2013-03-17 Notes from the Bench

Happy Birthday Johann Sebastian Bach!
A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, a town in the Thuringia region of Germany, into an extensive family of professional musicians. By 1695, both of his parents had died and Bach went to live with his elder brother, Johann Christoph, in Ohrdruf. Bach received his first keyboard instruction from his brother, but also taught himself by studying and copying manuscripts his brother possessed. Bach attended schools in Eisenach, Ohrdruf, and Lüneburg.

In 1703, Bach was employed for a short period of time as a court musician for Duke of Weimar, Johann Ernst. He was later appointed the organist for the Bonifaciuskirche (Neue Kirche) in Arnstadt. In 1705, Bach requested a four weeks leave to visit Lübeck and hear Buxtehude, however, he was away for four months, which upset church authorities. Furthermore, they complained about Bach’s organ playing, stating that he was “introducing strange harmonies to the chorales.” Bach soon left to accept a position as organist for the Church of St. Blasius in Mühlhausen.

In 1708, Bach was offered the position of court organist for the Duke of Weimar, a position he held for 8 years. The previous year, he married his first wife, Maria Barbara. It was while Bach was the court organist in Weimar that he composed most of his organ works, including many of the preludes, toccatas, and fugues; chorale settings, and concerto transcriptions. Bach desired the position of Kappelmeister, the director of music, but did not receive the position.

In 1717, Bach accepted the KappelImeister position for the Court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. Since Bach had no official chapel duties, most of the music he composed was secular, including the orchestral and instrumental suites, sonatas and partitas, and the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach’s wife died in 1719 while he was traveling with the prince. Stricken with grief, Bach considered his wife’s death a sign from God that he should return to composing sacred music. Before leaving Cöthen, Bach married his second wife, Anna Magdalena, a court singer and chamber musician in 1722.

Bach applied to be the Kantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. The council desired to candidate who would teach Latin, but all the applicants refused, so they decided to settle on a “mediocre candidate.” In 1723, he began his position at the Thomasschule with additional duties as the civic director of music, and directed music at the four Leipzig churches: Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche, the Matthäeikirche (or Neukirche) and the Petrikirche. Bach wrote many of his major choral works while in Leipzig, including the cantatas, motets, the B-minor Mass, The St. John Passion, and St. Matthew Passion. Although Bach did not hold an organist position in Leipzig, he was active as a recitalist and inaugurated new organs. A few compositions for organ were written by Bach for these occasions, including additional preludes and fugues, the Trio sonatas, and chorale settings.

In 1741, Bach joined the Correspondirende Societät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften (Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences) founded by Lorenz Mizler, submitting a ‘scientific’ piece of work, his canonic variations on the chorale, Vom Himmel hoch. Among the organ works of Bach published during his lifetime are The Clavierübung, Part III (1739), the Schübler Chorales, and the Canonic Variations (both 1748). Bach was also preparing his Art of Fugue for publication between 1742 and 1749 and revised some of his chorale settings, now known as the Leipzig Chorales, or the Great Eighteen. In his final years, Bach lost his eyesight due to poor health and diabetes. He underwent two eye surgeries which were unsuccessful. He died following a stroke on July 28, 1750.

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