Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 63) on a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann
Johann Sebastian Bach is known as perhaps the most prolific baroque composer of the time period. His body of work is the summation of a incredibly interesting and rich time of early western culture. For those that don’t know Baroque music was created primarily between 1600 and 1750, after the Renaissance period but before the Classical. I’m not going to get into the music nerd elements of the subtle differences between Baroque and it’s counterparts but rest assured that Baroque was indeed a very important era in the evolution of Western music.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in the town of Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach(Germany). From birth Johann was surrounded by music. His father Johann Ambrosius Bach, was not only a professional musician but was the director of the town’s musicians. Under the direction of his father Johann learned the violin and the harpsichord, both very popular instruments of the day. It was Johann’s uncle Johann Christoph Bach that introduced him to the organ, a relationship that would continue to grow for the rest of his life. Unfortunately for Johann his mother died when he was nine and his father only months later. This forced Johann to move in with his oldest brother Johann Christoph.(gosh this family was uncreative in the names department) His brother was a dedicated organist and this time spent with him further sealed Johann’s fate as a devout organist himself.

One of the elements I find interesting about the Baroque period was the church’s involvement in practically everything. At the time the church was beginning to recognize the arts as a place to find and encourage new congregation. All aspects of art were effected, painting, sculpting, architecture and music as well. It was this combination of church and music that guided the life that Johann was about to lead. As stated earlier Johann was quickly becoming a master organist and to achieve such a goal he’d need access to master instruments. It’s not like you could simply buy an organ at the local organ store. Organs back then were massive, they could be multiple stories in height and there was one primary place where they were found, the church. To play one of these instruments you needed to be employed by the facility. Such a job included, pay, rooming and even board in some cases. And this is what Johann did. He would take employment at a given church, learn as much as he could, grow as much as he could in the given environment and then move on to another, each time gaining in popularity, salary and notoriety. Things didn’t change when he married and had a family of his own, everyone came along for the ride.

Johann did eventually settle down though, with his final place of residence being Leipzig, Germany. It was here that Johann gained serious notoriety and power within the community. Johann was given the post of Director of Music and he handled the music in all of the churches of the city, from strings to vocals. He also taught music and singing lessons at this point, as part of his church work. Johann also lead the Collegium Musicum which was a non-church affiliated private group of master musicians who practiced in their own privately owned facilities. Johann would stay an integral part of the music community in Leipzig until his death in 1750. He is now at rest in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

Johann Sebastian Bach composed hundreds of pieces in his lifetime. Throughout his career there was never a point when he put the quill down. Often he would compose music under a predefined challenge. One such instance was when Johann was visiting Frederick II, the king of Prussia. Frederick played a theme for Johann and challenged him to improvise a companion theme based on it. Johann not only met the challenge but took it two steps further but improvising three additional companions to it. Johann didn’t stop there though, on his own he wrote a whole suite of tunes building on the king’s royal theme. Eventually these tunes would be altered slightly and incorporated into Bach’s body of work.

With any luck I conveyed some of the rich history around the fascinating composer known as Johann Sebastian Bach. Overall after reading about him he sounded like a cranky guy but cranky guys need love too so check him out.

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