Johann Sebastian Bach
Crafting Eternity in Every Note
Johann Sebastian Bach, a name synonymous with the pinnacle of classical music, stands as one of history’s most exceptional composers. His mastery of baroque music—a style known for its dramatic, elaborate melodies and the use of many instruments playing together in complex ways—places him at the forefront of musical genius.
Interestingly, during his lifetime, Bach was more acclaimed as an organ virtuoso than a composer, and only a handful of his compositions were published. Yet, his legacy encompasses a vast spectrum of both sacred and secular works. His cantatas, organ masterpieces, and concertos have shaped the creative paths of later musical giants like Mozart and Beethoven.
Bach’s story began in 1685 in Eisenach, central Germany, where he was born into a family with a rich musical heritage. His father, Johann Ambrosius, and later his older brother, Johann Christoph, played pivotal roles in shaping his early musical education. Tragically, he lost his parents at the age of 10, leaving his brother to care for him and guide his musical journey.
Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61). Portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1748.
From a young age, Bach’s talent shone, first as a soprano singer, which earned him a place in a Lüneburg school. As his voice matured, he transitioned to playing the violin and harpsichord.
At 17, Bach embarked on his professional musical journey. He started as a violinist in the Weimar Ducal court orchestra, then became the official organist in Arnstadt and later in Mühlhausen. At 22, he married his second cousin Maria Barbara, with whom he had six children.
Bach’s independent and sometimes headstrong nature, perceived as arrogance, occasionally led to conflicts with students and church officials. His innovative approach to music wasn’t always appreciated in his conservative surroundings.
Despite a good salary in Mühlhausen, he grew frustrated with the constraints imposed on his sacred music compositions by church elders. This led him to the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar, where he composed many church cantatas and some of his finest organ pieces, including the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This piece gained iconic status, featuring in Disney’s Fantasia and the 1962 film The Phantom of the Opera, becoming a staple in horror soundtracks.
At 32, Bach’s relationship with Duke Wilhelm soured. He announced plans to join Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, but Duke Wilhelm, unwilling to lose Bach’s talents, imprisoned him for four weeks. Ultimately, Bach prevailed and began his new role as Prince Leopold’s chief musician. Here, he focused on secular music, creating the renowned Brandenburg Concertos. These six concertos showcase Bach’s complex and memorable melodies, with the third concerto particularly emblematic of the Baroque era, still resonating in modern film and TV soundtracks and remaining a concert hall favorite.
This period marked a highly productive phase for Bach as he composed across various chamber music genres and styles. His compositions were in high demand, with legends suggesting he even wrote the Goldberg Variations for an aristocrat suffering from insomnia.
Personal tragedy struck with the death of his wife Maria Barbara in 1720, followed by the loss of his elder brother and mentor Johann Christoph. Bach remarried in 1721 to Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a court singer, and they had 13 children.
When Prince Leopold disbanded his orchestra in 1723, Bach, then 38, secured a new role as the organist and teacher at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Here, he prolifically composed cantatas for weekly services, including his later masterpiece, Mass in B minor, a monumental work in classical sacred choral music.
In Leipzig, Bach’s relationship with the town council mirrored the difficulties he faced elsewhere. A perfectionist, he often critiqued the quality of his choir. Known for his ability to play and likely tune every instrument in his orchestra, he readily pointed out any performance errors.
Bach’s eyesight began to fail at 55, yet he continued to compose. At 64, he began The Art of Fugue, left incomplete due to his declining health. Attempts to restore his sight through surgery resulted in complete blindness, and he suffered a stroke later that year. Bach passed away in Leipzig on July 28, 1750.
Bach was a maestro at evoking emotions and storytelling through melodies. He skillfully integrated various European music styles, including French and Italian, and utilized techniques like counterpoint and fugue to create his intricate compositions. Today, he stands as a monumental figure in classical music and the quintessential composer of the Baroque era.
Words of wisdom
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” —Pablo Picasso
“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” —Albert Einstein
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” —Alfred Adler