Composer JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Only a very few composers could be said to have changed music
history - Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg,
our own George Gershwin, and most certainly, Johann Sebastian
Bach (1685-1750). With the exceptions of opera and oratorio
(although his "Passions" might be considered
oratorios), Bach's output embraced every creative genre of his
era. His works for organ, keyboard instruments, violin, cello,
choral and orchestral ensembles opened up new technical and
expressive possibilities for those musical forces. His mastery
of polyphony and harmony took music to new heights of
sublimity. He accomplished all of these innovations while
remaining the most significant musical representative of the
Baroque era. (Only Handel was his near equal.) Even in his
lifetime, the Baroque aesthetic was being rejected in favor of
a new "enlightened" classical one.
Bach was born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach in the ducal state of Thuringia, just north of the larger state of Bavaria. Thuringia had been a stronghold of Martin Luther's Reformation during the 16th century. Luther's religious fervor can be felt in much of Bach's music (particularly the cantatas and passions). Bach's father, Ambrosius Bach, was a violinist. Johann Sebastian's earliest musical studies were with his father. Both of Bach's parents were dead by the time he was ten years old. His elder brother Johann Christoph, an organist, then assumed responsibility for his care. His brother gave him keyboard lessons and the prodigious Johann Sebastian joined the choir of St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Luneberg. In Luneberg he probably came into contact with the organist and composer Georg Bohm. He visited Hamburg to hear J. A. Reincken at the organ of St. Catherine's Church. Bach's organ compositions were deeply influenced by the work of these master organists.
After posts as a violinist at the court of Weimar and as organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt, Bach moved to St. Blasius, Muhlhausen and, four months later, married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 they moved to Weimar, where Bach was appointed organist and orchestral musician to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. During this period Bach became known as one of the state's leading organists and composed most of his important works for the instrument including the famous "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." During this same time he fathered seven children including William Friedemann and Carl Phillipp Emanuel, both destined to become famous composers in their own right.
In 1717 Bach was appointed Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold at Cothen. Leopold was a talented musician who played numerous string and keyboard instruments. Leopold's court was Calvinist. Bach had no chapel duties and concentrated on instrumental composition. It was during this period that Bach composed many of his significant instrumental works including the 6 "Brandenburg Concertos," the 4 orchestral suites, violin concertos, 6 sonatas for solo violin, and 6 suites for solo cello. (In the 20th century, Pablo Casals championed the cello suites and made these technically difficult works part of the standard cello repertoire.) Major keyboard works included the "Inventions" and Book 1 of "The Well Tempered Clavier," a series of preludes and fugues intended as "teaching pieces." Here Bach's innovative creative spirit and melodic and harmonic inspiration transcended mere academic exercises and produced some of the greatest keyboard music ever written. In 1720, while Bach was visiting Karlsbad with Prince Leopold, Maria Barbara died. In December of 1721 Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, whose father was a trumpeter in the court orchestra at Weissenfels. A week later the Prince also married. His bride's lack of interest in the arts led to a decline in support of music at the Cothen court.
In 1722 Bach entered his name as a candidate for the dual posts of music director at Leipzig and Kantor of that city's St. Thomas Church. The Leipzig authorities preferred Telemann and Graupner, but both withdrew their candidacy and Bach was offered the prestigious position and accepted it. Bach remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life. For St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches, he composed new cantatas for every Sunday service and special cantatas for holidays. His greatest achievements from this period were the "Magnificat" and the "St. John" and St. Mathew Passions." Bach also returned to composing organ music and to an active performing career as a virtuoso organist. After 1729 Bach's major sacred works were arrangements of earlier music. Even recycling earlier material Bach produced such monumental masterpieces as the "Mass in B Minor" and the "Christmas Oratorio." Bach took over the direction of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, an amateur music society that Telemann had founded. For their concerts, he arranged harpsichord concertos and composed several large scale cantatas.
Bach's youngest son Johann Christian (born in 1735) was among the 13 children born to Anna Magdalena at Leipzig. (Johann Christian Bach would become a distinguished composer and a strong artistic influence on the young Mozart.) In 1747 Bach visited his son Emanuel at the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam, where Emanuel was a harpsichordist. Frederick was a gifted musician and composer. Bach improvised on a theme composed by the king which he expanded into "The Musical Offering," a series of fugues, canons, and sonatas based on the royal theme. Bach's contrapuntal mastery is also on display in the remarkable "Goldberg Variations," completed in 1741. In 1747 he joined Lorenz Misler's Society of Musical Sciences, a musical academic think tank. His "Canonic Variations" for organ was presented to the society and his unfinished "Art of the Fugue" was probably intended for this organization.
Bach's eyesight deteriorated at the end of his life. In March and April 1750 he was twice operated on by the English oculist John Taylor. The operations and treatment that followed may have contributed to Bach's death. He took final communion on July 22, 1750 and died six days later. On July 31 he was buried in St. John's cemetery. Anna Magdalena survived him by ten years.
His music would collect dust in attics and organ lofts.( Beethoven studied and admired many of his scores.) It was not until 80 years after his death that Felix Mendelssohn would conduct a landmark performance of the "St. Matthew Passion" with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn's "rediscovery" of Bach's music would begin a renaissance that continues to this day. In the 20th century, the pioneering work of Wanda Landowska, Pablo Casals, Joseph Szigeti, and Boyd Neel has set new artistic standards for the performance of his music.
Bach's visionary artistic ethos changed music history. Even as classicists such as Haydn and Mozart rejected the Baroque aesthetic, Bach's influence on their work was palpable. The fugal writing in Beethoven's string quartets bears witness to Bach's instrumental mastery. For all the instrumental invention and intellectual rigor of his music, Johann Sebastian Bach will always be remembered for the grand eloquence of his thematic utterance and the ability to move audiences by the sheer beauty of his music. Bach defined the word "genius."
Program Notes by Lawrence Budmen