Johann Sebastian Bach

(1685-1750)

Born into a musical family, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) received his earliest instruction from first his father, then upon his death in 1695, his older brother, Johann Christoph. Bach’s first permanent positions were as organist in Arnstadt (1703-07) and Mühlhausen (1707-08). During these years, he performed, composed, taught, and developed an interest in organ building. From 1708-17 he was employed by Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, first as court organist, and after 1714, as concertmaster, where, he was required to produce a new cantata each month.

Since the court chapel at Bach’s next position (Music Director for Prince Leopold of Cöthon, 1717-23) was Calvinist, there was no need for church compositions. Bach’s new works were primarily for instrumental solo or ensemble. Among these important compositions were the Brandenburg Concertos, the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the “French” and “English” Suites for harpsichord, and most of the sonatas and suites he wrote for other instruments.

In 1723, Bach was appointed cantor at the St. Thomas Church and School, and Director of Music for Leipzig, positions which he retained for the rest of his career. His official duties included overseeing music in the four principal churches of the city and organizing musical events sponsored by the municipal council. His usual performing group consisted of sixteen singers and eighteen instrumentalists. During his first six years in Leipzig (1723-29), Bach’s most impressive compositions were his sacred cantatas (four yearly cycles), and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions.

After 1729, Bach no longer concentrated on composing sacred vocal music. For services, he re-used his own substantial repertory of cantatas and turned increasingly to the music of his contemporaries. During the 1730s, Bach renewed his interest in keyboard compositions and completed his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice).

During Bach’s last decade (the 1740s), he completed and revised several large-scale projects which he had started earlier: The Well-Tempered Clavier Vol. II, a manuscript collection of chorale preludes, and the B Minor Mass. New works, such as Musikalische Opfer (Musical Offering) and the canonic variations for organ on “Vom Himmel hoch” and Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue) showed an increased interest in fugal and canonic writing. In the 1740s, Bach made various journeys, most notably to the court of Frederick the Great. He continued a lively interest in the building of organs and kept informed about the latest developments in the construction of harpsichords and pianofortes.