Did You know this much about him?
Bach’s musical style arose from his extraordinary fluency in contrapuntal invention and motivic control, his flair for improvisation at the keyboard, his exposure to South German, North German, Italian and French music, and his apparent devotion to the Lutheran liturgy. His access to musicians, scores and instruments as a child and a young man, combined with his emerging talent for writing tightly woven music of powerful sonority, appear to have set him on course to develop an eclectic, energetic musical style in which foreign influences were injected into an intensified version of the pre-existing German musical language. Throughout his teens and 20s, his output showed increasing skill in the large-scale organisation of musical ideas, and the enhancement of the Buxtehudian model of improvisatory preludes and counterpoint of limited complexity. The period 1713–14, when a large repertoire of Italian music became available to the Weimar court orchestra, was a turning point. From this time onwards, he appears to have absorbed into his style the Italians’ dramatic openings, clear melodic contours, the sharp outlines of their bass lines, greater motoric and rhythmic conciseness, more unified motivic treatment, and more clearly articulated schemes for modulation.
There are several more specific features of Bach's style. The notation of baroque melodic lines tended to assume that composers would write out only the basic framework, and that performers would embellish this framework by inserting ornamental notes and otherwise elaborating on it. Although this practice varied considerably between the schools of European music, Bach was regarded at the time as being on one extreme end of the spectrum, notating most or all of the details of his melodic lines—particularly in his fast movements—thus leaving little for performers to interpolate. (An example of this ornate, inclusive notation is provided by the excerpt from his Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, in the previous section.) This may have assisted his control over the dense contrapuntal textures that he favoured, which allow less leeway for the spontaneous variation of musical lines. Bach's contrapuntal textures tend to be more cumulative than those of Händel and most other composers of the day, who would typically allow a line to drop out after it had been joined by two or three others. Bach's harmony is marked by a tendency to employ brief tonicisations—subtle references to another key that last for only a few beats at the longest—particularly of the supertonic, to add colour to his textures.
At the same time, Bach, unlike later composers, left the instrumentation of major works including The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering open. It is likely that his detailed notation was less an absolute demand on the performer and more a response to a 17th-century culture in which the boundary, between what the performer could embellish and the composer's demands, was being negotiated.
Bach’s apparently devout, personal relationship with the Christian God in the Lutheran tradition and the high demand for religious music of his times inevitably placed sacred music at the centre of his repertory; more specifically, the Lutheran chorale (hymn tune), the principal musical aspect of the Lutheran service, was the basis of much of his output. He invested the chorale prelude, already a standard set of Lutheran forms, with a more cogent, tightly integrated architecture, in which the intervallic patterns and melodic contours of the tune were typically treated in a dense, contrapuntal lattice against relatively slow-moving, overarching statements of the tune.
Bach's theology also informed his compositional structures: Sei Gegruesset (BWV 768) is perhaps the finest example where there is a theme with 11 variations (making 12 movements) that while one work become 2 sets of 6 - to match Lutheran preaching principles of repetition. At the same time the theological interpretation of 'master' and 11 disciples (Judas doesn't make it to the podium) would not be lost on his contemporary audience. Further, the practical relationship of each variation to the next (in preparing registration and the expected textural changes) seems to show an incredible capacity to preach through the music using the musical forms available at the time.
Bach's deep knowledge of and interest in the liturgy led to his developing intricate relationships between music and linguistic text. This was evident from the smallest to the largest levels of his compositional technique. On the smallest level, many of his sacred works contain short motifs that, by recurrent association, can be regarded as pictorial symbolism and articulations of liturgical concepts. For example, the octave leap, usually in a bass line, represents the relationship between heaven and earth; the slow, repeated notes of the bass line in the opening movement of Cantata 106 (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit) depict the laboured trudging of Jesus as he was forced to drag the cross from the city to the crucifixion site.
On the largest level, the large-scale structure of some of his sacred vocal works is evidence of subtle, elaborate planning: for example, the overall form of the St Matthew Passion illustrates the liturgical and dramatic flow of the Easter story on a number of levels simultaneously; the text, keys and variations of instrumental and vocal forces used in the movements of Cantata 11 (Lobet Gott in alle Landen) may form a structure that resembles the cross.
Beyond these specific musical features arising from Bach’s religious affiliation is the fact that he was able to produce music for an audience that was committed to serious, regular worship, for which a concentrated density and complexity was accepted. His natural inclination may have been to reinvigorate existing forms, rather than to discard them and pursue more dramatic musical innovations. Thus, Bach’s inventive genius was almost entirely directed towards working within the structures he inherited, according to most critics and historians.
