Personality of Johann Sebastian Bach
“Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.”
Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many as the greatest and most influential composer in history. Works like The Well-Tempered Clavier, The St. Matthew Passion, The Mass in B-Minor, The Art of Fugue, and many more, stand the test of time as elaborate, brilliant, and groundbreaking compositions. His work further changed the course of music history, influencing composers such as Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, and even modern music heard today. His unprecedented talent during the early 1700s, though not always fully appreciated at the time, is remembered now as genius and transcendent. The intricacy of his music, together with its deeply religious connotations and intense emotion, continues to leave musicians today in awe and wonder.
Bach was a well-educated and versatile musician, able to sing, write, play, and repair virtually any instrument. His natural talent combined with his academic achievements and steadfast curiosity led him to compose the innovative music for which he is famous. His style and unparalleled music have made him one of the most influential individuals to come out of the Baroque period.
Bach is further remembered for his hearty and heavy-set figure. Many people think of him and immediately remember the puffed, powdered periwig he sported, a fashion trend popular in the early 1700s. To his family, friends, and community, he was well known for his dedication to music. He was born to a musical family and was raised to follow in their footsteps. His father was a well-known trumpeter and music director. Many brothers, uncles, and cousins were also musicians, leaving a musical career inevitable for the young Bach. However, his extraordinary talent was unlike any other in his family.
Bach was not only musically superior but intellectually superior as well. His performance in school was better than that of his classmates, and his effortlessness in succeeding in school carried over into his music. As a composer and organist, his talent was unprecedented, as his brilliant mind and imagination brought his compositions to new, imaginative areas never before heard. At the time, his music was seen as too novel or experimental for some. His efforts, however, were never dulled by critics.
In his upbringing and throughout his career, Bach was heavily influenced by his Lutheran faith. He saw music as a gift from God, and his work was always connected to theological teaching. He ultimately strove to find divine analogies in music and aimed to perfect music in a way that was ever closer to nature and God’s likeness.
Bach is most well-known for his principles of counterpoint and fugue, five finger placement, keyboard technique, four-part harmony and mastery of the organ. In all areas of music, his curiosity and innovation led to exceptional outcomes that were ahead of his time. The depth and scope of his music, with its creative beauty, technical expertise, and exciting elaboration, were truly forward-thinking and revolutionary.
Hard-Working and Industrious
“I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.”
From an early age, Bach described himself as hard-working and perseverant. He was successful in school, in his work, and in his home and family life. As a student, Bach graduated at the top of his class, nearly four years younger than the average graduate’s age. He worked diligently as an organist, court musician, director, and capellmeister during his career. He also had a loving relationship with his first wife, Maria Barbara, and after she passed, another strong and affectionate relationship with his second wife, Anna Magdalena. He proudly raised 13 children, including four sons whom he described as “born musicians,” who would go onto university educations and professional careers as musicians.
Bach’s brilliance in his compositions is further testament to his industrious and hard-working mindset. He was constantly studying, collecting, practising, and reworking music. His passion for finding new ways to play the keyboard or to broaden the horizons of his compositions never faded, leading to groundbreaking compositions such as The Art of Fugue and the Mass in B-Minor.
Bach considered himself to be producing works of musical science. He was not a mere musician, but someone who was deeply knowledgeable and disciplined, making breakthroughs and discovering new concepts in the area of music. Critics thought of Bach as a genius, saying “What Newton was as a philosopher, Bach was as a musician.” His interest in music lay not in the practising of the standard exercises of the time, but in his dedication to finding “true music”, which required a scholarly and intellectual viewpoint. As the Scientific Revolution was occurring during his lifetime, it suitably encouraged him to experiment with new systematic and scientific principles in the field of music.
As a musical scholar, his teaching methods represented logic, philosophy, and science. He stressed the physical and technical elements of music, as well as the spiritual and emotional. By studying and understanding the sounds and their technical sources, he could more easily unfold the powerful and moving emotions of music and their compositional effects.
His keyboard albums represent this approach to musical science. He offered systematic and well-structured exercises that demonstrate the use of all 24 keys, a system that had only ever been considered theoretically. Through his technical perfection in the use of the 24-key system, The Well-Tempered Clavier demonstrates his dedication to investigating all opportunities that the keyboard offered. He was determined to find new solutions never tried before in order to make more exceptional music. By putting theory to practice, Bach made such achievements which ultimately altered musical history.
Independent and Curious
Bach was stubbornly independent throughout his life, always needing to have freedom in his life and musical work. For example, he would take trips on his own, sometimes trekking hundreds of miles on foot, in order to hear the music of professionals like Johann Adam Reinken. He further ventured out on his own and made the decision to graduate from Latin school, instead of leaving early to start a musical apprenticeship like his brothers, showing his desire to follow different paths and explore greater opportunities.
In his musical career, Bach also showed a desire to be autonomous so that he could explore novel areas of music. Whether welcomed or not, Bach made compositional choices that were unheard of at the time. On many occasions, he was scolded for taking it upon himself to make creative variations to melodies or hymns. His curiosity continued unyielding, leading him to discover unconventional and innovative approaches to music throughout his lifetime. In the case of his employment, when Bach was unable to fulfil his musical goals or creative needs, he searched elsewhere to do so, in some cases searching for entirely new positions. In Leipzig, at the peak of his career, he was known for his emancipated behaviour, going in directions that satisfied his artistic desires, whether approved by the town council or not.
Daring and Experimental
Bach was continually experimenting with the organ, with which he had an obsession. In his obituary, it states that Bach “not only understood the art of playing the organ, of combining the various stops of that instrument in the most skillful manner, and of displaying each stop according to its character in the greatest perfection, but he also knew the construction of organs from one end to the other…. No one could draw up or judge dispositions for new organs better than he.” He was continuously involved in repairs, designs, and rebuildings of organs throughout his life. He had a thorough understanding of its technical aspects, as well as a mastery of organ music and organ playing because of his constant investigation of the instrument’s abilities.
Bach had a lifelong devotion to musical learning. Throughout his years he collected a vast personal library of compositions, manuscripts, and other writings of vocal and instrumental music which he diligently studied, practised, and reworked for his own use and for teaching purposes. He was also committed to analysing and rewriting his own compositions, always striving for systematic perfection. There was never an end to musical potential in Bach’s mind, and his studious personality led him to be the great musical scholar he is known to be.
Experience with Death
“It is the special province of music to move the heart.”
Throughout his life, Bach faced untimely death around him. In the Spring of 1694, at nine years old, his father’s twin brother who was very close to the family, died. A few months later, his mother passed away, and a year later, he became an orphan when his father passed as well. Later on, his first wife Maria Barbara also unexpectedly died while Bach was away on a trip with his employer. The devastating news of her death was intercepted, and he found out about her passing only when he returned home weeks later. By the end of his life, he would also witness the premature deaths of ten of his children.
The tragedy surrounding Bach’s life heavily influenced his compositions. Such losses in life made his music more grounded, and less whimsical and energetic as contemporaries such as Beethoven or Handel. His music, in contrast, brings relaxation and a consoling aspect of the human spirit. His experience with death and the futility of human existence ultimately brought him closer to his artistic aim, to be closer to nature and the reality of the world, which includes both joy that comes from life and the grief that comes from death.
Bach’s Early Years
“God’s gift to his sorrowing creatures is a joy worthy of their destiny.”
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany. He was the eighth child of Johann Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. Shortly after, he was baptised at the Lutheran church, St. George’s. He spent his first nine years in Eisanch in his family’s large house. The Bach’s were middle class, with life revolving around music, town, court, school, and church. During these years, journeyman, apprentices, and colleagues frequently lived in the household under his father’s musical tutelage.
From 1690 to 1693, the young Bach attended a German school, followed by St. George’s Latin school from 1693 to 1695. At the highly renowned Latin school, Bach, along with his brothers, performed as choirboys. Together, the Bach sons most likely performed at St. George’s with their father, Johann Ambrosius Bach as he was employed as trumpeter and director of the town musicians. From his family, to his home, to school, and to church, music encompassed the young Johann Sebastian’s life and laid the foundation for his later professional career.
As a boy in Eisenach, Bach was unfortunately faced with many deaths in his family. In 1686 his sister passed at the age of six and in 1691 his brother at the age of 14. In 1694, his father’s twin brother died, followed by his mother at the age of 50. One year later, in February of 1695, at nine years old, Bach also lost his father two days before he would have turned 50. Throughout his life, Bach would face more grief and death than many do in a lifetime. Some attribute the emotional depth and stirring quality of his music to the tragedy of losing so many loved ones throughout his life.
Born to Johann Ambrosius Bach
Bach was born into a family of musicians. His great-grandfather, grandfather, father, brothers, and several uncles, cousins, and family friends were professional musicians. These individuals introduced the very young Bach to musical culture and guided his musical upbringing.
