Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was a well-respected German composer and organist, whose work is admired not only for its artistic beauty, but also for its intellectual depth and technical command. Some consider him one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition, although he was known more as an organist during his lifetime. All-in-all, he composed more than 1,000 works before his death.

Bach was born in 1685. Music ran in his family, as his father was the director of town musicians, and all his uncles were professional musicians. Bach was taught to play the violin and harpsichord by his father. Orphaned at age 10, Bach moved in with his older brother, Johann Christoph, an organist, and learned much from him, including how to play the clavichord. Bach was also exposed to the works of great composers of the day such as Johann Pachelbel, Johann Jakob Froberger, and Cirolamo Frescobaldi.

After graduation from St. Michael's School, Bach became the court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar. He stayed there seven months, and his reputation as an organist began to spread. He accepted the post of organist at the St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt in 1703, where he seriously began to compose organ preludes.

In 1707, Bach left the St. Boniface's Church to become the organist at St. Blasius' Church in Muhlhausen. After the move, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. The married couple would produce seven children, although only four survived to adulthood. Two of his sons, Wilhelm and Carl, would become composers.

After a little over a year in Muhlhausen, Bach would return to Weimar to take the job of court organist and concertmaster for Duke Wlhelm Ernst. Bach had time to hone his keyboard and orchestral composing skills while in Weimar. He learned by transcribing the works of others, particularly the works of Vivaldi, Corelli, and Torelli. While at Weimar, Bach wrote Das wohltemperierte Clavier, a collection of keyboard solos. The work contains a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, exploring the full range of keys.

Bach began working on The Little Organ Book, which contained Lutheran hymnal tunes. Bach had planned 164 chorale preludes, but was only able to complete 46 and part of a 47th before leaving Weimar.

Bach was hired by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen to serve as his director of music. Because Prince Leopold didn't believe in using much music in worship, most of Bach's work during this time, including orchestral suites, the six suites for solo cello, and sonatas and partitas for solo violin, were secular. One of Bach's most well known pieces, the Brandenburg concertos also was written during this time.

While traveling with Prince Leopold in 1720, Maria Barbara died suddenly. Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke in late 1721. The couple had thirteen children, six of whom survived to adulthood, and all became significant musicians.

Bach was appointed Cantor of Thomasschule, as well as Director of Music, to the churches in the town of Leipzig in 1723. Despite friction between Bach and the Leipzig Council, which tried to get Bach to compromise his compositions and music, he would hold this position for 27 years, until his death. He wrote five annual cantata cycles in his first six years in Leipzig. In 1729, Bach began serving as director of Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble. During this time, Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B Minor. He later extended it into a full mass, adding a Credo, Sanctus, and Angus Dei. Although the full mass was probably never performed while Bach was still alive, it is now considered one of the greatest choral works of all time.

Frederick II of Prussia challenged Bach to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach began working on The Art of Fugue. While it consists of 18 complex fugues and canons, the work remained incomplete at the time of Bach's death. His last completed piece was a chorale prelude for organ titled Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, which Bach dictated to Johann Altnikol, his son-in-law, from his deathbed.

Bach died on July 28, 1750, at the age of 65. The cause of death was listed at the time as complications from an eye operation, but modern historians believed he died from a stroke after suffering complications from pneumonia.

Here are other websites that contain useful information about Bach:

Bach's Cantatas

Free Scores by J.S. Bach

Bach's Manuscripts

Listing of Bach Organizations

The Faces of Bach