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Exposition & Report Writing 620:015
21 February 2000
Bach: Life and Music
He was a musical genius with thousands of musical compositions written in his lifetime.
He spent his life in Germany, primarily Leipzig, and worked at a school for the city. He is
considered to be one of the greatest musical composers, and composed till the day he died. An
unruly youth who greatly disliked authority, he had a strong will and mind of his own. Well
liked with many friends, yet no one really knew his inner workings, or how he thought. Of the
thousands of musical pieces he composed, few were published in his life. This was a man who
composed in great numbers, had reasons for doing so, and lived a rather simple, middle class
Johann Sebastian Bach (J.S.) was born March 21st 1685, in Eisenach, Germany. His
father was Johann Ambrosius, a court trumpeter for the Duke of Eisenach and the director of the
musicians of the town of Eisenach. His family had been well known for many generations as a
very musically talented family.
He started school when he was eight and when he was nine he was sent to live with his
older brother. His parents had died after losing two other children, a son and a daughter. His
brother, Johann Christoph Bach, let J.S. live with him in Ohrdruf, Germany. Under the teachings
of his brother Bach quickly mastered the organ and harpsichord. During his stay with his
brother, Bach attended school and was encouraged by his older brother to study composition.
Soon Bach could no longer stay with his brother, for his brother?s family was getting too
big. Bach traveled with a school friend, on foot, to a North-German musical center in Luneberg,
Germany. At this time J.S. was 15-years-old, and had a beautiful soprano voice which helped
him get into the school. It was his violin playing, which he developed while there, that kept him
at the school after he lost his soprano voice. He stayed in Luneberg until he was nearly eighteen.
He was now looking for a job. He wanted the post as organist of Arnstadt where a new
organ was being built. After a short period as a violinist in Weimar he was indeed offered the
post in Arnstadt. However, problems arose when Bach composed a piece full of ?strange? new
sounds for a church service. The Council decided to be lenient with him until he refused to work
with the boys? choir and was found to have a complaint against him for entertaining a young
woman in the organ loft of the church. Thus was the end of his first job.
He moved on to Muhlhausen and married his cousin Maria Barbara on October 17, 1707.
He got a job in Muhlhausen and set to work on the poor facilities he had to work with there. His
efforts here brought about his first cantata Gott ist Mein Konig (God is My King), the only one of
his cantatas to be published in his life time. This was thanks to the Council?s desire for publicity
and prestige. A religious controversy soon arose and the music in Muhlhausen was in a state of
decay. Bach.was off to find another job.
On June 25, 1708, the Duke of Weimar offered Bach a post among the Duke?s Court
chamber musicians. Bach and his wife moved to the small town of Weimar. While in Weimar
Bach composed music exclusively for the organ, which he played. By 1714 Bach had moved up
in status and was now the leader in the orchestra, second only to the old Kapellmeister. When
the old Kapellmeister died Bach had hoped to get his position, but when he was passed over for
the job, he started looking elsewhere for work.
Bach was introduced the Court of Anhalt-Kothen, and then offered him the post of
Kapellmeister, which he accepted. When he put in his request to leave the Weimar Court the
Duke of Weimar was so infuriated that he had Bach put in jail. He stayed there only a month,
but while there he composed. He prepared a cycle of organ chorale preludes for a whole year,
later published as the Orgelbuchlein.
His master at the Court of Anhalt-Kothen was Prince Leopold, a lover of music who had
traveled all over Europe enjoying the many types of music of that time. During his time at
Kothen Bach wrote most of his chamber music: violin concertos, sonata, keyboard music. Bach
and the Prince shared a companionship because of the Prince?s talents and willingness to treat all
the musicians of his Court equally. Bach began traveling with the Prince, but on one of these
trips he returned to find his wife had died while he was away. Leaving Bach with four
motherless children. Bach continued his work with Prince Leopold, composing and performing
cantatas for the Prince?s birthday and the New Year. Two cantatas or sung dramas for each
event, one sacred and one secular.
In December 1721, Bach remarried a soprano, Anna Magdalena. She was very kind to
his children, a good housekeeper, and she took interest in his work, often helping him by neatly
copying out his manuscripts. They remained married for twenty-eight happy years, and had
thirteen children. Unfortunately few of their children lived to become adults.
A week after Bach was married his master, Prince Leopold also was married. This
caused a lot of friction in the Court, because the Prince?s new wife was not as interested in music
as the Prince had been. Bach decided to look elsewhere for work again. This also had to do
with the concern for his sons? education, there being no formal education in Kothen. Bach
moved his family to Leipzig.
Bach spent a large part of his life and career in Leipzig, Germany. He was there from the
age of thirty-eight in 1723, until his death in 1750, when he was 65 years old. He came to
Leipzig to be the new cantor or director of church music, leaving behind a more prestigious
position as kapellmeister or orchestra leader of Cothen. The reasons for his leaving were that
J.S. had been told favorably about Leipzig and there would be necessary educational facilities for
his sons there.
His arrival to Leipzig was a major event. There was an article published in one North
German newspaper that described the event. ?Last Saturday at noon, four carts laden with goods
and chattels belonging to the former Kapellmeister to the Court of K then arrived in Leipzig and
at two in the afternoon, he and his family arrived in two coaches and moved into their newly
decorated lodgings in the school building?. (internet)
Bach did not have a good start in Leipzig. The home they lived in was not as nice as you
would think it would be. They only had sixty boarders at the school, and most of those were
poor and staying there on a charitable basis. The students were supposed to make up the choirs
for the churches in at least four of the surrounding cities. They also sang at funerals and in the
city streets for alms.
