In today’s episode of PianoTV, we are going to talk about Johann Sebastian Bach, the legend. Bach is one of my all-time favorite musicians, and there is so much to learn, both from his life and from his piano music.
There’s a lot to discuss in this video/blog, so let’s jump right in and get started!
The birth of Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was literally born to be a musician (as were his eventual children). Born in Germany, his father and all of his uncles were professional musicians – the Bach family had already firmly established themselves as musicians long before the most famous Bach, Johann Sebastian, came around.
He was born in 1685 and was the youngest child of 8. Unfortunately, in 1694 when Johann was 9, his parents died and he moved in with his oldest brother.
Bach + Pachelbel connection
A fun fact is that Bach’s brother took music lessons under Pachelbel (of Canon in D fame), and passed down his knowledge to little JS as well.
Bach and Music School
At age 15, he was enrolled in a music school named St. Michael’s, and that’s where a lot of really important musical ideas were planted in his brain. He was exposed to a wider range of European music (beyond German music), and had access to the school’s organs and harpsichords.
One way that many musicians used to study was by copying out sheet music, writing it out by hand. JS did this plenty. When a musicologist named Stauffer discovered some organ music a teenage JS had copied, he had this to say:
“[Bach was] a disciplined, methodical, well-trained teenager deeply committed to learning his craft”.
If there’s any running theme throughout Bach’s life, it’s industriousness. JS was talented, sure, but he makes the case for hard work above all else.
Bach: out of school,into the world
Of course, like many fresh new graduates, Bach didn’t get his dream job. He worked in Weimar as a court musician for a Duke, where he did a lot of boring non-musical tasks. That didn’t deter JS, however, and after just seven months, he had become well-known enough as a keyboardist that he was invited to perform at the New Church in Arnstadt.
It must have gone well, because after performing, 18 year old Bach was given a job there. The workload wasn’t heavy, the pay was good, and best of all – the New Church had a beautiful new organ.
Johann Sebastian Bach and his epic journeys
However, Bach always marched to his own beat, which didn’t always agree with employers. He periodically left Arnstadt to walk – yes, walk – to Lubeck, no small feat seeing as Lubeck was 450 kilometers away (one way).
He made this journey so he could visit the great organist Dieterich Buxtehude, and apparently paid no mind to the distress of his employer during his several months’ absence.
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Weimar Period
So that job ended, and eventually Bach returned to Weimar. His eventual time in Weimar, from 1708-17, is looked on by music history as the first of his three great periods. Bach was 23, freshly married to his second cousin Maria Barbara, and had a great job as organist at a large court.
During this time, a bunch of future-famous Bachs were born, such as Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE) Bach.
It was also during this time that Bach blossomed as a composer. He was influenced by styles across Europe, including the dramatic openings and harmonies from Italian composers such as Vivaldi.
It was in Weimar where Bach first penned his famous Preludes and Fugues (later to be compiled in two books as “The Well-Tempered Clavier”).
Bach and Cantatas (and prison)
In 1714, when Bach was almost thirty, he was promoted to the Director of Music, which gave him a vast many responsibilities, among which was writing and performing a monthly cantata. Cantatas were sung in the Lutheran church, and were giant, multi-movement vocal and instrumental compositions. They were a key component of the Lutheran liturgy.
But, then, JS’s stubborn personality revealed itself again. Apparently he grew restless in his job, but wasn’t allowed to quit. So JS was actually jailed for a month for “too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal”. Apparently he couldn’t take no for an answer – he was his own free agent. And it worked!
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Kothen Period
And that takes us to the second, middle period of Bach’s life – the Kothen period, from 1717-23. Prince Leopold of Kothen hired Bach as musical director, and, being a musician himself, fully appreciated Bach’s skills. Because of this, Bach was given tons of freedom.
Leopold also wasn’t religious, meaning that Bach mainly composed non-religious music in this period, such as secular cantatas, orchestral suites, cello suites and the famous Brandenburg Concertos.
Bach and Handel: Parallel lives
There was another famous German Baroque composer at the time, who was born the same year as Bach. It was George Frideric Handel. We’ll never know the full details, but for some reason they never got the chance to meet, despite Bach’s repeated attempts.
In 1720, Maria Barbara, JS’s wife, died suddenly. The next year he married again, this time to a much younger woman named Anna Magdalena. She was a talented singer and performer, and together they had – wait for it – 13 more children. Between his two wives, Bach fathered a total of 20 children, of which half survived to adulthood. Apparently Bach wasn’t just industrious in music, but in his life at home as well.
