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Detail of Biography - Johann Sebastian Bach
Name :
Johann Sebastian Bach
Date :
Views :
365
Category :
Birth Date :
21/03/1685
Birth Place :
Eisenach
Death Date :
• July 31, 1750
Biography - Johann Sebastian Bach
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[b]The First Note [/b] [br /]
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On March 21, 1685, a son was born to the couple Johann Ambrosius Bach and Elizabeth Lämmerhirt, at Eisenach. The son’s father was a court musician of the Duke of Eisenach and the director of the musicians of the town of Eisenach, in Thuringia. Members of the Bach family were reputed for their musical talent and some of them had held positions as organists, town instrumentalists or cantors, throughout Thuringia.[br /]
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With music in his blood and in the air that he breathed, young Johann Sebastian Bach grew up in a reasonably spacious home, with provision of rooms for apprentice musicians. Bach learnt to play the violin and the harpsichord from his father while his uncle taught him to play the organ. Young Bach was an enthusiastic and diligent learner and mastered these instruments soon. At the age of eight, he went to the Old Latin Grammar School, learning grammar and scripture in Latin and German languages. It was here that he had an opportunity to sing in the choir of St. Georgen Kirche formed by the boys of the school. His mellifluous and fine treble voice won him great appreciation.[br /]
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[b]Sebastian[/b] lived in an age when the roads were still unpaved, sewage disposal poorly managed and infection rampant. As a result of such poor living conditions, Sebastian lost a sister and later a brother. In his ninth year of life, he lost his mother and nine months later, his father departed. Johann Christoph, Sebastian’s elder brother adopted him and one of his brothers Jakob. Sebastian was to lead the next few years of his life in Ohrdruf, a small town, southeast of Eisenach.[br /]
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[b]Bach’s Growing Years[/b][br /]
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Johann Christoph was a well-established organist of the St. Michaelis Kirche and an excellent teacher. He prepared Sebastian for the family vocation. Sebastian learnt the organ and harpsichord with great interest and dedication and mastered all the musical pieces bequeathed to him by his predecessor.[br /]
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Sebastian had a golden opportunity to witness the construction of a new organ at the Ohrdruf Church, which Johann Christoph had undertaken. His love for music was growing stronger and deeper when his brother encouraged him to study compositions and copy the music of German organist composers like Pachelbel, Jakob Froberger and Caspar Kerll. Meanwhile, Sebastian attended the Grammar school of Ohrdruf and made tremendous progress in Latin, Greek and Theology. Once again, he joined the choir and his soprano voice earned his cantor’s admiration.[br /]
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Sebastian found a place in the choir of the wealthy Michaelis monastery at Lüneburg that provided accommodation to poor but talented boys. His cantor helped him earn this scholarship.[br /]
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In 1700, Sebastian and his school friend George Erdmann journeyed a 180 miles from Lüneburg to join the Mettenchor. Sebastian sang the soprano and was able to explore unknown scales in orchestral and choral performances. Here, he was able to study at the library of music that contained some precious and rare contemporary examples of German church music.[br /]
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As adolescence set in, Sebastian lost his shrill Soprano voice but found the role of the violinist beckoning him to the orchestra and as an accompanist on the harpsichord during choir rehearsals. In these young years, he also had the opportunity to meet George Böhm, a famous organist at Lüneburg and a family friend. Böhm introduced Sebastian to the great organ traditions of Hamburg. He also came across French instrumental music when he played the violin at the Court of Celle, South of Lüneburg.[br /]
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At 17, Johann Sebastian desired to return to his native land of Thuringia and was interested in visiting the church of Arnstadt, where an organ was under construction. While awaiting its completion, he was offered the post of violinist in the small chamber orchestra of the Duke Johann Ernst. Here, he was introduced to Italian instrumental music and simultaneously assisted the court’s aging organist Effler, another family friend.[br /]
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In July 1703, the 18-year-old Bach was offered the post of an organist at the newly constructed organ of Arnstadt, after he impressed them with a brilliant performance. The highly enthusiastic Bach began the task of practicing and perfecting his playing techniques and experimenting with various styles of composition. At the Easter celebration held that year, Bach impressed the faithfuls of Arnstadt with a cantata performed by an orchestra of strings, trumpets and drums to support his choir.[br /]
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In 1705, Bach was granted another opportunity, by the church council, to visit the city of Lübeck in north Germany, to hear the great organist, Dietrich Burtehude. Bach hardly missed any performance where Burtehude played. He was so fascinated by them and the discussion on the art with the grandmaster, that he remained in Lübeck for over three months. With a spring of ideas and enthusiasm in his heart he returned to Arnstadt and translated them into his music. These new compositions completely flabbergasted the congregation. Even the choir had problems in keeping attuned with his "surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments, which obliterate the melody".[br /]
