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  • by Mary Barton

More Than Music: J.S. Bach

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

What does it take to become the greatest composer of all time?

Of course, you must be incredibly gifted. You must have opportunity or circumstances that enable you to pursue your talents. You must have teachers and peers to learn from and help hone your skills. And we can assume that you must work at your gift, but how hard? How devoted must one be? How passionate and consumed with your gift must you be?

Enough to walk over 200 km each way to meet and learn from the greatest organist of your day, jeaporadizing your day job because you are so inspired and stayed away too long? Enough to spend a month in jail to get away from an employer, in this case, a Prince, who is stifling or hampering your musical aspirations? Enough to put up with disparaging comments about your abilities from the city mayor?

Meet Johann Sebastian Bach.

Born in 1685, in Eisenach, Germany, Bach inherited a rich musical upbringing, arriving in the family’s 5th generation of professional musicians - his own father was a court trumpeter. That’s a pretty good start!

Sadly, he was orphaned by age 10, then raised and further musically trained by oldest brother, Johann Christoph, who, according to some accounts, viewed his younger sibling as just another mouth to feed. Bach left at 15 to live and study under the music program, as it were, at St. Michael’s school in Lunenburg. Somehow, through all this, he would emerge an accomplished violinist and virtuoso organist, and also train in Latin, Greek, theology and instrument building and repair.

The earliest days of his musical career (1703-1708) were spent in Arnstadt and Muhlhausen primarily in musical performance capacities such as court violinist, chamber musician and organist, composing only a relatively few known pieces at this time. However, his gutsy nature, determination and seemingly driven devotion to his craft, as evidenced in his walking the aforementioned long distance to meet and learn from the great organist, Dietrich Buxtehude in Lubeck, where he extended his leave by 3 months without permission, gives us a glimpse into the character recipe, extreme work ethic and dedication required to become the greatest composer of all time.

He married his 2nd cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, in Muhlhausen in 1707, with whom he had 7 children. Of the 4 who lived to adulthood, Carl Phillip Emmanuel and Wilhelm Fridemann, would go on to become successful musicians.

The next phase of his career took him to Weimar, in 1708, where he was employed by the Duke, Wilhelm Ernst, as a court organist and chamber musician. There his recognition as an organist grew greatly, and he composed prolifically, producing the famous Orgelbuchlein (the Little Organ book) of chorale preludes, and eventually he became the court concertmaster. Working in the complex feudal environment of the Duke’s family proved bitter enough at times, but the final straw seems to have come when Bach was passed over for a promotion after the death of the aged Kapellmeister (music director), whose duties Bach had been assuming. Consequently, he accepted a the position as Kapellmeister, and the accompanying pay advance, to Cothen’s Prince Leopold, a trained musician and music lover. The Duke, however, refused Bach’s resignation and had him incarcerated. One can only image what the Duke must have been like to work for if Bach was willing to spend a month in jail rather than remain in his employ …

Fortunately, the Duke, caving to peer pressure, relented, and Bach spent the next 6 years (1717 – 1723) at his desire position in Cothen. In contrast to the many cantatas and chorale settings he composed for Lutheran church services in Weimar, the restrictive Calvinist court did not welcome musical performance in church. Hence, Bach’s compositional genius and drive were unleashed on solo and chamber genres, spawning a wealth of suites, concertos - including the dazzling Brandenburg concertos - sonatas and solo keyboard works. Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a 2-volume collection of preludes and fugues celebrating the invention of “equal temperament”, a keyboard-tuning device that split an octave into 12 equal semitones and enabled composition in every key, was also composed during this time. Naturally, pieces in every key masterfully found their way into each volume.

Upon returning from a lengthy trip with the Prince, Bach discovered, to his horror, that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died of appendicitis in his absence, leaving their children motherless. A year later and a half later, Bach married court singer, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, to whom he presented, on her 25th birthday, his now famous and beloved collection for students, Notebook for Anna Magdalena. 6 of their 13 children lived to adulthood, but again, 2, Johann Christian and Johann Christoph, also became successful musicians.

When the Prince’s marriage to a woman who had little use for music began to throw ice on the Prince’s passion for the craft, Bach, though remaining on good terms with the Prince, sought employment elsewhere, and secured the position of Cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig, much to the chagrin of the mayor, Abraham Platz, who felt Bach was an inferior candidate compared to the likes of Christoph Graupner, who had refused the post.

Bach would spend his remaining years in Leipzig, juggling teaching, composing, choirs, the musical direction of several churches, travelling to test keyboard instruments, and arguing at times with his employers, the town council. In 1729, he added to his already busy schedule by assuming directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a prestigious performing ensemble comprised of university students. His years in Leipzig provided the backdrop for some of his greatest and large-scale works such as his St John Passion, the exquisite St. Matthew Passion, Goldberg Variations, Art of Fugue, as well as Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Near the end of his life, a visit with Frederick the Great at Potsdam netted the thematic material for another contrapuntal milestone, “The Musical Offering”, and he put the finishing touches on his Mass in B Minor, held by some experts to be the single greatest musical composition of all time.

When one surveys Bach’s accomplishments, it’s difficult to imagine how one person could produce so many works of unsurpassed craftsmanship. He is the undisputed master of contrapuntal art, and although he didn't create any new musical forms, he perfected every genre he touched. After unsuccessful cataract surgery and a short time of declining health, he died of an apparent stroke on July 28, 1750, closing the baroque era and leaving the world with a vast array of musical gems in every genre of his day except opera. I can only attribute it to a gift from God, exercised through his beloved Christian faith which provided a constant wellspring of inspiration, all the fruits of which he devoted to the glory of God.

Inspired to endure and persevere in your own musical pursuits? I hope so! We'll get a Handel on another inspiring story next time ...

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