JS Bach was born in 1685, the most talented member of a prodigiously gifted musical family. He was only nine when his mother died in 1694 and orphaned a year later when his farther died. He was taken into the care of an elder brother, Johann Christoph, who taught him keyboard playing before sending him north to Lüneburg to continue his education. There he became acquainted with the organist and composer Georg Böhm, heard the great organist Johann Adam Reincken at Hamburg and orchestral music played at the nearby court of Celle.
By 1703, Bach was a court musician at Weimar, but in that year he accepted an organist’s post at Arnstadt where he disgraced himself with the town council by turning four weeks leave into three months. Bach had occupied his time well, though, travelling to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude’s organ playing and becoming acquainted with his music at first hand. He survived Arnstadt for about three and a half years, however, before moving on to Mühlhausen as organist of St Blasius. Mühlhausen proved to be significant since it was here that he produced pieces in a form that we now recognise as being the kernel of his musical output – the sacred cantata.
In 1708 Bach retraced his footsteps toward the Weimar court to take up duties first as organist, then as Konzertmeister. Here he wrote prolifically for the organ, drawing on all he had learned from Buxtehude and other north-Germany composers as well as Italian and French styles. The music possesses great expressive individuality at the same time revealing Bach’s awe-inspiring understanding of the instrument for which he was writing. The evidence is found in such pieces as the Passacaglia in C minor and the Orgelbüchlein.
It was in Weimar, too, that Bach seems first to have encountered Italian concertos, especially the Venetian solo type developed by Vivaldi. The early fruits of his understanding and interpretation of the forms can be seen not only in the arrangements for solo harpsichord and organ of concertos by Vivaldi and others, which he made at Weimar, but also in the music of the cantatas which he wrote during the later years of his time there, between 1713 and his departure for Cöthen in 1717.
Three sacred cantatas, in particular, claim our attention for their expression and originality: Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4), Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21), and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) in which Bach brilliantly combines the French overture and Lutheran hymn in the opening chorus. The great secular cantata of this period is a birthday tribute to the Duke of Sachsen-Weissenfels, War mir behagt, ist nur die muntre jagd! (BWV 208) with its celebrated aria ‘Schafe Können sicher weiden’ (Sheep may safely graze).
At Cöthen, Bach’s responsibilities were different from those at Weimar. As Kapellmeister his chief concern was the running of Prince Leopold’s court orchestra among whose members from time to time was the musically gifted prince himself, a viola da gamba player. The orchestral cornerstone of Bach’s years at Cöthen (1717-23) are the Brandenburg Concertos, assembled in response to a ‘command’ from Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. Bach’s manuscript of the six concertos is dated 24 March 1721, though the music was composed over a longer period, some of it going back to the Weimar years.
Among the key works which can be ascribed to the period, however are the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, the Suites for solo cello, six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord and several collections for solo harpsichord, notably Book 1 of the ‘48’.
Bach’s seemingly contented life at Cöthen was clouded by two events. First came the death of his wife, Maria Barbara in 1719. Then, late in 1721, just after his second marriage to Anna Magdalena Wilcke, the Prince himself married but, alas for Bach, chose a consort who showed no interest in music. The creative friendship between composer and prince was terminated and Bach sought work elsewhere. In 1722 he applied for the position of Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig and after much shilly-shallying – Telemann and Christoph Graupner were preferred candidates – he was formally appointed to the post in April 1723.
As Kantor of St Thomas’s Church and Leipzig’s ‘Director Musices’, Bach was responsible both for the music of the city’s four principal churches and for providing pieces for civic occasions. Between 1723 and 1729 he not only composed three complete annual cycles of sacred cantatas for the church year, but also his two great accounts of the Passion St John (1724) and St Matthew (1727). Most of the cantatas were entirely new works, and almost all containing music of striking originality that may justly be placed on a level with the Passions, the Christmas Oratorio and the Mass in B minor.
By the end of the 1720s, Bach was in conflict with the Leipzig authorities, who reprimanded him for not carrying out his duties to the letter. From then, Bach made a deliberate move to diversify his activities. In 1729 he became director of a Leipzig ‘collegium musicum’, consisting mainly of students but which also included professional musicians. Bach enjoyed his connection with the society, which lasted in to the 1740s, providing it with harpsichord concertos and secular cantatas, including the celebrated Coffee Cantata.
In addition, Bach remained active during the last 20 years of his life, composing compiling and revising his music, giving organ recitals and advising on the construction of keyboard instruments. The products of this concluding period are dominated by the Mass in B minor, the Goldberg Variations for harpsichord (1741 or 1742), the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue.