Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a German composer and musician born in Eisenach. He’s often described as one of the greatest Western classical composers.
Orphaned at the age of 10, Johann Sebastian was raised by his brother, Johann Christoph (1671-1721), who taught him the organ and clavier.
A devout Lutheran, biographers note that Bach was a perfectionist to the point of beating his students when they made mistakes. Nevertheless, his polyphonic inventions raised the existing Baroque tradition to a new and unsurpassed level of magnificence.
In 1711 he was kapellmeister (orchestra leader) to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, composing the Brandenburg Concertos (1721) and The Well-tempered Clavier (1722). In 1723 he was cantor (director of church music) of the St Thomas School in Leipzig, writing cantatas, including the St Matthew Passion (1727), the Mass in B Minor and The Art of Fugue.
Pianist Angela Hewitt notes that the move from kapellmeister to cantor was a professional step down for Bach, “but he knew that Leipzig would be a better place to educate his children.” She adds that Bach wanted better instruments and performing musicians but his requests were repeatedly refused by authorities in Leipzig who didn’t appreciate his rare genius.¹
Almost entirely blind at his death, his work as a composer was not fully recognized until the following century. During his lifetime he was known mostly as an organist. This oversight is ironic as many today speak as if he snatched music from heaven for the benefit of mankind.
His influence reverberates throughout classical, jazz, and even pop music. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould came to love Bach over all the other composers. Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations twice, once in analog and later in an early digital studio. Sales of those records, especially the analog recording, reached all-time highs for classical music.
A 1934-36 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations BWV.988, Italian Concerto BWV.971 and Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV.903 by keyboardist Wanda Landowska has been marketed by EMI records as a “great recording of the century,” despite the sound quality being subpar. And Landowska’s rendition of The Well Tempered Clavier – tinny sound and all – makes a lasting impression on anyone sensitive to great moments in recorded music.
Along with Mozart and Beethoven, Bach stands out as one of The Big Three, whose works Polish composer Henryk Górecki described as the “bread and butter” of the classical repertoire.
¹ Angela Hewitt, liner notes from Bach, The Six Partitas, Hyperion: 1997. This CD has a soft but definitive touch that makes Hewitt my favorite contemporary Bach pianist. (MC)
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- Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (johann-sebastian-bach.information-about-music.com)
- Bachs: A Bach Notebook for Trumpet – review (guardian.co.uk)
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