(b Eisenach 1685, d Leipzig 1750)

German composer and organist. Son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, organist and town musician, J. S. Bach was orphaned at the age of 10 and went to live with his elder brother Johann Christoph at Ohrdruf where he had klavier and organ lessons. In 1700 was a chorister at St. Michael's Church, Lüneburg, staying for three years, learning much from the organist-composer Georg Böhm. Organist at Arnstadt, 1703, and then Mühlhausen, 1707, when he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 became organist in the Kapelle of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, where he remained for nine years, leaving in disappointment at not being appointed Kapellmeister in 1717. By this time he had composed some of his finest organ works and church cantatas.

In 1717 appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen where the prince's interest was not in religious works but in instrumental composition. From this period date his violin concertos, sonatas, suites, and Brandenburg concertos. Also composed many of his best klavier works at Cöthen, probably for his children's instruction. In 1720 his wife died and in December 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, 20 year old daughter of the court trumpeter. Now dissatisfied with life at Cöthen, where the ruler's new wife showed little interest in music, Bach applied for the cantorship at St. Thomas's, Leipzig, in December 1722. He was not selected, but the chosen candidate withdrew and Bach was appointed in May 1723, having in the meantime conducted his St. John Passion in St. Thomas's as evidence of his fitness for the post. Remained at St. Thomas's for the rest of his life, not without several disputes with the authorities. During time there, composed more than 250 church cantatas, the St. Matthew Passion , Mass in B minor, Christmas Oratorio , Goldberg Variations , and many other works including his last, the unfinished Die Kunst der Fuge . In 1740 began to have trouble with his eyesight and in the last year of his life was almost totally blind.

Bach was famous as an organist virtuoso. As a composer his reputation in his lifetime was restricted to a fairly narrow circle and his music was regarded by many as old-fashioned. His fame in no way approached that of, e.g., Telemann. His published works today fill many volumes but in his lifetime fewer than a dozen of his compositions were printed, and for half a century after his death this position was only slightly improved until 1801 the Das Wohltemperierte Klavier was issued. The revival of interest in Bach's music may be dated from the Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion on the 11th of March 1829, conducted by Mendelssohn. Systematic publication of his works by the Bach Gesellschaft began in 1850 to mark the centenary of his death.

Bach's supreme achievement was as a polyphonist. His North German Protestant religion was the root of all his art, allied to a tireless industry in the pursuit of every kind of refinement of his skill and technique. Sonata form was not yet developed enough for him to be interested in it, and he had no leaning towards the (to him) frivolities of opera. Although some of the forms in which he wrote - the church cantata, for example - were outdated before he died, he poured into them all the resources of his genius so that they have outlived most other examples. The dramatic and emotional force of his music, as evidenced in the Passions, was remarkable in its day and has spoken to succeeding generations with increasing power. Suffice it to say that for many composers and four countless listeners, Bach's music is supreme. Principle works:

The Bach Revival
After Bach's death he was remembered less as a composer than as an organist and harpsichord player. His frequent tours had ensured his reputation as the greatest organist of the time, but his contrapuntal style of writing sounded old-fashioned to his contemporaries, most of whom preferred the new preclassical styles then coming into fashion, which were more homophonic in texture and less contrapuntal than Bach's music. Consequently, for the next 80 years his music was neglected by the public, although a few musicians admired it, among them Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. A revival of interest in Bach's music occurred in the mid-19th century. The German composer Felix Mendelssohn arranged a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, which did much to awaken popular interest in Bach. The Bach Gesellschaft, formed in 1850, devoted itself assiduously to finding, editing, and publishing Bach's works.

Because the Bach revival coincided with the flowering of the Romantic movement in music, performance styles were frequently gross distortions of Bach's intentions. Twentieth-century scholarship, inspired by the early enthusiasm of the French Protestant medical missionary, organist, and musicologist Albert Schweitzer, gradually has unearthed principles of performance that are truer to Bach's era and his music.

Bach was largely self-taught in musical composition. His principal study method, following the custom of his day, was to copy in his workbooks the music of French, German, and Italian composers of his own time and earlier. He did this throughout his life and often made arrangements of other composers' works.

Master of Counterpoint
The significance of Bach's music is due in large part to the scope of his intellect. He is perhaps best known as a supreme master of counterpoint. He was able to understand and use every resource of musical language that was available in the baroque era. Thus, if he chose, he could combine the rhythmic patterns of French dances, the gracefulness of Italian melody, and the intricacy of German counterpoint all in one composition. At the same time he could write for voice and the various instruments so as to take advantage of the unique properties of construction and tone quality in each. In addition, when a text was associated with the music, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas, such as an undulating melody to represent the sea, or a canon to describe the Christians following the teaching of Jesus.

Bach's ability to assess and exploit the media, styles, and genre of his day enabled him to achieve many remarkable transfers of idiom. For instance, he could take an Italian ensemble composition, such as a violin concerto, and transform it into a convincing work for a single instrument, the harpsichord. By devising intricate melodic lines, he could convey the complex texture of a multivoiced fugue on a single-melody instrument, such as the violin or cello. The conversational rhythms and sparse textures of operatic recitatives can be found in some of his works for solo keyboard. Technical facility alone, of course, was not the source of Bach's greatness. It is the expressiveness of his music, particularly as manifested in the vocal works, that conveys his humanity and that touches listeners everywhere.

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