A Look Into the Life of J. S. Bach

Hello everyone. Today I thought it would be a good thing to share a piece of writing I did on the life of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most influencial composers of all time. Bach’s music goes beyond the Baroque Era of music from wence it came – it has influenced countless numbers of composers in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Anyways, I thought it was time for a more serious piece of writing and hopefully this post will become a useful learning resource for people studying music and Bach (complete with pictures!!).

Johann Sebastian BachJohann Sebastian Bach was born on the 31st March, 1685, in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, and died 28th July, 1750, in Leipzig. He was one of the most influential composers of all time (especially important in the development of 19th Century Romantic music, and his counterpoint and transformations of his subjects were very influential in 20th Century serialism). He was born into an extremely musical family – it is known today that the Bach family turned out an amazing number of good musicians, and indeed several truly exceptional ones, between the late 16th and early 19th Centuries. Bach was also a devoted Christian and Lutheran, partially due to his birthplace being near to where Martin Luther first translated the Bible into German whilst in hiding. This is something that would influence him throughout his life, perhaps more than anything.

His father, Johann Ambrosius, was a town musician and singer, and was most likely the one who taught him the basics of music theory, as well as starting him out on the violin. All of Bach’s uncles were musicians, holding jobs as court musicians, church organists and composers – his uncle, Johann Ludwig, was a well-known violinist and composer of the time, and another of his uncles, Johann Christoph, was the first to introduce him to the organ.

When Bach was only nine years of age his mother died, and his father remarried. This however did not last, as Bach’s father died just ten months after his mother. After this, at the age of ten, Bach moved into his older brother, another Johann Christoph’s, house along with his younger brother, Johann Jakub. Bach’s older brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), was the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, thirty miles from Eisenach, and played a vital role in the organisation of the music there.

This is where Bach studied, learnt and performed a range of music, including music written by his brother. He copied music out as well, though he was forbidden to do so due to the expense of manuscript paper at the time; however this proved invaluable to his musical education. His brother also instructed him on the clavichord, and instrument that his brother had been instructed on by famous keyboard players of the time himself. Johann Christoph was a good teacher, as his own five children later achieved high ranking in the music world at some point in their lives.

Bach quickly settled into the new household of his brother and his wife, and studied harpsichord and organ under his brother with enthusiasm, aptitude and great interest, something that soon became apparent to his older brother. Johann Christoph instructed his younger to copy out music, especially the works of composers such as Jakob Froberger, Johann Caspar Kerll and Pachelbel, the latter also being Johann Christoph’s former teacher. Bach also attended the Gymnasium (the grammar school) of Ohrdruf, where he excelled in Latin, Theology and Greek.

At the age of fourteen, due to his ‘uncommonly beautiful soprano voice’, Bach was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, in the Principality of Lüneburg, a journey to which he most likely would have had to make by foot. This journey was no small feat – the route that he and his schoolfriend, Georg Erdmann, took was a hundred and eighty miles long (no doubt they will have been given free food on the journey by the many monasteries they will have visited along the way).

During the two years he would study there he was exposed to a wider facet of European culture. This was very important for influencing Bach’s music, as he would have come into contact with a lot of different music from Italy and France, as well as other parts of the Holy Roman Empire. When he soon lost his soprano voice, he made use of his talents as a violinist, playing in the orchestra, as well as playing the harpsichord to accompany choir rehearsals, developing his instrumental skills.

During his stay in Lüneburg, he was exposed to the rich organ culture of Hamburg, and when he was almost eighteen, enriched in his musical experiences, he decided to try and find employment as an organist back in the district of his birth: Thuringia. He thought that getting employed as an organist in Arnstadt, a small town in Thuringia, would be fairly simple, as his family had been musically active in the area for generations, and he was particularly curious of the new organ being built there. This led him to leave Lüneburg in 1702, back down South to Arnstadt.

When he became organist of the church in Arnstadt, Bach took on the challenge of organising the church’s music with enthusiasm and excitement. He was also in charge of the new, relatively large, 23-stop, two-manual organ that had been newly built. Bach took every opportunity to hear recitals given by the talented organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, after being given leave by the Church Council in Arnstadt in the October of 1705 to go and stay in Lübeck to hear Buxtehude, so much so that he overstayed his time in Lübeck.

Buxtehude was a huge influence on Bach – the two would have discussions about the arts when Bach was in Lübeck that year, and Bach attended concerts of Buxtehude’s Christmas Cantatas. After being inspired by these discussions and concerts, as well as visiting Reincken in Hamburg and Böhm in Lüneburg on the return journey to Arnstadt, he was full of enthusiasm and excitement for putting his new ideas and experiences into his playing at the church in Arnstadt. This turned out to cause a number of problems however – the congregation at Arnstadt were confused by the ornamentation and variations in the organ part of the chorales that they would sing.

