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Who was Johann Sebastian Bach?

Updated on December 18, 2016

Johann Sebastian Bach, German composer. Born Eisenach, Germany, March 21, 1685. Died Leipzig, Germany, July 28, 1750.

Bach was one of the world's great musical geniuses. His work marks the culmination of the Baroque style and represents an epoch in the history of music. Every major composer since Bach has been influenced by his work. He was the first, and to many people the greatest, of the "three B's of music," Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Richard Wagner called Bach "the most stupendous miracle in all music."

A man of inexhaustible energy and imagination, Bach composed in every musical form known in the Baroque age except the opera. His enormous output includes works for the organ, violin, clavihord and harpsichord (predecessors of the piano), chamber orchestra, and voice. Bach's music is characterized by a a grandeur of design and a rigorous precision that have rarely been equaled.

Although tightly controlled, it is seldom mechanical or lacking in emotional intensity. aMong his finest achievements are his religious works, which rank with the greatest ever composed

Life of Bach

The family of Johann is one of the most remarkable in music history for nearly 200 years, its members included composers and performers who made notable contributions to German music. As a child, Johann Sebastian received violin and organ lessons from his father and uncle. Before he was ten years old, his parents died. The boy went to live with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, who taught him to play the clavichord and harpsichord.

At the age of 15, Bach left home and became a chorister at St. Michael's Church in Liineburg. There he studied the best choral works of the period and acquired a knowledge of French music by visiting the nearby court of Celle. On several occasions he walked 30 miles to Hamburg to hear the noted organist Jan Adams Reinken. During this period Bach wrote his first compositions for the organ.

In 1703, Bach was appointed church organist at Arnstadt. Two years later, he obtained a month's leave of absence to hear the celebrated organist Dietrich Buxtehude in the city of Liibeck. The visit to Liibeck increased his passion for organ music and absorbed him so completely that he stayed there for four months instead of one. His prolonged absence infuriated the authorities at Arnstadt and led to a series of bitter disputes. In 1707, Bach accepted a position as church organist at Miihlhausen, where he remained for nearly a year.

Bach received his first major appointment in 1708, when he became court organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Weimar. At Weimar he composed his greatest organ music, including the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for Organ, the Concertos for Organ (after Vivaldi), and numerous toccatas, fantasias, and fugues. He also won fame as a performer and became recognized as one of the greatest organists of his day. One of his most remarkable gifts was the ability to improvise a complicated piece of music from a theme suggested to him.

In 1717, Bach moved to the court of Prince Leopold at Cothen (now Kothen). His position was that of Kapellmeister, or music director, and his duties included the composition of secular music for court presentations. Bach's finest chamber music was written during his stay at Leopold's court. Among the masterpieces from this period are the six Brandenburg Concertos, the solo sonatas for violin and cello, and Book I of The Well-tempered Clavier.

Eager to devote himself once more to church music, Bach left Cothen in 1723 to accept the position of cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. He spent the remainder of his life there, teaching music, training the choir, and composing pieces for church presentations and for various public occasions. His,most important choral works, including the superb Mass in B minor, date from this period.

Bach was married twice and had 20 children, only 10 of whom lived past childhood. Four of his sons, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian, achieved prominence as composers.

Music of Bach

The art of polyphony, or counterpoint, a style of music in which two or more melodies are used simultaneously, reached its highest development in the music of Bach. He was the supreme master of the fugue, a complex type of contrapuntal music, and he used this form extensively in both his instrumental and choral works. In the most intricate of his compositions, he developed each melody with the utmost clarity and precision. Although his works are severely disciplined, they have a lyricism and emotional expressiveness that foreshadow the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and the Romantic composers.

Bach's outstanding vocal works are the Mass in B minor, the St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passion, the Magnificat in D major, and the Christmas Oratorio. He also wrote approximately 300 church cantatas, of which about 200 survive. Some secular cantatas, written for weddings or other festive occasions, have also been preserved.

Among Bach's major organ works are the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (The Great), and nearly 100 arrangements of chorales. His best-known keyboard work is The Well-tempered Clavier, which consists of 48 preludes and fugues. Another famous keyboard work is the set of 30 Goldberg Variations for Harpsichord. Bach also composed 6 English suites, 6 French suites, and 6 partitas for the harpsichord. The keyboard works are now usually played on the piano.

The 6 Brandenburg Concertos, written for the Margrave of Brandenburg, are probably the best known of Bach's orchestral compositions. Other outstanding works are the Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Violin, the Concerto No. 2 in E major for Violin, and the Concerto in D minor for Two Violins.

During his lifetime Bach achieved far greater renown as an organist than as a composer. His genius, virtually ignored for many years after his death, was  not fully recognized until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted the St. Matthew Passion at Berlin. In 1850 the Bach Gesellschaft was organized to gather and publish all Bach's surviving works, a task that required 50 years. Today Bach is universally acknowledged as one of the all-time masters of music.


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    • Hubography profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Excellent suggestion. Any recommendations? Post a link of your favorite here and I'll add it as a Video Capsule.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Terrific hub. Most of the material was familiar to me, from studying Music History in college...I appreciate this hub on all kinds of levels, and thank you.

      A minor suggestion--would you think about adding a YouTube video of someone playing some Bach?


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