Rocking the Baroque – Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61)
in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1746)

On this day in 1750 one of the most important and productive composers of the Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach died. Bach’s abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century.

The works of Johann Sebastian Bach are considered the utmost expression of polyphony. He is probably the only composer ever to make full use of the possibilities of art available in his time. Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany, in a Lutheran family of at least seven generations of musicians. From his father Bach received violin lessons and he also had a beautiful voice and sang in the church choir. At age ten after the death of his parents, Johann Sebastian moved to Ohrdruf, Germany, to live with his brother, Johann Christoph, who was the organist at St. Michael’s Church. From him Johann Sebastian received his first instruction on keyboard instruments.

After graduation in 1703 Bach was hired as an organist in a church in Arnstad, Germany, which gave him time to practice on his favorite instrument and to develop his talent. He got into trouble on several occasions, once for fighting with a fellow musician and once for being caught entertaining a “strange maiden” in the balcony while he was practicing the organ.

After his marriage with his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, he started a new position as court organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar in 1708. The years 1708 to 1710 saw an enormous output of original organ music by Bach. His reputation at the time, however, came mainly from his organ playing, not his compositions. Crown Prince Frederick of Sweden, who heard Bach play in 1714, was so astonished that he took a diamond ring from his finger and gave it to the organist.

In 1716 Prince Leopold of Cöthen, heard of Bach and offered him a position. When Bach requested his release to go to Cöthen, Duke Wilhelm refused to accept such short notice. Bach, who had already accepted an advance in salary, became so angry that he was placed under arrest and jailed for almost a month. Bach began his duties at Cöthen after his release, where he produced his greatest instrumental and orchestral works. In 1723 he was named cantor (choir leader) of Leipzig. But, the Leipzig committee was reluctant to hire him, because his reputation was mainly as an organist, not as a composer, and his ability as an organist was not needed since the cantor was not required to play at the services. His duties were primarily to provide choral music  for two large churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. In his later years, Bach gradually lost his eyesight and he was totally blind the last year of his life. A few days before his death he read parts of the hymn Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich allhier (Before Thy Throne I Stand) for his son-in-law to write down. Following a stroke and a high fever, Johann Sebastian Bach died on July 28, 1750.

At yovisto you can get a brief introduction in Bach’s art of composing from pianist and Bach afficionado Hilda Huang in her TED talk on ‘Bach, Music, and Passion’.

References and further Reading:


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