His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a well-known violinist and trumpeter and served as a director of the town musicians. The Bach family name and its ties to music began with his father and Johann Sebastian’s great-grandfather, Christoph Bach, in Arnstadt. Ambrosius, along with his twin brother Johann Christoph, grew up receiving musical training from their father. Ambrosius then spent five years as a musical apprentice, two years as a journeyman, and was later appointed as the violinist to the town music company, after his cousin Johann Christian vacated the position and became the band’s director. Ambrosius also worked with his father’s older brother, a more well-known professional musician and composer, before he eventually took over the role of director.
The large family of musicians had connections throughout northern Germany, allowing the Bach family name to become synonymous with the music profession. These connections allowed Ambrosius and his brother and cousins to find well-paid positions in town courts and churches. Their children would go on to benefit from these connections as well. Ambrosius’ children, Johann Sebastian and his brothers and cousins, would continue to advance in their music training and positions due to their fathers’ influences in the region.
Johann Ambrosius Bach ultimately brought an environment entirely surrounded by music to Johann Sebastian’s youth. Ambrosius made sure that Johann Sebastian and his brothers were well-acquainted with good music and hands-on instruction from the earliest age. Due to his father and family life, Johann Sebastian’s exposure to professional knowledge and practice of music was exceptional and second to none.
Brother Johann Christoph Bach
Johann Christoph Bach was Johann Sebastian’s eldest brother. He was born in Erfurt a few months before the Bach family moved to Eisenach. At the age of fifteen, he left home to study under Johann Pachelbel in Erfurt, a notable composer and organist. For a short time, he was an organist at St. Thomas in Erfurt, before leaving the position to aid his sick uncle Heinrich, his father’s last surviving brother, in his duties as organist for three different churches in Arnstadt.
After his mother died in 1694 and father in 1695, the nine-year-old orphaned Johann Sebastian, along with his 13-year-old brother Johann Jacob, went to live with their eldest brother. At the time, Johann Christoph was eighteen years old and employed as the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf. He was married to Johanna Dorothea Vonhoff, had one child, and was making a modest salary from the church at the time that Johann Sebastian and Johann Jacob joined his household in 1695.
Johann Christoph subsequently became Johann Sebastian’s guardian, teacher, and principal instructor on the keyboard. As an organist, he also most likely was one of the first to introduce to Johann Sebastian the mechanical engineering aspect and technology of organ building, in which Johann Sebastian would later excel. Altogether, he played an extensive role in Johann Sebastian’s musical education and upbringing, and Johann Sebastian looked up to his brother as a role model and mentor.
One famous night while the young Johann Sebastian was still living with Johann Christoph, he snuck into his brother’s locked grillwork cabinet, inside of which were music manuscripts. The nine-year-old Bach could fit his small hands through the slots of the cabinet, roll up the manuscripts, and pluck them out. He then laid the manuscripts out on a table and copied the works under the moonlight, so that he could play the music later. Johann Christoph caught on to his act when he heard him humming a familiar tune. It was a measure from Froberger, from the manuscript of clavier pieces from his teacher Pachelbel, which were locked in the cabinet. This story is well-known as the “moonlight manuscript” and gives insight into the deep curiosity and connection that Bach had with music from a young age.
Ohrdruf Lyceum Illustre Gleichense
In that latter half of 1695, Johann Sebastian and his brother Johann Jacob enrolled in the Lyceum Illustre Gleichense school in Ohrdruf, a well-known and prominent Latin educational institution. Latin schools of the time offered six classes which generally took two years to complete: sexta, quinta, quarta, tertia, secunda, and prima. Johann Sebastian entered the tertia at the Lyceum in 1965 and finished his first year at the school in 4th place, outranking many of his older classmates.
At 12 years old and the youngest in his class, Johann Sebastian graduated from the tertia the following year at the top of his class. The following two years in the secunda, Johann Sebastian continued to excel academically, ranking 5th in July 1698 and 2nd in July 1699. Johann Sebastian graduated from the secunda at the age of fourteen, almost four years younger than the average graduating student of the class. His academic achievements were astounding and unlike any other in his family, as all of his brothers left school after the tertia at the ages of fourteen or fifteen to become apprentices and start their professional careers as musicians. He too could have found an apprenticeship like his brothers but made a brave decision to finish his formal education instead.
At the Lyceum, Johann Sebastian was given free room and board, performed as a choral scholar, took on assignments as a vocal soloist, and covered many academic subjects, including Greek, theology, world history and arithmetic. His industriousness and hard-working character, developed from the example of his father and brothers, were complemented by his academic brilliance. He became more receptive to new philosophical ideas and logical ways of thinking, which fundamentally set him apart from the rest of his musical family and predestined his greatness.
In 1700, Bach unexpectedly lost his free room and board at the Lyceum school, prompting him to leave Ohrdruf at the age of 15. He and his classmate, Georg Erdmann, who was 18, travelled nearly 200 miles together on foot to finish the prima and complete their education at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg. Elias Herda, a cantor at the Lyceum, had previously been employed at St. Michael’s and likely used his connections with the school to suggest positions for the two boys to become choral scholars, with financial support as they finished their education.
Bach and Erdmann became part of a select choir of 15 experienced scholarship students, who made up a central part of the school’s choir. They performed at a daily church service, and on the weekend services and feast days performed with the chorus musicus, which included vocals and instrumentals and consisted of 25 students. The chorus musicus also performed at special events such as weddings, funerals, and other gatherings which provided the choir with extra income.
St. Michael’s was a well-established educational institution. The school had rigorous requirements that highly stressed classical literature, linguistics, theology, physics, history, and geography. Graduating from the prima was also meant to prepare students for university study in subjects such as law, medicine, or the liberal arts. When Bach left St. Michael’s, he had a very well-rounded and profound education on a wide range of subjects and was also fluent in Latin, and very familiar with French and Italian.
At St. Michael’s, Bach also had access to an extensive library of old and new musical compositions and the school’s keyboard instruments, the harpsichord and a large organ. He further met many professional musicians that would leave a lasting impact on his career. He left St. Michael’s with profound academic knowledge, extensive vocal training, and a quickly improving talent as an organist, making him a well-rounded and extraordinary young man.
During Bach’s time in Lüneburg, he made several trips to the city of Hamburg, which was the largest city in Germany at the time. Hamburg, as a grand, sprawling metropolis, would have intrigued Bach as it presented opportunities to hear great music, especially organists. The famous Johann Adam Reinken, a master of the organ, frequently played in Hamburg, and Bach would travel the long and costly 30-mile distance from Lüneburg to hear him play. On one occasion, Bach heard Reinken play at St. Catharine’s, which housed the largest and most elaborate organ in north Germany. Bach had never seen such an instrument, and he is quoted for praising its beauty and variety. His experience with Reinken and the organ decisively shaped his standards for the instrument.
Lüneburg was a very important time in Bach’s development as a composer. Not only did he become more academically qualified, with knowledge of linguistics and grammar, but he also had several opportunities to study and observe firsthand under several professional musicians. Overall, Lüneburg would inspire his technical understanding of instruments, especially the organ, as well as his complex style and skills.
Weimar: Court Musician to Duke Johann Ernst (1703)
After leaving St. Michael’s at the age of 17, Bach applied to an organist position at the St. Jacobi Church in Sangerhausen, a town close to his upbringing in the Thuringian area, to no avail. After receiving unanimous consent from the council, an indication of his staggering talent at the age of 17, Bach ultimately lost the position to Johann Augustin Kobelius, a local who was older and more experienced. A position in Weimar opened up shortly after, and Bach accepted a post in the capelle of Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Bach describes himself later in his life as having been a court musician. However, in the official court registry, he is listed as ‘Lackey Bach’, meaning he was likely given commonplace chores outside of musical duties, which may have persuaded him to leave the Weimar court after only six short months.
Arnstadt: Organist at the New Church (1703 – 1707)
After leaving Weimar, Johann Sebastian applied for the position of organist at the New Church in Arnstadt. The Bach family had many connections in Arnstadt originating from his great grandfather, which helped him claim the open role. His father’s brother, Heinrich Bach, had been town and court organist until his death in 1692, followed by Heinrich’s son-in-law, Christoph Herthum. Heinrich Bach’s sons, Johann Sebastian’s cousins, Johann Christoph and Johann Michael, had also served as organists for the court chapel at Neideck Castle in Arnstadt. When Johann Sebastian was appointed at the New Church, Christoph Herthum was still the town and court organist, with responsibilities to play in the Upper Church in Arnstadt. Christoph’s son-in-law, Andreas Börner, was also given a position at the Lower Church.
