With this, as with all postings on “Today in History” when you get to a word or words that have been highlighted in a color, “click on” those words and that will take you to a link… in this case it will take you to a link wherein you will here some of the sublime, wonderful music of today’s subject, Johann Sebastian Bach.
“He regarded himself as a conscientious craftsman doing a job to the best of his ability for the satisfaction of his superiors, for the pleasure and edification of his fellowmen, and to the glory of God. Doubtless, he would have been astonished if he had been told that two hundred years after his death his music would be performed and studied everywhere and his name more deeply venerated by musicians than that of any other composer.”
So goes the summing up by Donald J. Grout of the life and legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born on today’s ( Above: Patrice Michaels with the Bach Week Orchestra Chorus) date in the year 1685 in the German city of Eisenach. He was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the Stadtpfeifer or town musicians and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. And what can one say about Bach that comes remotely close to summing up the true meaning of this man and his music? Yes, he wrote in all of the established forms of music of his time, with the exception of opera. Yes, his development was as Grout goes on to say, influenced by various factors including: “underlying all of the (other factors), that inexplicable personal element which we call genius.” Yes, his repertoire for the organ “outshines anything any other composer for the instrument has achieved.” as author Peter Gammond has written. Yes, as Willliam F. Buckley Jr. once said of him, he was the greatest genius ever to have lived. All of these things could and have been said of Bach. But his real significance lies in his music, and in the effect it has had on musicians and listeners alike for dozens of generations since his brief time on earth.
The Life of Johann Sebastian Bach
A very brief biographical sketch shows that for all of his greatness, in his own time Bach, while certainly respected, was not well known outside of his native area of Northern Germany. He was orphaned at age 10 and thereafter moved in with his brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), the organist at the Michaeliskirche in nearby Ohrdruf. It was here that the young Bach first learned the performance, composition and mechanical workings of the organ, In January 1703, Bach took a post as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar, a large town in Thuringia. During his seven-month time at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboard player began to spread. In 1708, he became the court organist and concertmaster at the ducal court in Weimar. Bach’s post in Weimar marked the start of a long period of composing keyboard and
orchestral works. From the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli and Torelli, he learned important compositional techniques, and adopted their bright dispositions, dynamic motor-rhythms and decisive harmonies. In 1720, Bach’s first wife died. For an example of the gut-wrenching sorrow that Bach could communicate in his music try listening to the Chaconne from the Partita No.2 in D minor written at this time (my friend Stacey Woolley played this at a Memorial Service for my mother, and I keenly felt the sorrow that Bach felt at this loss of a loved one). The following year, the widower met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 17 years his junior. They married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 more children, including Johann Christian who became along with C. P. E. Bach far better known in their own lifetimes than their father. In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of Thomasschule, adjacent to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, as well as Director of Music in the principal churches in the town. This was a prestigious post in the leading mercantile city in Saxony. This was Bach’s first government position in a career that had mainly involved service to the aristocracy. This final post, which he held for 27 years saw the greatest musical achievements of his career. His main instrumental, choral and chamber works were written during this period. He died in 1750. In 2008, a computerized facsimile of Bach’s head using computer modelling techniques, showed the composer to have been a strong-jawed man with a slight underbite, his large head topped with short, silver hair.
The Meaning of Bach’s Music
These are the very barest of outlines of the man’s life. For a deeper meaning of what the man and his “genius” was, one can only turn to the music itself. For an understanding of what his large ensemble music was, one could turn to the Brandenburg Concerti. For a measuring of the depth of his soul, one could hear the Concerto for Two Violins. For a true measuring of his ability as a musician, as well as his inventiveness as a composer, one could turn to his famous two-part inventions. For a measure of his meaning to generations of listeners, one could turn anywhere… to the immense popularity of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” or to the piece which I chose to be played at my Sister and Brother in Law’s wedding when the mothers of the Bride and Groom were brought in: “Sheep May Safely Graze”, and which remains my most touching memory of that event. Bach and his music remain timeless, ever remindful of the depth and the breadth that the human soul can reach. And his place in the pantheon of Western Music remains on a level with the very finest composers of history.
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