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Johann Sebastian Bach


Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the greatest
composers in Western musical history. More than 1,000 of his 

compositions survive. Some examples are the Art of Fugue, 

Brandenburg Concerti, the Goldberg Variations for 

Harpsichord, the Mass in B-Minor, the motets, the Easter and 

Christmas oratorios, Toccata in F Major, French Suite No 5, 

Fugue in G Major, Fugue in G Minor ("The Great"), St. 

Matthew Passion, and Jesu Der Du Meine Seele. He came from a 

family of musicians. There were over 53 musicians in his 

family over a period of 300 years.

 Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany 

on March 21, 1685. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a

talented violinist, and taught his son the basic skills for 

string playing; another relation, the organist at Eisenach's 

most important church, instructed the young boy on the 

organ. In 1695 his parents died and he was only 10 years 

old. He went to go stay with his older brother, Johann 

Christoph, who was a professional organist at Ohrdruf. 

Johann Christoph was a professional organist, and continued 

his younger brother's education on that instrument, as well 

as on the harpsichord. After several years in this 

arrangement, Johann Sebastian won a scholarship to study in 

Luneberg, Northern Germany, and so left his brother's 


 A master of several instruments while still in his 

teens, Johann Sebastian first found employment at the age of 

18 as a "lackey and violinist" in a court orchestra in 

Weimar; soon after, he took the job of organist at a church 

in Arnstadt. Here, as in later posts, his perfectionist 

tendencies and high expectations of other musicians - for 

example, the church choir - rubbed his colleagues the wrong 

way, and he was embroiled in a number of hot disputes during 

his short tenure. In 1707, at the age of 22, Bach became fed

up with the lousy musical standards of Arnstadt (and the 

working conditions) and moved on to another organist job, 

this time at the St. Blasius Church in Muhlhausen. The same 

year, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. 

 Again caught up in a running conflict between 

factions of his church, Bach fled to Weimar after one year 

in Muhlhausen. In Weimar, he assumed the post of organist 

and concertmaster in the ducal chapel. He remained in Weimar 

for nine years, and there he composed his first wave of 

major works, including organ showpieces and cantatas.

 By this stage in his life, Bach had developed a 

reputation as a brilliant, if somewhat inflexible, musical 

talent. His proficiency on the organ was unequaled in Europe 

- in fact, he toured regularly as a solo virtuoso - and his 

growing mastery of compositional forms, like the fugue and 

the canon, was already attracting interest from the musical 

establishment - which, in his day, was the Lutheran church. 

But, like many individuals of uncommon talent, he was never 

very good at playing the political game, and therefore 

suffered periodic setbacks in his career. He was passed over 

for a major position - which was Kapellmeister (Chorus 

Master) of Weimar - in 1716; partly in reaction to this 

snub, he left Weimar the following year to take a job as 

court conductor in Anhalt-Cothen. There, he slowed his 

output of church cantatas, and instead concentrated on

instrumental music - the Cothen period produced, among other

masterpieces, the Brandenburg Concerti.

 While at Cothen, Bach's wife, Maria Barbara, died. 

Bach remarried soon after - to Anna Magdalena - and forged 

ahead with his work. He also forged ahead in the 

child-rearing department, producing 13 children with his new 

wife - six of whom survived childhood - to add to the four 

children he had raised with Maria Barbara. Several of these 

children would become fine composers in their own right - 

particularly three sons: Wilhelm Friedmann, Carl Philipp 

Emanuel and Johann Christian. 

 After conducting and composing for the court 

orchestra at Cothen for seven years, Bach was offered the 

highly prestigious post of cantor (music director) of St. 

Thomas' Church in Leipzig - after it had been turned down by 

two other composers. The job was a demanding one; he had to 

compose cantatas for the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas 

churches, conduct the choirs, oversee the musical

activities of numerous municipal churches, and teach Latin 

in the St. Thomas choir school. Accordingly, he had to get 

along with the Leipzig church authorities, which proved 

rocky going. But he persisted, polishing the musical 

component of church services in Leipzig and continuing to 

write music of various kinds with a level of craft and 

emotional profundity that was his alone.

 Bach remained at his post in Leipzig until his death 

in 1750. He was creatively active until the very end, even 

after cataract problems virtually blinded him in 1740. His 

last musical composition, a chorale prelude entitled "Before 

They Throne, My God, I Stand", was dictated to his 

son-in-law only days before his death. 


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