Although the Bach’s long-standing connections in Arnstadt aided Johann Sebastian in finding a position in the New Church, his ability on the organ at such a young age cannot be discounted in helping him secure the role as well. His salary at the New Church reflects his skill and favourable treatment, as he made a considerably large amount for only playing four services per week. He earned more than double what he did in his post in Weimar, with opportunities to make more while playing at special events such as funerals, weddings, and other gatherings. In comparison, Christoph Herthum was only paid slightly more and Andreas Börner much less while they both were assigned to perform ten services per week. Since services often overlapped, Herthum and Börner’s apprentices would have to help to cover in their absence. On the other hand, Johann Sebastian had a manageable workload that consisted of playing the organ three times a week in church and leading the local choir, all while earning more than his organist counterparts for each service at a much younger age. His eventual predecessor at the New Church, his cousin Johann Ernst Bach, would also be paid less than him, suggesting that Johann Sebastian was highly regarded for his skill and ability at the very beginning of his professional career at 17 years old.
Johann Sebastian was now performing on the New Church’s brand-new organ regularly, and was responsible for maintaining it in good condition. He further consulted on the organ that was built by a master of over 50 years old, proving his intelligence and skill in the technological aspect of the instrument. His free time between services was left for him to practise extensively on the organ, further honing his craft.
In the next few years employed at the New Church, Bach found himself in more than a few quarrels with the superintendent. First, he did not get along with the school choir and was reluctant to work with them. As Bach was younger than most of the boys in the school choir, having graduated from St. Michael’s four years earlier than most and already having a professional career, it is perhaps unsurprising that the boys would have been jealous or thought of Bach as arrogant. In one case, a chorister, Geyersbach, and Bach had a brawl in the street, after Geyersbach accused Bach of making disparaging comments about him and his bassoon. After the incident, Bach was told by the superintendent that he was to get along with the students and to be involved in all music-making.
Bach again faced a complaint from the superintendent after taking a leave of absence from the New Church in the winter of 1705-1706. The superintendent stated that Bach “had asked for only four weeks but had stayed about four times as long” when he left on a trip to see Dietrich Buxtehude, a famous composer in Lübeck. Buxtehude, to Bach and to other composers such as George Frideric Handel was a celebrity figure. As a composer, Buxtehude was innovative and had the freedom to invent new styles, genres, and standards, which was incredibly alluring to Bach, who thought of him as a role model and astounding artist.
Moreover, the superintendent of the New Church further reprimanded Bach for his experimental style, which was confusing some of the regular churchgoers. His complex additions to some of the melodies and embellishments to the harmonies were claimed by members of the church as “curious variations” and “strange tones.” One of the students in the choir also commented that Bach would play too long in some instances, and in others, too short.
The divide between Bach and the school choir continued to grow, as the New Church made another demand that the two make music together if Bach were to accept his salary and the obligations tied to it. Bach had less of a personal issue with the choir, but an issue of discipline and leadership which he was the choir as lacking. He knew he could not coordinate with the choir as they did not have a director, and at his young age, he must have felt unable to claim the authority of the position.
In another famous instance, a complaint was made against Bach for inviting a female, or “unfamiliar maiden” to sing in the choir loft. At the time, women were generally not allowed to sing in churches, although it was more common in small churches in villages which required the help. The incident, along with the other complaints involving the student choir and his leave of absence, made Bach aware that his time at the New Church was not leading anywhere fruitful.
Arnstadt, although deeply connected to the Bach family, did not leave Johann Sebastian much room to grow and become independent in his own style and abilities. He began to look for work outside of the city, first auditioning for a church in Langewiesen in November of 1707 without luck. He then heard of and auditioned for an open position as an organist in Mühlhausen, for which he was accepted. On June 19, 1707, his contract with the New Church officially ended.
Although faced with the few complications with the New Church, Arnstadt proved to be a crucial time in Bach’s development as a composer. He had ample free time to practice on a brand new, modern organ and had the opportunity to vigorously study and train with works of the most famous musicians of his day, most significantly Buxtehude. His inquisitive nature and commitment to excelling allowed him to quickly learn the many complicated and recently developed styles, themes, and genres of the musical professionals of the early 1700s during his time in Arnstadt.
Mülhausen: Organist at the Church of St. Blasius (1707 – 1708)
News of an opening at St. Blasius in Mühlhausen reached Johann Sebastian quickly, as the town scribe’s brother, who was the town scribe in Arnstadt, was related to the Bach family through marriage. He publicly auditioned for the position on Easter Sunday, April 24, 1707, and was accepted on June 29th. He officially started his employment on July 1st.
At St. Blasius, one of the largest and main churches in Mülhausen, Bach was met with more responsibility and opportunities. He was organist for the church services and also acted as municipal music director, working together with the town musicians, the chorus musicus, and the choir of the Latin school that served the church. Bach would perform at six services each week, as well as weddings, funerals, and other special events throughout the course of the year. With these extra duties, in comparison to those while he was organist at the New Church in Arnstadt, also came an increase in his income.
Within his first year, Bach most notably wrote and performed his first cantata “Gott ist mein König” (God is my King), BWV 71 and several others which owe their style and vocal-instrumental design to works from Buxtehude and other professionals he had studied while in Arnstadt. “Gott ist mein König” was one of the most profound and intricate vocal-instrumental cantatas and large scale works that the St. Blasius church had ever heard, demonstrating Bach’s immense skill and experience at the still young age of 22. The cantata would be the only compositional work that was published during Bach’s lifetime.
During his short time in Mülhausen, Bach further refined his skills on the organ and brought new musical horizons to the town’s people. He was well respected in his professional position, had a large organ to play, that was newly renovated on his behalf, and had more freedom to perform in styles of his choosing. It therefore came as a surprise to many when he abruptly left St. Blasius after only 12 months. The church, town council, and residents in the city of Mülhausen adored Bach, while many others considered him as a celebrity figure.
Weimar: Chamber and Court Organist (1708 – 1717)
“Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection, writing much, endless self-correction, that is my secret.”
In June 1708, with a growing reputation as an organ expert, Bach was invited to the Weimar court to test and inspect the newly renovated organ. The reigning Duke, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, was captivated by Bach’s performance, offering a position of chamber musician and court organist which Bach accepted immediately. The considerable pay raise and the opportunity to play solely with professional musicians are thought to be the most significant factors in his abrupt departure from his position at the St. Blasius Church in Mülhausen.
By July 14th, Bach and his wife Maria Barbara moved to a new apartment reserved for court employees in downtown Weimar. Maria Barbara was pregnant with their first child, Catharina Dorothea. During their stay in Weimar, they would have four more children: Wilhelm Friedemann, Maria Sophia and Johann Christoph, and twins who died shortly after birth, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Gottfried Bernhard.
Weimar at the time of Bach’s employment had co-reigning brothers, Duke Wilhelm Ernst and Ernst August of Saxe-Weimar. Of the two, Duke Wilhelm Ernst was particularly delighted in Bach’s music and took a great liking to him. His love for Bach was demonstrated in his fond treatment of him and the sizable increase in his salary he gave him in 1711.
As chamber musician and court organist, Bach was exposed to a more refined and prestigious atmosphere, and he formed a close relationship with the organ builder Heinrich Nicolaus Trebs, who provided maintenance to the organ in the palace church. Early in his employment, Bach drew plans for a complete rebuild of the organ and worked closely with Trebs in its construction. His experience as court organist outside of a church setting, as in Arnstadt and Mülhausen, ultimately allowed him more freedom and “fired him with the desire to try every possible artistry in his treatment of the organ.” Thus, the majority of Bach’s organ works date back to his time in Weimar.
In 1714, Bach was promoted to concertmaster. With an increase in his salary, he was also given more authority and responsibilities. His roles included conducting and directing all technical aspects of performances, organising rehearsals, putting together the ensemble, and performing new works each month.
As his work in Weimar evolved, so did his compositions and cantatas. His requirement to perform new work each month led him to explore countless compositional possibilities. A wide variety of instrumental movements, innovative approaches, and elaborate choruses in different genres, techniques, patterns, and forms became apparent in his works during his years in Weimar. Numerous cantatas and other works, such as early versions of the famous Brandenburg Concertos, were composed and laid an essential foundation for his eventual work in Leipzig.
Furthermore, during his time as concertmaster, Bach was always looking for more music to take guidance from and study. He began to examine the newly released violin concertos by Vivaldi. He then reworked them into clavier, or keyboard, concertos, a testament to his ever-curious spirit and desire for continuous musical learning.
