Johann Sebastian Bach was born on this day in 1695 in Eisenach, Germany.
He left an enormous catalog of compositions when he died at age 65 -- some 1,100 -- written while serving in various jobs and siring 20 children, some of whom became great musicians in their own right. His home was always "humming like a beehive," his son Carl Philipp Emanuel would later recall. Despite Bach's apparent industriousness, he was not personally well-liked (perhaps someone with so many responsibilities could be forgiven for being a bit cranky), and when he died he was buried without fanfare in an unmarked grave, while the town council only noted coolly that "Herr Bach was a great musician . . . but we wanted a schoolmaster, not a musical director" and reduced the size of his widow's pension on a technicality.
Throughout his life, Bach rarely traveled outside his native Thuringia, where his ancestors had for generations held positions as court musician or Lutheran cantor, so his fame, such as it was during his lifetime, was local in nature; coupled with the fact that he labored wholly within a contrapuntal musical idiom of the late Baroque era which was dying even as he was perfecting it, Bach was considered to be just another obscure German musician of a bygone era (known mainly to hardcore musicians) until almost 80 years after his death, when Felix Mendelssohn led a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, inaugurating a slow reconsideration of Bach's music. After yet another 80-100 years, Bach's works had been adopted by churches, orchestras and chamber groups as the core of the canon -- the definitive Baroque music, popular, easily co-opted for endless pop culture reinterpretations.
Although he came from a musical family (his father was a violinist), Bach was mostly self-taught. At 15, he became a chorister at Luneberg; at 18, he was appointed violinist in Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar's court orchestra, then organist at St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt. Even in his first major position, he was already running afoul of his superiors, suffering attack for "confusing" the parishioners with his "curious variations and irrelevant ornaments"; he also got into a street fight with a bassoonist whose playing he had compared to a goat's bleating. His problems with St. Boniface culminated in an episode in which he left Arnstadt on foot to travel to Lubeck (200 miles away) to hear the great Buxtehude play, and stayed there for 5 months.
After marrying his cousin Maria Barbara and leaving Arnstadt for an organist position at Mulhausen for less than a year, he returned to Weimar to become court organist for 9 years, where he wrote most of his pieces for organ, considered by many to be the greatest collection of compositions for the instrument, and studied the works of Italian composers such as Vivaldi. At 32, in 1717, he became kappellmeister to the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, but only after spending 3 weeks in jail because he had accepted the appointment without receiving Duke Wilhem's permission.
Three years later, Maria Barbara died, and a year later he married Anne Magdalena Wilcken (a daughter of a trumpeter and the mother of the last 13 of his 20 children; 10 in all survived to adulthood). While at Cothen, Bach wrote a great deal of music, including the first part of The Well-Tempered Clavier (an almost scientifically designed study of fugues which is nonetheless expressive and highly accessible to the listener), the Inventions, and the famous Brandenburg concerti, but he became better known as a musician than as a composer.
During this period, Bach was often invited to supervise the construction of new organs or to test them, and over the years he gained a reputation as the finest organist in the region. In 1716, while visiting Dresden, Bach was invited to play in a contest of organ virtuosity against the organist to the court of Louis XV, Louis Marchand. Marchand loudly bragged that he would dust the floor with the German, but upon hearing Bach practice, Marchand creeped out of town with his tail between his legs.
After Johann Kuhnau died in 1722, the position of cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig became available; Bach, whose fortunes were in decline after Prince Leopold married a woman who did not care for music, sought the position, and was awarded it only after Georg Philip Telemann turned it down and Christoph Graupner could not get released from his current job. Bach ultimately spent 27 years in Leipzig, writing 265 of his 295 cantatas there, 5 Masses, 6 motets, 4 Passions, 3 oratorios, and numerous keyboard works and chorale harmonizations while rehearsing the musicians and teaching his family and a number of private students.
Productivity alone would not have commended Bach to the core of the canon, however; it was his constant desire to learn and improve, to stretch the limits of the polyphonic idiom which were familiar to his audiences and (not purely incidentally to Bach, who signed all of his works "in the name of Jesus") to achieve greater heights of ecstasy in the celebration of God, which sets Bach's music during this period apart. Reveling within the strict rules of counterpoint which mandated agile melodic lines which worked together in perfect harmony, Bach's fugues give the effect of being totally un-self-conscious, simple tunes (i.e., "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), yet are often entwined in some of the most daring contrapuntal designs ever attempted. His breadth, however, was much greater than that of a composer of simple tunes -- wholly within the laws of polyphony, Bach was capable of conveying a range of emotions and moods, from charming dances to the anguish of the Passion.
In 1747, Bach visited his son Carl at the court of Frederick the Great, where he wowed the young conqueror with a six-voice fugue improvisation on the king's piano which later formed the basis of the Musical Offering -- yet another demonstration of the ease with which Bach's mind conversed within the inviolable rules of counterpoint. At the end of his life, after years of close copying in darkened rooms by candlelight, Bach was blind. He sought help from the same surgeon who had operated on Handel, but to no avail. The surgeon ordered Bach to live for 6 months in total darkness in hopes that the rest would help restore his eyesight, but after he was exposed to light at the end of the six months, Bach suffered a stroke, went into a coma, and died on July 28, 1750 in Leipzig.
His last two important pieces were typically spiritual in nature: the monumental Mass in B minor, written for a Catholic mass as opposed to a Lutheran mass, and an organ prelude called Before Thy Throne I Stand, with a main theme which referred numerologically to his own name, a kind of premonition and last offering, as Jan Swafford writes, to St. Peter before standing at his gates.