Johann Sebastian Bach. A name that is familiar to all of us, but a name that might have been obscured to us forever but for one man. During his lifetime, he was indeed a respected composer, organist, and singer. In fact, he was better known for his organ playing than his music.
But in 1829, Felix Mendelssohn gave us Bach’s “Passion According to St. Matthew”. His fellow German composer brought Bach back from the shadows of time. That was when he began to get the praise he deserved.
So, let’s find out some amazing facts About JS Bach…
The Baroque Period
The Baroque style of music in Europe lasted from roughly 1600 to 1750. It was followed by the Classical era of Mozart and the Romantic period of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and others.
Probably not at the time, but certainly now, over 400 years later, Johann Sebastian Bach is considered its greatest composer. In fact, there would be many that would argue he is the greatest composer ever.
It is complex, very emotional, and some might argue, over-embellished. There was usually one melody performed either by a single instrument or voice. This was accompanied by bass lines.
These are performed either by Cellos or bass voices. The Bass Continuo, the accompanying harmonies, are usually played on an organ or harpsichord.
Bach’s music was, therefore, deep, emotional, and very complex. Some have even called him a mathematical composer.
So, Let’s take a closer look at the life of this great composer…
He was born in Thuringia, Germany, which is in Central Germany, on March 31, 1685. His family were musicians going back several generations, and his father, also called Johann, was the Eisenach town musician and taught young Johann to play Violin.
He started school at the age of seven.
He was a Lutheran all his life which explains the religious nature of many of his works. His mother died when he was nine, and his father nine months later. Both succumbed to disease caused by poor sewage management. He went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph who taught him the organ. He stayed there until he was 15.
Bach had a well-respected Soprano voice which gained him entry to a school in Luneburg. He also played Violin and Harpsichord at the school. He got his first job, a Royal patronage, in 1703 with Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar, where he undertook a range of musical duties on Violin and organ.
Then he moved to a new position at a church in Arnstadt. Here he was responsible for all the music for the religious services, as well as undertaking music instruction.
The arrogance begins…
He developed a reputation for being arrogant and did not have a good relationship with his students. Then he left Arnstadt for a position in Mühlhausen which also didn’t go so well for him.
He was developing a reputation for being hard to work with. Many of his superiors thought religious music should be simple. That was not Bach. His compositions and even his arrangements of others’ work were complex and enthralling.
During his time at Mühlhausen, he married his cousin Maria Barbara. They had seven children. After a year in Mühlhausen, he returned to Weimar and back to the court of Duke Johann Ernst. It was here at this time that he composed one of his most loved organ pieces, his “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
His prolific genius continued there with the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat.” One section of which you will recognize as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
He was offered a position with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Although he wasn’t unhappy with life in Weimar, he accepted. Someone who wasn’t happy with the appointment was Duke Wilhelm, who put Bach in prison rather than let him leave. Eventually, he was released and went to his new position.
It was during the Weimar/Anhalt-Cöthen period that Bach wrote many of his most famous instrumental works. His pieces for Violin from this period brought great admiration.
He had still maintained his deep faith and began signing his works I.N.J. In Latin ‘In Nomine Jesu’ or in English ‘In the name of Jesus’. During this period, Bach was desperate to meet George Handel. They were just 130 km apart, but they never met.
Bach’s wife died suddenly while he was traveling with the Prince; she was only 35. Within a year, Bach had remarried in 1721 to a singer named Anna Magdalena Wülcken. They had thirteen children. Unfortunately, more than half did not survive and died in infancy.
More amazing facts About JS Bach…
The Prince, his employer, got married, but his new wife didn’t like music. A strange match for someone who lived for it and played in his own orchestra. She prevailed, and he closed down the orchestra.
But not before Bach had completed some of his most famous works, the “Brandenburg Concertos.” These were a tribute to the Duke of Brandenburg and were completed in 1721.
Out of work, he auditioned and was given a job as organist and music teacher at St Thomas Church in Leipzig. His intense period of writing continued.
He wrote a series of works based on the Bible, which became known as the Passions. One of those was the “Passion According to St. Matthew.” That was the piece, as I previously said, that Felix Mendelssohn brought to Berlin and brought the genius of Bach to us today.
The “Mass in B minor” was started during this period but not finished until 1749. It was never performed during his lifetime. By 1740 Bach had begun to notice his eyesight was failing. From what we can gather in the very little written about this, it may have been cataracts.
In 1749 with his eyesight now in a bad way, he started work on his ‘Art of the Fugue,’ but he never finished it.
The final years…
He agreed to surgery, such as it was at the time, to try and fix the eye problem. That left him completely blind. Later in the year and now in desperation, on the 28th July 1750, he had a stroke and died. He was 65.
Given his status today, it is hard to believe that most of his works were neither published nor respected by some of his peers. In later years both Mozart and Beethoven would pay their respects and admiration to him. However, in his lifetime, he was a man recognized as being a great organist, and that was about it.
Back to where we started
And so we finish where we started. Felix Mendelssohn re-introducing us in 1829 to Bach through the “Passion According to St. Matthew” sixty years after it was written.
He was a devoted family man that we know from his letters to both wives. And loved his surviving children. One of them, Johann Christian Bach, musician and composer himself, met Mozart in London in 1764.
Nearly 60 years after his death, Mendelssohn’s efforts brought Bach into the world’s consciousness. The beauty of his music created a massive interest in the work of this, at the time, hardly known German composer.
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Amazing Facts About JS Bach – And today?
Today he is acknowledged, rightly so, for his genius and the great and moving work he created. His contribution to Baroque music and his influence on both the Classical and Romantic periods that followed was inestimable.
I wonder if it hadn’t been for Mendelssohn, we would never have heard of him at all. The world would be a poorer place if we hadn’t.