Bach’s last years in Weimar saw his fame rising in Germany. He was invited to play in many different cities as his name and popularity grew. One notable event that spread throughout Germany in 1717 was the keyboard contest between Bach and Louis Marchand, a famous French clavier player, and organist. The story goes that Marchand was to play for the King in Dresden, and upon this news, the concertmaster of Dresden invited Bach to face Marchand in a musical contest. Bach agreed to the contest and requested Marchand to join him, who gladly accepted. The day and time of the contest came, and Bach arrived on time to the home of a senior minister of the state, where a large gathering of the high-ranking aristocracy, including the King, came to witness the event. After a long wait for Marchand, someone was sent to remind him that he was due to play. However, Marchand was not found, as he had fled early that morning after realising he would be embarrassingly defeated. News of the event spread quickly throughout Germany, and brought even more fame and honour to Bach’s name, as it was considered a German win over the superficial French.
On August 5, 1717, Bach signed a contract for a position as capellmeister in the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Prince Leopold was the brother-in-law of Duke Ernst August and thus heard Bach play numerous times at family events. Although Bach was accepted for his new employment, the Weimar court had not yet given permission for him to leave his position.
After months of waiting to be released from his position as concertmaster in Weimar, Bach evidently made an angry demand for his dismissal. His ill-tempered outburst was not tolerated, and on November 6th of 1717, he was put in jail for four weeks. On December 2nd he was eventually released from his detention and disgracefully let go from his position as concertmaster.
Anhalt-Cöthen: Capellmeister and Director of the Chamber Music at the Court of the Serene Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723)
“I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.”
Bach, his wife Maria Barbara, and their four children finally made their way to Cöthen where Bach was contracted as capellmeister and arrived on December 29th. The metropolis of Cöthen was significantly larger than Weimar, had a university, several churches, and an active musical culture, making a move from Weimar to Cöthen especially welcoming to Bach. Here, as Capellmeister and Director of the Chamber Music, he would find himself approaching the top of his profession.
As capellmeister, Bach performed for Prince Leopold who particularly loved music. Prince Leopold, in his higher education in Berlin, had opportunities to hear some of the greatest music in Europe. When he returned home to Cöthen, he wanted nothing but the best music for his court. By the time Bach arrived in 1717, Prince Leopold had grown the Cöthen court ensemble in both size and quality. As a result, Bach was gladly met by an understanding and supportive prince, and by a group of professional musicians, with whom he would make life-long friendships. In one letter to a colleague explaining his satisfaction with his employment, Bach writes “There I had a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music, and in his service, I intended to spend the rest of my life.”
Furthermore, Bach had an active, musically ideal position as capellmeister, with the opportunity to play with some of the finest musicians he could hope for while also having ample free time to explore his own musical interests. Unlike his previous positions performing sacred music in the church, Bach chiefly played secular, non-religious pieces in the court in his new role. Though a scarce amount of work from his time in Cöthen has resurfaced, it is assumed that Bach would have written hundreds of musical pieces. One well-known score that came out of his years in Cöthen includes “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” a volume of pieces meant for children learning to play the keyboard.
On two occasions, Bach, along with a few other talented members of the capelle, was invited with the prince to a luxurious spa resort in Carlsbad. Both trips lasted nearly one month long. After the second trip in 1720, however, Bach faced one of the most tragic events in his life. Upon returning home, he found that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died while he was away, leaving him alone at 35 to take care of four young children. News of her death did not reach him in Carlsbad, as the prince’s servants intercepted and hid the announcement so as not to spoil the vacation.
In another turn of events in 1721, Prince Leopold married Princess Friederica Henrietta Anhalt-Bernburg, who did not have much taste in music. Bach wrote to his colleague at the time, “that the said Serenissimus should marry a Princess of Bernburg, and that then the impression should arise that the musical interests of the said Prince had become somewhat lukewarm.” Indeed, after the marriage, a downturn in musical activity in the court occurred, as well as a shortage of finances and personnel, which Bach attributed to the princess’s lack of interest in music.
In June of 1721, Anna Magdalena Wilcke joined the court capelle as a top-ranked chamber musician and the first full-time female member. Her skill as a singer cannot be downplayed, as she was also the highest-paid member after Bach himself as capellmeister. Her talent and ability in music, as well as the connections between the Bach and Wilcke family, are likely what brought the couple together in marriage not long after their employment together in Cöthen.
As the musical action in the court continued to lessen, Bach began looking for other employment. He auditioned for an organist position at St. James in Hamburg several times, but ultimately withdrew his application. Finally, two years later in 1722, he had apparently grown tired of the Cöthen court’s lack of activity, as well as the feuds between the princely family that was occurring, and he applied for the position of Music Director at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig.
In April of 1723, Bach was accepted for the job in Leipzig. A letter from the prince states, “the Respectable and Learned Johann Sebastian Bach, since August 5, 1717, as Capellmeister and Director of Our Chamber Music…that we have at all times been well content with his discharge of his duties, but the said Bach, wishing now to seek his fortune elsewhere, has accordingly most humbly petitioned Us to grant him a most gracious dismissal, now therefore We have been pleased graciously to grant him the same and to give him highest recommendation for service elsewhere.” Shortly after the prince dismissed him so graciously, Bach left Cöthen for Leipzig one month later in May.
Leipzig: Music Director and Cantor at the St. Thomas School (1723 – 1750)
“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine!”
The cosmopolitan city of Leipzig, housing the second oldest university in Germany, was growing as a commercial and intellectual hub that attracted many individuals far and wide. More and more businessman, merchants, artists, tourists, students, intellectuals and others were flocking to the fashionable, cultural, and bourgeois city. A defining feature of the enticing social life in Leipzig was its coffeehouses, which brought all of these individuals together. Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse specifically was an important place for community gatherings and recreational festivities.
“I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music”.
By unanimous agreement of the city council, Bach was hired as Music Director and Cantor at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig in 1723. On May 29, 1723, the famous Bach, then 38 years old, arrived with his wife Anna Magdalena and their five children to the city of Leipzig. Although not offering a significant increase in salary, the position allowed his sons an exceptional education at the St. Thomas School, preparing them for their eventual university studies. Bach would remain the cantor for the St. Thomas School and music director in charge of the city’s four main churches for 27 years. In a letter to his old friend Georg Erdmann, Bach writes, “it pleased God that I should be called hither to be Director Musices and Cantor at the St. Thomas School.”
Bach’s duties at the high ranking and demanding academic setting at St. Thomas School were numerous. He was responsible for teaching publicly in class each day as well as privately to over 150 students. Keyboard lessons were a high priority, as many of the students had the individual instruments in their dormitories, as well as vocal instruction. His keyboard instruction was particularly innovative and went far beyond commonplace exercises and more into progressive principles of composition. He also performed, demonstrated, and explained musical concepts without the use of textbooks, relying instead on his own musical knowledge and expertise.
On top of his duties as cantor at the school, Bach was also music director for Leipzig’s four main churches: St. Nicholas’s, St. Thomas’s, the New Church, and St. Peter’s. He had to organise the choir, town music company, the St. Thomas student choir, and supplementary musicians to perform each week at each church’s services. The musical program he began when he first started work was to provide the church with a new cantata every Sunday in order to modernise the church music. His endeavour took an incredible amount of commitment and discipline, and over his 27-year tenure, he systematically arranged and performed over 1,500 cantatas, oratorios, passions, and other works at the Leipzig churches.
On Good Friday in 1727, Bach performed his most prominent work, the “Passion According to St. Matthew”, BWV 244. The elaborate masterpiece was groundbreaking compared to all other sacred music of the time and is still widely regarded as a piece of musical genius. It is Bach’s most extended piece, with unparalleled emotion, expression, and intensity delivered through a wide range of complex compositional mastery and technical sophistication. The “Passion According to St. Matthew” is performed regularly to this day, exemplifying its timeless brilliance and an indication of Bach meeting one of his ultimate goals, to find “true music.”
In 1729, Bach also took on the position of Director of the Collegium Musicum, consisting mainly of highly talented Leipzig university students and other local professionals who performed public concerts. On top of his school and church duties, Bach was now also responsible for directing weekly performances of the Collegium, which became a significant part of the musical, social scene in the city, particularly at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse. The performances were grand, amusing events, with patrons encouraged to drink coffee, wine, beer, eat, smoke tobacco, play cards, and socialise during the concert. The position as director eventually allowed Bach to have more musical freedom to explore contemporary, diversified work that appealed to his interests.
One infamous night, on October 5, 1734, Bach composed an extravagant score for a large event that included a spectacular light show to greet His Most Serene Highness, Frederick Augustus II as he came to visit Leipzig. Tickets were sold for the event, and thousands came to gather in the town square to witness the event. Bach wrote a vocal-instrumental cantata for a full choir, vocal soloists, and orchestra. In the windows, rooftops, and throughout the streets, lamps were lit, illuminating the entire square as Bach’s 30-minute cantata was played for the audience and for the royal family. The many lamps gave off a beautiful light, but also copious amounts of smoke. The following day, the solo trumpeter in the performance, the 67-year-old Gottfried Reiche, collapsed from a stroke, having stated earlier “he suffered great strains from playing on the previous day at the royal music, and the smoke from the torches had also caused him much discomfort.”
