J.S. Bach Concertos & Sonatas, Janine Jansen

Bach - Chaconne BWV 1004 - Viktoria Mullova

Mischa Maisky plays Bach Cello Suite No.1 in G

The Composer Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (German, 1685 – 1750) was a composer and musician of the Baroque period. His music is revered for its technical command, artistic beauty, and intellectual depth. Bach is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

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Childhood and Youth of Bach

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, into a great musical family. He was the eighth child of Maria Elisabeth and Johann Ambrosius Bach, who was the director of the town musicians. All of Bach’s uncles were professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), introduced Bach to the organ, and an older second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731), was a well-known composer and violinist. His father probably taught Bach to play the violin, the harpsichord and basics of music theory.

Bach's mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. Bach, aged 10, moved in with his eldest brother Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), who was 14 years older and the organist at St. Michael's Church in Ohrdruf, Germany, at that time. Bach studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother's, despite being forbidden to do so because scores were valuable and private and blank ledger paper of that type was costly. Bach also received teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord and exposed him to much contemporary music, for example compositions of Johann Pachelbel, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Girolamo Frescobaldi. Also during this time, he was taught theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian at the local gymnasium.

At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend Georg Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael's School in Lüneburg, Germany. His two years there were critical in exposing him to a wider facet of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir he played the School's three-manual organ and harpsichords. Bach had access to St. John's Church and possibly used the church's famous organ, built in 1549, that was played by Bach’s organ teacher.

Adult Life

In January 1703, at age 17, shortly after graduating from St. Michael's, Bach was appointed court musician in Weimar. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread very much. Within the same year, he became the organist at St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt, about 30 kilometers from Weimar. However, Bach was dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir, while his employer was upset by his unauthorized absence from Arnstadt for several months in 1705–06, to visit the great organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude in the northern city of Lübeck. The journey to Luebeck was 450-kilometre each way on foot.
In 1707, at age 22, Bach took up a post as organist at St. Blasius's Church in Mühlhausen which included significantly higher salary, and a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. Bach wrote the elaborate, festive cantata "Gott ist mein König" (BWV 71) in 1708 which was a major success. However, Bach was not widely recognized as a great composer during his lifetime but his abilities as an organist were respected throughout Europe.

In 1708, Bach returned to Weimar this time as organist and from 1714 director of music at the ducal court. Maria Barbara and he had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach became composers as well and especially Carl Philipp Emanuel was appreciated very highly from the later half of the 18th through the early 19th century.

In 1717, Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen hired Bach to serve as his director of music in Köthen. Prince Leopold was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship. Accordingly, most of Bach's work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, the cello suites, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the Brandenburg Concertos.

Despite being born in the same year and only about 130 kilometers apart, Bach and Handel never met. In 1719, Bach made the 35-kilometre journey from Köthen to Halle with the intention of meeting Handel, however Handel had left the town.

On 7 July 1720, while Bach was on travel to Carlsbad with Prince Leopold, Bach's wife suddenly died. The following year, at age 36, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano seventeen years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen. They married in 1721 and had thirteen more children together, six of whom survived into adulthood and of whom 2 became significant musicians too: Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian.

In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of the St. Thomas school in Leipzig which served four churches in the city, and musical director of public functions such as city council elections and homages. This was a prestigious post which he held for twenty-seven years until his death. For the required cantatas on Sundays and church holidays, Bach usually performed his own. Bach collected his cantatas in annual cycles. In 1724, Bach started to compose only chorale cantatas for an annual cycle, each based on a single church hymn.

Bach's last large work was the Mass in B minor (1748–49) which is described as Bach's most universal church work. Consisting mainly of revised and refined movements from cantatas written over a thirty-five year period, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time. The complete mass was never performed during the composer's lifetime.

Bach's health declined in 1749. Bach was becoming blind, so the British eye surgeon John Taylor operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in March or April 1750. Medical treatment associated with the failed eye operation left Bach totally blind and had such bad effects that his health was severely shaken. On 28 July 1750, Bach died at the age of 65 of a stroke.

Compositions and Legacy of Bach

Bach’s talent for writing tightly woven music of powerful sonority, his skill in contrapuntal invention and motivic control and his flair for improvisation, allowed him to develop an eclectic, energetic musical style in which he intensified and enriched the existing German musical language with foreign influences, particularly from Italy and France. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian style in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.

Bach’s music is revered for its technical command, artistic beauty and intellectual depth. He is now regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

After his death, Bach's reputation as a composer at first declined; his work was regarded as old-fashioned compared to the emerging galant style. Initially he was remembered more as a virtuoso player of the organ and as a teacher.

During the late 18th and early 19th century, Bach was recognized by several prominent composers for his keyboard work. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn were among his admirers. Beethoven described Bach as "Urvater der Harmonie", the "original father of harmony. In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded to promote his works. In 1950, a thematic catalogue called Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue) was compiled. Bach's compositions include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations and the Mass in B minor.

During the 20th century, many streets in Germany were named and statues were erected in honor of Bach. A large crater in the Bach quadrangle on Mercury is named in Bach's honor as are the main-belt asteroids 1814 Bach and 1482 Sebastiana. Bach's music features three times—more than that of any other composer—on the Voyager Golden Record, a gramophone record containing a broad sample of the images, common sounds, languages, and music of Earth, sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes.

Modern adaptations of Bach's music contributed greatly to Bach's popularization in the second half of the 20th century. Among these were the Swingle Singers' versions of Bach pieces (for instance, the "Air" from Orchestral Suite No. 3) and Wendy Carlos' 1968 Switched-On Bach, which used the Moog electronic synthesiser. Jazz musicians have adopted Bach's music, with Jacques Loussier, Ian Anderson, Uri Caine, and the Modern Jazz Quartet among those creating jazz versions of Bach works.

Photo: "Johann Sebastian Bach" by Elias Gottlob Haussmann - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons