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Sunday, 8 January 2012

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, Germany on March 31 (O.S. March 21), 1685, the youngest of eight children.

His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach (d March 2, 1695), was a string player, court trumpeter and town piper in Eisenach. The post of town piper entailed organizing all the secular music in town as well as participating in church music at the direction of the church organist.

Johann Ambrosius Bach, Bach's father

Johann was orphaned aged 10 and was raised by his eldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, the organist at the Michaeliskirche in nearby Ohrdruf.

Young Johann Sebastian attended the Gymnasium in Eisenach the same school that Martin Luther attended 200 years earlier.

Bach liked walking. As a youngster, he walked 50 kilometers from his L√ľneburg school to Hamburg to see J A Reincken , the organist perform. On another occasion he walked a mere 25 miles to Halle in the hope of meeting Handel but arrived just after he had left the town by coach.

Bach fathered 20 children altogether, 9 girls and 11 boys, from his two marriages.

In total 64 members of the Bach family between 1600 and 1800 took up music as a profession. More than 100 descendants of Bach have been cathedral organists.

In 1705 when Bach was organist in Arnstradt, he got into a street fight with the bassoon player of the church’s school choir after JSB called him names. Their brawl took place in the market square in Arnstradt.

Bach was acknowledged in Germany as the greatest organist of his time and esteemed as a specialist in the mechanics of organ building. However his contrapuntal (music that consists of two or more melodies played at the same time) style of writing sounded old fashioned to his contemporaries. Indeed his sons Carl Philip and Johann Christian Bach were more famous in their lifetime than their father.



He instigated the novel practice of using the thumb more as the little finger on the keys of the organ.

The Brandenburg Concertos were six pieces written by Bach for the Count Brandenburg, to gain extra support for his work. He dedicated them to the Count on March 24, 1721. The ploy didn't work as the Count's orchestra was too small to perform them and the manuscripts were discovered for sale on the Count's death in a job lot.


The St Matthew Passion was first performed on April 11, 1727 in Leipzig's St. Thomas Church. The manuscript for the passion only came to light a hundred years later when it was bought as wrapping paper from the estate of a deceased cheese-monger. The work was not heard outside of Leipzig until the twenty-year old Felix Mendelssohn conducted the Passion in Berlin in 1829, with the Berlin Singakademie, to great acclaim.

copy in Bach's own hand of the revised version of the St Matthew Passion that is generally dated to the year 1743–46

Bach wrote the The Well Tempered Clavier, a collection of 48 fugues and preludes composed in every minor and major key. He established for the first time in the history of the keyboard music a tuning procedure that made all the keys equally usable.

Bach is known to have been deeply interested in numbers and mathematics, which were often coded into his compositions, For instance, there are 17 notes in the 17th measure of the 17th Prelude in the Well Tempered Clavier.

He believed in the spiritual significance of numbers. The number 14 was especially important to Bach. If A+1, B=2 etc, when you add up the cardinal numbers that correspond to the letters of his surname, you get 14.

The numeral 6 figures prominently in Bach's music: In addition to his six Brandenburg Concertos, he composed six Suites for Solo Cello and his Six Partitas for keyboard. He even wrote a poem about smoking a pipe that consisted of six stanzas.

Bach had a sense of humor, writing a mini comic opera Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (‘Be still, stop chattering’), which told the story of characters addicted to coffee. It premiered in 1735 at a Leipzig coffee house

Bach was criticized in his younger days by the church authorities for his lavish flourishes and unusual augmentations in his organ accompaniments to congregation singing

Bach was always complaining about money with a lot of children to support and choirs and orchestras to run. However, recently discovered papers reveal he was a dab hand at financial speculation, trading shares in a Saxony silver mine.

Bach never traveled outside a 200 mile radius from his home in his lifetime.

The last major work he wrote before his death was a fugue with a counter-theme B-A-C-H.

Bach's sight failed in his later years due to his hard work. The famous London based eye surgeon, John Taylor, operated on Bach's failing sight along with Handel's and Edward Gibbon's. All three were unsuccessful. Bach died of a paralytic stroke after his unsuccessful eye operation aged 65 on July 28, 1750.

Taylor was one of the most flamboyant surgeons of his age, travelling from town to town in a coach decorated with pictures of eyeballs.

The bones in his much visited grave at St Thomas’s church, Leipzig, may be the wrong ones, after remains were jumbled up by wartime bombing.

Bach's grave and altar in the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

Source The Tennessean



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