Bach’s inner personal drive to display his musical achievements was evident in a number of ways. The most obvious was his successful striving to become the leading virtuoso and improviser of the day on the organ. Keyboard music occupied a central position in his output throughout his life, and he pioneered the elevation of the keyboard from continuo to solo instrument in his numerous harpsichord concertos and chamber movements with keyboard obbligato, in which he himself probably played the solo part. Many of his keyboard preludes are vehicles for a free improvisatory virtuosity in the German tradition, although their internal organisation became increasingly more cogent as he matured. Virtuosity is a key element in other forms, such as the fugal movement from Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, in which Bach himself may have been the first to play the rapid solo violin passages. Another example is in the organ fugue from BWV547, a late work from Leipzig, in which virtuosic passages are mapped onto Italian solo-tutti alternation within the fugal development.
Related to his cherished role as teacher was his drive to encompass whole genres by producing collections of movements that thoroughly explore the range of artistic and technical possibilities inherent in those genres. The most famous examples are the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, each of which presents a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, in which a variety of contrapuntal and fugal techniques are displayed. The English and French Suites, and the Partitas, all keyboard works from the Cöthen period, systematically explore a range of metres and of sharp and flat keys. This urge to manifest structures is evident throughout his life: the Goldberg Variations (1746?), include a sequence of canons at increasing intervals (unison, seconds, thirds, etc.), and The Art of Fugue (1749) can be seen as a manifesto of fugal techniques.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, a town of some 6,000 residents in the German-speaking electorate of secular music and participation in church music. He was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, organist at St. George's Church, and Elizabeth Lämmerhirt Bach. His father taught him to play violin and harpsichord. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts ranged from church organists and court chamber musicians to composers. His uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, was especially famous and introduced him into the art of organ playing. Bach was proud of his family's musical achievements, and around 1735 he drafted a geneaology, "Origin of the musical Bach family", tracing the history of generations of 53 musical Bachs, beginning with Veit (Vitus) Bach (d. 1619) "a white-bread baker in Hungary" who was forced to flee that country because he was a Lutheran and who "found the greatest pleasure in a little Cittern". Veit's son, Johannes (d. 1626), became a piper; Johannes' son, Christoph, (1613–61) was an instrumentalist; Johannes' other son, Ambrosius, was Sebastian Bach's father.
Bach's mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. The ten-year-old orphan moved in with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach, the organist at nearby Ohrdruf. There he copied, studied and performed music, and apparently received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. He exposed him to the work of the great South German composers of the day (such as Pachelbel and Johann Jakob Froberger), possibly to the music of North German composers, to Frenchmen (such as Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais), and to the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. The young Bach probably witnessed and assisted in the maintenance of the organ. Bach's obituary indicates that he copied music out of Johann Christoph's scores, but his brother had apparenty forbidden him to do so, possibly because scores were valuable and private commodities at the time.
At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend, Georg Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St Michael’s School in Lüneburg, not far from the northern seaport of Hamburg, the largest city in Germany. This involved a long journey with his friend, probably undertaken partly on foot and partly by coach. His two years there appear to have been critical in exposing him to a wider palette of European culture than he would have experienced in Thuringia. In addition to singing in the a cappella choir, it is likely that he played the School’s three-manual organ and its harpsichords. He probably learned French and Italian, and received a thorough grounding in theology, Latin, history, geography and physics. He would have come into contact with sons of noblemen from northern Germany sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in diplomacy, government and the military. It is likely that he had significant contact with organists in Lüneburg, in particular Georg Böhm, and that he visited several of them in Hamburg, such as Reincken and Bruhns. Through these musicians, he probably gained access to the largest and finest instruments he had played thus far. It is likely that during this stage, he became acquainted with the music of the North German tradition, especially the work of Dieterich Buxtehude, and with music manuscripts and treatises on music theory that were in the possession of these musicians.