In full, Bach’s 27 years in Leipzig proved to be the peak of his career. His cantatas, passions, oratorios and other works clearly reached the culmination point of his compositional output and represented his most outstanding musical achievements. In this period, he composed the St. Matthew and St. John passions, the Mass in B Minor, Christmas Oratorio, the Art of Fugue, and the Goldberg Variations, to name a few of his most renowned works. Bach passed away in Leipzig in 1750 as an important and commanding figure, having completely reshaped and altered the musical life in the city.
Resurfacing of Bach’s Music
After Bach died in 1750, almost all of his work went unpublished and unperformed. Another 79 years passed before his work was heard again. In 1829, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy conducted St. Matthew’s Passion in Berlin, after receiving a copy of the handwritten manuscript from his grandmother for his 16th birthday in 1825. The performance sparked the 19th-century “Bach Revival,” when Bach became a household name. Soon after the famous performance, his other surviving manuscripts from his estate were hunted down and compiled at the Royal Library in Berlin. Between 1840 and 1899, his work was finally edited and published for the world to enjoy.
Four-part compositions were a trend in Bach’s music. He focused on four-part harmonies, vocal ensembles, chorale settings, string textures, and thoroughbass. Preceding his death, his four-part chorales specifically began to draw attention.
Counterpoint, or the relationship between multiple lines of music which are harmonically dependent but rhythmically independent, is another strong musical style of Bach’s that is widely regarded. His musical research led him to highly skilled forms of counterpoint that were far beyond what was heard in his time. The expressive and emotional results of his technique are highly apparent in compositions such as the Mass in B Minor and The St. Matthew Passion.
Bach experimented with nearly all the compositional techniques of his time, including instrumentation, fugue, harmonic expansion, instrumental and vocal genres, and extended polyphony. His keyboard expertise and his pedal methods were further areas he studied, as well ergonomics which enhanced performance, and the technology of instruments. His ability to synthesise and systematically unify his musical science contributed to his unique and unparalleled musical style.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Influence
Bach had a profound influence on musicians and the music world, especially after his compositional works resurfaced in the 19th-century. Mozart is quoted as stating about Bach’s music “Now there is music from which a man can learn something.” Beethoven was also impacted by Bach, saying, “Not ‘Brook’ but ‘Ocean’ should be his name.” He references the meaning of Bach’s last name, which translates to “brook,” but is pointing out the universal and profound quality of Bach’s music, comparing it to an ocean. Several more famous composers were influenced by Bach’s work, including Chopin, Haydn, and countless others.
Furthermore, Bach’s influence has only continued to grow over the centuries. Modern genres such as jazz, rock, and hip hop have all felt the impact of his work. Bill Evan’s, the famous jazz pianist, stated, “You can never play enough Bach.” He and other musicians would find it difficult to escape Bach in the music industry. Pop music generally uses the same finite number of chord progressions, of which many are traced back to Bach. Samples from Bach have also been taken directly and reworked into modern music. For example, the Beach Boys, in their song “Lady Lynda” use Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” also uses a harpsichord intro from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Bach’s connections to modern music are innumerable, and his influence will timelessly preserve because, as Max Reger states, “Bach is the beginning and end of all music.”
Furthermore, besides countless performances, recordings, broadcasts, and adaptations of his works over the centuries, Bach is still remembered by several statues erected in his name, as well as streets, venues, and other entities having been named after him. The Episcopal Church celebrates an annual feast day on July 28th in remembrance of Bach. The Lutheran Church’s Calendar of Saints also remembers Bach on July 28th. More famously, Bach’s compositions were put on a record, along with other well-known music, and sent into outer space on the Voyager probes in 1977.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Renowned Works
The Well-Tempered Clavier
Bach likely began writing the early parts of The Well-Tempered Clavier while he was working in Weimar as Chamber and Court Organist. Of the two books, the first was published in 1722 when he was working in Cöthen, and the second was published in 1742 while he was positioned in Leipzig at the St. Thomas School. Over those 20 years, he constructed a masterpiece of preludes and fugues which went beyond the ordinary keyboard principles of the time. By fully merging techniques that had always been practised separately, including harmony, counterpoint, and thorough-bass, Bach radically altered keyboard music practice with The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The Well-Tempered Clavier focuses on major and minor harmonic effects, by use of all 24 major and minor keys. Bach used the term ‘well-tempered’ to reference his tuning the keys with “all the thirds sharp.” The modified system allowed him to play all 24 keys without them losing their distinct individual sound, which was highly rare in Bach’s time. “Clavier” signifies that any keyboard instrument could be used to play the music, including harpsichord and organ. The piano was not known in Bach’s native Germany, as it was only in its infancy in Italy during the early 1700s.
Bach demonstrated the practicability and potential of the new system with the use of all 24, 12 major and 12 minor, chromatic keys. The title and theme of each prelude and fugue focus on a single key in its most basic form and then transitions to demonstrations of a wide range of various effects, stylistic models, and techniques. Dated 1722, The Well-Tempered Clavier was further described as a set of “preludes and fugues through all the tones and semitones, both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.”
Furthermore, The Well-Tempered Clavier can be described as a testament to the “musical science” to which Bach was devoted. It was by far the most comprehensive and meticulous composition of keyboard music that arose from the Baroque period. He systematically explored the 24 major and minor keys of the keyboard, compiling two books of well-organized and sophisticated keyboard techniques and lessons which redefined the principles of composition. The new way of playing the 24 keys was experimentally ahead of its time in its technical refinement and compositional perfection.
The Brandenburg Concertos
It is believed that the majority of The Brandenburg Concertos were created while Bach was still in Weimar. However, the original source of The Brandenburg Concertos is dated to 1721, during Bach’s time in Cöthen. Two years prior, in 1719, when Bach travelled to Berlin to obtain a new harpsichord for the court of Cöthen, he made various contacts in the region and performed for the Prussian Court as well. There, he met Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, the brother of King Frederick I of Prussia. In 1721, he returned to Berlin, compiled The Brandenburg Concertos and performed once again for the margrave and the Prussian Court.
The Brandenburg Concertos demonstrate complex instrumentation and harmonic structure that shed light on Bach’s compositional art and imaginative personal style. With a high degree of innovation, the six concertos were composed with great instrumental diversity, combining a multitude of solo instruments of brass, woodwinds, and strings to create beautiful, systematic harmonies that are considered a compositional breakthrough of the Baroque period.
Unlike anything heard before, The Brandenburg Concertos combine a maximum number of solo instruments to create highly creative and masterful compositions. For example, Concerto No. 1 contrasts treble solos of violin, recorder, trumpet and oboe. Concerto No. 5 further presents unprecedented and bold use of flute, violin, and harpsichord, with the harpsichord dominating parts of the movement, which was the first time in history that a solo keyboard instrument was so daringly combined into a concerto. In its entirety, The Brandenburg Concertos in their complexity show the genius and mastery of their composer.
The St. Matthew Passion
The “Passion According to St. Matthew”, BWV 244 is considered an elaborate masterpiece and a groundbreaking composition of the Baroque period. First played on Good Friday of 1727, The St. Matthew Passion was delivered with emotion, intensity, and unparalleled compositional expression. As Bach’s most extended work, it is highly regarded as a piece of musical genius, with a wide range of compositional mastery and technical sophistication. Performed regularly to this day, The St. Matthew Passion exemplifies the brilliance and timeless spirit of Bach’s music, and is evidence that Bach met his ultimate goal, to find “true music.”
Bach composed the sacred oratorio for an eight-voice double-choir, solo vocalists, and double orchestra. The Passion with a lengthy 68 movements narrates chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew, which recounts the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christian Friedrich Henrici, otherwise known as Picander, collaborated with Bach to create the libretto, or the poetic storyline accompanying the music. Later revisions and performances at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig occurred, with a final manuscript of the score autographed by Bach between 1743 and 1746.
The St. Matthew Passion sparked the “Bach Revival” in the 19th-century. In 1829, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy performed The St. Matthew Passion for the first time in Berlin almost 80 years after Bach’s death, after receiving a copy of the handwritten manuscript from his grandmother on his 16th birthday four years prior. Since the “Bach Revival” The St. Matthew Passion has remained one of Bach’s most famous and acclaimed works, played globally in staged productions to this day.
