Bach was born in 1685 in Eisenach, in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, into a great musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the director of the town musicians, and all of his uncles were professional musicians. His father probably taught him to play the violin and harpsichord, and his brother Johann Christoph Bach taught him the clavichord and exposed him to much contemporary music. Apparently at his own initiative, Bach attended St. Michael's School in Lüneburg for two years. After graduating he held several musical posts across Germany: he served as Kapellmeister (director of music) to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, and as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, a position of music director at the main Lutheran churches and educator at the Thomasschule. He received the title of "Royal Court Composer" from Augustus III in 1736. Bach's health and vision declined in 1749, and he died on 28 July 1750.
Johann Ambrosius Bach, Bach's father
Page from the Neues vollständiges Eisenachisches Gesangbuch
, the Lutheran hymnal that was in use in the Eisenach of Bach's youth.
Lüneburg, some two decades before Bach's stay in that town: St Michael's pictured in lower right
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, the capital of the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, in present-day Germany, on 21 March 1685 O.S. (31 March 1685 N.S.). He was the son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius, who likely taught him violin and basic music theory. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–1693), introduced him to the organ, and an older second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731), was a well-known composer and violinist.
Bach's mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. The 10-year-old Bach moved in with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), the organist at St. Michael's Church in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. There he studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother's, despite being forbidden to do so because scores were so valuable and private, and blank ledger paper of that type was costly. He received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J.C. Bach exposed him to the works of great composers of the day, including South German composers such as Johann Pachelbel (under whom Johann Christoph had studied) and Johann Jakob Froberger; North German composers; Frenchmen, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, and Marin Marais; and the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. Also during this time, he was taught theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian at the local gymnasium.
By 3 April 1700, Bach and his schoolfriend Georg Erdmann—who was two years Bach's elder—were enrolled in the prestigious St. Michael's School in Lüneburg, some two weeks' travel north of Ohrdruf. Their journey was probably undertaken mostly on foot. His two years there were critical in exposing Bach to a wider range of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir, he played the School's three-manual organ and harpsichords. He came into contact with sons of aristocrats from northern Germany, sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in other disciplines.
While in Lüneburg, Bach had access to St. John's Church and possibly used the church's famous organ from 1553, since it was played by his organ teacher Georg Böhm. Because of his musical talent, Bach had significant contact with Böhm while a student in Lüneburg, and also took trips to nearby Hamburg where he observed "the great North German organist Johann Adam Reincken". Stauffer reports the discovery in 2005 of the organ tablatures that Bach wrote out when still in his teens of works by Reincken and Dieterich Buxtehude, showing "a disciplined, methodical, well-trained teenager deeply committed to learning his craft".
Weimar, Arnstadt, and Mühlhausen (1703–1708)
organ Bach played in Arnstadt
Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)
In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael's and being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III in Weimar. His role there is unclear, but it probably included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread so much that he was invited to inspect the new organ and give the inaugural recital, at the New Church (now Bach Church) in Arnstadt, located about 30 kilometres (19 mi) southwest of Weimar. In August 1703, he became the organist at the New Church, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a fine new organ tuned in a temperament that allowed music written in a wider range of keys to be played.
Despite strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer, tension built up between Bach and the authorities after several years in the post. Bach was dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir. He called one of them a "Zippel Fagottist" (weenie bassoon player). Late one evening this student, named Geyersbach, went after Bach with a stick. Bach filed a complaint against Geyersbach with the authorities. These acquitted Geyersbach with a minor reprimand and ordered Bach to be more moderate regarding the musical qualities he expected from his students. Some months later Bach upset his employer by a prolonged absence from Arnstadt: having obtained a leave permission for four weeks he had been absent for around four months in 1705–1706 to visit the organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude in the northern city of Lübeck. The visit to Buxtehude involved a 450-kilometre (280 mi) journey each way, reportedly on foot.
In 1706, Bach applied for a post as organist at the Blasius Church in Mühlhausen. As part of his application, he had a cantata performed on Easter, 24 April 1707, likely an early version of his Christ lag in Todes Banden. A month later Bach's application was accepted and he took up the post in July. The position included a significantly higher remuneration, improved conditions, and a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. Bach was able to convince the church and town government at Mühlhausen to fund an expensive renovation of the organ at the Blasius Church. In 1708 Bach wrote Gott ist mein König, a festive cantata for the inauguration of the new Council, which was published at the Council's expense.
Return to Weimar (1708–1717)
Bach left Mühlhausen in 1708, returning to Weimar this time as organist and from 1714 Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians. Bach and his wife moved into a house close to the ducal palace. Later the same year, their first child, Catharina Dorothea, was born, and Maria Barbara's elder, unmarried sister joined them. She remained to help run the household until her death in 1729. Three sons were also born in Weimar: Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Gottfried Bernhard. Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara had three more children who however did not live to their first birthday, including twins born in 1713.
Bach's time in Weimar was the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works. He attained the proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing structures and to include influences from abroad. He learned to write dramatic openings and employ the dynamic motor rhythms and harmonic schemes found in the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli, and Torelli. Bach absorbed these stylistic aspects in part by transcribing Vivaldi's string and wind concertos for harpsichord and organ; many of these transcribed works are still regularly performed. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian style in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.
