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A Bach Biography

Updated on February 13, 2013

A musical giant

This Hub will give you a brief history of the most important events in the life of Johann Sebastian Bach, along with some really fine YouTube performances of his works. It is impossible to guess where Western classical music would have ended up without Bach. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms... all of the most important figures in the history of music have looked up to Bach and tried to follow his example in a variety of ways.

Bach's youth

Born in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach was forced at a young age to live with his brother, Johann Christoff, upon the death of his parents. It was in his brother's home that he began his training in music.  In Arnstadt, he was appointed to the position of organist when he was 18 years old. However, the church elders were confounded by what they called the "curious embellishments" he added to the chorales he played. Their agitation grew when, upon being granted leave to attend Buxtehude's concerts in Lubeck, Bach stayed several months longer than he should have. 

Brandenburg Concerto No 1

From Weimar to Cöthen

After being employed by Duke Wilhelm of Weimar for a period of 10 years and not being promoted, Bach decided he would be better served by working as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, who was himself an extremely talented musician. However, before letting him go, the Duke of Weimar put Bach in prison for 30 days to show his displeasure at the defection.

The first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as the Brandenburg Concertos were two of the many works Bach finished while residing in Cöthen. However, Bach was left with his sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanual, and two other young children to raise when his wife passed away suddenly in 1720.

D minor toccata and fugue for organ

Bach with three of his sons
Bach with three of his sons

A new beginning in Leipzig

Anna Magdalena became Bach's second wife the following year.  The couple went on to have 13 children, but 10 of them did not make it past infancy. Because Prince Leopold's new wife did not appreciate her husband's fondness for music, Bach's post with him ended. Bach went on to attain the position of Thomaskantor at Leipzig. He created many sacred works during his first five years there, including three annual cycles of cantatas, the St John and St Matthew Passions in 1724 and 1727 respectively. It is a wonder that Bach was able to be so prolific a composer, given the fact that he did not have much money to work with. Church elders even threatened to reduce what little salary he was receiving when he informed them of the minimum requirements he needed to produce music worthy of the church. 

Aria from Goldberg Variations: Glenn Gould

Late years and death

The music that Bach composed during his later years has been characterized as having a general and abstract quality to it. He was able to attain an incredible degree of mastery in the primary sacred genres he worked in, as exemplified by his B Minor Mass. On the other hand, he investigated canonical writing in such pieces as the Variations for Organ on Von Himmel Hoch and the Goldberg Variations. A very large collection of contrapuntal techniques, the Art of Fugue, was never finished.

The British surgeon, John Taylor, attempted surgery on Bach to treat the blindness he suffered from during the last years of his life. However, Bach died in 1750 at 65 years of age from what one present-day newspaper characterized as "... the unhappy consequences of a very unsuccessful eye operation."

Erbarme dich from St Matthew Passion: Michael Chance, countertenor

Leave your comments here!

Do you have your own favorite YouTube videos or CD recordings of Bach's music? Perhaps you think we have left out something important in our brief overview of his life. Please stay another moment and share your thoughts on Bach with us!


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      Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      I think this is very well written and researched. Again, I enjoyed reading this. I have learned more about Bach from you. Thank you!