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1685 1750

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach, Johann Sebastian
  • Bach was a formidable intellectual and technical composer, but his music is also uplifting and spiritual, melodic, and rhythmically irresistible. Few names in music are as revered as Bach’s.

Vital Statistics

Born: March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Saxony (Germany)
Died: July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)
Nationality: German
Genre: Baroque
Performed as: Organist, violinist
During the composer's lifetime: Enlightenment thinking flourished. Contemporaries included Isaac Newton, John Locke,

Biographical Outline

  • Genealogy: Bach was a member of a seven-generation family of talented composers and instrumentalists.
  • Choirboy: Grew up surrounded by music and Lutheran church doctrine.
  • First gigs: Church organist, 1703-08. Appointed concertmaster of the Duke of Weimar’s court orchestra at age 23; hired by the young Prince of Cöthen to direct the court orchestra and compose as required in 1717.
  • Cantor and choirmaster, 1723: Placed in charge of training choirboys and composing/directing weekly cantatas for Leipzig’s four main churches, including the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas’ Church). Was also civic music director and music director for Leipzig University, which had its own church.
  • Superman: In 1729, Bach took on the direction of Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, a group of professional musicians that gave weekly concerts. He revised some of his Cöthen works and wrote others for this group.
  • Last decade: In the 1740s, Bach worked on several personal projects, like The Art of Fugue, the completion of the Mass in B Minor, the Goldberg Variations, and The Musical Offering (commemorating his visit with Frederick the Great of Prussia).

Fun Facts

  • Bach fathered 20 children: only nine of them survived him.
  • Sons of Bach:Several Bach sons became professional musicians and composers. The most famous were Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach.
  • Orphan:Bach was orphaned at age 10 and was raised by an uncle.
  • Germany only:Although he traveled frequently, Bach never ventured beyond a 150-mile radius of his birthplace, and never left Germany.
  • Technical expert: Bach was often invited to inspect the mechanics of church organs.
  • Duel: In his early 20s, Bach pulled a sword on a bassoonist who had accused him of slander.
  • Jail: Bach spent about a month in jail after showing disrespect to the Duke of Weimar by illegally seeking employment elsewhere.
  • Third choice: Bach was hired at Leipzig only after Georg Friedrich Telemann and another (now practically forgotten) composer refused the post.
  • Old-fashioned: By the time of his death, Bach’s fugues and contrapuntal style were out-of-date with the newer, lighter style; his sons referred to him as “old powdered wig.”
  • In his own words: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.”

Recommended Biography

  • Christian Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician (New York, 2000).
  • Martin Geck, Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, trans. by John Hargraves (Harcourt, 2006). Musical discussions abound, but they are not overly technical.
  • Peter Williams, J.S. Bach: A Life in Music (Cambridge, 2007). Scholarly work.
  • The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. Arthur Mendel, Christian Wolff, and Hans T. David, editors (W.W. Norton, 1999). Documentary biography. Totally fascinating.
  • Malcolm Boyd, Bach, 3rd ed. Master Musicians Series (Cambridge, 2001). Universally praised, excellent introduction.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Bach, John Butt, editor (Cambridge, 1997). The biographical and contextual essays in the first section will interest anybody who wants to know about Bach’s world.

Explore the Music

  • As both a Kapellmeister (a court position requiring ceremonial and entertainment music) and an organist/cantor (requiring liturgical knowledge and music for church services), Bach wrote music that is wide-ranging. Although he never left Germany, he was aware of many other musical trends in Europe and owned a large library of scores and books.
  • Bach is considered to be the epitome of German Baroque style, but his Italian concertos, French keyboard suites, Lutheran church music, and pieces in the cutting-edge styles of early 18th-century music, show how broad that designation is.
  • Counterpoint: Bach mastered the art of balancing independent musical lines simultaneously. He also perfected the strict musical structure known as fugue.
  • Organist extraordinaire: Bach was best known for his virtuosic keyboard technique. Occasionally, his church improvisations were so far out that churchgoers and city officials were scandalized.
  • After encountering Antonio Vivaldi’s music in 1713-14, Bach transformed his own style, making it clearer and crafting more sharply defined rhythms.
  • BWV: This acronym (short for Bach Werke Verzeichnis or “Catalog of Bach’s Works”), plus a number, refers to the scholarly ordering of Bach’s more than one thousand unique compositions.

Recommended Websites

JS Bach, Two Part Inventions look inside JS Bach, Two Part Inventions By Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Edited by Keith Snell. Piano. For piano. Neil A. Kjos Master Composer Library. Intermediate. Sheet music. Published by Neil A. Kjos Music Company (KJ.GP382)

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J.S. Bach - 50 Solos for Classical Guitar look inside J.S. Bach - 50 Solos for Classical Guitar By Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Guitar. Softcover with CD. Guitar tablature. 88 pages. Published by Cherry Lane Music (HL.2500912)

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