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Bach, Johann Sebastian

bach’s music leipzig

Bach, Johann Sebastian, the most revered member of the family, whose stature as a composer has led him to be acclaimed as the supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music, a master comparable in greatness of stature with Aristotle in philosophy and Leonardo da Vinci in art; b. Eisenach, March 21 (baptized, March 23), 1685; d. Leipzig, July 28, 1750. He was a member of an illustrious family of musicians who were active in various capacities as performing artists, composers, and teachers. That so many Bachs were musicians lends support to the notion that music is a hereditary faculty, that some subliminal cellular unit may be the nucleus of musicality. The word “Bach” itself means “stream” in the German language; the rhetorical phrase that Johann Sebastian Bach was not a mere stream but a whole ocean of music (“Nicht Bach aber Meer haben wir hier”) epitomizes Bach’s encompassing magnitude. Yet despite the grandeur of the phenomenon of Bach, he was not an isolated figure dwelling in the splendor of his genius apart from the Zeitgeist, the spirit of his time. Just as Aristotle was not only an abstract philosopher but also an educator (Alexander the Great was his pupil), just as Leonardo da Vinci was not only a painter of portraits but also a practical man of useful inventions, so Bach was a mentor to young students, a master organist and instructor who spent his life within the confines of his native Thuringia as a teacher and composer of works designed for immediate performance in church and in the schoolroom. Indeed, the text of the dedication of his epoch-making work Das wohltemperi-erte Clavier oder Praeludia und Fugen emphasizes its pedagogical aspect: “The Well-tempered Clavier, or Preludes and Fugues in all tones and semitones, both with the major third of Ut Re Mi, and the minor third of Re Mi Fa, composed and notated for the benefit and exercise of musical young people eager to learn, as well as for a special practice for those who have already achieved proficiency and skill in this study.” The MS is dated 1722. Bach’s system of “equal temperament” (which is the meaning of “well-tempered” in the title Well-tempered Clavier ) postulated the division of the octave into 12 equal semitones, making it possible to transpose and to effect a modulation into any key, a process unworkable in the chaotic tuning of keyboard instruments before Bach’s time. Bach was not the first toattempt the tempered division, however. J.C.F Fischer anticipated him in his collection Ariadne musica (with the allusion to the thread of Ariadne that allowed Theseus to find his way out of the Cretan labyrinth); publ. in 1700, it contained 20 preludes and fugues in 19 different keys. Undoubtedly Bach was aware of this ed.; actually, the subjects of several of Bach’s preludes and fugues are similar to the point of identity to the themes of Fischer’s work. These coincidences do not detract from the significance of Bach’s accomplishment, for it is the beauty and totality of development that makes Bach’s work vastly superior to those of any of his putative predecessors.