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Bach was questioned by the church council for having taken such musical liberties and for extending his leave in Lübeck without prior permission. Bach decided not to argue or clear his position to a group of narrow minded and conservative old men. Since he was the perfect organist they could have, they decided to condone the acts.[br /]
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Soon other conflicts emerged. Bach expressed his inability to work with the undisciplined boy’s choir. The council shot back and inquired about his entertaining a young maiden at the church’s organ loft. Bach married the same young maiden, Maria Barbarra at St. Blasius Church on the Easter Sunday of 1707. In June 1707, he left the Arnstadt Council due to growing disputes and recrimination.[br /]
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[b]The Musical Journey[/b][br /]
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Leaving Arnstadt, the small town of Mühlhausen beckoned Bach to take up the position of an organist. His first task was to enhance and enrich the poor facilities at Mühlhausen. Then he went on to set up a large collection of the best German music available and added his own creations to it. When he accomplished this, Bach set about training the choir and the newly created orchestra to play the collected music. His growing popularity as a brilliant organ player and his expertise in the construction of organs, led the St. Blasius Kirche to invite him where he proposed the complete renovation and improvement of the organ. Religious controversies
between the orthodox Lutherans, who were music lovers, and the Pietists, the puritans, touched abysmal levels and music entered in a state of decay, only encouraging the talented Bach to hunt for other greener pastures. Sweet music filled with promises to be fulfilled, were now dawning upon him. The Duke of Weimar offered Bach his first important post, that of a court organist and chamber musician.[br /]
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[b]Period of Turbulence[/b][br /]
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The Period at Weimar (1708-1717) saw the rise of Bach’s fame as an organ maestro and the creation of many of his wonderful works in organ music. Bach met a few culturally rich people here. The court orchestra consisted of about 22 players : a compact string ensemble, a bassoon player, 6-7 trumpeters and a timpanist. Bach mainly played the violin, sometime even the harpsichord, occasionally penning or arranging some pieces of music.[br /]
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In 1714, he was offered and became deputy to the old and failing kappelmeister Johann Samuel Diese, whose duties he slowly took over. Bach made some very good friends at Weimar, who included the eminent philologist and scholar Johann Matthais Gesner, who admired Bach’s work. He also got acquainted with the new Italian style of music, which was in vogue in Europe, the chief one being Vivaldi, the eminent composer from Venice. Bach and his cousin Georg Walther transcribed some of these Italian instrumental concertos for keyboard instruments. Bach had to weather yet another storm in 1717, when a feud broke between the Duke of Weimar and his nephew. This strained the musical scenario and began stifling Bach’s creativity. Added to this was his disappointment when he was not given the post of the kappelmeister when the old man expired. Meanwhile, he was offered the post of kappelmeister at the court of Anhalt Cöthen and he took it. This infuriated the Duke of Weimar and when Bach placed his resignation, he was arrested and jailed for such impropriety. However, a month later, after having stood up for his rights, Bach was freed.[br /]
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[b]The Golden Years[/b][br /]
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At Cöthen, Bach took up the position of the kappelmeister serving the young prince Leopold of Cöthen, the son of a Calvinist. Calvinists were antagonistic to the splendors of the Lutheran outlook and there was no church music at Cöthen. This however, did not affect the prince from enjoying secular cantatas and instrumental music with latest trends & fashion. Prince Leopold had already spent three years in touring Europe and dwelling in its musical grandeur, was committed to elevate the standard of music, at home in Germany. This music lover of a prince stretched the limited budget of his court to provide an orchestra of 18 highly qualified musicians from all over the country.[br /]
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The prince also displayed talent on the harpsichord, violin and the viola da gamba. He was informal with his court musicians and treated them as equals, unlike other princes. He struck the right chord of friendship with Bach and admired him as well. Life at Cöthen was glorious for Bach and he was at his creative best. He produced suites, concertos and sonatas for various instruments, a wealth of clavier and chamber music.[br /]
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In 1718 and 1720, few court musicians traveled with the prince on his extended journeys with musical instruments. The enriching journey of 1720 brought sad moments in Bach’s life when his wife, Maria Barbara died and was buried in his absence. Life went on and music streamed along. Bach was working on the composition and performing the cantata for occasions like the prince’s birthday and the New Year. For these concerts, singers were hired on contract from neighboring courts. Among these was Anna Magdalena, of a Court and Field Trumpeter, who attracted Bach’s attention by her fine Soprano voice.[br /]