In January 1703, shortly after graduating, Bach took up a post as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar, a large town in Thuringia. His role there is unclear, but appears to have included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboard player spread. He was invited to inspect and give the inaugural recital on the new organ at St Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt. The Bach family had close connections with this oldest town in Thuringia, about 180 km to the southwest of Weimar at the edge of the great forest. In August 1703, he accepted the post of organist at that church, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a fine new organ tuned to a modern system that allowed a wide range of keys to be used. At this time, Bach was embarking on the serious composition of organ preludes; these works, in the North German tradition of virtuosic, improvisatory preludes, already showed tight motivic control (where a single, short music idea is explored cogently throughout a movement). However, in these works the composer had yet to fully develop his powers large-scale organisation and his contrapuntal technique (where two or more melodies interact simultaneously). Strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer failed to prevent tension between the young organist and the authorities after several years in the post. He was apparently dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir; more seriously, there was his unauthorised absence from Arnstadt for several months in 1705–06, when he visited the great master Buxtehude and his Abendmusik in the northern city of Lübeck. This well-known incident in Bach’s life involved his walking some 400 km each way to spend time with the man he probably regarded as the father-figure of German organists. The trip reinforced Buxtehude’s style as a foundation for Bach’s earlier works, and that he overstayed his planned visit by several months suggests that his time with the old man was of great value to his art.
St Boniface's Church in Arnstadt
Despite his comfortable position in Arnstadt, by 1706 Bach appeared to have realised that he needed to escape from the family milieu and move on to further his career. He was offered a more lucrative post as organist at St Blasius’s in Mühlhausen, a large and important city to the north. The following year, he took up this senior post with significantly improved pay and conditions, including a good choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, he married his second cousin from Arnstadt, Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Two of them—Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach—became important composers in the ornate Rococo style that followed the Baroque.
The church and city government at Mühlhausen must have been proud of their new musical director. They readily agreed to his plan for an expensive renovation of the organ at St Blasius’s, and were so delighted at the elaborate, festive cantata he wrote for the inauguration of the new council in 1708—God is my king BWV 71, clearly in the style of Buxtehude—that they paid handsomely for its publication, and twice in later years had the composer return to conduct it. However, that same year, Bach was offered a better position in Weimar.
After barely a year at Mühlhausen, Bach left to become the court organist and concert master at the ducal court in Weimar, a far cry from his earlier position there as ‘lackey’. The munificent salary on offer at the court and the prospect of working entirely with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians may have prompted the move. The family moved into an apartment just five minutes’ walk from the ducal palace. In the following year, their first child was born and they were joined by Maria Barbara’s elder, unmarried sister, who remained with them to assist in the running of the household until her death in 1729. It was in Weimar that the two musically significant sons were born—Friedemann and Emanuel Bach.
Bach’s position in Weimar marked the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works, in which he had attained the technical proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing large-scale structures and to synthesize influences from abroad. From the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli and Torelli, he learnt how to write dramatic openings and adopted their sunny dispositions, dynamic motor-rhythms and decisive harmonic schemes. Bach inducted himself into these stylistic aspects largely by transcribing for harpsichord and organ the ensemble concertos of Vivaldi; these works are still concert favourites. He may have picked up the idea of transcribing the latest fashionable Italian music from Prince Johann Ernst, one of his employers, who was a musician of professional calibre. In 1713, the Duke returned from a tour of the Low Countries with a large collection of scores, some of them possibly transcriptions of the latest fashionable Italian music by the blind organist Jan Jacob de Graaf. He was particularly attracted to the Italian solo-tutti structure, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement. These Italianate features can be heard in the excerpt below of the Prelude to English Suite No. 3 for harpsichord (1714). The solo–tutti alternation is achieved when the player deftly changes between the lower keyboard (of a fuller, slightly louder tone) and the upper keyboard (of a more delicate tone).
In Weimar, he had the opportunity to play and compose for the organ, and to perform a varied repertoire of concert music with the duke’s ensemble. A master of contrapuntal technique, Bach’s steady output of fugues began in Weimar. The largest single body of his fugal writing is Das wohltemperierte Clavier ("The well-tempered keyboard" — "Clavier" meaning keyboard instrument). It consists of 48 preludes and fugues, one pair for each major and relative minor key. This is a monumental work for its masterful use of counterpoint and its exploration, for the first time, of the full range of keys—and the means of expression made possible by their slight differences from each other—available to keyboardists when their instruments are tuned according to systems such as that of Andreas Werckmeister.
During his tenure at Weimar, Bach started work on The little organ book for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann; this contains traditional Lutheran chorales (hymn tunes), set in complex textures to assist the training of organists. The book illustrates two major themes in Bach’s life: his dedication to teaching and his love of the chorale as a musical form.
