Happy Birthday, Mr. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Today is Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday. He was born on March 21, 1685 making this the 327th anniversary of his birth. As a trained pianist, Bach was one of the first composers I played and to this day I still love playing some of his Inventions and other works.

Johann Sebastian Bach

J. S. Bach was born into a musical family, the musical pedigree going back at least four generations before him. His father, John Ambrosius Bach, was the director of the musicians in the town. His mother was Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. J.S. was the eighth of fourteen children born to the couple. At a young age his father taught him to play the harpsichord and violin. His mother died in 1694 and his father followed just eight short months later.

At the age of ten he moved in with his father’s twin brother, also a noted musician, Johann Christoph Bach. “When Carl Philipp Emanuel {J.S. Bach’s son} updated the family genealogy in 1774 he noted that the twins were identical in looks and mannerisms to the extent that even their wives could not tell them apart.” While living with his uncle, who introduced him to the organ, he would pour over the manuscripts, even though it was forbidden.

At the age of fourteen, J. S. Bach was awarded a choral scholarship to St. Michael’s School in Lunenberg. His two years there exposed him to a wider range of European culture and musical influence.

J. S. Bach

After completing school, J.S. Bach worked as a court musician in several positions. In 1706 he married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach and they had seven children together. Four of these children survived to adulthood.

In 1717, Bach went to work for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kothen as his Kapellmeister or director of music. Prince Leopold appreciated his talent and paid him well. He often took Bach with him on his travels.

Barbara died on July 7, 1720 while Bach and Prince Leopold were abroad. A year later he met and married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, who was seventeen years his union. They had thirteen more children, six of whom survived to adulthood.

In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor at Thomaskirche in Leipzig. This was a very prestigious post that he held until his death, twenty-seven years later. He left Prince Leopold, after the Prince’s marriage. The new Princess was not as impressed with music as the Prince was.

St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where J. S. Bach served

Bach composed his Mass in B Minor in 1733 for the King of Poland, August III. He monarch eventually appointed him Royal Court Composer. He later extended the work into a full mass, but it is believed it was never performed during his lifetime. Mass in B Minor is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time.

Bach composed during the time known as the Baroque period. He established counterpoint, harmonic and motive organization, and adapted rhythms, forms and textures he embraced from the Italian’s and French. His abilities as an organist were widely acclaimed and respected during his own lifetime. He was not only a German composer and organist, but also a harpsichordist, violinist, and violist.

His works as a composer include works for the keyboard including The Well-Tempered Clavier, his Inventions and Sinfonias; canons and fugues, lute music, orchestral and chamber music; vocal and choral works including his chorales, cantata’s and passion’s, such as St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion.

Near the end of his life Bach became blind. On his deathbed he dictated a chorale prelude for organ, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before thy throne I now appear, BWV 668a), to his son-in-law. He died on July 28, 1750 at 65 years of age. Some say his death was the consequence of an unsuccessful eye operation a few months earlier. Many modern historians believe his decline and subsequent death was a combination of a stroke and pneumonia.

Johann Sebastian Bach

J. S. Bach was originally buried in Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. In 1894 his coffin was found {originally his grave was unmarked} and moved to a vault in St. John’s Church. The church was destroyed during WII and in 1950 his remains were moved to Leipzig’s Church of St. Thomas.

Several of his sons became well known musicians in their own right, including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach,Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Christian Bach.

Bach’s reputation grew after his death and he is now considered one of the greatest composers of not just the Baroque period, but all time. All of his works were catalogued by Wolfgang Schmieder and published in 1950 with the BWV meaning Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (“Bach Works Catalogue”).