The advent of Bach marked the greatest flowering of Baroque music. Although he wrote most of his contrapuntal works as a didactic exercise, there are in his music extraordinary visions into the remote future; consider, for instance, the A-minor Fugue of the first book of the Well-tempered Clavier, in which the inversion of the subject seems to violate all the rules of proper voice- leading in its bold leap from the tonic upward to the seventh of the scale and then up a third. The answer to the subject of the F minor Fugue of the first book suggests the chromatic usages of later centuries. In the art of variations, Bach was supreme. A superb example is his set of keyboard pieces known as the Goldberg Variations, so named because it was commissioned by the Russian diplomat Kayserling through the mediation of Bach’s pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was in Kayserling’s service as a harpsichord player. These variations are listed by Bach as the fourth part of the Clavier- Übung; the didactic title of this division is characteristic of Bach’s intention to write music for utilitarian purposes, be it for keyboard exercises, for church services, or for chamber music. A different type of Bach’s great musical projections is exemplified by his Concerts à plusieurs instruments, known popularly as the Brandenburg Concertos, for they were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg. They represent the crowning achievement of the Baroque. Numbers 2, 4, and 5 of the Brandenburg Concertos are essentially concerti grossi, in which a group of solo instruments—the concertino—is contrasted with the accompanying string orch. Finally, Die Kunst der Fuge, Bach’s last composition, which he wrote in 1749, represents an encyclopedia of fugues, canons, and various counterpoints based on the same theme. Here Bach’s art of purely technical devices, such as inversion, canon, augmentation, diminution, double fugue, triple fugue, at times appearing in fantastic optical symmetry so that the written music itself forms a balanced design, is calculated to instruct the musical mind as well as delight the aural sense. Of these constructions, the most extraordinary is represented by Das musikalische Opfer, composed by Bach for Frederick the Great of Prussia. Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who served as chamber musician to the court of Prussia, arranged for Bach to visit Frederick’s palace in Potsdam; Bach arrived there, accompanied by his son Wilhelm Friede-mann, on May 7, 1747. The ostensible purpose of Bach’s visit was to test the Silbermann pianos installed in the palace. The King, who liked to flaunt his love for the arts and sciences, gave Bach a musical theme of his own invention and asked him to compose a fugue upon it. Bach also presented an organ recital at the Heiliggeist-kirche in Potsdam and attended a chamber music concert held by the King; on that occasion he improvised a fugue in six parts on a theme of his own. Upon his return to Leipzig, Bach set to work on the King’s theme. Gallantly, elegantly, he inscribed the work, in scholastic Latin, “Regis Iussu Cantio et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta” (“At the King’s command, the cantus and supplements are in a canonic manner resolved”). The initials of the Latin words form the acronym RICERCAR, a technical term etymologically related to the word “research” and applied to any study that is instructive in nature. The work is subdivided into 13 sections; it includes a puzzle canon in two parts, marked “quaerendo invenietis” (“you will find it by seeking”). Bach had the score engraved, and sent it to the King on July 7, 1747. Intellectually independent as Bach was, he never questioned the immanent rights of established authority. He was proud of the title Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer to the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, bestowed upon him in 1736 while he was in the service of Duke Christian of Weissenfels, and he even regarded the position of cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig as inferior to it. In his dedications to royal personages he adhered to the customary humble style, which was extended even to the typography of his dedicatory prefaces. In such dedications the name of the exalted commissioner was usually printed in large letters, with conspicuous indentation, while Bach’s own signature, preceded by elaborate verbal genuflection, appeared in the smallest type of the typographer’s box.

Bach’s biography is singularly lacking in dramatic events. He attended the Latin school in Eisenach, and apparently was a good student, as demonstrated by his skill in the Latin language. His mother died in 1694; his father remarried and died soon afterward. Bach’s school years were passed at the Lyceum in the town of Ohrdruf; his older brother Johann Christoph lived there; he helped Bach in his musical studies; stories that he treated Bach cruelly must be dismissed as melodramatic inventions. Through the good offices of Elias Herda, cantor of the Ohrdruf school, Bach received an opportunity to move, for further education, to Lüne-burg; there he was admitted to the Mettenchor of the Michaeliskirche. In March of 1703 he obtained employment as an attendant to Johann Ernst, Duke of Weimar; he was commissioned to make tests on the new organ of the Neukirche in Arnstadt; on Aug. 9, 1703, he was appointed organist there. In Oct. 1705 he obtained a leave of absence to travel to Lübeck to hear the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude. The impetus of Bach’s trip was presumably the hope of obtaining Buxtehude’s position as organist upon his retirement, but there was a peculiar clause attached to the contract for such a candidate: Buxtehude had five unmarried daughters; his successor was expected to marry the eldest of them. Buxtehude himself obtained his post through such an expedient, but Bach apparently was not prepared for matrimony under such circumstances.

