Who Was Johann Sebastian Bach?
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), was a German composer. The son of an organist, – he studied the same instrument and held the post of court musician in Anhalt-Cothen in 1717, moving to St Thomas’ church, Leipzig, in 1723. He remained there for the rest of his life, and most of his work is sacred music. Johann Sebastian Bach is considered the quintessential composer of the Baroque era, though in his own time he had a higher reputation as an organist, and one of the most important figures in classical music in general. His complex musical style was nearly lost in history but gratefully it survives to be studied and enjoyed today. Few of his compositions were even printed until after his death.
People thought his music old-fashioned – Bach was not attracted to such new forms as the sonata and he thought opera was not for serious musicians. But genius outlives fashion. Bach’s reputation began to rise rapidly in the early 19th century as more of his work became widely known. Bach was an intellectual puzzle, a musical genius and a superb musical student. He learned and taught, composed and played, and brought joy to millions of music fans around the world.
The decisive event was, perhaps, a performance of his St. Mathew’s passion conducted by Mendelssohn in Berlin, 1829. Bach is famous both for his secular music, such as the Brandenburg Concertos, mostly composed at Cothen, and for the religious music, like the Mass in B Minor. The imagination and passion of his music, his versatility and intelligence- and his enormous output – explain Wagner’s verdict on Bach: “the most stupendous miracle in all music.” Four of Bach’s sons also composed music: Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philip Emanuel, Johann Cristoph Friedrich and Johann Christian.
In his lifetime (65 years), Bach composed an incredible 1128 pieces of music. There are a further 23 works which were lost or unfinished. His best-known compositions include The Well-Tempered Clavier, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Air on the G String, Goldberg Variations, Brandenburg Concertos and many more.
Bach was fond of incorporating the numbers 14 and 41 into his musical works, because they were derived from the mystical numerology values of the letters in his own name. We’re not quite sure how that ended up as ‘Air on the G string’, but his works are littered with references to those numbers.
He took simple Lutheran melodies and developed them into fully-fledged works, adding his own touch of genius and love complexity to each one. “Wachet Auf” is one such example—the original tune was by Philipp Nicolai, composed in the 16th century, but most listeners would recognize Bach’s version first. Bach transcribed many works of other composers, showing how he admired them. He spent a great deal of time studying the Italian Baroque style, probably playing the works of Arcangelo Corelli and Giovanni Pergolesi. These inspired his own seminal violin sonatas. There are actually far more composers who influenced Bach, which was very interesting to read.