Bach did not like the structured life that he was forced to lead there, and soon friction
occurred between Bach and the town council. On a few occasions Bach left to visit his son in
Potsdam. Upon returning he would find the council quite upset with him, but would refuse to
explain himself. He almost quit, but a close friend persuaded him not to.
Bach got into some trouble while he was at Leipzig. He went on many out of town trips
and left one of his students in charge each time. When the school board got upset and asked him
about it he refused to justify himself. He would have been thrown out except for the help of a
friend who had ties and had some strings pulled to keep Bach employed. After this friend left
Bach composed many of his pieces for the specific groups that were to perform them.
Thus he did a lot of chorale pieces when he worked at the school in Leipzig. He also did many
organ pieces for himself to perform at the church in Arnstadt. In his later years he composed
many violin pieces for himself and vocal pieces for his second wife, Anna Magdalena. He
composed a piece for King Fredrich the Great of Prussia, with a flute solo for Fredrich. Bach
always had a reason for composing the pieces he did. He always had a performer or group in
mind who he was composing for.
Bach continued this work until 1741, when he went to visit his son again at the court of
Fredrick the Great, and then returned to Leipzig. For a time he withdrew into himself and
produced some truly profound music of the baroque musical form. He soon joined the Mitzler
society, a society devoted to the promotion of musical science.
Even after Bach retired he continued to live in Leipzig. He did musical works for the
Mitzler society of which he had been persuaded to join. This was when Bach started his work
within the Collegium Musicum, in which he composed music for two types of concerts given in
Leipzig: the ordinaire and extraordinaire. Not much is known about the ordinaire concerts, but
there are many newspaper accounts about the extraordinaire concerts. These concerts charged
admission and sometimes featured distinguished visiting artists.
Bach?s eyesight started to severely decline in the last few years of his life. This is
thought to be due to the fact that he spent many nights working on his musical compositions by
poor candlelight. Even after two cataract surgeries his eyesight never improved much.
His last piece was ?Die Kunst der Fuge? (?The Art of the Fugue?). After that the
deterioration of his eyesight inhibited him from composing on his own any longer. The two
surgeries he had didn?t help any, they in fact made his eyesight worse and he got an infection
from one of the operations. He spent the last few years of his life going over his many
compositions and perfecting them with the help of Altnikol, his son-in-law. He died while in
the middle of composing a final fugue.
Bach has created a huge multitude of musical compositions. It has been said that it
would take one of today?s competent music copyists – writing continuously – some forty years to
replicate the hundreds of works and thousands of manuscript pages which represent the totality
of Bach?s lifetime achievements. He created quite a few pieces on a whim. It is said that many
of Bach?s pieces were demanded, if not forced upon him to compose. The type of music he most
often composed was refereed to as Gebrauchsmusik, or ?music on demand?. Music was
needed for entertainment, at parties, funerals, weddings, church services, and many other
Bach?s composing process was very impressive. If you look through his original copies
you will see very little second guessing in judgment, unlike the frenzy, struggle, and strain that
was apparent in Beethoven and Chopin?s works. Even Debussy made the observation: ?We shall
seek in vain for one fault in taste in all that amount of work.? (qtd. in Bettmann 40) Giving his
impression that all of Bach?s music is tasteful and not a single piece is without it?s own beauty.
Bach was a great composer, although not in the same way as other composers of his time.
Bach was a great composer, whose pieces where musically simple yet tended to comprehend
Bach was a composer, whose pieces where musically simple, yettended to comprehend great
emotional feeling to the audience, or listener. Bach may not have been a creative genius, but he
was a great musical genius none the less. His pieces always had a focus or reason for being
written. He did a lot of variations on other composers? pieces. Bach did write a few great
fugues and many great cantatas, and his musical abilities were unsurpassable in his time.
Bach?s compositions were written based on the time in his life and his station at that
time. He wrote many secular pieces for the church and even a Fugue for someone?s death. Bach
also tended to learn his different styles of music by copying works done by other composers such
as Handel. He greatly admired the other composers of his time. Bach tended to write his pieces
for a church service or special event rather than just because he felt like it. His pieces became
progressively old fashioned. That was the only great criticism of his musical compositions.
Most artistic familiars did not get any great acclaim for their works until after their death.
Bach on the other hand was critically acclaimed most of his musical career. He was well known
for his composing capabilities and his musical playing talents.
J.S. Bach was a man of great musical talents and composed in mass multitudes in order
to fulfill the needs of the society around him. He also enjoyed the work with music and shall be
forever immortalized for his abilities as a composer and a musician. Bach went beyond the norm
for a composer and made music that could touch a person?s emotional depths. He was by far one
of the greatest artists to have ever made music.
Bach, J.S. – The Home Page. January 25, 2000.
Bach, J.S. – Internet Public Library. January 25, 2000.
Johann Senastian Bach: A Detailed Informative Biography. January 25, 2000.
Bettmann, Otto and Bookspan, Martin. Johann Sebastian Bach as His World Knew Him. Carol
Publishing Group. Secausus, New Jersey. 1995.
Chiapusso, Jan. Bach?s World. University Press. Bloomington, Indiana. 1968.
Geiringer, Karl and Geiringer, Irene. The Bach Family, Seven Generations of Creative
Genius. Oxford University Press. New York. 1954.
Greenberg, Bernard S. What?s So Great About J.S. Bach?. 1997. January 25, 2000.
Herz, Gerhard. Essays on J.S. Bach. University Microfilms Incorporated. Ann Arbor,
Williams, Charles Francis Abdy. Bach. J.M. Dent and Company. London. E.P. Dutton and
Company. New York. !900.
Wolff, Christoph. Bach: Essays on His Life and Music. Harvard University Press.
Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1991.
Wolff, Christoph and Koopman, Tom. The World of the Bach Cantatas. Norton. New York.
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