￼The palace and gardens at Cöthen in an engraving from Matthäus Merian's Topographia (1650)
￼Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001) in Bach’s handwriting
Bach began once again to search out a more stable job that was conducive to his musical interests. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music). Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach’s talents, paid him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. However, the prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship; thus, most of Bach’s work from this period was secular, including the Orchestral suites, the Six suites for solo cello and the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin. This photograph of the opening page of the first violin sonata shows the composer’s handwriting—fast and efficient, but just as visually ornate as the music it encoded. The well-known Brandenburg concertos date from this period.
On July 7, 1720 while Bach was abroad with Prince Leopold, tragedy struck: his wife, Maria Barbara, the mother of his first 7 children, died suddenly. The following year, the widower met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano who performed at the court in Cöthen; they married on 3 December 1721. Despite the age difference—she was 17 years his junior—they appear to have had a happy marriage. Together, they had 13 more children, of whom Gottfried Heinrich, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian became significant musicians and a further three survived into adulthood: Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (1726–81) who married Bach's pupil Johann Christoph Altnikol, Johanna Carolina (1737–81) and Regina Susanna (1742–1809)
A 1723 engraving by JG Krügner of St Thomas’s Church, the St Thomas School at a right angle to it, on the left
A photograph of the outside of Bach’s apartment at the end of the St Thomas School, taken before its demolition in 1902. Three steps can be seen leading to the front door.
In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of the Thomasschule, adjacent to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas’s Lutheran Church) in Leipzig, as well as Director of Music in the principal churches in the town. This was a prestigious post in the leading mercantile city in Saxony, a neighbouring electorate to Thuringia. Apart from his brief tenures in Arnstadt and Mülhausen, this was Bach’s first government position in a career that had mainly involved service to the aristocracy. This final post, which he held for 27 years until his death, brought him into contact with the political machinations of his employer, the Leipzig Council. The Council comprised two factions: the Absolutists, loyal to the Saxon monarch in Dresden, Augustus the Strong; and the City-Estate faction, representing the interests of the mercantile class, the guilds and minor aristocrats. Bach was the nominee of the monarchists, in particular of the Mayor at the time, Gottlieb Lange, a lawyer who had earlier served in the Dresden court. In return for agreeing to Bach’s appointment, the City-Estate faction was granted control of the School, and Bach was required to make a number of compromises with respect to his working conditions. Although it appears that no one on the Council doubted Bach’s musical genius, there was continual tension between the Cantor, who regarded himself as the leader of church music in the city, and the City-Estate faction, which saw him as a schoolmaster and wanted to reduce the emphasis on elaborate music in both the School and the Churches. The Council never honoured Lange’s promise at interview of a handsome salary of 1,000 talers a year, although it did provide Bach and his family with a smaller income and a good apartment at one end of the school building, which was renovated at great expense in 1732.
Bach’s job required him to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing, and to provide weekly music at the two main churches in Leipzig, St Thomas's and St Nicholas's. His post also obliged him to teach Latin, but he was allowed to employ a deputy to do this instead. In an astonishing burst of creativity, he wrote up to five annual cantata cycles during his first six years in Leipzig (two of which have apparently been lost). Most of these concerted works expound on the Gospel readings for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year; many were written using traditional church hymns, such as Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, as inspiration.
To rehearse and perform these works at St Thomas’s Church, Bach probably sat at the harpsichord or stood in front of the choir on the lower gallery at the west end, his back to the congregation and the altar at the east end. He would have looked upwards to the organ that rose from a loft about four metres above. To the right of the organ in a side gallery would have been the winds, brass and timpani; to the left were the strings. The Council provided only about eight permanent instrumentalists, a source of continual friction with the Cantor, who had to recruit the rest of the 20 or so players required for medium-to-large scores from the University, the School and the public. The organ or harpsichord were probably played by the composer (when not standing to conduct), the in-house organist, or one of Bach’s elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann or Carl Philipp Emanuel.
Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the School, and the tenors and basses from the School and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings and funerals provided extra income for these groups; it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets, mostly for double-choir. As part of his regular church work, he performed motets of the Venetian school and Germans such as Heinrich Schütz, which would have served as formal models for his own motets. The audio excerpt is from the opening of Singet dem Herrn (Sing to the Lord), showing the rich, energetic textures that Bach could produce with two choirs, each in four parts. In this recording, there are three singers to each part.
By: jwspackerfan - 2007-05-20 18:22:26