A composer is not only defined by the popularity of his work or the complexity of their projects, but by the lasting impression in which the individual leaves on humanity. While aspects like acclaim and intricacy may play a role in a composer’s merit, attributes such as that are ephemeral in nature. The music created must resonate with the world, touching the hearts and minds of those who listen by tapping into the soul of society. Only then will they have any hope of being regarded among the legends to be remembered forever. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of a composer that exemplifies such a quality is Johann Sebastian Bach. Through his life experiences, unbridled ambition, and unparalled genius, his vocal and musical works enable him to take his place among the ranks.
Bach was born Eisanach, Germany on March 31, 1685 to a family of the utmost prestige. For generations spanding back decades, most of his family were musicians. His father was the town musician in Eisanach, and it is believed he was the one who taught Bach violin. When he was seven years old, he went to a school in which he studied studied Latin and received religious instruction. His musical works were often influenced by his Lutheran faith. By the age of ten, Bach was taken in by his brother (who was an organist) after the death of both his parents. He stayed with his brother’s family. At 14, Bach recieved a scholarship and always walked 300 kilometers to the famous St. Michael’s school in Luneburg, Germany. He sang in a boys’ chorale. Bach’s studies included organ, harpsichord, and singing. Morover, he took the academic studies in theology, history and geography. He also took lessons of Latin, Italian, and French. Bach’s phenomenal soprano voice helped secure his place at the school in Lüneburg; however, after his voice changed, he focused more on the violin and harpischord. By 1703, the young man had his first job as a musician at the court of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar by filling in as a violinist and official organist.
Bach’s musical style was heavily influenced by the regions of north and south Germany, Italy, and France. He was also extremely fluent in contrapuntal invention and motivic control as well as improvising on the piano. Many people regarded his work as very extreme, notatingnearly single detail of his melodic lines–especially the ones of fast tempo. During his time in Leipzig where he signed a contract to be an organist and teacher at St. Thomas Church, he wrote chorale-based cantatas over several years. He became an expert at both the newer homophonic music and the Renaissance period techniques of polyphonic music. He also put on display his knowledge of the light Italian opera buffa in his secular, humorous Coffee Cantata. And he displayed his mastery of the forms of grand, tragic opera in his immense and moving St. Matthew Passion. While Bach was not known to be groundbreaking like Beethoven or Debussy, through his genius he showed the many hidden opportunities that lay within the music that was seen as conventional at the time. Bach’s solo compositions serve as technical and musical stepping stones for professional instrumentalists and composers. Many things separate Bach as a composer, but the most significant quality of his musical work was his genius in the utilization of counterpoint, which is the technique of playing a melody or melodies in conjunction with one another based on a set of fixed rules. In the simplest of terms, before Bach (or more broadly, the Baroque period), music at the time was more simple; singular voices and melodies were often what made up a majority of the musical works. However, with the birth of the Baroque period, a whole new world of complexity was introduced to the world. Bach was known to expertly weave together up to five or six melody lines whereas his contemporaries rarely went above four. An example of this technique is properly demonstrated in his collection of piano works, The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1742).
Although there is not much information on Bach, the records do reveal some insight into his character. In 1706, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, and they had seven children, some of whom died as infants. While Bach was traveling with Prince Leopold, his wife Maria died in 1720. By the next year, Bach was married to a singer named Anna Magdalena Wülcken, and had thirteen children. More than half of them died as children. Based on the fact that many of his children went on to be famous music composers and musicans, it is evident that he enjoyed sharing his love of music with his children. Bach’s eyesight began to get worse even though he had many operations and treatment. In Leipzig, July 28, 1750, Bach had a stroke that came with a severe fever, dying that evening at sixty-five. He was buried at St. John’s Cemetery.
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