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Johann Sebastian Bach

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Johann Sebastian (JS) Bach - born 21 March, 1685, died 28 July, 1750 - was a German musician during the later baroque period. His two major contributions to the world of music were some 1,100 musical works and 20 children, three of which made names for themselves during the classical period. JS Bach is considered by many to be the master of counterpoint in his era, and as counterpoint nearly disappeared for some 150 years after him, the foremost polyphonic1 writer of all time.

His Life History

Bach was born to a family of musicians in Eisanach, currently part of central Germany. By his 10th birthday, his older brother Johann Cristoph had taken him to Ohrdruf and had begun to give him keyboard lessons. In 1700, JS went to Lüneburg to be part of a boys' choir at St Michael's Church. In 1703 he accepted the organist's post at Arnstadt, and stayed there until 1707, with the exception of three months spent in Lübeck studying under Buxtehude. Here he wrote his early organ works, and a number of chorale harmonisations which were thought too 'free' by many in his congregation. He went to Mühlhausen for a little under a year, and then was offered the post of court organist and musician at the court of the Duke of Weimar. Here he married his first wife in late 1709 or early 1710, and had seven children by her between 1710 and her death in 1720. He composed a number of his finest cantatas there, and remained at the court until late 1717, when he went to Köthen. In Köthen, Bach married his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilken. He left Köthen for Leipzig in 1723.

Leipzig proved to be a good post for Bach; he remained there until the end of his life. He taught at the school and was director of music for four churches in the city. He composed cantatas for the first three years of his tenure, but gradually moved to more secular forms after that. However, his larger sacred works, such as The Christmas Oratorio and B Minor Mass date from 1733 - 17352. Bach applied for the post of court musician to the Margrave of Brandenburg with the Brandenburg Concertos during this period, and visited King Frederick the Great of Prussia as well, but was thought to be somewhat old fashioned by his peers, and continued to write in a limited set of musical forms for the remainder of his life.

His Music

The music of Bach was, for the most part, forgotten during the classical and early romantic period. Mozart did several transcriptions of some of his smaller works, but aside from these and some of his small keyboard pieces, his works were neglected. Mendelssohn revived his larger sacred works in the early 1830s, however, and by 1850, the Bachgesellschaft was founded, with the intention of publishing all the works of Bach. A massive biography of Bach was published by Spitta in the 1870s, and by the start of the 20th Century, Bach had become one of the foremost composers in Western music.

The reason for this seems to be that Bach's music was constantly looking forward to a more relaxed harmonic structure, while remaining strict in form. The classical period went the other way, with a freer idea of form but a very simple harmonic ideal. It was not until the time of Beethoven's later symphonies, which were themselves considered advanced harmonically, that Bach began to be re-discovered. However, his works for keyboard are among the finest in the literature, and are used as teaching exercises as well as concert pieces of the highest order.

The contributions of Bach have been felt a great deal in the last century, with a return to traditional contrapuntal forms. A number of excellent recordings of his works are available, and provide excellent listening for those interested in music in general as well as the period and forms Bach wrote in.

1Polyphony is music that contains at least two distinct melodic voices.2Almost all of his larger works date from the last 25 years of his life.

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