The Mass in B-Minor
Bach wrote the Mass in B-Minor throughout his time in Leipzig. One of the last works composed before his death, the Mass in B-Minor illustrates his excellence in skill and mastery of compositional styles developed through his years of musical study and work as a teacher and composer. He brought together old and new styles, compiling expert technique and knowledge of multiple genres to compose a broad vocal piece, containing a variety of styles and a high degree of technical sophistication. Altogether, the authentic words of the Mass along with the virtuosity of its composer make the Mass in B-Minor a timeless and unparalleled musical score.
The Mass in B-Minor is highly regarded as one of the most important works in classical music. It is prominently known for its choral fugues and further reflects Bach’s mastery of counterpoint, a musical style of complex, independent melodies coming together in harmony. It focuses on juxtaposing vocal and instrumental counterpoint, introducing styles and textures vocally and instrumentally, and combines these features into an elaborate and large-scale score of unequalled dimension; The expressive and emotional results of which make the arrangement one of Bach’s most famous works in the present day.
The Goldberg Variations
The Goldberg Variations were published in 1741 while Bach was working in Leipzig. The harpsichord piece begins with an aria accompanied by 30 variations that follow the aria’s bass line. After every third variation is a canon in ascending pattern, with the final variation followed by a quodlibet, or a composition of multiple melodies in counterpoint that are cheerful and amusing. The Goldberg Variations ultimately served as a concept to later be expanded into a much more intricate and refined score, the Clavier-Übung series.
It is thought that The Goldberg Variations were written for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, whom Bach would have also named them after. The story goes that, at the time, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was working as a harpsichordist for Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk in Dresden, a Russian diplomat of German nobility, who presumably requested Bach to write some clavier pieces, “which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepness nights.” However, this story is regarded as apocryphal as Johann Gottlieb Goldberg would have been only 14-years-old at the time, and no formal call for the commissioning of the work based on 18th-century protocol has been found that could tie it to Keyserlingk.
The Art of Fugue
The Art of Fugue was an introspective personal project, engaging Bach’s mind through the final decade of his life. He likely started working on it before 1740, with a fair copy autographed in 1742 and a composing manuscript dated from 1748 to 1749. It went unfinished and is one of the very last compositions written in Bach’s hand.
Like The Well-Tempered Clavier and Mass in B-Minor, The Art of Fugue is a testament to Bach’s “musical science” which he rigorously pursued. The piece thoroughly experiments with monothematic instrumentation and systematically demonstrates fugal counterpoint with high sophistication and knowledge of technique. The large-scale and comprehensive piece is considered a summation of the late Bach’s musical career, study and work.
Consisting of 14 fugues and four canons in D minor, the work progresses from a basic to a complex theme. A single theme is presented in its rudimentary form and moves to techniques of two to four-part counterpoint. Throughout the work, Bach first introduces each theme by increasing difficulty, and then gradually expands on it with rhythmic variations and dimensions, demonstrating various counterpoint relationships of old and freely invented forms that come together in beautiful and flawless harmonic synchronicity.
Furthermore, The Art of Fugue is considered a representation of Bach’s deep level of focus on instrumental capabilities. He systematically explores each theme with a high level of technical demand, showcasing his knowledge of old and new techniques, and organises each theme in a way that illustrates his meticulous desire to find “true music” through a process that leaves no ground uncovered, with the full potential of each theme executed immaculately.
In full, The Art of Fugue is the pinnacle of Bach’s work, showing his artistic development throughout his lifetime. The mastery of his practice merges with his imagination, by methodically following from logical beginnings and old styles to new techniques and novel discoveries. The “musical science” he pursued since childhood culminates in The Art of Fugue at the very end of his life, left unfinished for the world to continue his exploration to find more musical potential and uncover the “true music” to which he was devoted.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Personal Life
Johann Sebastian Bach’s First Wife: Maria Barbara
On October 17, 1707, Johann Sebastian married his distant cousin, Maria Barbara. They married in the town of Dornheim, a few miles outside of Arnstadt. The wedding would have been grand, with many members of the Bach family in attendance.
Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara would go on to have seven children together, with three children dying prematurely at a very young age. Twins Maria Sophia and Johann Christoph, born February 23, 1713, died shortly after birth, and Leopold Augustus, born November 15, 1718, passed nearly one year after his birth. Their four other children lived until adulthood. Catharina Dorothea, the eldest child, who remained unmarried, died at age 66 in 1744. Willhelm Friedman, a composer, died at age 73 in 1784. Carl Philipp Emanuel, also a composer, died at age 74 in 1788. Johann Gottfried Bernhard, an organist, died at age 24 in 1739.
In 1720, Maria Barbara died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 36. After 13 years of marriage, Johann Sebastian lost his wife unknowingly while away on a summer trip with his employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Upon her death, an urgent message was sent to Johann Sebastian, which was intercepted by the Prince’s staff. He found out about her death only after returning home, without being able to say a proper goodbye. Her death marked a very tragic point in his life.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Second Wife: Anna Magdalena Wilcke
Anna Magdalena was a princely singer and a highly paid chamber musician soprano in Anhalt-Cöthen at the time she met and married Johann Sebastian, who was working there as Capellmeister, or director of music. She grew up in a musical home, with her father Johann Caspar Wilke, a trumpeter, and her mother who was the daughter of an organist. Her brother, Johann Caspar Jr., was also a trumpeter, and her sister Christina was a trained singer and married to trumpeter Johann Andreas Krebs.
Johann Sebastian married Anna Magdalena on December 3, 1721. Anna Magdalena was 20 at the time and Johann Sebastian 36, with four young children from his first marriage with Maria Barbara. Some say Johann Sebastian married Anna Magdalena out of necessity, as he may have been struggling to raise his young children and support the household on his own. Still, others say that he met the second love of his life in Anna Magdalena, as they both shared great talent and devotion to music.
As a court musician in the princely court of Anhalt-Cöthen, Anna Magdalena was paid almost as much as Johann Sebastian. Her top rank as court musician paid more than her father’s and brother’s positions as trumpeters, a testament to her tremendous skills as a singer and perhaps the reason Johann Sebastian took such interest in her. After Johann Sebastian asked for her hand in marriage, she continued her hard work in the capelle until their eventual move to the city of Leipzig.
Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian’s wedding was grand and celebrated by many at their home. A very fine Rhine wine was served to guests, which cost nearly a fifth of Johann Sebastian’s annual salary. The event was most likely attended by many members of the Bach and Wilcke families, along with their friends from the Cöthen court. Their marriage and familial relationships would create even further-reaching musical connections throughout Germany.
Not long after the wedding, Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian began working on an album of keyboard collections, most likely to help Anna Magdalena practice her keyboard skills and merely for Johann Sebastian to entertain his wife with the pieces. The first rough drafts of these scores would later turn in to the French Suites, a collection of elegant harpsichord music. Altogether, this initial album written by the couple points to their close relationship with one another and their deep connection that grew through music.
Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian went on to have thirteen children together and were married 28 years by the time Johann Sebastian passed away in 1750. For the first thirteen years of their marriage, Anna Magdalena was pregnant and gave birth nearly every year, with seven of those children passing away shortly after birth. Anna Magdalena continued to be a significant part of the remaining children’s musical education, including Johann Christian Bach, who grew up to be a celebrated composer.
Anna Magdalena’s musical background meant she lent a hand in preparing manuscripts and copies of Johann Sebastian’s music. For example, she copied Bach’s works such as the Kyrie and Gloria of the B-minor Mass, the Cello Suites, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and many other cantatas and instrumental pieces. Ultimately, her role as a copyist for Bach was critical for the survival of his compositional legacy.
After Bach’s death in 1750, Anna Magdalena was left with three young children to care for at the age of 49. She had very little money, Bach did not leave a will, and she inherited one-third of his estate with the rest allocated to his surviving male children. Anna Magdalena’s living conditions became desperate. She had to accept a cash payment to move out of her St. Thomas apartment she had shared with Bach and sold manuscripts of his cantatas to the school for a small payment as well. On top of receiving little support, she had to fight for guardianship of her two youngest daughters. The city pension agreement regulated that she could not remarry without forfeiting legal custody of her young children. She lived another ten years in poverty, receiving welfare from the city until her death on February 27, 1760.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s 20 Children:
Between his two marriages, Bach conceived 20 children, with Maria Barbara he had seven and with Anna Magdalena he had thirteen. Ten of these children would die at a very young age, which was not uncommon in the early 1700s. Gottfried Heinrich was mentally disabled, and another son died of illness at age 24. Three daughters, Catharina Dorothea, Johanna Carolina, and Regina Susanna remained unmarried and thus lived in relative poverty.
Altogether, Bach was a loving and caring father. His sons respected and praised their father, as he was very proud of them, nurturing their musical abilities and encouraging their academic lives. Four sons, Wilhelm Friedmann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian would go on to become prominent and successful composers. One daughter Elisabeth Juliana Friderica married her father’s student, Johann Christoph Altnikol, an organist.
