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Who is Bach?

Johann Sebastian Bach, a towering figure in classical music, was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period. His compositions, such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Well-Tempered Clavier, are celebrated for their intellectual depth and technical mastery. Bach's legacy endures, influencing countless artists across generations. How has his work shaped the music we listen to today? Explore with us.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was one of the most prolific and famous German composers of the Baroque period. In his early life, his work was much celebrated, but as the onset of the Classical period dawned, it was considered inferior. Later, Mozart and Beethoven would rediscover Bach and restore him to the position of greatness he now holds as composer.

Little is known about the early life of Bach. He was the 8th child in a large family devoted to music. At the age of 9, he was orphaned and sent to live with his eldest brother. He is said to have learned to play the organ at 9, but given his talent as an organist, he probably had some experience with the harpsichord at some point.

Bach's violin concertos are still popularly performed today.
Bach's violin concertos are still popularly performed today.

A gifted soprano as a young boy, at 14, Bach was given a scholarship to attend St. Michael’s school in Luneberg. He participated in the choir, and very likely received a fundamental education in several languages. He may also have practiced on the St. Michael’s organ, since his first job as an adult was as an organist.

Bach quickly moved to the position of head organist at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt, and began work on a number of organ compositions at this time. He had not yet mastered the counterpoint style for which he would later be known. Bach’s relationship with most of his employers was tempestuous. He was a young adult, and not very good at interpersonal relationships. Impulsive in nature, he took a leave of absence from work without permission from his employer, to walk 200 miles (321.86 km) to see Buxtehude, the famous organist. He stayed for several months, thus severing his relationship with St. Boniface.

Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.
Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.

Bach next moved to Muhlhausen and accepted a post at St. Blasius. At this time, he also married his cousin Maria Barbara. The two would have many children but only four survived to adulthood. Two, Wilhelm Freidemann and Carl Phillip Emmanuel, both became composers. Carl’s fame eclipsed his own father’s in his lifetime, though he is now thought to be of lesser importance as a composer.

Bach was skilled in playing the organ, which he began practicing at age 9, as well as other instruments.
Bach was skilled in playing the organ, which he began practicing at age 9, as well as other instruments.

Johann Sebastian Bach would stay in Muhlhausen for 9 years before Prince Leopold appointed Bach director of music in 1717. Prince Leopold spent about a fourth of his income on his private orchestra, often joining the orchestra himself to play violin. During this time, Bach wrote one of his most famous works, The Brandenburg Concertos. He had also truly mastered the counterpoint style at this time.

After Leopold’s death, Bach moved again, becoming a concertmaster in Leipzig. While he worked for the prince, his compositions were mainly secular since Leopold was a Lutheran. The move to Leipzig prompted new interest in religious compositions. Bach lost his wife shortly before Leopold’s death, and shortly thereafter, married Anna Magdalena Wilcke. The couple had 13 children, though many of them died young. Unfortunately, when the composer died himself, he failed to provide for his second wife. His sons from his first marriage did not help her, and she died impoverished.

Bach saw his music go from great popularity to being virtually unappreciated. His son Carl’s work became vastly preferred to his own, and he struggled financially in his later years. He almost certainly had diabetes and became blind, which meant he could not conduct music in his later life. He died from a stroke in 1750.

The composer wrote over 1,000 musical pieces. The Well-Tempered Clavier became a teaching book for those mastering the keyboard. Additionally, Bach's violin concertos, particularly the two part Concerto in D are incredibly complex and beautiful. The Mass in B Minor is considered one of the grandest Masses composed. His explorations of the fugue were a significant contribution to later composers. Bach also wrote numerous choral works. When Mozart found the Clavier, he reportedly remarked: “Here is something I can learn from.”

To understand Bach’s contribution, one must understand counterpoint. This is the composition of two melodies played at the same time, thus developing chords together. The composer would often take music already written, and then write a second melody to accompany it. Occasionally a third melody would be added to the first two creating unbelievable complexity. Each melody could be played on its own. Together, the melodies are a mathematically perfect blend that creates harmony. Bach’s development of counterpoint is why many today consider him to be a genius, classing him with famous mathematicians and scientists.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Johann Sebastian Bach?

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period, born on March 31, 1685, in Eisenach, in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach. He is revered for his technical command, artistic beauty, and intellectual depth in compositions. Bach's works, such as the Brandenburg Concertos, the Mass in B minor, and The Well-Tempered Clavier, are celebrated for their intricate musical structures and stylistic innovations.

What are some of Johann Sebastian Bach's most famous works?

Bach's vast body of work includes both secular and sacred music, instrumental and vocal compositions. Among his most famous works are the Brandenburg Concertos, a collection of six instrumental works showcasing a variety of styles; the St. Matthew Passion, a monumental oratorio; and the Mass in B minor, one of the supreme achievements in classical sacred music. His well-known solo keyboard music includes The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations.

How did Bach influence music and other composers?

Bach's influence on the music world is profound and enduring. His mastery of counterpoint and harmony set a standard for future generations of composers. Figures like Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms studied his works to learn from his techniques. According to the Bach Archiv Leipzig, Bach's legacy is evident in the way his compositions laid the groundwork for the Classical and Romantic eras that followed his time.

What was unique about Bach's compositional style?

Bach's compositional style was characterized by complex counterpoint and a rich harmonic language. His ability to weave multiple independent melodies into a cohesive whole was unparalleled. He often employed the use of canons and fugues, which are compositions where a single theme is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others. Bach's music is also noted for its emotional expressiveness and capacity to convey a wide range of feelings.

How is Bach's music preserved and celebrated today?

Bach's music is preserved through a combination of historical manuscripts, scholarly editions, and recordings. Institutions like the Bach Archiv Leipzig are dedicated to the research and preservation of his works. Annual festivals, such as the Bach Festival Leipzig, celebrate his music with performances and scholarly events. Moreover, Bach's music is a staple of classical music education and is performed regularly by orchestras, choirs, and soloists around the world.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent PublicPeople contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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    • Bach's violin concertos are still popularly performed today.
      By: zea_lenanet
      Bach's violin concertos are still popularly performed today.
    • Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, was a German composer of the Baroque period whose works are still performed today.
    • Bach was skilled in playing the organ, which he began practicing at age 9, as well as other instruments.
      Bach was skilled in playing the organ, which he began practicing at age 9, as well as other instruments.