Johann Sebastian Bach (March 31,1685–July 28, 1750) was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist of the Baroque period. Born at Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, on March 31,1685, into a very musical family, he was the son and eighth child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. The eldest son in the family was fourteen at the time of Bach’s birth. His father was likely to have taught him to play violin and harpsichord and the basics of music theory. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers, one of whom, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), introduced him to the organ.
Bach’s mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. Bach, then ten, moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), an organist in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. There he studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother’s, receiving valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J.C. Bach exposed him to the works of great composers of the day, including South German composers such as Johann Pachelbel, under whom Johann Christoph had studied, and Johann Jakob Froberger; North German composers; Frenchmen, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais; and the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. Also during this time, he was taught theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian at the local gymnasium.
At the age of fourteen, Bach, along with his older school friend George Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship because of his singing skills to study at the prestigious St. Michael’s School at Lüneburg in the Principality of Lüneburg. His two years there were critical in exposing him to a wider facet of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir he played the School’s three-manual organ and harpsichords. While in Lüneburg, Bach may have visited the Johanniskirche (Church of St. John) and heard and possibly played the church’s famous organ built in 1549 by Jasper Johannsen, and played by Georg Böhm. Given his musical talent, Bach had significant contact with prominent organists of the day including organists in nearby Hamburg, such as Johann Adam Reincken.
In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael’s and being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread so much that he was invited to inspect the new organ, and give the inaugural recital, at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt, located southwest of Weimar. In August 1703, he became the organist at St Boniface’s, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a fine new organ tuned in the modern tempered system that allowed a wide range of keys to be used. Bach was gone for several months in 1705–06, to visit the great organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude and his Abendmusiken at the Marienkirche in the northern city of Lübeck.
In 1706, Bach was offered a post as organist at St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen, which he took up the following year. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood, including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who both became important composers as well. Bach was able to convince the church and city government at Mühlhausen to fund an expensive renovation of the organ at St. Blasius’s. Bach, in turn, wrote an elaborate, festive cantata—Gott ist mein König, BWV 71. In 1708, Bach left Mühlhausen, returning to Weimar this time as organist and from 1714 “Konzertmeister” or director of music, at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians.
Bach’s time in Weimar was the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works. He continued to play and compose for the organ, and to perform concert music with the duke’s ensemble. He also began to write the preludes and fugues which were later assembled into his monumental work Das Wohltemperierte Clavier consisting of two books, compiled in 1722 and 1744, each containing a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key. Additionally, in Weimar Bach started work on the Little Organ Book for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, containing traditional Lutheran chorales (hymn tunes) set in complex textures to train organists.
Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister or director of music in 1717. Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach’s talents, paid him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. The prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship, so most of Bach’s work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, the six suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the Brandenburg concertos. Bach also composed secular cantatas for the court such as the Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a. In July 1720, while Bach was abroad with Prince Leopold, Bach’s first wife suddenly died. The following year, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano seventeen years younger than he; they married on December 3, 1721. Together they had 13 more children, six of whom survived into adulthood including Gottfried Heinrich, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian, all of whom became significant musicians.
In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of the Thomasschule at Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and Director of Music in the principal churches in the town, namely the Nikolaikirche and the Paulinerkirche, the church of the University of Leipzig. This was a prestigious post in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, which he held for 27 years until his death. Bach was required to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide church music for the main churches in Leipzig. A cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year. He usually performed his own cantatas, most of which were composed during his first three years in Leipzig. The first of these was Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, first performed in the Nikolaikirche on May 30, 1723.
Bach broadened his composing and performing beyond the liturgy by taking over, in March 1729, the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by the composer Georg Philipp Telemann. Many of Bach’s works during the 1730s and 1740s were written for and performed by the Collegium Musicum; among these were parts of his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) and many of his violin and harpsichord concertos. In 1733, Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B minor. He later extended this work into a full Mass, by adding a Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the music for which was almost wholly taken from his own cantatas. Between 1737 and 1739, Bach’s former pupil Carl Gotthelf Gerlach took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum.