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Leipzig Period
And that brings us to Bach’s final period, the Leipzig period from 1723 to 1750, the year he died.
Bach got the job of cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, which would be his busiest, highest-ranking job. Interestingly, JS was not the first choice for the position (due to his strong-willed personality, no doubt). The first choice was actually Georg Philipp Telemann, another relatively well-known Baroque composer, but Telemann declined the job, instead choosing to move to Hamburg.
Again, Bach was expected to compose and perform cantatas for Sunday church. At this post, he ended up composing over 300 cantatas – which, if you remember from earlier in the video, are huge multi-movement compositions.
Even more responsibilities
Despite all of the other tasks of his job, Bach did yet more work by becoming the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, which was a performing group that played secular, not sacred, music. These groups generally consisted of the best musicians of the day, which established Bach even more firmly in Leipzig.
The Collegium Musicum performed frequently, including at Bach’s favorite coffeehouse, Café Zimmerman.
Many of JS’s secular pieces of this period were performed by the Collegium Musicum, including many of his violin and keyboard concertos.
Bach’s ambitions, however, knew no bounds. He showed the early manuscript for his famous Mass in B minor to the Elector for the post of Court Composer, which he got. This mass is widely considered to be one of the greatest choral works of all time, though Bach didn’t hear it performed in his lifetime.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s death
Between 1749 and 1750, Bach’s health took a turn for the worse. He was also becoming blind, and had John Taylor perform eye surgery on Bach.
Unfortunately, John Taylor was a total quack, and they eye operation was considered “very unsuccessful”, and probably part of the cause of Bach’s death. Interestingly, John Taylor serves as another link between Bach and Handel, two German kindred spirits. He operated on Handel as well, who was also going blind – and, unsurprisingly, completely botched it.
Apparently Bach officially died of stroke in 1750 at the age of 65, which was attributed to the bad effects of the failed eye operation.
Bach: Trends and revival
Though Bach was highly successful and built a solid career in music, he was more or less forgotten in the 18th century as trends changed and Baroque music became unfashionable. However, with the publication of his works in the 1800s, and from the promotion of Romantic composers such as Mendelssohn and Chopin, Bach once again enjoyed popularity, this time becoming firmly established as one of the greatest composers of all time.
However, just because the general public forgot about Bach’s music in the Classical period doesn’t mean that serious Classical musicians did. Haydn had copies of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Mass in B minor. Mozart transcribed some of Bach’s instrumental music, and wrote some of his own music in counterpoint style, clearly influenced by Bach. Beethoven could play The Well-Tempered Clavier by age 11 and described Bach as “The Parent of Harmony”.
As for his personality, we really don’t know much about “The Real Bach”. This is for a variety of reasons – he lived so long ago, and music then wasn’t the emotional, pour-out-your-heart affair that it is today.
We do know, as I mentioned earlier, that he was an extremely hard worker, as is evidenced by his career ambition and the huge body of compositions he left behind. He was also strong-willed and proud, causing him to alienate employers, and even landing him in jail.
Bach was deeply committed to music – that much is clear by his several-hundred-kilometer-on-foot journeys to see a famous organist perform. He didn’t let work or distance get in the way of his education. He didn’t make excuses. What he wanted, he went out and got.
All this being said, let’s be clear – Bach, despite his many admirable qualities, was no saint. He was extremely particular, and could be temperamental especially if musicians weren’t up to snuff. Here’s a fun anecdote:
Apparently the organist of St. Thomas’s made a mistake on the organ during rehearsal. Bach, enraged, tore his own wig from his head, threw it at the organist and proclaimed, “You ought to have been a cobbler.”
He also got into a dagger fight with a bassoonist when Bach said the bassoonist’s playing sounded like “a nanny-goat”. The bassoonist attacked Bach, and Bach pulled a dagger, because he didn’t mess around – but luckily, no one was injured.
Another story about Bach relates to the development of the piano, which was still in its infancy at the time. Bach’s friend, Silbermann, designed a couple early piano prototypes, which he invited Bach to try. Bach wasn’t impressed, however, saying the treble notes were weak and the keys were hard to play. Silbermann was offended, but took the criticism to heart and ultimately built better pianos.
And that concludes today’s discussion on Johann Sebastian Bach. I hope you found this journey to the Baroque fun and valuable! If you haven’t already, do check out “Bach in the Movies“, for a look at 5 pieces of his that are all over pop culture.