Johann Sebastian Bach
b. 1685 – d. 1750
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Johann Sebastian Bach was the most important composer of his generation and one of the most renowned in the history of music. In his own lifetime, he found great fame as a keyboard virtuoso and throughout his life built a reputation as a composer, the legacy of which gives him a position as a unique historical figure.
Bach was born in 1685 in Eisenach into a musical family. Even Bach’s earliest compositions, which date from around 1700, show solid craftsmanship, observance of models set by his predecessors and his ability to form his own new conventions. His output consists of unparalleled works in every musical form that existed at the time, except for opera. In terms of form, density, technical demands and musical quality, he proved himself as an innovator in every one of his works. Most of his best organ works were composed while he was employed as an organist at Arnstadt, Mulhausen and Weimar and his vocal works were composed at a time during which he was Kantorate in Leipzig.
Bach’s career followed a very steady progression, from organist to Konzertmeister and onwards to Kapellmeister, then to Kantor and finally director of music. This logical sequence is mirrored in Bach’s creative output, which can be said to be carefully and rationally crafted, building upon the conventions of his predecessors with his own genius innovations.
During his time at Weimar, he composed some of his most notable works for organ – the Prelude and Fugue in D Major, the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major and many choral preludes, as well as arrangements of works by Vivaldi and others. Bach began a great long-term friendship with his cousinJohann Gottfried Walther who was the organist at the Stadkirche St. Peter and Paul in Weimar. Bach became the godfather of Walther’s eldest son in 1712.
During the first five years of his tenure in Leipzig, Bach composed his magnificent St John Passion (1724) and St Matthew Passion (1727). In this period, he also wrote hisMagnificat, numerous motets and no fewer than three annual cycles of cantatas. The resources provided to him were meagre and consisted of up to 16 singers and 18 instrumentalists so it is a wonder that Bach executed such triumphant work with such limited means at his disposal.
For 13 years, starting in 1729, Bach was the director of the collegium musicum in Leipzig that Telemann had established in the early 1700s. His instrumental output from that period includes four sets ofClavier-Übung (Keyboard Exercises), the Italian Concerto, the Goldberg Variations and the second volume of theWell-Tempered Clavier. During this time he was also established as a music publisher and distributor and kept a stock of music by other composers such asHeinichen’s book on figured bass and compositions by his own sons.
During his later years, Bach’s main aim was to revise his early works and to create new compositions of a highly technical, more abstract character. The B minor Mass is from this time: It is intricately technical, with some movements originating in Bach’s earlier cantata movements, which he re-worked with great skill.
On the 7th of May 1747, Frederick the Great invited Bach to visit Potsdam and gave him a royal theme on which to improvise. This resulted in his Musical Offering, which he completed in September 1747. It consists of ricercars, canons and fugues of vastly varying characters and a trio in thegalant style, which was in line with the more modern tastes of Frederick the Great.
Bach’s health faltered during his last year and he underwent unsuccessful eye operations. He was thought to have had a severe form of diabetes and was steadily deteriorating from March to July of 1750 when he died of a stroke. Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena survived him by ten years and died in dire poverty.