In 1747, Bach visited the court of King Frederick II of Prussia at Potsdam. The king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach improvised a three-part fugue on Frederick’s pianoforte, then a novelty, and later presented the king with a Musical Offering which consists of fugues, canons and a trio based on this theme. Its six-part fugue includes a slightly altered subject more suitable for extensive elaboration. In the same year Bach joined the Correspondierende Societät der musicalischen Wissenschaften (de) of Lorenz Christoph Mizler. One of Bach’s late works, The Art of Fugue, which was composed shortly before his death, might have a connection with the music theory based Society. It was only published posthumously in 1751. The final work Bach completed was a chorale prelude for organ, entitled Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before thy throne I now appear, BWV 668a) which he dictated to his son-in-law, Johann Altnikol, from his deathbed.
Bach’s health declined in 1749 and he became increasingly blind. The British eye surgeon John Taylor operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in March or April 1750. On July 28, 1750, Bach died at the age of 65. Modern historians speculate that the cause of death was a stroke complicated by pneumonia. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Bach was widely recognized throughout Europe during his lifetime for his keyboard work. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn were among his most prominent admirers. During the twentieth century, the process of regaining the musical as well as the pedagogic value of some of his works continued. He is now generally regarded as one of the main composers of the Baroque period, and as one of the greatest composers of all time.
Bach wrote for single instruments, duets, and small ensembles. Bach’s best-known orchestral works are the Brandenburg Concertos, so named because he submitted them in the hope of gaining employment from Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721; his application was unsuccessful. These works are examples of the concerto grosso genre. Other surviving works in the concerto form include two violin concertos (BWV 1041 and BWV 1042); a Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor (BWV 1043), often referred to as Bach’s “double” concerto; and concertos for one to four harpsichords. It is widely accepted that many of the harpsichord concertos were not original works, but arrangements of his concertos for other instruments now lost. A number of violin, oboe and flute concertos have been reconstructed from these. In addition to concertos, Bach wrote four orchestral suites, and a series of stylized dances for orchestra, each preceded by a French overture.
My collection of music for orchestra by J. S. Bach includes the following works:
The Anna Magdalena Notebook: March BWV Anh. 122, and Minuet in GM.
Arioso (arr. Smith).
Bist du bei mir (arr. Frost).
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in FM, BWV 1046.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in FM, BWV 1047.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in GM, BWV 1048.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in GM, BWV 1049.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in DM, BWV 1050.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in BbM, BWV 1051.
Cantata No. 207: March.
Christmas Oratorio: Shepherd’s Music.
Concerto for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord, Strings and Basso Continuo in am, BWV 1044, “Triple.”
Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings and Basso Continuo in dm (#1), BWV 1052.
Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings in EM (#2), BWV 1053.
Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings and Basso Continuo in DM (#3), BWV 1054.
Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings and Basso Continuo in AM (#4), BWV 1055.
Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings and Basso Continuo in fm (#5), BWV 1056
Concerto for Harpsichord, 2 Recorders and Strings in FM (#6), BWV 1057.
Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings in gm (#7), BWV 1058.
Concerto for 2 Harpsichords and Strings in cm (#8), BWV 1060.
Concerto for 2 Harpsichords and Strings in CM (#9), BWV 1061.
Concerto for 2 Harpsichords and Strings in cm (#10), BWV 1062.
Concerto for 3 Harpsichords and Strings in dm (#11), BWV 1063.
Concerto for 3 Harpsichords and Strings in CM (#12), BWV 1064.
Concerto for 4 Harpsichords and Strings in am (#13), BWV 1065.
Concerto for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Basso Continue in CM (reconstructed from BWV 1060).
Concerto for Oboe d’amore, Strings and Basso Continuo in AM (reconstructed from BWV 1055).
Concerto for Violin, String Orchestra and Continuo in am (#1), BWV 1041.
Concerto for Violin, String Orchestra and Continuo in EM (#2), BWV 1042.
Concerto for 2 Violins, String orchestra and Continuo in dm (#3), BWV 1043.
Concerto for 3 Violins in dm (reconstructed from BWV 1063).
Fugue in gm, “Great” (arr. Smith).
Fugue in gm, “Little” (arr. Smith).
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, Cantata #147, BWV 202: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (arr. Harris).
Praeludium in EM from Partita No. 3 (arr. Kreisler).
Sheep May Safely Graze, from Hunting Cantata, BWV 208 (arr. Walton).
Sleepers, Awake!, BWV 140: Wachet auf Chorale Prelude.
Suite No. 1 for Orchestra in CM, BWV 1066.
Suite No. 2 for Orchestra in bm (Flute Suite), BWV 1067.
Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in DM, BWV 1068,
Suite No. 4 for Orchestra in DM, BWV 1069/
Toccata and Fugue in dm (arr. Ormandy).