Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)

“I play the notes as they are written, but it is the Lord God who makes the Music. The intent, process and final end of all Musical expression must be none other than the Glory of GOD and the edification of the Soul.”

There was a time when giants walked the earth…

Born on this day, in the year 1685 was Johann Sebastian Bach – a German Composer, Organist and Patriarch of the Baroque Era of Music; he is quite possibly the greatest Composer who has ever lived.

Bach`s Musical Genius is without equal in sheer theoretical depth, rigorous technical mastery, profound emotional intensity, and celestial aesthetic beauty. His Music has significantly influenced virtually every Musician in Western Civilization and to this day continues to inspire all who study Music seriously. J.S. Bach is a veritable Titan within the Pantheon of Great Masters.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, his father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the town piper in Eisenach, a post that entailed organizing all the secular Music in town as well as participating in Church Music at the direction of the Church Organist. His uncles were also all professional Musicians ranging from Church Organists and Court Chamber Musicians to Composers, although Bach would later surpass them all in his Art. In an era when sons were expected to assist in their fathers` work, Bach began copying Music and playing various instruments at an early age.

Bach`s mother died when he was still a young boy and his father suddenly died when he was nine, at which time he moved in with his older brother Johann Christoph Bach, who was the Organist of Ohrdruf in Germany. While in his brother`s house, Bach continued copying, studying, and playing Music.

It was at Ohrdruf that Bach began to learn about Organ building. The Ohrdruf Church`s instrument was in constant need of minor repairs, and he was often sent into the belly of the old Organ to tighten, adjust, or replace various parts. The Church Organ, with its moving bellows, manifold stops, and complicated mechanism, was the most complex machine in any European town. This hands-on experience with the innards of the instrument would provide a unique counterpoint to his unequalled skill at playing it. Upon mastering both trades in his early adulthood, Bach was equally at home directing either artisans or performers.

While in school and as a young man, Bach`s curiosity compelled him to seek out great Organists of Germany such as Georg Bhm, Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reinken, often taking journeys of considerable length to hear them play. He was also greatly influenced by the work of Nicholas Bruhns.

Bach completed all of his formal education by the age 18, an impressive accomplishment in his day. Soon after, he took a post as Organist at Arnstadt in 1703. Owing to his virtuosity, he was later offered a more lucrative Organist post in Mhlhausen. Some of Bach`s earliest extant Compositions date to this period including his famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but almost all of the Music he wrote during this time has been lost.

In his later years and especially after his death, Bach`s reputation as a Composer declined: his work was regarded as old-fashioned compared to the emerging new Classical style. Still, he was far from forgotten, as he was well-reputed as a teacher, conductor and performer. His best-appreciated Compositions in this period were his keyboard works, in which field other Composers continued to acknowledge his mastery. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven were among Bach`s most prominent aficionados.

Once, during a visit to the Thomasschule in Leipzig, Mozart heard a performance of one of the Motets and exclaimed, “Now, here is something one can learn from!” Upon being given the parts of the Motets, Mozart abruptly sat down on the floor, sheets of scores all around him – held in both hands, on his knees, on the nearest chairs. Forgetting everything else, he did not stand up again until he had looked through all of Bach`s Music.

Beethoven was also a devoted admirer, learning the Well-Tempered Clavier as a child and later calling Bach: “Urvater der Harmonie” translated: “original father of harmony” and “Nicht Bach, sondern Meer! (“Not a stream, but the Sea!”) – a pun on the literal meaning of the Composer`s name.

The revival in the Composer`s reputation among the wider public was prompted in part by Johann Nikolaus Forkel`s biography (published in 1802) which was read by Beethoven, among others.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe became acquainted with Bach`s works relatively late in life, through a series of performances of keyboard and choral works in 1814 and 1815. In a letter written in 1827 he compared the experience of listening to Bach`s Music to “…eternal harmony in dialogue with itself.”

However, it was Felix Mendelssohn who did most to revive Bach`s reputation with his 1829 Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who attended the performance, later called Bach a “grand, truly Protestant, robust and, so to speak, erudite Genius which we have only recently learned again to appreciate at its full value.”

Mendelssohn`s ardent promotion of Bach, and the growth of the Composer`s stature, continued in subsequent years. The Bach Gesellschaft (The Bach Society) was founded in 1850 to promote his works, and over the next half century it published a comprehensive edition.

Since that time, Bach`s reputation has remained consistently high. During the 20th century the process of recognizing the Musical as well as the pedagogic value of some of the works has continued, perhaps most notably in the promotion of the Cello Suites by Pablo Casals. Another development has been the growth of the authentic or period performance movement, which attempts to present the Music as the Composer intended it. Examples include the playing of keyboard works on the harpsichord rather than a modern grand piano, and the use of small choirs or single voices instead of the larger forces favored by 19th and early 20th century performers.

Johann Sebastian Bach`s contributions to Music, as well as Musicology, could easily be compared to those of other disciplines. William Shakespeare`s artistry with the English language and narrative medium, or Sir Isaac Newton`s mathematical Genius and scientific advances – all innovators of the highest order.

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