Happy Birthday, Bach!
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st 1685. His father was a higher-ranking musician and his family was well-known for their musical talents. His father taught him to play the violin and harpsichord, and his uncle introduced him to the organ.
At the young age of nine, Johann became an orphan when his mother died, and shortly thereafter his father also passed away. Johann Sebastian went to live with his brother, Johann Christoph, who was an organist. Here, Johann Sebastian began a formal study of the organ.
At he age of fifteen, Johann Sebastian Bach and a friend traveled to Lüneburg, where Johann sang in the Mattins Choir, played violin at the Court of Celle, and had the opportunity to study some of the best examples of German church music in his school's large music library. He was exposed to French music at this time, and it is believed that he also studied under organist Georg Böhm.
Less than three years later, he sought a post as an organist at a church that was currently under construction in Arnstadt, near Sangerhausen. While awaiting the completion of this organ, he played the violin in a small chamber orchestra of Duke Johann Ernstand in Weimer. Here he was exposed to Italian music. At the end of 1703, Bach received his post as organist at the age of 18. His organ had two manuals and 23 speaking stops.
In October of 1705, Bach took a leave of absence to hear the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. He was so impressed with this organist that he greatly overstayed his approved leave of absence in order to listen and learn from this master. When Bach did return to his post, he employed these new virtuoso techniques which confused his congregation, much to the chagrin of his employers. He was further reprimanded when he refused to work with a boys' choir he was asked to train, and when he was caught entertaining a young lady in the church. Amid this unrest, Bach learned of the death of an organist in a town with a rich musical history. He applied for the job and was hired on very favorable terms.
Early Married Life
It was here, in Mühlhausen, where Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara, in October 1707, and began composing vocal church music with much success. After just a year, Bach began looking for a more promising position.
He returned to Weimar where, as member of the chamber orchestra and as organist to the Court, his position paid double the salary of his previous post. Soon after his arrival his daughter, Catharina Dorothea, was born. Most of Bach's major organ compositions stem from this period, and he quickly became known as one of the best German organists.
In 1717 a feud broke out among the Dukes in Weimar. Bach was consequently passed over for a promotion, ended up in prison for a month (where he wrote the 'Orgelbüchlein'), and was dismissed from his post "without honor," in order to take the position of Capellmeister in Köthen.
Joy and Tragedy
The position of Capellmeister was the highest rank given to a musician during the baroque age. Bach's employer was a Calvinist, so religious music was non-existent. However, his master enjoyed secular cantatas and instrumental music featuring the latest styles and fashions from throughout Europe, and spent a great deal of money on his "band." Here Bach wrote much of his chamber music and enjoyed a stress-free time filled with music.
Unfortunately, upon returning home from a journey in 1720, Bach learned that his wife had died and was buried in his absence, leaving behind his four living children (in addition to three children who had died in infancy).
Bach continued with his work and in December 1721, he married soprano Anna Magdalena, she at the age of 20, and he 36. In the twenty-eight years of happy marriage that followed, thirteen additional children were born to the Bach family, though few of them survived through childhood.
One year after Bach's happy marriage his employer also married, but his wife was very anti-music. Bach soon sought employment elsewhere.
Bach's final city
Bach moved to Leipzig on May 22, 1723, where for the remaining 27 years of his life he was to live and work as Cantor, or Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis - Director of Choir and Music in Leipzig. Bach was their third choice, after Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner both refused the post.
Bach and his family lived at the school of St Thomas, where Bach was responsible for organizing the music in the four principal churches of Leipzig; forming choirs for these churches from the 54 pupils of the Thomasschule; and instructing the more musically talented boys in instrument playing.
Bach eventually became dissatisfied with his low-paying position, and in 1730 aired his grievances to the Leipzig city council. He longed to escape the 'trouble, envy and persecution' he experienced in Leipzig. Fortunately, in 1729 he took over the direction of the Collegium Musicum (Music Society), a secular orchestra of students and professional musicians founded by Telemann in 1702, where he often performed with his sons. Changes at the school also alleviated some of his concerns.
Bach was able to become slightly entrepreneurial in a society where musicians were often treated as slaves. In his later years he entertained visiting musicians from Germany and beyond; became a member of the Mitzler society; revised many of his earlier works; composed the Mass in b minor, the Canonic Variations, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of the Fugue; among many other endeavors.
Eventually his eyesight began to fail him, and he composed his last chorale fantasia, based on the chorale "Before Thy Throne O Lord I Stand".
Johann Sebastian Bach died the evening of the 28th of July, 1750, after suffering a stroke and severe fever. He was buried in St John's Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
According to Wikipedia, "Bach's abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now regarded as the supreme composer of the Baroque, and as one of the greatest of all time."
Happy birthday, Bach.
You may also be interested in reviewing Bach's Life in Pictures.