Johanna Sebastian Bach was a composer of the Baroque era, the most celebrated member of a large family of northern German musicians. Although he was admired by his contemporaries primarily as an outstanding harpsichordist, organist, and expert on organ building. Bach is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is celebrated as the creator of the Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, and numerous other masterpieces of church and instrumental music. Appearing at a propitious moment in the history of music, Bach was able to survey and bring together the principal styles, forms, and national traditions that had developed during preceding generations and, by virtue of his synthesis, enrich them all. J.S. Bach was born at Eisenach, Thuringia, on March 21, 1685, the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach and Elisabeth Lammerhirt. Ambrosius was a string player, employed by the town council and the ducal court of Eisenach. Johann Sebastian started school in 1692 or 1693 and did well in spite of frequent absences. Of his musical education at this time, nothing definite is known; however, he may have picked up the rudiments of string playing from his father, and no doubt he attended the Georgen Church, where Johann Christoph Bach was organist until 1703. This Christoph had been a pupil of the influential keyboard composer, Johann Pachelbel and he apparently gave Johann Sebastian his first formal keyboard lessons. The young Bach again did well at school, until in 1700 his voice secured him a place in a select choir of poor boys at the school at the Michaels Church, Luneburg. He seems to have returned to Thuringia in the late summer of 1702. By this time he was already a reasonably proficient organist. His experience at Luneburg, if not at Ohrdruf, had turned him away from the secular string-playing tradition, though not exclusively, a composer and performer of keyboard and 2
sacred music. The next few months are wrapped in mystery, but by March 4, 1703, he was a member of the orchestra employed by Johann Ernst, Duke von Weimar. This post was a mere stopgap; he probably already had his eye on the organ then being built at the New Church in Arnstadt. When it was finished, he helped test the organ in August 1703 he was appointed organist at the age of 18. Arnstadt documents imply that he had been court organist at Weimar; this is incredible, though it is likely enough that he had occasionally played there (Kirby 2).
In June 1707 Bach obtained a post at the Blasius Church in Muhlhausen in Thuringia. He moved there soon after and married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach at Dornheim on October 17. At Muhlhausen things seem, for a time, to have gone more smoothly. He produced several church cantatas at this time; all of these works are cast in a conservative mold, based on biblical and chorale texts and displaying no influence of the "modern" Italian operatic forms that were to appear in Bach's later cantatas. The famous organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, written in the rhapsodic northern style, and the Prelude and Fugue in D Major may also have been composed during the Muhlhausen period, as well as the organ Passacaglia in C Minor (BWV 582), an early example of Bach's instinct for large-scale organization. Cantata No. 71), God is my King, of Feb. 4, 1708, was printed at the expense of the city council and was the first of Bach's compositions to be published. While at Muhlhausen, Bach copied music to enlarge the choir library, tried to encourage music in the surrounding villages, and was in sufficient favor to be able to interest his employers in a scheme for rebuilding the organ. His real reason for resigning on June 25, 1708, is not known. He himself said that his plans for a "church music" had been
hindered by conditions in Muhlhausen and that his salary was inadequate. It is generally supposed that he had become involved in a theological controversy between his...
Cited: Farb, Peter. Great Lives Great Deeds. New York: Readers Digest Association. 1964.
Kirby, F.E. A short History of Keyboard Music. New York: The Free Press. 1966.
Kupferberg, Herbert. Basically Bach. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1985.
Schonberg, Harold. The Lives of the Great Composers. New York: W.W. Norton. 1970.
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