In Weimar, Bach continued to play and compose for the organ, and to perform concert music with the duke's ensemble. He also began to write the preludes and fugues which were later assembled into his monumental work The Well-Tempered Clavier ("Clavier" meaning clavichord or harpsichord), consisting of two books, each containing 24 preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. Bach also started work on the Little Organ Book in Weimar, containing traditional Lutheran chorale tunes set in complex textures. In 1713, Bach was offered a post in Halle when he advised the authorities during a renovation by Christoph Cuntzius of the main organ in the west gallery of the Market Church of Our Dear Lady.
In the spring of 1714, Bach was promoted to Konzertmeister, an honour that entailed performing a church cantata monthly in the castle church. The first three cantatas in the new series Bach composed in Weimar were Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, for Palm Sunday, which coincided with the Annunciation that year, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, for Jubilate Sunday, and Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172 for Pentecost. Bach's first Christmas cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63 was premiered in 1714 or 1715.
in Leipzig: in 1717 Bach had tested the new organ in this church.
In 1717, Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and was, according to a translation of the court secretary's report, jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed: "On November 6, , the quondam concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge's place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge."
Bach's seal, used throughout his Leipzig years. It contains the letters J S B
superimposed over their mirror image topped with a crown.
Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music) in 1717. Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach's talents, paid him well and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. The prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship; accordingly, most of Bach's work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, the cello suites, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach also composed secular cantatas for the court such as Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a. A significant influence upon Bach's musical development during his years with the Prince is recorded by Stauffer as Bach's "complete embrace of dance music, perhaps the most important influence on his mature style other than his adoption of Vivaldi's music in Weimar."
Despite being born in the same year and only about 130 kilometres (81 mi) apart, Bach and Handel never met. In 1719, Bach made the 35-kilometre (22 mi) journey from Köthen to Halle with the intention of meeting Handel; however, Handel had left the town. In 1730, Bach's oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann travelled to Halle to invite Handel to visit the Bach family in Leipzig, but the visit did not come to pass.
On 7 July 1720, while Bach was away in Carlsbad with Prince Leopold, Bach's wife suddenly died. The following year, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano sixteen years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen; they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had thirteen more children, six of whom survived into adulthood: Gottfried Heinrich; Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (1726–1781); Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, who both, especially Johann Christian, became significant musicians; Johanna Carolina (1737–1781); and Regina Susanna (1742–1809).
In 1723, Bach was appointed Thomaskantor, Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, which provided music for four churches in the city, the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), and to a lesser extent the Neue Kirche (New Church) and the Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church). This was "the leading cantorate in Protestant Germany", located in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, which he held for twenty-seven years until his death. During that time he gained further prestige through honorary appointments at the courts of Köthen and Weissenfels, as well as that of the Elector Frederick Augustus (who was also King of Poland) in Dresden. Bach frequently disagreed with his employer, Leipzig's city council, who he thought were "penny-pinching".
Appointment in Leipzig
Johann Kuhnau had been Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1701 until his death on 5 June 1722. Bach had visited Leipzig during Kuhnau's tenure: in 1714 he attended the service at the St. Thomas church on the first Sunday of Advent, and in 1717 he had tested the organ of the Paulinerkirche. In 1716 Bach and Kuhnau had met on the occasion of the testing and inauguration of an organ in Halle.
After having been offered the position, Bach was invited to Leipzig only after Georg Philipp Telemann indicated that he would not be interested in relocating to Leipzig. Telemann went to Hamburg where he "had his own struggles with the city's senate".
Bach was required to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide church music for the main churches in Leipzig. Bach was required to teach Latin, but he was allowed to employ four "prefects" (deputies) to do this instead. The prefects also aided with musical instruction. A cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year.
Cantata cycle years (1723–1729)
Bach usually led performances of his cantatas, most of which were composed within three years of his relocation to Leipzig. The first was Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, performed in the Nikolaikirche on 30 May 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity. Bach collected his cantatas in annual cycles. Five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant. Of the more than three hundred cantatas which Bach composed in Leipzig, over one hundred have been lost to posterity. Most of these concerted works expound on the Gospel readings prescribed for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year. Bach started a second annual cycle the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724 and composed only chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn. These include O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1.
Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the School, and the tenors and basses from the School and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings and funerals provided extra income for these groups; it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets. As part of his regular church work, he performed other composers' motets, which served as formal models for his own.
Bach's predecessor as Cantor, Johann Kuhnau, had also been music director for the Paulinerkirche, the church of Leipzig University. But when Bach was installed as Cantor in 1723, he was put in charge only of music for "festal" (church holiday) services at the Paulinerkirche; his petition to provide music also for regular Sunday services there (for a corresponding salary increase) went all the way up to the Elector but was denied. After this, in 1725, Bach "lost interest" in working even for festal services at the Paulinerkirche and appeared there only on "special occasions". The Paulinerkirche had a much better and newer (1716) organ than did the Thomaskirche or the Nikolaikirche. Bach was not required to play any organ in his official duties, but it is believed he liked to play on the Paulinerkirche organ "for his own pleasure".