With Maria Barbara:
1.Catharina Dorothea: December 29, 1708 – January 14, 1774
2.Wilhelm Friedmann (composer): November 22, 1710 – July 1, 1784
3.Johann Christoph: February 23, 1713 – died at birth
4.Maria Sophia: February 23, 1713 – March 15, 1713
- Carl Philipp Emanuel (composer): March 8, 1714 – December 14, 1788.
- Johann Gottfried Bernhard (organist): May 11, 1715 – May 27, 1739
- Leopold Augustus: November 15, 1718 – September 28, 1719
With Anna Magdalena:
- Christiana Sophia Henrietta: Spring 1723 – June 29, 1726
- Gottfried Heinrich (mentally disabled): February 27, 1724 – February 12, 1763
- Christian Gottlieb: April 14, 1725 – September 21, 1728
- Elisabeth Juliana Friderica: April 5, 1726 – Leipzig, August 24, 1781
- Ernestus Andreas: October 30, 1727 – November 1, 1727
- Regina Johanna: October 10, 1728 – April 25, 1733
- Christiana Benedicta: January 1, 1730 – January 4, 1730
- Christiana Dorothea: March 18, 1731 – August 31, 1732
- Johann Christoph Friedrich (composer): June 23, 1732 – January 26, 1795
- Johann August Abraham: November 5, 1733 – November 6, 1733
- Johann Christian (composer): September 7, 1735 – January 1, 1782
- Johanna Carolina: October 30, 1737 – August 16, 1781.
- Regina Susanna: February 22, 1742 – December 14, 1809.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Composer Sons
Bach had four sons who went on to have musical careers. Growing up, Bach provided them with thorough training, and his position at the St. Thomas Church and School afforded them a reputable education and further musical instruction. In a letter to his friend George Erdmann, Bach wrote about his children, “They are all born musicians, and I can already form vocal and instrumental ensembles within my family.” He was proud of his children and frequently thought of their needs before his own. Bach’s third son Carl Philipp Emanuel further mentioned that his father “loved the quiet domestic life.” Bach was a firm believer in family and ultimately provided for them in the best way he could, nurturing them in a musical upbringing as his father and family did for him.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the first son and second child to Bach and Maria Barbara. He was born in 1710 while Bach was positioned in Weimar as chamber and court organist for the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst. From a young age, Friedemann received extensive musical training from his father. When he was nine years old, Bach wrote The Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach to further teach him basic keyboard exercises. The work also includes two entries from Friedemann himself, showing his compositions at a very early age.
When Bach took the position of Music Director and Cantor at the St. Thomas School, Friedemann enrolled as a student at the school and furthered his musical training and formal education. He graduated in 1729, and then was accepted at the highly acclaimed Leipzig University as a law student. Not long after, he transferred to the University of Halle to study law and mathematics.
Throughout his career, Friedemann was well known as a skilled organist. In 1733, Friedemann became organist of St. Sophia’s Church in Dresden after auditioning for the post by playing a version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541 and being described as clearly superior to the other candidates. In 1746 he took the organist position at Liebfrauenkirche, a church in Halle, where he would meet his wife and have two sons, who died shortly after birth, and a daughter.
Being unsatisfied with his position in Halle, Friedemann looked for job opportunities elsewhere without luck and eventually left the job without securing other employment. After four years, when his finances became bleak, he tried to reapply for his old job and failed. Friedemann then began to provide for himself by teaching. He left Halle in 1770, applied for another organist position without success, before moving to Berlin to teach and offer harpsichord lessons.
In his life and career, Friedemann composed several cantatas and instrumental pieces and was renowned for his improvisational techniques. Counterpoint styles from his father appear in his work, as well as individualistic and experimental themes. He had several students, one of whom was Johann Nikolaus Forkel who wrote the first biography of Bach in 1802 and used Friedemann and his brothers as major references. Friedemann died on July 1, 1784, aged 73 in Berlin.
Carl Philipp Emanuel
Carl Philipp Emanuel was born March 8, 1714, as the second surviving son and fifth child of Bach and Maria Barbara. Growing up he received the same extensive musical training as his older brother, Wilhelm Friedemann. At the age of ten, after his father became Music Director and Cantor at the St. Thomas School, he also enrolled at the school and began his formal education and further music training. After graduating from St. Thomas, he followed in Wilhelm Friedemann’s footsteps, enrolling in the University of Leipzig to study law. He graduated in 1738, and instead of practising law, he decided to focus entirely on his music career.
Shortly after graduating, Carl was recommended and accepted for a position as a member of the royal orchestra in Berlin for Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia. During his time in the royal orchestra, he made connections with the aristocracy and many accomplished musicians, composed dozens of sonatas and pieces for harpsichord, and became widely regarded as a renowned clavier player. He further went on to write two well-known sonatas for Frederick the Great and the Duke of Württemberg, after which he was promoted to chamber musician.
While positioned in Berlin, he further composed numerous cantatas, symphonies, and concert works. His treatise, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, became highly recognized and practised throughout Europe, reaching and influencing Beethoven and other esteemed musicians. In 1768, he left Berlin to join the court of Princess Anna Amalia, the sister of Frederick the Great. As court composer, he continued to compose oratorios and a multitude of other liturgical pieces.
Carl’s compositions were influenced heavily by his father’s work and other notable musicians of the time such as Handel. He became more well-known than his father during the 18th-century, and his reputation was highly regarded, making him the most successful of Bach’s sons. His artistic style went on to influence famous composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, and his compositions have a lasting impact today.
Johann Christoph Friedrich
Johann Christoph Friedrich was born on June 21, 1732, to Bach and his second wife, Anna Magdalena. Christoph Friedrich was the 16th child of Bach and received the same rigorous musical upbringing from his father as his siblings before him. He also went to the St. Thomas School and was further musically tutored by Johann Elias Bach, a distant cousin.
At the age of 18, in 1750, Christoph Friedrich was accepted for the position of harpsichordist for Count William of Schaumburg-Lippe in Bückeburg. In 1759, he was promoted to Concert Master of the court. While in Bückeburg, he composed numerous keyboard oratories, symphonies, cantatas, and other liturgical works which reflect styles from his father. He married Lucia Elisabeth Münchhausen, a singer, and had a son Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach. Christoph Friedrich brought up his son as an educated musician, who became music director to King Frederick William II of Prussia.
Johann Christian was the last son and 18th child of Bach and Anna Magdalena born on September 5, 1735, in Leipzig. Until the age of 15, he was trained by his father until he died in 1750. He then went to live with his prominent older brother at the time, Carl Philipp Emanuel.
Shortly after moving in with his brother, Johann Christian moved to Italy, studying under Padre Martini, a leading musician and composer. In 1760, he became organist at the Milan cathedral, converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, and devoted much of his work to church music, receiving praise for compositions.
Johann Christian travelled to England in 1762 to perform operas at the King’s Theatre, where he began to establish a reputation. Shortly after, he became music master to Queen Charlotte. Johann Christian also met his, Cecilia Grassi, a singer, with whom he would have no children. In England, he also enjoyed performing at the Hanover Square Rooms, a popular venue where wealthy and affluent patrons flocked for entertainment. In 1777, Johann Christian went on to win a historic case Bach v Longman, which determined that copyright law applied to and protected musical scores.
Over his career, Johann Christian was a well-known composer and performer. His works included operas, cantatas, symphonies, chamber, and keyboard music. He is also well-known today as having briefly tutored the young Mozart. For five months while in England, Mozart and his father were visiting, and Johann Christian taught him keyboard and compositional techniques which greatly influenced Mozart’s later work.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Home and Family Life
In his youth, Bach’s home was constantly filled with music. Growing up in a musical household, he was accustomed to being around journeyman, apprentices, and professionals alike, all within his father’s home. As a young man, he would have taken much of his free time and devoted it to more study, practising, and composing new material. As he grew older in Leipzig, it is hard to imagine that his busy professional life would not have persistently spilt over into his home life. In fact, his son is quoted at calling the Leipzig apartment a “beehive”, with students, musical colleagues, and professional guests coming in and out of the house frequently.
Bach was also very involved in his children’s musical upbringing. He further required his wife, Anna Magdalena, to help as a copyist for many of his compositions and she was involved with many aspects of the children’s musical tutelage at home as well. It is also known that Bach was very loving and affectionate with Anna Magdalena, dedicating many of his musical works to her.
“Without my morning coffee, I’m just like a dried-up piece of roast goat.”
Interestingly, Bach is also noted as having a good relationship with wine, beer, brandy, tobacco, and coffee. The expenses for beer, brandy, and tobacco were paid by his employer, as they were conventionally enjoyed by most men at the time. Wine was an expensive and welcome delicacy, and coffee was apparently a necessity. Bach even wrote a “coffee cantata’ for a performance at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse, further declaring his love for the beverage.