On June 15, 1707, Bach became organist at the Blasiuskirche in Mühlhausen. On Oct. 17, 1707, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, who was the daughter of Johann Michael Bach. On Feb. 4, 1708, Bach composed his cantata Gott ist mein König for the occasion of the installation of a new Mühlhausen town council. This was the first work of Bach’s that was publ. Although the circumstances of his employment in Mühlhausen were seemingly favorable, Bach resigned his position on June 25, 1708, and accepted the post of court organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar. In Dec. 1713 Bach visited Halle, the birthplace of Handel; despite its proximity to Bach’s own place of birth in Eisenach, the two great composers never met. On March 2, 1714, Duke Wilhelm Ernst offered Bach the position of Konzertmeister. In Sept. 1717 Bach went to Dresden to hear the famous French organist Louis Marchand, who resided there at the time. It was arranged that Bach and Marchand would hold a contest as virtuosos, but Marchand left Dresden before the scheduled event. This anecdote should not be interpreted frivolously as Marc-hand’s fear of competing; other factors may have intervened to prevent the meeting. Johann Samuel Drese, the Weimar music director, died on Dec. 1, 1716; Bach expected to succeed him in that prestigious position, but the Duke gave the post to Drese’s son. Again, this episode should not be interpreted as the Duke’s lack of appreciation for Bach’s superior abilities; the appointment may have merely followed the custom of letting such administrative posts remain in the family. In 1717 Bach accepted the position of Kapellmeister and music director to Prince Leopold of Anhalt in Cöthen, but a curious contretemps developed when the Duke of Weimar refused to release Bach from his obligation, and even had him held under arrest from Nov. 6 to Dec. 2, 1717, before Bach was finally allowed to proceed to Cöthen. The Cöthen period was one of the most productive in Bach’s life; there he wrote his great set of Brandenburg Concertos, the Clavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and the first book of Das Wohltemperierte Clavier . In Oct. 1719 Bach was in Halle once more, but again missed meeting Handel, who had already gone to England. In 1720 Bach accompanied Prince Leopold to Karlsbad. A tragedy supervened when Bach’s devoted wife was taken ill and died before Bach could be called to her side; she was buried on July 7, 1720, leaving Bach to take care of their seven children. In 1720 Bach made a long journey to Hamburg, where he met the aged Reinken, who was then 97 years old. It is a part of the Bach legend that Reinken was greatly impressed with Bach’s virtuosity and exclaimed, “I believed that the art of organ playing was dead, but it lives in you!” Bach remained a widower for nearly a year and a half before he married his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a daughter of a court trumpeter at Weissenfels, on Dec. 3, 1721. They had 13 children during their happy marital life. New avenues were opened to Bach when Johann Kuhnau, the cantor of Leipzig, died, on June 5, 1722. Although Bach applied for his post, the Leipzig authorities offered it first to Telemann of Hamburg, and when he declined, to Christoph Graupner of Darmstadt; only when Graupner was unable to obtain a release from his current position was Bach given the post. He traveled to Leipzig on Feb. 7, 1723, for a trial performance, earning a favorable reception. On April 22, 1723, Bach was elected to the post of cantor of the city of Leipzig and was officially installed on May 31, 1723. As director of church music, Bach’s duties included the care of musicians for the Tho-maskirche, Nicolaikirche, Matthaeikirche, and Pet-rikirche, and he was also responsible for the provision of the music to be performed at the Thomaskirche and Nicolaikirche. There were more mundane obligations that Bach was expected to discharge, such as gathering firewood for the Thomasschule, about which Bach had recurrent disputes with the rector; eventually he sought the intervention of the Elector of Saxony in the affair. It was in Leipzig that Bach created his greatest sacred works: the St. John Passion, the Mass in B minor, and the Christmas Oratorio . In 1729 he organized at the Thomasschule the famous Collegium Musicum, composed of professional musicians and univ. students with whom he gave regular weekly concerts; he led this group until 1737, and again from 1739 to 1741. He made several visits to Dresden, where his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, served as organist at the Sophienkirche. In June 1747 Bach joined the Societät der Musikalischen Wissen-schaften, a scholarly organization founded by a former member of the Collegium Musicum, Lorenz C. Mizler, a learned musician, Latinist, and mathematician who spent his life confounding his contemporaries and denouncing them as charlatans and ignorant pretenders to knowledge. The rules of the society required an applicant to submit a sample of his works; Bach contributed a triple canon in 6 parts and presented it, along with the canonic variations Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her . This was one of Bach’s last works. He suffered from a cataract that was gradually darkening his vision. A British optician named John Taylor, who plied his trade in Saxony, operated on Bach’s eyes in the spring of 1749; the operation, performed with the crude instruments of the time, left Bach almost totally blind. The same specialist operated also on Handel, with no better results. The etiology of Bach’s last illness is unclear. It is said that on July 18, 1750, his vision suddenly returned (possibly when the cataract receded spontaneously), but a cerebral hemorrhage supervened, and a few days later Bach was dead. Bach’s great contrapuntal work, Die Kunst der Fuge, remained unfinished. The final page bears this inscription by C.P.E. Bach: “Upon this Fugue, in which the name B-A-C-H is applied as a countersub-ject, the author died.” Bach’s widow, Anna Magdalena, survived him by nearly 10 years; she died on Feb. 27, 1760. In 1895 Wilhelm His, an anatomy prof. at the Univ. of Leipzig, performed an exhumation of Bach’s body, made necessary because of the deterioration of the wooden coffin, and took remarkable photographs of Bach’s skeleton, which he publ. under the title J.S. Bach, Forschungen über dessen Grabstätte, Gebeine und Antlitz (Leipzig, 1895). On July 28, 1949, on the 199 th anniversary of Bach’s death, his coffin was transferred to the choir room of the Thomaskirche.