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In December 1721 they were married. Anna was kind to Bach’s children, took lively interest in his work and helped him in neatly copying his manuscripts. They had 13 children in their 28 years of happy marriage.[br /]
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A week after Bach’s wedding, prince Leopold also married. But it was not a fine event for Bach because the new princess did not approve of her husband’s musical activities and pressurized him to sober down. Bach wrote to his friend, "There I had a gracious prince as master, who knew music, as well as he loved it, and I hoped to remain in his service until the end of my life." With disappointment at heart and the fatherly need to provide good education to his growing sons (since there was no university at Cöthen), Bach decided to seek another town to settle. Meanwhile, the death of the cantor of the St. Thomas church in Leipzig opened the possibility for him to take over. The offer arrived, even as Leipzig had the necessary educational facilities for his sons and Bach decided to leave Cöthen for good. Bach presented his resignation to the prince of Cöthen who regretted his departure but did not wish to stand in his way to happiness as well.[br /]
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[b]Musical Works[/b][br /]
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Bach was the last artist of the glorious Baroque age. Understanding the socio-cultural milieu of that age and its musical style will help us gain insight into Bach’s musical tryst.[br /]
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[b]The Baroque Music[/b][br /]
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After the Renaissance, came the Baroque age, with its momentous changes. Akin to architecture and art, music in the Baroque age had certain peculiarities that made it unique and ethereal.[br /]
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Opera was attached with immense social significance in the Baroque. It placed the theatre at the center of all musical arts alongside the palace, church and home.[br /]
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Individual music gained enviable status. A new dramatic style flowed from a cataclysmic clash of individual will where pure musical thinking overpowered words and music stood at constant service of poetry.[br /]
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Improvisation played a major role in Baroque music. For example, a church organist was expected to perform and improvise an intricate piece and add abrupt changes of mood in the fantasias leading to its enrichment as a whole.[br /]
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The Baroque believed in the Doctrine of the Affections whereby music mirrored the words, the chorale played time to its meaning. Bach associated the sorrow of the crucifixion by a bass line that descends was the best piece to bring out the necessary emotions that it was meant to portray.[br /]
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Dynamic rhythm with energetic, clear-cut movements imparting singleness of purpose and appearing turbulent yet controlled, is what the Baroque musicians attempted and achieved to quiet an extent.[br /]
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The principle of continuous expansion of a single ‘affection’ was another ornamentation of this music. Music began with a mood and unfolded through a process of ceaseless churning. Like relentlessly pursuing its goal, the music moved to highlight the impact of the words and helped empathize the affection.[br /]
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Baroque music was dynamically terraced. A passage uniformly loud was followed by one that was uniformly soft, thus creating the effect of light and shade. Musicians also desired to play their instruments to its loudest.[br /]
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Baroque was the first era in history where instrumental music was of comparable tenor to vocal. This led to the fact that many musicians developed new instruments and perfected the old. Baroque music made generous use of the trumpet, oboe, bassoon and flute which already boasted with the organ, harpsichord and clavichord. The interest in instruments went hand in hand with a desire to master techniques and each composer was distinguished ever more clearly among varying styles that were performed.[br /]
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Finally, the Baroque was a period of international culture. The sensuality of French melody, the precision of the French dance rhythm, the luxuriance of German counterpoint, the freshness of the English choral songs – all these were absorbed in this one cesspool of European art.[br /]
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A court, church, town council or an opera house provided suitable employment to the Baroque composer, who was in direct contact with the public. His music was created for special occasions. He was an artisan, a religious person bred on the word of God, expressing the grandeur of his talent and his era. He began writing for a particular time and place; he ended by creating for the ages.[br /]
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Bach is remembered as one who perfected existing musical forms rather than the creator of new ones. Each musical form he touched was perfected from the rough to its brilliance. Bach also believed in perfecting the techniques of composition. His mastery over them have never been challenged so far. Bach’s incomparable profundity of thought and feeling and the capacity to explore and visualize the diverse musical wishes in a given musical situation, was indeed remarkable.[br /]
