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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

In their own time, many of the great figures of Western civilization were not so regarded.  Labeled an idiot by his teachers, Albert Einstein was to become a pioneer of modern physics, catapulting the world into the nuclear age. Bach was regarded by his contemporaries as dull and old-fashioned, but today represents a pinnacle of Western music--nothing before or since has been capable of surpassing, let alone replicating, the sheer genius of his work.

The Bach family was well-established as a family of musicians in Thuringia, that section of Saxony that Martin Luther, the great 16th century theologian, called home. Born at Eisenach in 1685 to Johann Ambrosius Bach, Johann Sebastian's musical talent was evident from an early age. He was orphaned at age 10 and subsequently took up residence with his older brother, Johann Christoph, at Ohrdruf. An organist himself, Christoph gave the young Bach his first keyboard lessons; some accounts maintain that the elder brother took little interest in the budding maestro's ability and treated him rather severely. Still, Johann Sebastian managed to obtain scores from his brother's library, copying them furiously by moonlight--an activity that possibly contributed to his poor eyesight later in life.

Leaving Ohrdruf in 1700, Bach set out for Luneburg, where he enrolled in the parish Lyceum and participated in the choir of Michaeliskirche. It was here that Bach's virtuosity at the organ was first apparent. After a brief stint as a violinist at Weimar in 1703, Bach served as organist in Arnstadt and came into conflict with local officials due to his obstinacy and refusal to comply with the requests of the parish school.

During his stay in Muhlhausen, Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara. It was here that his first cantatas were written, and one was even published. More disagreements with church authorities and municipal officials regarding his duties arose, although he later reconciled and became friends with his
one-time adversaries. Still, he was ambitious and on the move, not satisfied with his duties at Muhlhausen. Returning to Weimar in 1708, it was here that Bach rose to fame as an organist and teacher, writing some of the finest cantatas and keyboard music of his career. For Bach, this was a formative period in which he first encountered the works of Vivaldi, making numerous transcriptions and editions in his own name. A conflict of interest between his employer and a friend forced him to leave the city that for nearly a decade fostered his success and made him a local celebrity.

In December 1717, Bach accepted the position of Kapellmeister at Cothen. Most of Bach's best-known works were written here, including the Brandenburg Concerti and the solo violin sonatas. It was during a stay
at the spa in Carlsbad that tragedy struck in the midst of one of the happiest periods of Bach's life. His wife took ill and died, leaving her husband with four young children. Bach remarried and moved to Leipzig, where he was to spend the remainder of his life. Once again, his music took a spiritual turn, and there is markedly less instrumental music surviving from this period. Whatever the reason for this change, we know that the tide of popular opinion was increasingly turning against him, and by the time of his death in 1750, he had long been considered a relic that time simply forgot.

While still a figure in musical circles, Bach was celebrated not for his abilities as a composer but rather as a teacher and organist. It took Mendelssohn some 100 years later to reacquaint the world with this pillar of the musical world.

-Mark Moya (Sept, 2000)