Of Bach’s 20 children, ten reached maturity. His sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann (John) Christian (the “London” Bach) made their mark as independent composers. Among Bach’s notable pupils were Johann Friedrich Agricola, Johann Christoph Altnikol, Heinrich Nicolaus Gerber, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, Gottfried August Homilius, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Johann Christian Kittel, Johann Tobias Krebs, and Johann Lud-wig Krebs. It is historically incorrect to maintain that Bach was not appreciated by his contemporaries; Bach’s sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and the “London” Bach kept his legacy alive for a generation after Bach’s death. True, they parted from Bach’s art of contrapuntal writing; Carl Philipp Emanuel turned to the fashionable style galant, and wrote keyboard works of purely harmonic content. The first important biography of Bach was publ. in 1802, by J.N. Forkel.

Dramatic accounts of music history are often inflated. It is conventional to say that Bach’s music was rescued from oblivion by Mendelssohn, who conducted the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, but Mozart and Beethoven had practiced Bach’s preludes and fugues. Bach’s genius was never dimmed; he was never a prophet without a world. In 1850 the centennial of Bach’s death was observed by the inception of the Leipzig Bach- Gesellschaft, a society founded by Carl Becker, Moritz Hauptmann, Otto Jahn, and Robert Schumann. Concurrently, the publishing firm of Breit-kopf & Härtel inaugurated the publication of the complete ed. of Bach’s works. A Neue Bach-Gesellschaft was founded in 1900; it supervised the publication of the important Bach-Jahrbuch, a scholarly journal begun in 1904. The bicentennial of Bach’s death, in 1950, brought about a new series of memorials and celebrations. With the development of recordings, Bach’s works were made available to large masses of the public. Modern composers, even those who champion the total abandonment of all conventional methods of composition and the abolition of musical notation, are irresistibly drawn to Bach as a precursor; suffice it to mention Alban Berg’s use of Bach’s chorale Es ist genug in the concluding section of his Violin Concerto dedicated to the memory of Alma Mahler’s young daughter. It is interesting to note also that Bach’s famous acronym B-A-C-H consists of four different notes in a chromatic alternation, thus making it possible to use it as an element of a 12-tone row. The slogan “Back to Bach,” adopted by composers of the early 20 th century, seems to hold true for every musical era. The 250 th anniversary of Bach’s death was commemorated in 2000 with special observances and concerts around the world.

In the list of Bach’s works given below, each composition is identified by the BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) number established by W. Schmieder in his Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von J.S. B. Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Leipzig, 1950; 2 nd ed., rev., 1990).

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about 3 years ago

It is incorrect to say that Bach invented an "equal temperament" tuning. Well-tempered meant, instead, that he adjusted temperaments by ear
(no electronic devices back then!) so that each key was "acceptable," but certainly not all the same. Each key had its own "flavor," some mellow and some sharper or more "jangly." See Ross W. Duffin's "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony," W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.