Essay, Research Paper: Bach

Music

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Throughout the history of music, many great composers, theorists, and
instrumentalists have left indelible marks and influences that people today look
back on to admire and aspire to. No exception to this idiom is Johann Sebastian
Bach, whose impact on music was unforgettable to say the least. People today
look back to his writings and works to both learn and admire. He truly can be
considered a music history great. Bach, who came from a family of over 53
musicians, was nothing short of a virtuosic instrumentalist as well as a
masterful composer. Born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685, he was the son
of a masterful violinist, Johann Ambrosius Bach, who taught his son the basic
skills for string playing. Along with this string playing, Bach began to play
the organ which is the instrument he would later on be noted for in history. His
instruction on the organ came from the player at Eisenach's most important
church. He instructed the young boy rather rigorously until his skills surpassed
anyone’s expectations for someone of such a young age. Bach suffered early
trauma when his parents died in 1695. He went to go live with his older brother,
Johann Christoph, who also was a professional organist at Ohrdruf. He continued
his younger brother's education on that instrument, as well as introducing him
to the harpsichord. The rigorous training on these instruments combined with
Bach’s masterful skill paid off for him at an early age. After several years
of studying with his older brother, he received a scholarship to study in
Luneberg, Germany, which is located on the northern tip of the country. As a
result, he left his brother’s tutelage and went to go and study there. The
teenage years brought Bach to several parts of Germany where he mainly worked as
an organist in churches, since that was the skill he had perfected the best from
his young training. However, a master of several instruments while still in his
teens, Johann Sebastian first found employment at the age of 18 as a violinist
in a court orchestra in Weimar. Although he did not remain there terribly long,
he was able to make good money playing for the king. He soon after accepted a
position as a church organist in Arnstadt. It was here that Bach would soon
realize his high standards and regards that he had for music. In Arnstadt as
well as in many other places that Bach worked he was notorious for getting into
fights over the quality of music that was being produced. A perfect example of
this can be seen in Arnstadt. Previous accounts of history claim that Bach was
upset with the performance of the church choir for which he played for. He
claimed that “the voices could never make the music soar to the sky as it
should” (loosely translated). Here Bach realized the high level of music and
perfectionism that he wanted. In 1707, at the age of 22, Bach moved on from
Arnstadt to another organist job, this time at the St. Blasius Church in
Muhlhausen. Once again he did not remain there too long, only a little over a
year, when he moved again to Weimar where he accepted the position of head
concertmaster and organist in the Ducal Chapel. It was here that Bach settled
himself and began to compose the first collection of his finest early works
which, included organ pieces and cantatas. By this time Bach had been married
for several years. He actually became married to his cousin Maria Barbara. They,
for the most part, had a happy marriage. He was happy. By this stage of his life
he had “composed” for himself a wonderful reputation of being a brilliant
musical talent. Along with that his proficiency on the organ was unequaled in
Europe by this time. In fact, he toured regularly as a solo virtuoso, and his
growing mastery of compositional forms, like the fugue and the canon, were
already attracting interest from the musical establishment, which, in his day,
was the Lutheran church. The church began to look at Bach’s writings and saw
the opportunity to possibly use his music in their masses. Thus was the slow
birth of the German chorale, which Bach later became renowned for. Bach’s
virtuosic career did suffer minor setbacks along the way. He occasionally would
be passed over for deserved positions within the court that he worked. However,
in 1715 when he did not receive a truly desired position of “Kapellmeister”
(choral master) of Weimer, he was insulted and left the city. He accepted a
position as a court conductor in Cothen, where he began to work on another part
of his musical genre, that of instrumental music. Up until this point, Bach was
mainly writing organ pieces and church cantatas. One of his most famous,
“Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme,” became well known around the world and is
still looked upon as a classic today. However, when he arrived in Cothen he
began to focus on all other instruments and used his talents as a string player
and knowledge of “wind & brass” instruments to begin composing
instrumental pieces. It was during his stay here in Cothen that the orchestral
masterpiece known as the “Brandenburg Concerto” was born. Bach’s tenure in
Cothen lasted approximately seven years. In that time his wife Mara became ill
and died. Although distraught, he soon remarried to Anna Magdalena. It was
during this time that Bach had several children, three in particular would grow
to become talented musicians like their father. Wilhelm Friedmann, C.P.E. Bach,
and J.C. Bach. They to became virtosos of the organ and later the harpsichord,
much like their father was. After Bach left Cothen, he received a prestigious
position as music director at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. Here
Bach accepted his most demanding position of all. He had the responsibility of
composing cantatas for the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches, conducing the
choirs, overseeing the musical activities of numerous municipal churches, and
teaching Latin in the St. Thomas choir school. Although demanding, Bach
persisted and succeeded in Leipzig and continued to write music of various kinds
with a level of craft and emotional profundity that was his alone. Bach remained
at his post in Leipzig until his death in 1750. Although he was blinded by
cataract problems in the early 1740s, he still managed to compose masterful
pieces up until days before his death. His last musical composition that he
crafted happened to be a choral prelude, which was dedicated to his son-in law.
To this day more than 1,000 of Bach’s accomplished compositions survive. Some
of his most famous works include the “Brandenburg Concerto,” The “Mass In
B Minor,” “The Goldberg Variations for Harpsichord,” his vast amount of
toccatas, especially his “Toccata In F Major,” his collection of variations
on organ preludes captured in the “Well Tempered Clavier,” his immense
amount of fugues and chorales including his “Fugue in G minor,” major as
well as his tremendous amount of chorales, and his Christmas and Easter
oratorios, which was another schism in his music genre. Quite frankly, the list
goes on and on and on. Surely, Johann Sebastian Bach never believed that his
success would become so heroic and monumental. However, we today perceive him to
be one of the key individuals to shape the music we listen to. It is no secret
that his writings, especially chorale writings, are used to illustrate the
principles of our functional system of harmony. It is in this example alone that
it can be seen that Bach’s works have not only survived to the point where
they are still heard and listened to, but they also still provide us with
knowledge and understanding from which we can learn and discover music. It is
for these reasons that the life of Johann Sebastian Bach was truly a great one
and it is without any apprehension that he can be considered a musical great.
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