Composer. One of the acknowledged giants of Western music and the greatest composer of the Baroque era. Bach's work represents the culmination of all the musical ideas of his time. He brought such techniques as counterpoint and fugue to their heights of expressiveness, and wrote masterpieces in every existing genre except opera. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, into a family that boasted seven generations of musicians. His parents died before he was 10 and he went to live with an older brother, a church organist who treated him harshly but nevertheless gave him some instruction in the harpsichord. As a choirboy in Luneberg he received a good musical education, but he learned the most through independent study. Young Bach had an insatiable curiosity about music. He walked hundreds of miles throughout Germany to hear musicians like Buxtehude and Reinken, and memorized published scores from all over Europe, acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of current styles. Bach's exceptional abilities as an organist led to his first major appointments, at the New Church at Arnstadt from 1703 to 1707, in Mulhausen from 1707 to 1708, and as Court Organist for the Duke of Weimar from 1708 to 1717. In 1707 he married his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children before she died in 1720. His first surviving son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was musically gifted but squandered his talent with dissolute living; his second, Carl Philipp Emanuel, became a great composer on his own. Bach was a devoted family man but outside the home he could be short-tempered when faced with incompetence or opposition. His relations with his employers were often combative. When the Duke of Weimar passed him over for a promotion Bach risked royal censure to become Music Director for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, a position he held for six years. In 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a professional singer. They had 13 children, including future composer Johann Christian (later famous as "The London Bach"). Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 and remained there the rest of his life, serving as Music Director of the St. Thomas Church and Choir School, which provided music for all the city's principal churches. In his last years Bach began to lose his eyesight. He was persuaded to undergo two operations in early 1750, but the procedures left him blind and ruined his health. He died of a stroke and was buried at Old St. John's Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years. In 1894 his coffin was finally discovered and reburied in a vault within St. John's Church. This building was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, and in 1950 Bach's remains were taken to their present resting place at Leipzig's Church of St. Thomas. Few Baroque composers were independent artists, and Bach's music reflected the nature of his employment at various times of his life. From the beginning of his professional career until 1717 he was primarily an organist, and all his greatest works for that instrument were written then. They include the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (c.1710). At Cothen, where religious services required very little music, he concentrated on instrumental compositions. Among them are the six "Brandenburg Concertos" (1721), recognized as the finest examples of the concerto grosso form; seven harpsichord concertos and two violin concertos; four orchestral suites; the "Double Concerto" for two violins and orchestra; and the bulk of his keyboard music. Standing out from the latter are Book I of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" (1722); the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the "English Suites" and "French Suites"; the Two and Three-Part Inventions; and "The Little Clavier Book of Anna Magdalena Bach," a set of instructional pieces written for his wife. Always searching for ways to perfect his technique, he also made several adaptations of Vivaldi concertos for different instruments. At Leipzig Bach was determined to improve the quality of church music and he worked with renewed energy and inspiration. The "St. John Passion" (1723), "Magnificat" (1723), "St. Matthew Passion" (1729), and the towering Mass in B Minor (1738) have grandeur, drama, and imaginative and spiritual depth that are unequaled in early 18th Century music. Bach also wrote most of his approximately 340 cantatas (about 200 of which survive) at Leipzig. They are seldom performed today but excerpts from some are well-known: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God" from Cantata No. 4 ("Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death"); "Sleepers Awake," from the same-named Cantata No. 140; and "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring," from Cantata No. 147 ("Heart and Spirit"). During his last years, weary of church officials' resistance to his attempted reforms, Bach directed his final thoughts to secular vocal (the "Coffee Cantata") and instrumental pieces. The latter group includes the magnificent "Goldberg Variations" (1742) for harpsichord; Book II of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" (1744); and the "Musical Offering" (1747), composed for Frederick the Great. Bach left his final work, "The Art of the Fugue," unfinished. It is a monumental summation of everything he knew about that complex form that he, above all others, had mastered. For many years after his death, Bach and his music were forgotten. He lived through one of the great transitional phases of musical history, as the Baroque era gave way to the Classical movement, which stressed harmony instead of counterpoint. Devoted to Baroque forms, Bach never considered adapting his style to the new trend. For this he was called old-fashioned by his contemporaries and obsolete by his successors. (His own son, C. P. E. Bach, once referred to him as "That old wig"). Another reason for Bach's decades of obscurity stems from the man himself. A devout Lutheran, he saw himself as a humble craftsman whose sole purpose was to serve God to the best of his ability with his music. He wrote no operas, which might have brought him fame and fortune; personal glory was abhorrent to him. He never travelled outside of Germany and rarely performed his music beyond the cities where he lived. Of his over 1000 compositions, fewer than a dozen were published in his lifetime. Bach was even excluded from an important 1740 encyclopedia of German musicians because he refused to supply the author with biographical information. What notoriety he had was for his virtuosity as an organist, and this died with him. A handful of discerning musicians (Mozart was one of them) greatly admired his music, but this was a minority opinion. It was not until 1829, when German composer Felix Mendelssohn triumphantly revived the "St. Matthew Passion" in Berlin, that the world began to recognize his genius. In 1850, the Bach Gesellschaft was formed with the task of collecting and publishing all of Bach's music. The project took 50 years and resulted in 60 huge volumes. The riches they yielded go a long way to justifying Richard Wagner's claim that Bach represented "the most stupendous miracle of music."
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
Johann Ambrosius Bach