While in Leipzig, Bach’s living arrangements were enjoyable and convenient for him and his growing family. The spacious apartment had two stories and was situated straight across from the St. Thomas School, making Bach’s daily work commute effortless. In 1731, the building was renovated, with cast iron heating stoves installed, which would have been an exceptional luxury for many at the time.
Outside of studying, practising, teaching and composing music, Bach’s home life would have further included tasks relative to the standard practices of the 1700s. Bach’s morning routine likely included cleaning and shaving his face, perfuming and powdering his wig, and spot-cleaning his clothing. Clothing of wool, silk, or linen was most common, with men such as Bach dressing every day in a long-sleeve collared shirt topped with a button-down vest, with knee-length trousers, cotton leggings, and an overcoat. Laundry in the early 18th century was uncommon, as it was a rigorous and lengthy process.
Aside from beverages such as coffee, beer, and wine, Bach would enjoy his meals with his family that would have primarily consisted of bread, meat, fish, eggs, milk, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, and preserved foods. Bread and potatoes were a significant food item in the middle-class diet. Meat would have included chicken or mutton, and local vegetables such as carrots, onions, and cabbage were popular. Cooking the food was a particularly hazardous daily task, which needed an open fire over an open hearth. Lack of refrigeration and running water would have also made preparing and planning meals for the day a tedious and demanding process.
Moreover, Bach’s nightly routine would have included sleeping in a bed made of a sewn linen or cotton bag filled with cotton, feathers, straw, or wool and topped with a wool blanket. Fluffing the bed and reshaping it was an everyday household chore. Burning out any candles or lamps at night was also of extreme importance, as fires were one of the leading causes of death at the time.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Death in 1750
“On one of those rare occasions when Bach appraised his own life’s work, he remarked: ‘I worked hard.'”
In the later years of his life, Bach began to have trouble with his eyesight which finally led to him seeking an operation from an oculist who had arrived in Leipzig around 1750. However, the operation failed, and Bach completely lost his vision and became ill from the side effects of medication and inflammation. While still physically strong, he made another appointment to see a more esteemed oculist who was supposedly successful with other patients in the past. The second eye operation was also unsuccessful, leaving him still without vision and physically ailing. It is thought that though the operations themselves did not have a particularly damaging effect, the post operation treatment and medication led to inflammation that affected Bach’s entire wellbeing. It is also thought that an underlying disorder, such as diabetes, could have been causing more harm. From April to July, Bach was left sick and blind. He then had a stroke from which he did not recover. Ten days later, on July 28, 1750, he passed away peacefully at 66 years old.
Three days after Bach’s death, a large funeral took place with the entirety of the school faculty, students, and family and friends in attendance. His wife, Anna Magdalena purchased an expensive oaken casket, as the school provided the hearse and covered the other funeral fees. An announcement from the St. Thomas Church read, “Peacefully and blissfully departed in God the esteemed and highly respected Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, Court Composer to His Royal Highness in Saxony, formerly Kapellmeister to the prince of Köthen and lately Director of Music of St. Thomas School. His dead body was this day, in accordance with Christian usage, committed to the earth.” A similar announcement was also published in the Leipzig, Berlin, and other German newspapers. Any additional details of a memorial service or music sung at the ceremony are unknown.
Bach would have been buried at St. John’s cemetery, on the south side of the St. John’s Church; however, Bach’s grave ultimately went unmarked, and the exact location of his burial continues to be unknown today. It is known that for every year on July 28th after Bach’s death for nearly a century, choral scholars at the St. Thomas School paid tribute to Bach at his final resting place, nearly six paces outside the southern door of the church. In 1894, his remains were believed to have been located and they were moved to a vault within the church. The St. John’s Church was then bombed during World War II, and in 1950 the remains were moved to St. Thomas Church, where they continue to be marked today. However, researchers question whether if the remains are truly Bach’s.
Bach left behind his wife, Anna Magdalena, and nine children, four of them still minors. He left no will for his family, and his estate was divided between his wife, Anna Magdalena, and his surviving adult male children. A probate court determined his property’s distribution, including cash, valuables, clothing, furniture, religious texts, silverware, and objects made of brass, copper, and pewter. On November 11, 1750, the hearing took place in the presence of his entire surviving family, with Anna Magdalena spoken for by family-friend and attorney Dr. Friedrich Heinrich Graff. Anna Magdalena received around one-third of his estate, with the children dividing the remaining two-thirds. Bach’s compositional library was not mentioned in the estate inventory. As some of his most valuable and prized possessions, the musical works, manuscripts, and collected texts were likely distributed to his sons, relatives, and colleagues by himself before his death, leaving the whereabouts of some of his most important life’s compositional work a mystery.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Notable Compositions:
- Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565
- Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046–1051
- The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893
- Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
- Mass in B Minor
- The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fugue), BWV 1080
- Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041
- Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion), BWV 244
- Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1043
- Cello Suites, BWV 1007-1012
- Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042
- Orchestral suites, BWV 1066-1069
- Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
- Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243
- Harpsichord Concerto No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1054
- Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
- Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001–1006
- Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, BWV 1052
- Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Dorian), BWV 538
- Great Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542
- Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium), BWV 248
- John Passion (Passio secundum Johannem), BWV 245
- Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227
- Six Partitas (Clavier-Übung I), BWV 825-830
- French Suites, BWV 812–817
- Lute Works, BWV 995-1000 & BWV 1006a
- Toccatas, BWV 910-916
- Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903
- Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014–1019
- The Musical Offering (Musikalisches Opfer), BWV 1079
- Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1050
- Flute Sonatas, BWV 1030-1035
- Inventions and Sinfonias (Two- and Three-Part Inventions), BWV 772–801
- Italian Concerto (Italienisches Konzert), BWV 971
- Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), BWV 599−644
- Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147
- English Suites, BWV 806-811
- Aria Variata alla Maniera Italiana in A Minor, BWV 989
- Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (Hunting Cantata), BWV 208
- Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major (Dorian), BWV 564
- Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106
- Prelude (Toccata) and Fugue in E Major (Dorian), BWV 566
- Harpsichord Concerto No. 4 in A Major, BWV 1055
- Triple Concerto in A Minor (Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord), BWV 1044
- Easter Oratorio (Oster-Oratorium), BWV 249
- Concerto for 2 Harpsichords in C Minor, BWV 1060
- Harpsichord Concerto No. 7 in G Minor, BWV 1058
- Eight Short Preludes and Fugues (8 Kleine Präludien und Fugen), BWV 553–560
- Fantasia and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 904
- Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, BWV 651–668
- Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1027–1029
- Organ Sonatas (Trio Sonatas), BWV 525–530
- Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78
- Ich habe genug, BWV 82
- Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (Sing unto the Lord a new song), BWV 225
- Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54
- Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21
- Fantasia and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 944
- Ascension Oratorio (Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen), BWV 11
- Overture in the French Style (Ouvertüre nach Französischer Art), BWV 831
- Toccata and Fugue in F Major (Dorian), BWV 540
- Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80
- Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl, BWV 198
- Clavier-Übung III (German Organ Mass)
- Concerto for 2 Harpsichords in C Minor, BWV 1062
- Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75
- Harpsichord conceto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1053
- Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
- Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51
- Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56
- Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26
- Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her”, BWV 769
- Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, BWV 151
Johann Sebastian Bach Mottos and Quotes:
- What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.
- Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine!
- Bring me coffee before I turn into a goat!
- Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection, writing much, endless self-correction, that is my secret.
- God’s gift to his sorrowing creatures is a joy worthy of their destiny.
- Harmony is next to Godliness.
- I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.
- I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.
- I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.
- I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.
- If I decide to be an idiot, then I’ll be an idiot on my own accord.
- It is the special province of music to move the heart.
- It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.
- Music is an agreeable harmony for the honour of God and the permissible delights of the soul.
- Music’s only purpose should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.
- My masters are strange folk with very little care for music in them.
- My present post amounts to about 700 thaler, and when there are rather more funerals than usual, the fees rise in proportion; but when a healthy wind blows, they fall accordingly.
- Old concept: Love is blind. Marriage is an eye opener. New concept: Love is not blind – it simply enables one to see things others fail to see.
- On land, on sea, at home abroad, I smoke my pipe and worship God.
- On one of those rare occasions when Bach appraised his own life’s work, he remarked: I worked hard.
- The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.
- The most stupendous miracle in all music.
- Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.
- Without my morning coffee I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.
- You just have to press the right keys and the right pedals at the right time and the music plays itself.
One thought on “Personality of Johann Sebastian Bach”
That’s a great article about Sebastian Bach. Very detailed information about the life of him. Thanks