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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was one of the most prolific and famous German composers of the Baroque period. In his early life, his work was much celebrated, but as the onset of the Classical period dawned, it was considered inferior. Later, Mozart and Beethoven would rediscover Bach and restore him to the position of greatness he now holds as composer.
Little is known about the early life of Bach. He was the 8th child in a large family devoted to music. At the age of 9, he was orphaned and sent to live with his eldest brother. He is said to have learned to play the organ at 9, but given his talent as an organist, he probably had some experience with the harpsichord at some point.
A gifted soprano as a young boy, at 14, Bach was given a scholarship to attend St. Michael’s school in Luneberg. He participated in the choir, and very likely received a fundamental education in several languages. He may also have practiced on the St. Michael’s organ, since his first job as an adult was as an organist.
Bach quickly moved to the position of head organist at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt, and began work on a number of organ compositions at this time. He had not yet mastered the counterpoint style for which he would later be known. Bach’s relationship with most of his employers was tempestuous. He was a young adult, and not very good at interpersonal relationships. Impulsive in nature, he took a leave of absence from work without permission from his employer, to walk 200 miles (321.86 km) to see Buxtehude, the famous organist. He stayed for several months, thus severing his relationship with St. Boniface.
Bach next moved to Muhlhausen and accepted a post at St. Blasius. At this time, he also married his cousin Maria Barbara. The two would have many children but only four survived to adulthood. Two, Wilhelm Freidemann and Carl Phillip Emmanuel, both became composers. Carl’s fame eclipsed his own father’s in his lifetime, though he is now thought to be of lesser importance as a composer.
Johann Sebastian Bach would stay in Muhlhausen for 9 years before Prince Leopold appointed Bach director of music in 1717. Prince Leopold spent about a fourth of his income on his private orchestra, often joining the orchestra himself to play violin. During this time, Bach wrote one of his most famous works, The Brandenburg Concertos. He had also truly mastered the counterpoint style at this time.
After Leopold’s death, Bach moved again, becoming a concertmaster in Leipzig. While he worked for the prince, his compositions were mainly secular since Leopold was a Lutheran. The move to Leipzig prompted new interest in religious compositions. Bach lost his wife shortly before Leopold’s death, and shortly thereafter, married Anna Magdalena Wilcke. The couple had 13 children, though many of them died young. Unfortunately, when the composer died himself, he failed to provide for his second wife. His sons from his first marriage did not help her, and she died impoverished.
Bach saw his music go from great popularity to being virtually unappreciated. His son Carl’s work became vastly preferred to his own, and he struggled financially in his later years. He almost certainly had diabetes and became blind, which meant he could not conduct music in his later life. He died from a stroke in 1750.
The composer wrote over 1,000 musical pieces. The Well-Tempered Clavier became a teaching book for those mastering the keyboard. Additionally, Bach's violin concertos, particularly the two part Concerto in D are incredibly complex and beautiful. The Mass in B Minor is considered one of the grandest Masses composed. His explorations of the fugue were a significant contribution to later composers. Bach also wrote numerous choral works. When Mozart found the Clavier, he reportedly remarked: “Here is something I can learn from.”
To understand Bach’s contribution, one must understand counterpoint. This is the composition of two melodies played at the same time, thus developing chords together. The composer would often take music already written, and then write a second melody to accompany it. Occasionally a third melody would be added to the first two creating unbelievable complexity. Each melody could be played on its own. Together, the melodies are a mathematically perfect blend that creates harmony. Bach’s development of counterpoint is why many today consider him to be a genius, classing him with famous mathematicians and scientists.
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