The Church Council were at first irritated with Bach for the trouble he caused at first, and also interrogated him about the unauthorised extension of his leave in Lübeck. Bach, despite not justifying himself, was treated with leniency. However, these new musical ideas proved important in his compositional style, particularly of his many works for organ including the Preludes and Fugues, the Trio Sonatas, and the Chorale Preludes.

New conflicts arose due to Bach refusing to work with the ‘undisciplined’ boys’ choir he had been put in charge of, and what was a promising start became a mess of disputes; however, this period in Bach’s life was to prove one of the most influential. By the end of 1707, following the death of the organist there in 1706, Bach applied for the post as organist of St Blasius Church, a huge cathedral-like building in the town of Mühlhausen, and was accepted on a good contract. This marked the beginning of the next period of his life in Mühlhausen, one that would not last due to the town’s decay and growing puritan views of music and art. The influence of Calvinism had huge implications on church music, as Calvinists believed that personal expressions of faith were more important than public professions.

From 1708-1717, Bach became a court musician for the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, one of the most distinguished nobles of the day. Bach’s position as both a member of the chamber orchestra and as the Organist of the Court meant that he could improve on his playing. Primarily, he was a violin – he even became leader of the orchestra – however he also played the harpsichord. He also wrote and arranged some of the music that the orchestra played. As Court Organist, he played on a new and smaller organ than the one in Arnstadt; however he later complained about it being inadequate, leading to a full reconstruction, something that the Council trusted him on designing due to his expertise. During this period of his life, Bach wrote extensively for organ, whilst also becoming widely known as one of the best organists in Germany and one of the most knowledgeable men in organ construction. Most of Bach’s best organ music was written during this period of his life.

Following the death of the old Kapellmeister of the Court, and not being given the post despite having virtually done his job for him prior to the Kapellmeister’s death, Bach was introduced to the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, and was offered the post of Kapellmeister there, which he accepted. This infuriated the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, so much so that upon trying to resign, Bach was arrested and detained in the local jail for a whole month before eventually leaving and being allowed to resign from his post to go to Cöthen.

The Six Suites for Solo Cello, part of the Cello standard repertoire
The Six Suites for Solo Cello, part of the Cello standard repertoire

During Bach’s stay in Cöthen, from 1717-1723, his master was the twenty-five year old Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a son of a Calvinist. Due to this, there was no church music in Cöthen; however Bach organised secular cantatas and fashionable chamber music of the day to be played for the prince, which the Prince enjoyed as he had well-developed musical taste due to his Grand Tour of Europe. Indeed, the Prince enjoyed travelling, and when the Prince went of journeys he was accompanied by his court musicians. Most of Bach secular and instrumental music was written in the Cöthen period, including his Six Suites for Solo Cello.

Bach accompanied the Prince twice to Carlsbad, once in 1718 and another time in 1720. When Bach came back from the 1720 journey, he received shocking news that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died (despite being in perfectly good health three months earlier when Bach had gone to Carlsbad), leaving four motherless children. He later married Anna Magdalena, a fine singer who Bach first met when she sang one of the cantatas he wrote in Cöthen for the Prince. She was kind to his existing children, and they soon got married. Their marriage lasted a whole twenty-eight years, and Bach had an additional thirteen children with her, although few of these children survived childhood.

Now with family on his mind, he grew concerned of his eldest sons and their education, as Cöthen had no universities. In the hunt for somewhere new to go yet again, this is where he most likely revived an invitation he received from the Margrave of Brandenburg to produce what we now know as the six Brandenburg concertos. However, there is no record that Bach actually went to the Margrave’s court in

The Opening to the 1st Movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1
The Opening to the 1st Movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1

Brandenburg, and the Bach family moved to Leipzig, where Bach would spend the remainder of his life.

Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723, where he lived and worked as Cantor of Thomasschule at Leipzig. Bach’s duties there were gargantuan – he had to organise music for the four main churches in Leipzig, construct choirs for each church from the pupils at the Thomasschule, and also to instruct the more senior pupils as musicians to play in the church orchestras. He cleverly devised four different choirs, each one with a different level of ability, and assigned the two better choirs to the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche.

For very Sunday in the Church year, for five consecutive years, Bach wrote a new cantata to be performed (after these first five years, he wrote cantatas less regularly). His cantatas were specially crafted to inspire the congregation, as well as to reflect upon the religious text. This is reflected in the opening choruses of the majority of his cantatas, and his cantatas were often signed with the initials ‘S.D.G’ for ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ or ‘to the glory of God alone’.

