He brought polyphonic baroque music to its culmination, creating masterful and vigorous works in almost every musical form known in his period.
Born into a gifted family (see Bach, family), J. S. Bach was devoted to music from childhood. He was taught by his father and later by his brother Johann Christoph, and was a boy soprano in Lüneberg. His education was acquired largely through independent studies. He had an insatiable curiosity about music and sometimes walked great distances to hear the organists Johann Adam Reinken (at Hamburg) and Buxtehude (at Lübeck). In 1703 he became violinist in the private orchestra of the prince at Weimar but left within a year to become organist at Arnstadt.
Bach went to Mühlhausen as organist in 1707. There he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, who was to bear him seven children. In 1708 he was made court organist and chamber musician at Weimar, and in 1714 he became concert master. Prince Leopold of Anhalt engaged him as musical director at Köthen in 1717. Three years later his wife died, and in 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wülken, a woman of considerable musical cultivation who eventually bore him 13 children. In 1723 he left Köthen to take the important post of music director of the church of St. Thomas, Leipzig, and of its choir school; he remained in Leipzig until his death.
Since few of Bach's many works were published in his lifetime, exact dates cannot be fixed for all of them, but most can be placed with some certainty in the periods of his life. At Arnstadt and Mühlhausen he began a series of organ compositions that culminated in the great works of the Weimar period: the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, most of the great preludes and fugues, and the 45 chorale-preludes gathered in Das Orgelbüchlein [the little organ book].
At Köthen he concentrated on instrumental compositions, especially keyboard works: the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the English Suites; the French Suites; the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions, written for the education of his son Wilhelm Friedemann; and Book I of the celebrated Well-Tempered Clavier. He also wrote several unaccompanied violin sonatas and cello suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos, recognized as the best concerti grossi ever composed.
The St. John Passion was performed (1723) at Leipzig when Bach was a candidate for the position of musical director at St. Thomas. His Magnificat was presented shortly after he assumed that post. Many more of his superb religious compositions followed: the St. Matthew Passion (1729), the Christmas Oratorio, the sonorous Mass in B Minor, and the six motets. The principal keyboard works of this period were Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the four books of clavier pieces in the Clavierübung, which includes: six partitas (1726–31); the Italian Concerto and the Partita in B Minor (1735); the Catechism Preludes, the Prelude and Fugue (St. Anne) in E Flat (1739), and four duets; and the Goldberg Variations (more formally Aria with Thirty Variations, 1742). His last notable compositions were the Musical Offering composed (1747) for Frederick the Great and The Art of the Fugue (1749).
Accomplishments and Influence
In all his positions as choir director, Bach composed sacred cantatas—a total of some 300, of which nearly 200 are extant. There are also over 30 secular cantatas, composed at Leipzig, among them Phoebus and Pan (1731). The bulk of his work is religious—he made four-part settings of 371 Lutheran chorales, also using many of them as the bases of organ preludes and choral works. In addition, he composed an astonishing number of instrumental works, many of them designed for the instruction of his numerous pupils. In his instrumental and choral works he perfected the art of polyphony, displaying an unmatched combination of inventiveness and control in his great, striding fugues.
During his lifetime, Bach was better known as an organist than as a composer. For decades after his death his works were neglected, but in the 19th century his genius came to be recognized, particularly by romantic composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann. Since that time his reputation has grown steadily.
The classic study of his life and music is by Phillip Spitta (tr. 1884–85, repr. 1972), and Albert Schweitzer's study (tr. 1911, repr. 1962) has attracted much attention. See also biographies by Karl and Irene Geiringer (1966) and C. S. Terry (1928, repr. 1988); studies by J. N. Forkel (tr. 1920, repr. 1970), R. L. Marshall (2 vol., 1972), and Barbara Schwendowius and Wolfgang Domling, ed. (1984); H. T. David and Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader (1945, rev. ed. 1966).
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