Bach broadened his composing and performing beyond the liturgy by taking over, in March 1729, the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that was established by musically active university students; these societies had become increasingly important in public musical life and were typically led by the most prominent professionals in a city. In the words of Christoph Wolff, assuming the directorship was a shrewd move that "consolidated Bach's firm grip on Leipzig's principal musical institutions". Year round, Leipzig's Collegium Musicum performed regularly in venues such as the Café Zimmermann, a coffeehouse on Catherine Street off the main market square. Many of Bach's works during the 1730s and 1740s were written for and performed by the Collegium Musicum; among these were parts of his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) and many of his violin and keyboard concertos.
Middle years of the Leipzig period (1730–1739)
In 1733, Bach composed a mass for the Dresden court (Kyrie and Gloria) which he later incorporated in his Mass in B Minor. He presented the manuscript to the Elector in an eventually successful bid to persuade the prince to give him the title of Court Composer. He later extended this work into a full mass, by adding a Credo, Sanctus', and Agnus Dei, the music for which was partly based on his own cantatas, partly newly composed. Bach's appointment as Court Composer was part of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig council. Between 1737 and 1739, Bach's former pupil Carl Gotthelf Gerlach held the directorship of the Collegium Musicum.
In 1735 Bach started to prepare his first publication of organ music, which was printed as the third Clavier-Übung in 1739. From around that year he started to compile and compose the set of preludes and fugues for harpsichord that would become his second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Last period and death (1740–1750)
From 1740 to 1748 Bach copied, transcribed, expanded and/or programmed music in an older polyphonic style (stile antico), by, among others, Palestrina (BNB I/P/2), Kerll (BWV 241), Torri (BWV Anh. 30), Bassani (BWV 1081), Gasparini (Missa Canonica) and Caldara (BWV 1082). Bach's own style shifted in the last decade of his life, showing an increased integration of polyphonic structures and canons, and other elements of the stile antico. His fourth and last Clavier-Übung volume, the Goldberg Variations, for two-manual harpsichord, contained nine canons and was published in 1741. Throughout this period, Bach also continued to adopt music of contemporaries such as Handel (BNB I/K/2) and Stölzel (BWV 200), and gave many of his own earlier compositions, such as the St Matthew and St John Passions and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, their final revisions. He also programmed and adapted music by composers of a younger generation, including Pergolesi (BWV 1083) and his own students such as Goldberg (BNB I/G/2).
In 1746 Bach was preparing to enter Lorenz Christoph Mizler's
Society of Musical Sciences . In order to be admitted Bach had to submit a composition, for which he chose his Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her", and a portrait, which was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann and featured Bach's Canon triplex á 6 Voc. In May 1747, Bach visited the court of King Frederick II of Prussia at Potsdam. The king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach obliged, playing a three-part fugue on one of Frederick's fortepianos, which was a new type of instrument at the time. Upon his return to Leipzig he composed a set of fugues and canons, and a trio sonata, based on the Thema Regium (theme of the king). Within a few weeks this music was published as The Musical Offering, dedicated to Frederick. The Schübler Chorales, a set of six chorale preludes transcribed from cantata movements Bach had composed some two decades earlier, was published within a year after that. Around the same time, the set of five Canonic Variations which Bach had submitted when entering Mizler's Society in 1747, was also printed.
Two large-scale compositions occupied a central place in Bach's last years. From around 1742 he wrote and reworked the various canons and fugues of The Art of Fugue, which he continued to prepare for publication until shortly before his death. After having extracted a cantata, BWV 191, from his 1733 Kyrie-Gloria Mass for the Dresden court in the mid 1740s, Bach expanded that Mass setting into his Mass in B minor in the last years of his life. Stauffer describes it as "Bach's most universal church work. Consisting mainly of recycled movements from cantatas written over a thirty-five-year period, it allowed Bach to survey his vocal pieces one last time and pick select movements for further revision and refinement." Although the complete mass was never performed during the composer's lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time.
In January 1749 Bach's daughter Elisabeth Juliane Friederica married his pupil Johann Christoph Altnickol. Bach's health was however declining. On 2 June, Heinrich von Brühl wrote to one of the Leipzig burgomasters to request that his music director, Johann Gottlob Harrer, fill the Thomaskantor and Director musices posts "upon the eventual ... decease of Mr. Bach". Becoming blind, Bach underwent eye surgery, in March 1750, and again in April, from the British eye surgeon John Taylor. Bach died on 28 July 1750, from complications connected to the unsuccessful treatment. An inventory drawn up a few months after Bach's death, shows that his estate included five harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet, along with 52 "sacred books", including works by Martin Luther and Josephus. The composer's son Carl Philipp Emanuel saw to it that The Art of Fugue, although still unfinished, was published in 1751. Together with one of the composer's former students, Johann Friedrich Agricola, this son of Bach also wrote the obituary ("Nekrolog") which was published in Mizler's
, the organ of the Society of Musical Sciences, in 1754.