The dedication, handwritten by Bach himself, of the Brandenburg Concertos
The dedication, handwritten by Bach himself, of the Brandenburg Concertos

Leading to the end of his life, Bach had become more and more introspective, conserving his creative energies for some of the most perfect music he was to write. These works include several pieces with amazing musical form: the Goldberg Variations, the Mass in B Minor, and the Canonic Variations. His last major work, ‘Die Kunst der Fuge’ BWV 1080 (‘The Art of Fugue’), represents Bach’s mastery in fugue and counterpoint, something that no other composer in history has been able to surpass. However he knew that his life was nearing the end and his last chorale fantasia was based on the chorale ‘Before Thy Throne O Lord I Stand’. The famous unfinished fugue that he was also working on at the same time uses the subject ‘B-A-C-H’, ‘B’ being the German notation for B flat, and ‘H’ being B natural.

Bach died on 28th of July, after suffering from a severe stroke. On the same morning he had found that, after months concealed in a dark room, he could withstand bright light and see clearly, despite having lost much of his eyesight, perhaps a foreboding what was to happen later on in that day. Nevertheless, Bach remains to be one of the most iconic Baroque composers, with a vast output of both instrumental and choral music, both religious and secular. However, after his death, Bach’s music was rarely performed, and it was only in the 18th and 19th Centuries that composers such as Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn would be inspired by his music.

Getting to know your Musical Self

Piano practice

I have realised that over the last few days I have been writing only Daily Prompt-related posts. Forgive me – I have been busy during the day, and could only write during my lunch-break. So, as many of you know, I am a music student, and I have been practising increasingly more over the last term. This because, as my teacher says, “it takes 10,000 hours to make a cellist” – so I’m always striving to put on more and more to my grand total of ‘numbers of hours practising’. It’s quite interesting now because, as a musician reading this might know, the more practice you do the more you learn about yourself.

I have a friend, a pianist, who has the wonderful gift of seeing colours when she plays. She practises all the time, and a lot of it in the dark. She does this for two reasons: to practice without watching her hands, feeling the weight of the keys and where they are positioned spatially; and also to see these colours more clearly. I can only imagine what it would be like to see colours whilst you’re playing! It could be one of two things I think – either that you see a flurry of colours that neatly mix and flow whilst you play, or that you see a blinding flurry of quickly changing colours that come one after the other.

Though I don’t know how long she has been able to see colours whilst she plays, or much about the colours she sees at all, I know that every person who “sees” music in this way “sees” it differently. I have shown this friend of mine videos of music that coordinate the notes to different colours on the screen, and she found it very annoying because it was not how she saw them at all.

I think every musician has his/her special features of musicality. For example, I have been told that I have a very good feel for Baroque music (Bach, Vivaldi, etc.) and the way it’s phrased and played. I have been told that I have a good and acute sense of pitch also (not perfect pitch at equal temperament, but relative pitch – for example if you play an A and an E, the E will be sharper if it’s in tune with the A, but if you play the same E with a G, the E will be too sharp), although this is practised and improved upon through practising scales and double-stop scales (scales where you play more than one note at the same time on two strings). It’s very important to explore your abilities as a musician, because then you can plan how much and what you are going to practise accordingly.

Today I was talking to another friend of mine who is also a cellist, and when I saw him he had just finished an hour and a half warm-up and was writing it down on paper! He said that he had been experimenting and had found that he was far more productive throughout the whole day if he did a substantial amount of warming up. Warming up is something I do on principle, usually half an hour straight after I wake up or after breakfast, to increase my productivity also, however not to this extent. My friend had done practically a whole physical workout to make sure that all his muscles in his neck, arms, hands, fingers, legs and back were all relaxed and ready to play. So I created my own, revised warm-up ‘regime’ for future practising this evening!

The significance of this however is that there is a plethora of things that you can know about your musical self, and how you best prepare for practising is just one of these things. Here are some ideas for things you should maybe investigate in the future:

  • How long you can practise for continually without a break. You could maybe see how long you can do this with and without a warm-up
  • How quickly you can memorize a passage of music. This is a memory thing – people with very analytical minds tend to be able to remember music faster
  • How good you are at sight-reading. Here in the UK, musicians are well-known to be comparatively good sight-readers to, say, musicians from Russia. It’s seen as a vital part of being a musician – the importance is shown, for example, in ABRSM grading exams, where you will be given a piece of sight-reading which will be marked and, in turn, will affect your overall score
  • What kind of lighting do you feel most comfortable practising in. I find that natural light is much better to practise in than yellow, artificial light, however I don’t like completely facing or turning away from the light source either – I prefer to sit with the window to either side of me

Knowing these things can help you prepare better and practise more efficiently. I shall be investigating too, and will be posting up what I discover along the way! Meanwhile, I will leave you will a piece of music: ‘Det är en ros utsprungen’ by Jan Sandström.

This is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time. Swedish composer, Jan Sandström, uses Praetorius’ piece of the same name (well, the equivalent in German) and slows it down, as well as adding a ghostly choir part which consists of humming. It’s very much a Christmas piece and is often sung around that time, however I felt the need to post it tonight – you will definitely enjoy it. It’s not too long – just over four minutes – and for those who are going to bed, you can listen to this – it’s very relaxing indeed.