Timeline 028: The Life And Times Of Johann Sebastian Bach

Nov 2, 2015

For the Bach's of Germany music was a family business.  Over 50 members of the Bach family were employed as musicians over the course of two centuries.  The most famous, and arguably the most important, was Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach was the youngest child in his family.  His first music lessons were most likely from his violinist father, Johann Ambrosius. By the age of nine, both of Bach’s parents had passed away.  He and his brother, Jacob, went to live with their older brother Johann Christoph, an organist at Ohrdruf.  The story goes that Johann Sebastian learned the organ from his brother but that Christoph would not allow him to play certain manuscripts or create music from scratch; composition was not a priority for the elder Bach.  So, Johann Sebastian taught himself composition by copying and studying music by moonlight.

Bach spent his teenage years bouncing from town to town.  He was already gaining a reputation as a virtuoso organist, but was also known as a bit of a hot head.  He reportedly started a street brawl with a bassoon player in Arnstadt.  Bach finally settled in Weimar at the age of 23 and married to Maria Barbara.  It was here that they started a family.

Bach’s music may be an institution today, but during his lifetime his music was functionally for church services and was relatively unknown elsewhere.  His work was seen as old-fashioned, compared to the Galant style that was becoming popular at the end of the Baroque era.  Bach’s compositions stand out from his contemporaries in regards to their contrapuntal complexity. It was this complexity - this intellectualism - that left his music mostly ignored till well after his death.

An autograph score of cantata BWV 132.
Credit US-PD

Bach left behind two passions, over 300 church cantatas, numerous chorale harmonizations and many instrumental works for large ensembles, chamber groups and soloists.  The sad fact is that a great deal of Bach’s music is lost to us today.  But Bach’s influence continues.  Mozart reportedly declared that Bach was a composer that he could finally learn from.  Beethoven called Bach, “the progenitor of harmony."  Felix Mendelssohn was such a champion of  Bach’s work that he set off a Bach revival in the mid-19th century that is greatly responsible for the popularity of Bach’s music today.

Johann Sebastian Bach's signature
Credit US-PD