Bach did not hesitate to incorporate music from his secular cantatas into his sacred cantatas; for example, the very familiar "Sheep May Safely Graze" was taken from Cantata No. 208.
In his late Weimar years, especially beginning in 1716, Bach composed some of his grandest organ music. These compositions are not based upon a chorale but upon the architectonic nature of music itself. The brilliant preludes and fugues, with all their complexities, are miracles of tonal design. The great Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor came from this period.
In 1716 the Kapellmeister, or court conductor, Johann Dreise died. Bach wanted this position and resented it very much when it was not offered to him. In addition, a quarrel developed between the duke and his nephew, Ernst Augustus. The duke actually forbade all his employees to have anything to do with his nephew. Bach would not tolerate such an infringement on his personal liberty and composed a birthday cantata for Ernst Augustus. At the same time Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a brother-in-law of Ernst Augustus, had heard of Bach through his sister's marriage. It appears that Bach investigated the musical opportunities at Cöthen and was offered a position.
If Prince Leopold had any doubts of Bach's capabilities, the proposed musical competition at Dresden between Bach and the great French organist Louis Marchand should have dispelled them. The contest was to include sight reading and improvisation. Bach welcomed the opportunity and agreed to read anything Marchand would put in front of him, provided the Frenchman would do likewise. Marchand agreed, but on the appointed day, evidently anticipating defeat, he left Dresden secretly by special coach.
When Bach requested his release to go to Cöthen, Duke Wilhelm refused on such short notice. Bach had already accepted money for the moving expenses and an advance in salary. When the duke would not release him, Bach became so angry that in punishment he was placed under arrest and confined to the country judge's place of detention from Nov. 6 to Dec. 2, 1717. Eight days later Bach began his duties at Cöthen.
Bach's prime responsibility was to conduct the court orchestra, in which the prince himself participated. Leopold played both string instruments and the clavier. In the fall of 1719 Bach tried to meet Handel, who was visiting his family in Halle, but Handel had already left for London. An effort made 10 years later was also unsuccessful.
Tragedy struck Bach when he returned with the prince from Carlsbad in July 1720. He was informed that his wife had died and had been buried on July 4. Bach lost a great source of inspiration and encouragement in Maria Barbara. He again visited his old friend Reinken in Hamburg, from whom he had received instruction 20 years earlier. At this meeting Bach improvised on the melody An Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon). Reinken paid Bach the highest compliment by saying, "I thought this art was dead; but I see that it survived in you." Since Reinken was considered the foremost extempore player of his time, this was high praise indeed.
Late in 1721 Bach married Anna Magdalena Wülken. Only 20 years old, she had to take over the momentous role of wife to a man of genius and also that of mother to his children, the oldest of whom was 12 years old. But she seems to have been equal to both tasks. In addition, during the next 20 years she presented Bach with 13 children.
Bach produced his greatest instrumental works during the Cöthen period. The Cöthen instrumental ensemble consisted of 16 skilled performers, and evidently the first-chair men were capable enough to cause Bach to write special music for them. He wrote unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas for Josephus Spiess, violinist, and six suites for unaccompanied cello for Ferdinand Abel, principal cellist. Bach's clavier music of the Cöthen period included English and French suites, the first part of the Well-Tempered Clavier, inventions, and the two notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach. Bach also wrote his principal orchestral works during this period, such as the Overtures and the six Brandenburg Concertos. Interestingly, he wrote many of his keyboard works for the instruction of his own children.
Prince Leopold married his cousin, a princess of An-halt-Bernberg, in 1721. She had no enthusiasm for music and successfully persuaded her husband to give his time and resources to more frivolous activities. The situation became so serious that Bach, who had been quite happy in Cöthen, decided to look for another position. In addition, the education of Bach's children became more and more a concern to him, and he wanted to provide a strong orthodox Lutheran climate for his family.
In 1722 Johann Kuhnau, cantor of the Leipzig St. Thomas's Church, died. The vacant post was offered to Georg Philipp Telemann from Hamburg, who declined, and then to Christoph Graupner of Darmstadt, who, in declining, recommended Bach to the council. After Graupner's refusal a member of the council remarked that since the best musicians were unavailable an average one would have to be selected. In February 1723 Bach played a trial service and presented Cantata No. 22, Jesu nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (Jesus Called to Him the Twelve). At a second appearance he presented his setting of the Passion of Our Lord according to St. John. More than a year after the death of Kuhnau, Bach was made cantor of Leipzig.
One can appreciate the reluctance of the Leipzig committee to appoint Bach. He did not have a university degree, and his reputation was primarily as an organist, not as a composer. The other candidates were recognized composers, and Bach's ability as an organist was not needed since the cantor was not required to play at the services. His duties, rather, were primarily to provide choral music for two large churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. A cantata was performed alternately at each church every Sunday. In addition, special music was required on festive days of the church year and for other occasions such as funerals and installations.
In his arrangement with the council, Bach promised to perform not only the musical duties but also other responsibilities in connection with the St. Thomas's School, such as teaching classes in music, giving private instruction in singing, and even teaching Latin.
In Leipzig he composed the bulk of his choral music. The list includes 295 church cantatas, of which 202 have survived, 6 great motets, the 5 Masses, including the B Minor Mass, and the great Passions and oratorios.
In 1747 Bach visited his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was in the service of Frederick the Great at Potsdam. Frederick had expressed the desire to meet the great Bach, and for the occasion Bach improvised a six-part fugue on a theme submitted by the King. Later Bach went home and completed the work, which he called a Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering). He dedicated it to Frederick with the words, "A sovereign admired in music as in all other sciences of war and peace." Bach's last work was the Art of the Fugue, in which he demonstrated the complete possibilities of the fugal and canonic forms.
In his final years Bach was afflicted with gradual blindness, and he was totally blind the last year of his life. A few days before his death he dictated a setting of the hymn Vor deinen Thron tret' ich allhier (Before Thy Throne I Stand) to his son-in-law. The composition was prophetic. Following a stroke and a raging fever, Bach died on July 28, 1750. Four of his sons carried on the musical tradition of the Bach family: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel by his first marriage, and Johann Christoph and Johann Christian by his second.
For Bach, writing music was an expression of faith. His musical symbolism, his dramatic flair, even his insistence on no unnecessary notes—all served to profoundly interpret the text. Every composition, sacred and secular, was "in the name of Jesus" and "to the glory of God alone." His influence on music is well stated in the words of Johannes Brahms: "Study Bach: there you will find everything."
Further Reading on Johann Sebastian Bach
The principal source for the life and works of Bach is Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685-1750 (2 vols., 1873-1880; trans., 3 vols., 1951). Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach (1905; trans., 2 vols., 1911), enumerates the principal sources of Bach's tonal language and his chief uses of it. Excellent short biographies of Bach are Wilibald Gurlitt, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Master and His Work (1936; trans. 1957), and Russell Hancock Miles, Johann Sebastian Bach: An Introduction to His Life and Works (1962). Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents (1945), treats Bach from the human-interest viewpoint. See also Karl Geiringer, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of an Era (1966). Bach's work in the context of the times is discussed in Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach (1947), and in Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941).