Johann Sebastian Bach was the most illustrious member of a musical dynasty in which his ancestors for several generations had been musicians and three of his own 20 children were important composers and performers. Bach began his professional career at 18 when he was appointed to the court orchestra at Weimar in Germany. Over the next 20 years he held positions as organist, composer, and musical director in other north German cities, finally accepting the post as head of music at one of the major churches in Leipzig, where he remained until his death.
In some respects Bach was a provincial composer who spent his entire life in towns and moderate-size cities of northern Germany at a time when the great musical centers of Europe were London, Paris, Rome, Naples, and Venice. Moreover, although his creative output was vast, very few of his works were published during his lifetime. But while he was relatively unknown, he was both aware of and profoundly interested in the music of his predecessors and contemporaries. As a young man he walked 200 miles to experience at first hand the music of the aging organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. His justification for the three month absence from his job was that he needed to “comprehend one thing and another about his art.” A major reason for his move to Leipzig in 1723 was the cultural and educational opportunities available to himself and his family in a university city. Bach’s large library of scores and theoretical writings also attests to the wide range of his musical interests, from Italian keyboard collections of the early Baroque to works by such contemporaries as the Frenchman Francois Couperin and the Italian Antonio Vivaldi. He also owned many writings on theological subjects, including the complete works of Martin Luther.
The relatively limited reputation Bach achieved during his lifetime was primarily as an organ virtuoso. In one contemporary account his playing on the pedals, for which he was especially renowned, was described as follows:
Bach deserves to be called the miracle of Leipzig as far as music is concerned. For if it pleases him, he can by the use of his feet alone (while his fingers do either nothing or something else) achieve such an admirable, lively, and rapid concord of sounds on the church organ that others would seem unable to imitate with their fingers. He ran over the pedals as if his feet had wings, making the organ resound with a fullness of sound that penetrated the ears of those present like a thunderbolt. Frederick, Prince of Cassel admired him with such astonishment that he drew a precious ring from his finger and gave it to Bach as soon as the sounds had died away. If Bach earned such a gift for the agility of his feet, what, I ask, would the Prince have given him if he had called his hands into service as well?
Unfortunately, many of Bach’s compositions that were preserved only in manuscript were lost in the years after his death. Nevertheless, the scholarly edition of his known surviving works fills almost 50 large volumes and a project to record them all in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of his birth in 1985 produced over 100 CDs. He made major contributions to every genre of the time except opera, and had he lived in a major cosmopolitan area with an opera house, he would undoubtedly have composed operas as well.
The duties and circumstances of the different positions Bach held largely dictated the focus of his compositional activity. Thus, many of his works for organ date from the periods when he was a church organist, those for instrumental ensemble from when he served Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen as director of chamber music, and his Lutheran church music from his 27 years as cantor and director of music of the four principal churches of Leipzig. The music for the Leipzig Sunday services, which began at 7 A.M. and lasted about three hours, included an organ prelude and postlude by Bach, often improvised, congregational singing of hymns selected by Bach, and a multi-movement cantata by Bach for soloists, choir, and instrumentalists on a text appropriate to that Sunday in the church calendar. In addition to providing music for church services and civic events, Bach’s responsibilities included the musical training of the town’s professional musicians, and daily instruction of the boys at the boarding school attached to the St. Thomas Church. Teaching was an important activity of Bach’s professional life and a number of his compositions were at least partly didactic. On the title of page of one of his important collections of keyboard music, the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach writes that he has composed the 24 preludes and fugues “For the Use and Profit of Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of those Already Skilled in this Study.”
Bach’s thousands of surviving works are considered pinnacles of the art of polyphony, the musical texture consisting of the interweaving of two or more independent but simultaneous melodies. As described by a contemporary:
The strands of his harmony are really concurrent melodies. They flow easily and expressively, never engross the hearer’s attention, but divide his interest as now one, now the other becomes prominent. The combination of several melodies obliges the composer to use devices which are unnecessary in homophonic music. A single melody can develop as it pleases. But when two or more are combined each must be so delicately and cleverly fashioned that it can be interwoven with the others in this direction and that.
There is considerable documentary evidence that Bach’s astonishing mastery of contrapuntal procedures was apparent not only in the works that survive in notation but in his ability to create complex polyphonic works extemporaneously. One famous incident occurred toward the end of his life when he was visiting his son, a musician at the court of the Prussian monarch Frederick the Great. Bach asked the king, who loved music and was a fairly accomplished flutist, to “give him a subject for a Fugue, in order to execute it immediately without any preparation. The King admired the learned manner in which his subject was thus executed extempore.” Upon returning to Leipzig, Bach wrote out a series of contrapuntal elaborations on the royal theme that demonstrate every aspect of the art of counterpoint and dedicated them to the king with the title “Musical Offering.”
Bach may have lived and worked in relative obscurity, but many of his contemporaries who achieved fame and celebrity during their lifetimes are now considered minor figures while Bach is regarded as one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.