Essay, Research Paper: Bach


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Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the greatest composers in Western musical
history. More than 1,000 of his compositions survive. Some examples are the Art
of Fugue, Brandenburg Concerti, the Goldberg Variations for Harpsichord, the
Mass in B-Minor, the motets, the Easter and Christmas oratorios, Toccata in F
Major, French Suite No 5, Fugue in G Major, Fugue in G Minor ("The
Great"), St. Matthew Passion, and Jesu Der Du Meine Seele. He came from a
family of musicians. There were over 53 musicians in his family over a period of
300 years. Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany on March 21,
1685. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a talented violinist, and taught
his son the basic skills for string playing; another relation, the organist at
Eisenach's most important church, instructed the young boy on the organ. In 1695
his parents died and he was only 10 years old. He went to go stay with his older
brother, Johann Christoph, who was a professional organist at Ohrdruf. Johann
Christoph was a professional organist, and continued his younger brother's
education on that instrument, as well as on the harpsichord. After several years
in this arrangement, Johann Sebastian won a scholarship to study in Luneberg,
Northern Germany, and so left his brother's tutelage. A master of several
instruments while still in his teens, Johann Sebastian first found employment at
the age of 18 as a "lackey and violinist" in a court orchestra in
Weimar; soon after, he took the job of organist at a church in Arnstadt. Here,
as in later posts, his perfectionist tendencies and high expectations of other
musicians - for example, the church choir - rubbed his colleagues the wrong way,
and he was embroiled in a number of hot disputes during his short tenure. In
1707, at the age of 22, Bach became fed up with the lousy musical standards of
Arnstadt (and the working conditions) and moved on to another organist job, this
time at the St. Blasius Church in Muhlhausen. The same year, he married his
cousin Maria Barbara Bach. Again caught up in a running conflict between
factions of his church, Bach fled to Weimar after one year in Muhlhausen. In
Weimar, he assumed the post of organist and concertmaster in the ducal chapel.
He remained in Weimar for nine years, and there he composed his first wave of
major works, including organ showpieces and cantatas. By this stage in his life,
Bach had developed a reputation as a brilliant, if somewhat inflexible, musical
talent. His proficiency on the organ was unequaled in Europe - in fact, he
toured regularly as a solo virtuoso - and his growing mastery of compositional
forms, like the fugue and the canon, was already attracting interest from the
musical establishment - which, in his day, was the Lutheran church. But, like
many individuals of uncommon talent, he was never very good at playing the
political game, and therefore suffered periodic setbacks in his career. He was
passed over for a major position - which was Kapellmeister (Chorus Master) of
Weimar - in 1716; partly in reaction to this snub, he left Weimar the following
year to take a job as court conductor in Anhalt-Cothen. There, he slowed his
output of church cantatas, and instead concentrated on instrumental music - the
Cothen period produced, among other masterpieces, the Brandenburg Concerti.
While at Cothen, Bach's wife, Maria Barbara, died. Bach remarried soon after -
to Anna Magdalena - and forged ahead with his work. He also forged ahead in the
child-rearing department, producing 13 children with his new wife - six of whom
survived childhood - to add to the four children he had raised with Maria
Barbara. Several of these children would become fine composers in their own
right - particularly three sons: Wilhelm Friedmann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and
Johann Christian. After conducting and composing for the court orchestra at
Cothen for seven years, Bach was offered the highly prestigious post of cantor
(music director) of St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig - after it had been turned
down by two other composers. The job was a demanding one; he had to compose
cantatas for the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches, conduct the choirs,
oversee the musical activities of numerous municipal churches, and teach Latin
in the St. Thomas choir school. Accordingly, he had to get along with the
Leipzig church authorities, which proved rocky going. But he persisted,
polishing the musical component of church services in Leipzig and continuing 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. He
was creatively active until the very end, even after cataract problems virtually
blinded him in 1740. His last musical composition, a chorale prelude entitled
"Before They Throne, My God, I Stand", was dictated to his son-in-law
only days before his death.
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