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Johann Sebastian Bach


"Fugue in D Minor"

Researcher: Rachel Sahlman


Bach is considered by many people to be the greatest composer who ever lived. Bach was born on March 21, 1685 in the Thuringian city of Eisenach, now in Germany. He was the youngest child of Johannes Ambrosius Bach and Elisabeth Lammerhirt. Bach's father was a string player who was employed not only by the town council but also at the court of Eisenach.

Johann Sebastian started school when he was 7 or 8 years old, and he apparently was a good student. No information is known about his musical education, so it is possible that he learned to play string instruments from watching his father. It may have been that he learned about harmony from his uncle Johann Christoph Bach, who was organist at the Georgen Church until 1703. Bach also learned to play the organ and harpsichord, and he became an expert at building organs.

Both his parents had died by the time Bach was 10, so his oldest brother, also named Johann Christoph after his uncle, took over his care and musical education.

In March 1703, Bach became a member of the orchestra employed by the Duke of Weimar. At the same time, a new organ was being built and installed in the New Church in the city of Arnstadt, and Bach helped test it. By then, he had decided that his musical interest was mostly in keyboards and sacred music. At age 18, Bach was appointed organist at the church.

In 1705, Bach walked 200 miles to hear the famous composer and organist Dietrich Buxtehude in a concert in Lübeck. He had asked for a month's leave, but Bach was so interested in Buxtehude's music that he stayed away for three months. His employers were upset by this. Bach had also had some arguments with the singers in the church chorale, so he was not completely happy with his situation.

Bach remained in Arnstadt until June 1707, when he moved to Mülhausen, where he became organist in the Blasius Church. Then, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach on October 17, 1707. Not long after, Bach composed the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, one of his most famous works. Bach left Mülhausen in June 1708, apparently because of insufficient salary.

The Bach family moved to Weimar, where Bach became court organist for Duke Wilhelm of Weimar. He wrote several cantatas, both sacred and secular, then. In 1713, Bach was offered a position in the city of Halle, but the Duke raised his salary, so Bach stayed in Weimar. However, his duties were also increased, and he was expected to write a new cantata for the Duke's orchestra every month.

These cantatas began to show an influence from the music of the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Bach began to adopt a musical form called ritornello, which allowed repetition of themes or whole parts of a composition. This made the resulting musical works larger and more complex.

In 1716, Bach was passed over for the position of musical director at Weimar, so he accepted a position with Prince Leopold of Kothen in August 1717. However, the Duke of Weimar refused to let him go. At this same time, an organ playing contest was arranged in Dresden between Bach and the French organist Louis Marchand. Only a few hours before the contest, Marchand left Dresden, so Bach won by default. Bach then asked The Duke to let him go, and the Duke imprisoned him for a month. When he was finally released, Bach left immediately for Kothen.

The French Suites were completed there in 1721, the Brandenburg Concertos in 1720, and the first volume of the Well Tempered Clavier in 1722. This last work consisted of two books of 24 preludes and fugues in all keys, the second book completed in 1744.

Maria Barbara died unexpectedly in July 1720. Bach had to find a way to care for his family, which included his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, who became famous composers on their own.

In December 1721, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, and they began another family, one of whom was composer Johann Christian Bach, who moved to England and became known as the "London Bach." The Prince had been Bach's friend through this time. Then, the Prince married a woman who demanded all his time, so much so that Bach began to feel neglected. Bach applied for a position in Leipzig, but the decision was not made immediately. The Princess died only two years after her marriage, but by then, Bach was committed to Leipzig. He moved his family there, and Johann Sebastian Bach died in Leipzig in 1750.

Some of the most famous music Bach wrote, besides the Brandenburg Concertos, the Well Tempered Clavier, and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, were the Saint Matthew and Saint John Passion, the Mass in B Minor, the Christmas Oratorio, and the Art of the Fugue, Numerous instrumental, choral, and orchestral compositions as well as keyboard works attest to the energy and musical genius of this composer, who was considered "old-fashioned" in his time. His music is still enjoyed by millions of people throughout the world today.

Bibliographic Citation Format:

Author's last name, first name, middle initial. "Title of biography." SPECTRUM Home & School Magazine. [http://www.incwell.com/Spectrum.html] (date accessed). © KB Shaw

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