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Bach was among the last of the great legion of religious musicians. He considered music to be "a harmonious euphony to the glory of the God."[br /]
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He is also considered as one of the greatest preachers since some of his cantatas begin with "Jesus help me !" and close with, "To God alone be thy praise." A strong all pervading influence of the Lutheran chorale, that beholds the tunes of reformation, was omnipresent in his music. This helped him unite with the contemporary current of popular melody then.[br /]
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Bach is also well remembered as a fabulous organist. The organ was the prime medium for all his music. He created an abode of music played on the organ, which is considered as the high watershed of musical realm. The various chorale preludes, fantasias, toccatas, fugues and the great Passacaglia in C minor, make him an organ maestro.[br /]
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[b]Choral And Vocal Music[/b][br /]
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Bach wrote a lot of choral music during his hey days at Leipzig, where he prepared over 200 cantatas (choral compositions in style of an oratorio or drama) for performances throughout the year. They proffer Bach’s vision of life and death. The despair, exultation, burden of sin, hope of redemption, wonder of heaven and earth enfold through his cantatas like images of the mystical painters. His passions are epics of the Protestian and Lutherian faith.[br /]
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The St. Mathew Passion, the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio and the Easter Oratorio represent the artistic glory of the Lutherian Oratorio and its passion.[br /]
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The Mass in B minor was created over a period at Leipzig in 1733 and was dedicated to Frederich Augustus, elector of saxony. It beautifully mingles the Catholic and Protestant elements and unites the two facets of Christendom.[br /]
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Gloria in excelsis Deo has found a home in most concert halls and places of worship as well.[br /]
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Other cantatas include the light-hearted coffee cantata written during the Collegia Musica and the Peasant Cantata, in honor of a newly appointed official.[br /]
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[b]Organ Music[/b]

Most of Bach’s organ music was created during the earlier part of his career and the time he spent as the court organist in Weimar. Chromatic Fantasia and the Fugue in D Minor are singled out as well known. The Fugue in D Minor is a series of simple episodic subjects being answered by one voice at a time. After a climactic expansion the theme closes with a major chord that makes it an all time favorite of audiences.[br /][br /][br /]



[b]Chamber Music[/b][br /]
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During the golden years at Cöthen, Bach devoted his attention to compositions for solo instruments, smaller groups and mundane court orchestras.[br /]
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Of the various sonatas that generated a special interest among discerning audiences, have been attached to the six sonatas for unaccompanied violin. Here Bach forced the violin to transcend its natural limitations, because he believed that the instrument served his ideas, the ideas were never subservient to the instrument in effect.[br /]
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The others are the six suites for unaccompanied cello, six for violin and harpsichord and three sonatas for viola-da-gamba and harpsichord, which are famous among cellist and viola players even today.[br /]
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[b]Orchestral Music[/b][br /]
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Bach wrote four orchestral suites and called them Overtures. It is believed that the first two were written during the Cöthen period and the last two at Leipzig. These suites display Bach’s fitting reply to international currents of his time. The pomp of the French opening, its sweeping gestures, the grace of the French dance form with a dash of Italian instrumental style are all fused together. This suite also displays the terraced dynamics of the Baroque style.[br /]
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In 1719, Bach was given the opportunity to play before the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. The prince was so charmed that he asked the composer to write some exclusive works for his orchestra. In 1921, Bach sent him six pieces of orchestral music known as the "Brandenburg Concertos." This composition is a rendezvous of imagination with the strings trying the limits of the wind instruments. The concerto begins brightly and assertively, traveling through well-defined areas of light and shade, flows serenely as solo instruments play their role, turn into a gay conversing among the four voices and reaching its final destination with an encore by the trumpet. Such is the wonder of this orchestral symphony.[br /]
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[b]Concertos [/b] [br /]
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Bach wrote three violin concertos at Cöthen between 1717 and 1723 (some of which exist only as harpischord transcription). He wrote the harpischord concertos so that his sons and he could play with the Leipzig University Collegium Musicum.[br /]
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